Living Books bring history to life like never before for kids.
As Charlotte Mason taught, living books use well-written stories to capture the imagination and inspire an interest in the subject. History is a perfect subject to utilize living books as a teaching or enrichment tool.
World War II is both a fascinating and a tragic time period to study. The pathos and heroism showed during the terrible war has inspired many authors to write inspiring historical fiction stories for children.
And it’s very, very important that we encourage our children to read these books. As some schools, and even countries like Iran, deny that the Holocaust happened, we need our children to understand the truth of what happened during World War II. These living history books will bring alive the events of World War II in a way that children will remember. Stories are powerful!
“To forget [the Holocaust] would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Auschwitz Survivor.
Here are some of my favorite chapter books about World War II.
In Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, ten year old Annemarie and her family become one of the many heroic Christian families who hid Jewish children to save them from the death camps. This unforgettable story highlights the heroism of the Danish people and underground.
Hilda Van Stockum’s The Winged Watchman is the perfect World War II resistance story: exciting, fast-paced, with a touch of sadness. The young Verhagen brothers get a once in a lifetime opportunity for heroism when they find a downed British pilot hiding in a windmill. Also contains a true story of how windmills were used for underground signaling during the war. A memorable story about a Catholic family’s efforts to save the innocent in Holland. 8-12 year olds.
Moving to the Norwegian resistance, Snow Treasure retells the true story of how Swedish children helped smuggle the country’s gold out of the country to keep it from Nazi seizure. Great for 8-12 year olds.
In Twenty and Ten, a group of 20 French Catholic schoolchildren get their chance to make a difference in the war when they’re asked to hide 10 Jewish children. A sweet story with a funny ending perfect for 8-12 year olds.
In Italy, 12 year old Chico’s village becomes a headquarters for American soldiers during the last months of World War II. Chico’s friendship with the local monks and American soldiers will lead him into an unforgettable adventure.
I Am David is the touching story of a 12 year old boy who has spent most of his memory in a death camp. Escaping, he travels across Europe with only his compass and wits to help him survive. 10 and older.
In The Silver Sword (also published as Escape from Warsaw) three Polish children scramble to survive in the ruins of Warsaw. But unexpectedly they find purpose and hope when they learn their parents may have also survived the war. Now they just have to find them. 10 and older.
The Mitchells: Five for Victory is a Homefront story about an American Catholic family whose five children help in their small ways to win the war and keep the house going. Read my full review here. Perfect for 8-12 year old readers or also great as a family read aloud.
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Have a 6-12 year old who loves high adventure? Check out Prince Martin Wins His Sword, the first in Brandon Hale’s epic series of Prince Martin adventures. In the first book the reader meets Prince Martin, a young boy whose wise father the King of the land sends him on quests to learn virtue and build character. In order to win his sword, Prince Martin must demonstrate friendship and loyalty.
A major theme in the Prince Martin books is positive portrayal of the virtues of loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, and compassion.
In Prince Martin and the Thieves, Prince Martin helps save a wolf from a trap; later the wolf saves the prince’s life. Further on in the story, Prince Martin chooses to give away his reward money to a poverty-stricken beggar instead of buying a new weapon.
Many times in the stories, Prince Martin must choose between running for safety or standing his ground and sticking with his friends in the face of fear. In Prince Martin and the Dragons, Prince Martin and his three friends choose to risk death by fighting the dragons in order to save their country. Prince Martin is a hero boys can both relate to and want to imitate.
These books are mini-epics, reminiscent of the Iliad or the Odyssey.
Like great epics like Beowulf, Odyssey, and The Iliad, these terrific tales are cleverly written in rhyming cadence. I loved how author Hale used epic conventions such as beginning in medias res in the second adventure, Prince Martin and the Thieves. There are many other examples of epic conventions, such as cataloging of weapons, formal speeches, and enemies of superhuman proportions. These epic qualities bring authenticity and excitement which will captivate kids. They also make the Prince Martin books a great early preparation for reading classics like The Odyssey in high school or college.
Overall, these are eminently enjoyable epic tales that will appeal especially to boys.
This is not to say girls will not find them inspiring too! Adventure-loving girls will be thrilled that the newest book in the series, Prince Martin and the Cave Bear, features a female character: Prince Martin’s cousin Meg. If you have a 6-12 year old, check out all four books, available for purchase on Amazon!
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Where do I like to shop for books? Amazon, library book sales, and used book stores are all places I like to watch for deals on fiction, especially out of print classics. When it comes to Catholic books though, I like to browse catalogs from these trusted Catholic publishers.
Ignatius Press is one of the largest and most trusted American Catholic publishing houses. They are Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s publisher, and also publish works by other recent popes. They have a huge selection: lots of books on apologetics, commentaries on modern culture and topics, some new Catholic novels, and old classics like Lewis and Chesterton. I’m very happy that they are actively publishing new Catholic children’s books such as Maite Roche’s beautiful children’s Bibles. They also offer Bibles, missals, DVDs, music, and much more.
Sophia Institute Press has less selection, but still offers a good range of non-fiction and fiction choices. They have a clearance section of $5 and $10 books which is a great place to look for Christmas gifts! Sophia is a great place to look for books on marriage, the sacraments, apologetics, and heaven. They also reprint titles, such as this gem from the real Maria Von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame.
TAN Books markets itself as a classic Catholic book publisher. TAN offers Bibles, devotionals, and books on a variety of Catholic subjects, primarily non-fiction. I especially appreciate the books they print as Neumann Press with the goal of reviving beautiful,out-of-print Catholic classics. We love our copy of Saints for Girls: A First Book for Little Catholic Girls.
The Word Among Us Press has a small selection of new books, and a lot of Bible studies, missiles, and prayer resources. I was excited to see thaty they recently published a new women’s personal Bible study and prayer journal from Elizabeth Foss focused on inspiring women in the Bible.
Dynamic Catholic is aptly named. It is, indeed, a dynamic company on fire to re-energize American Catholics. One aspect of its mission is making inspiring Catholic books accessible and affordable to everyone, so you can actually order free books on their website. I recently read Moving in the Spirit from Dynamic Catholic and it really helped me understand and begin to implement Ignatian spirituality.
Magnificat Bookstore publishes a wonderful line of Catholic children’s books through Ignatius. Magnificat is best known for its subscriptions of easily-formatted daily meditations and readings. They also publish a kids’ subscription, Magnifikid, which helps children follow and comprehend Sunday Mass.
Catholic Answers publishes a wide range of wonderful Catholic books ranging from spirituality to saints to current issues to apologetics. Their books are very readable and applicable to modern topics.
Pauline Books and Media is a major Catholic publishing house run by the Daughters of Saint Paul. They support the new evangelization and offer a wide selection of titles on Catholic topics for adults, teens, and children. They offer a particularly good assortment of books on Theology of the Body, including the original book by John Paul II: Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.
Ave Maria Press offers primarily non-fiction titles on spirituality, Catholic culture, and ministry to both youth and adults. They also print some old classics like Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World: A Novel.
Emmaus Road Publishing publishes a number of non-fiction titles on catechetics, apologetics, scripture, and more. They publish several famous converts such as Scott Hahn.
Ascension Press specializes more in other media areas, but it does publish a small but good list of books, mostly on Theology of the Body and other topics highly applicable to modern life.
Dragons have historically been associated with evil by western tradition, but in recent years a spat of books have appeared featuring friendly dragons. Is the traditional view of dragons superstitious? Or is there a certain inherent evil in dragons? Should our children be reading books that reverse the evil dragon stereotype?
DRAGONS IN THE BIBLE
There are a couple mentions of dragons in the Bible. In the original Hebrew, the author of Genesis uses the word worm to refer to Satan in the Garden. In Hebrew, worm would mean serpent or dragon. The more well known Biblical mention of a dragon is in Revelation 12, where a dragon waits to devour the child the woman is about to bring forth. Thus there are at least two place sin the Bible where the dragon is equated with the evil one.
DRAGONS IN WESTERN LEGEND
Throughout western mythology and legend, dragons are closely associated with serpents (harping back to the Hebrew Biblical word), evil, and Satan. Catalan Drac and German Lindworm are examples of snakelike dragons. The Hungarian Zomo, was a giant winged snake. In English legend, dragons are often referred to as worms. In Albanian legend, Bolla is a serpentine-like dragon that wakes once a year on St George’s feast day to devour the first human it sees. In nearly every European country, one finds legends of this sort linking serpentine dragons to evil.
A number of popular books in recent years have portrayed a very different dragon than the evil serpent of western tradition. For example, Tomie De Paola, whose work I usually like, has a picture book, The Knight and the Dragon, in which a cute chubby dragon and young knight are at first mutually terrified of each other and end by becoming good friends. Similarly, a well loved early chapter book called My Father’s Dragon is the engaging story of Elmer Elevator, a young boy who rescues a friendly baby dragon. The Eragon series, which stars a young man who hatches a friendly dragon, has gained popularity in recent years in Catholic circles. These books and others in a similar vein, while engaging stories, are in complete contradiction to centuries of oral and written wisdom concerning dragons.
DRAGONS AND DEMYTHOLOGIZING
Michael OBrien’s A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind is, in my opinion, the definitive guide to understanding the intricacies of dragons, magic, fairy tales, paganism, and a plethora of other tricky topics in contemporary children’s literature. In regards to dragons, O’Brien explains that western Christian legends and myths about dragons “refer to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” He describes recent pro-dragon literature as “demythologizing,” and explains that the devil actually would be thrilled to see us forget the traditional narrative of the good knight fighting for his King
“The dragon has a vested interest in having us dismiss the account of the battle as make-believe. It is not to his benefit that we, imitating our Lord the King, should take up arms against him. He thinks it better that we do not consider him dangerous. Of course, the well-nourished imagination knows that dragons are not frightening because of fangs, scales, and smoke pouring from nostrils. The imagination fed on truth knows that the serpent is a symbol of hatred and deceit, of evil knowledge and power without conscience.” ~ Michael O’Brien
Imagination Forming Fantasy
If your children love fantasy, the good news is there are plenty of books that depict dragons in an appropriately fearsome manner, respecting their traditional symbolism as evil. I recently read The Squire and the Scroll to my 5 year old. This awesome picture book reinforces purity of heart and has a satisfyingly evil dragon for the young squire to slay. Margaret Hodges’ retelling of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is another awesome picture book. For older readers, Tolkien’s The Hobbit has a wonderful depiction of Smaug as the evil dragon. Fairy tales and Arthurian legends are also rife with traditional themes about dragons.
A CHESTERTONIAN CONCLUSION
When it comes to dragons, I find myself thinking of G. K. Chesterton’s wisdom about fairy tales. Since tiny children instinctively imagine dragons and monsters as a visual symbol of the evil one, the best course of action as a parent is to give them hope for victory over that evil through stories which end with the dragon defeated.
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” ~ G. K. Chesterton
I was only thirteen or fourteen when I was first enchanted by Between the Forest and the Hills. Even as a young teenager I recognized this book was something out of the ordinary and it became an instant lifelong favorite. Author Ann Lawrence labels it a Historical Fantasy, but I find it defies categorization, effortlessly surpassing typical genres. You could describe it as a lighthearted frolic through lush forests with two children, or as a humorous yet profound philosophical dialogue between a Christian and a pagan, or as a thoughtful exploration of different ethnic groups learning to coexist. And there is also a fascinating theme running throughout about the existence of miracles. And a generous dosage of humor strewn throughout for good measure.
HISTORY AND PLOT
Lawrence set Between the Forest and the Hills in a fascinating place and era historically. Isculum is a tiny garrison town in western Briton, situated between the forest and the hills. Nearly forgotten by a declining Roman Empire, Isculum has become self sufficient. Between the Forest and the Hills begins as a leisurely stroll through this lazy little village where the town leaders bicker about theology, write down the history of their town, and wonder about the future of their isolated outpost. Young Falx, ward of the Prefect, stirs up the story and town by rescuing a little Saxon Princess, revealing the proximity of barbarians. The children’s meeting becomes the catalyst for war, alliance, friendship, and miracles.
Lawrence vividly portrays the uneasy melding of Roman, British, and Saxon cultures brought about through necessity. In the beginning of the story, Roman and Briton are already living peacefully together after generations of intermarriage. But the Roman-British town is fearful of the proximity of the barbarian Saxons. At first the only option seems to be war and the annihilation of one party. But through a miracle involving two talking ravens and the still unwritten Hallelujah Chorus, both sides reconsider and wonder if cooperation might be possible. The Saxon Torcula decides, “Even to be neutral, we must try to be friends.” The wise Roman prefect Frontalis agrees to an alliance, observing, “So the Saxons may outnumber the Britons in the end- so what? It’s the land that makes the people. In another hundred- two hundred years, they will be us. All we have to do is hold things together until the process is complete.” Lawrence certainly introduces serious and profound questions about immigration for a young adult book. Agree or disagree with her conclusions as you will, Between the Forest and the Hills is a great springboard for an immigration discussion.
CONVERSATION, FRIENDSHIP, AND CONVERSION
The books is punctuated by a series of exchanges about Christianity between Frontalis and Malleus, the Christian bishop. Lawrence paints Frontalis as a most erudite and noble minded pagan whose eventual conversion is the result of decades of friendship and discussion with the good bishop. These conversations offer great reflections points for the reader. For example, Malleus talks about the limited understanding of human beings at one point, “Uncertsinity is the perpetual lot of mortal creatures… We’ve no choice but to trust what we don’t understand, accept what we can’t believe, and walk where there’s no path that we can see.”
Between the Forest and the Hills has an interesting thread of theme about miracles running throughout the book. The still somewhat superstitious British converts are inclined to see a miracle from the saintly bishop at every turn, to his comic distress. This raises an interesting question for Malleus: if seeing a natural event as a miracle brings people to God, is there anything wrong with seeing God’s hand in that event and crediting it to him? Malleus struggles with this question, feeling hopelessness and discouragement. But in his lowest moment of doubting God’s intervention, a true miracle occurs with his staff bursting forth into flower as a sign of hope.
CLEAN AND CREATIVE
I would wholeheartedly recommend Between the Forest and the Hills for advanced twelve year old readers to high schoolers. The publisher Bethlehem books recommends 14 and up, possibly because of the detail about the bishop, Malleus, having been married and having a son (this is in fact in keeping with the historical setting since priestly celibacy was not yet a rule). I loved Between the Forest and the Hills as a young teen and loved it more as an adult, recognizing more clearly how rare it is to find such a clean, creative book for teenagers. My hope is your teenagers love it as much as I did!
Moms and dads need fiction too! I firmly believe it is not only important but integral to a balanced life for parents to read books too. This list has a lot of readable classics, some fun mysteries, some historical fiction, some Catholic fiction, and some humor. I hope the books on this list inspire, refresh, and satisfy your thirst for the good and true and beautiful!
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In Port William, a love for the land and for neighbors create a tight-knit farming community in rural Kentucky. Wendell Berry‘s Hannah Coulter is a wise elderly woman’s reflections on her life and loves for both people and places. A touching, tantalizing, sometimes tragic picture of a way of life that is mostly lost.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Norwegian Catholic author Sigrid Undset is a beautifully-written trilogy about sin and its far-reaching consequences as seen in the life of a Norwegian woman from girlhood to death.
Undset’s other famous trilogy, The Master of Hestviken, is less recognized in America, but she considered it her greatest work, and I agree that I found it even more powerful than Kristin Lavransdatter.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating mix of an apologia for Catholicism and a recognition of the imperfection of individual Catholics. In addition to his overarching theme of Catholic redemption, Waugh describes the decay of the English aristocracy around the time of World War II. This masterfully written classic is one of my very favorite books to savor.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is not fiction at all, but rather his autobiographical tale of true love, found first in his wife, then ultimately in God. This beautifully written and moving book details Vanauken’s love affair with his wife, conversion to Christianity with the assistance of C. S. Lewis, and strengthening of faith through the devastating loss of his wife.
One of my favorite Steinbeck books, East of Eden explores themes of family history, free will, depression, truth, and more. Very dark at times with a sadistic female antagonist, the theme in the end is about forgiveness and the truth setting one free. For a shorter introduction to Steinbeck, try The Pearl, which is a heartbreaking story about greed and true happiness.
Desperate to make ends meet, small-town spinster Barbara Buncle writes a book inspired by her neighbors. General chaos and hilarity ensue upon publication of Miss Buncle’s Book. Clean, good, cozy fun!
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’sCrime and Punishment is a masterpiece both on philosophical and literary levels. My favorite Russian novel, this book deals with deep themes such as redemption through suffering, true happiness, and ends justifying means.
Chesterton wrote so many fabulous fictional works! In The Ball and The Cross, a Catholic and atheist find an unlikely affinity in their passion about their beliefs. Manalive is my favorite: a hilarious and thought-provoking apologia for a joyful life. The Man Who Was Thursday is one of Chesterton’s most famous works, a fast-paced adventure with a subplot of allegory.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered the very first detective novel ever written! Collins uses multiple narrators to tell an engrossing, well-written story. The Woman in White is also excellent.
Michael O’Brien’sVoyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel achieves the considerable feat of captivating the reader for a whopping 587 pages. Lengthy, yes, but still surprisingly readable, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a futuristic story of a voyage from earth to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. The quirky, wise elderly narrator, Neal, is juxtaposed to the controlling, totalitarian government most obey blindly.
Till We Have Faces is a haunting and thought-provoking retelling of the Psyche story from Greek mythology. Psyche’s older sister sets out to write this angry charge against the gods who have ruined her life, as she sees it. But in the process she discovers her own faults and finds truth.
North and South is a novel of contrasts: the gentile South and the industrialized North of England, humanism and capitalism. British literature fans will enjoy this classic work by Elizabeth Gaskell.
G. K. Chesterton’s biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas are a wonderful balance of carefully researched history, theological and philosophical insights, and Chesterton’s signature poetic imagination. These biographies are memorable and well-worth reading.
In any contest about sheer hilarity and perfect use of the English language, I consider P. G. Wodehouse invincible. His Blandings Castle series will have you laughing until you cry with its cast of idiosyncratic English aristocrats, servants, and imposters.
In Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz captures the decadence of ancient Rome and the passionate conviction of the persecuted Christians.
In stark contrast to Wodehouse’s levity, Flannery O’Connor‘s The Complete Stories are quite dark on the surface, often dealing with tragedy and ugly sin. But each story contains a lesson about human nature and motivations and insight into O’Connor’s Catholic vision which the discerning reader may discover.
Agatha Christie is the queen of the golden age of mysteries. Her plots are clever and thought provoking in more ways than one. Her most famous books, such as Murder on the Orient Express, feature eccentric Belgian detective Hercules Poirot. Christie’s Miss Marple stories illustrate that crimes whether large or small can often be solved by a knowledge of basic human nature. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, Christie’s mysteries satisfy the human desire for justice, though her solutions strike a discordant note with a correctly informed Catholic view of morality. At times, she advocates solutions such as allowing a criminal to kill himself as a merciful solution.
Although Christie is the queen of mysteries, I personally prefer Dorothy Sayers, who is considered by many a close second in the lineup of golden age mystery writers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery series feature aristocrat sleuth Lord Peter whose lazy manner masks a sharp intelligence. I am partial to Sayers’ books because in addition to producing a fine mystery, she also writes from a broad liberal arts platform, rife with references to other great literature and philosophical insights.
Cry, the Beloved Country is a thoughtful book about racial injustice in Africa. It’s a beautifully written book about the dignity of all people. Sad yet hopeful.
Jan Karon‘s Mitford series, beginning with At Home in Mitford, is a charming, calming collection. Father Tim, an Episcopalian minister, ambles amiably through life, accompanied by his eccentric parishioners. Funny and light-hearted.
A modern classic, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene captures perfectly the anger and jealousy and emptiness of a man looking for love in the wrong places. The narrator feels his lover has abandoned him for God and sets out to learn why. Will he be transformed by his search?
Susan Fraser King recounts the life of Saint Margaret of Scotland in a fascinating way. Queen Hereafter tells the story of a young Margaret’s tumultuous life, highlighting her calm trust in God which carried her through her many trials.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a formidable volume, but really, it does move fast! This famous work by Alexandre Dumas explores themes of revenge and forgiveness in an unforgettable way.
Kate Morton writes wonderfully plotted multi-generational historical fiction mysteries like The Secret Keeper. I love how she keeps the reader guessing right to the end. I also enjoy her vibrant elderly narrators, who are often the protagonists of her works.
Yes, everyone has read Pride and Prejudice, but have you read all of Jane Austen?
If you have an appreciation for the classics, you will empathize with Samantha, the protagonist of Dear Mr. Knightley. A modern romance with many nods to classic literature. Check out my full review here!
The Brontë Sisters‘ major works are classic novels. Often dark in their themes, these are nonetheless important books with great insight into human nature.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written due to its picture of human nature with all its complexities and faults. This is a lengthy read, but fast moving enough to keep the reader’s interest.
Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England by Dena Hunt is a gripping historical fiction novel detailing the story of a Catholic priest secretly but faithfully performing his ministry to the persecuted English Church. An inspiring story of faith and love of Christ under trying circumstances.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a fascinating historical fiction novel set during World War II. Two sisters help the French resistance while struggling to survive the horrors of the war. So much depth to this novel; read my Review of “The Nightingale” for full details!
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These book recommendations are intended for high schoolers of all ages, but should contain nothing inappropriate for those high schoolers on the younger side. I have divided the books into three rough categories: literary classics, Catholic fiction, and just for fun. Concentrating on reading the great classics at an early age gives your teenager a solid foundation in and appreciation of the literary riches of western civilization. The books under Catholic fiction range from saint biographies to apologetics disguised as fiction. The books under “for fun” are exactly for that purpose!
Every girl needs to read Jane Austen! Pride and Prejudice and Emma offer an education in the weaknesses and follies of human nature, but also a tribute to people’s ability to change and grow. All of Austen’s books belong on a teenage girl’s bookshelf!
Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton is best known for his non-fiction such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, but he is also the author of many fanciful, delightful fictional works. The Complete Father Brown Stories, short mystery stories starring a humble Catholic priest, is a great introduction to the genius of Chesterton. Another loosely connected set of short stories, The Club of Queer Trades, offers thought-provoking ideas about work and leisure wrapped up in captivating stories. Chesterton was also a skilled poet, and his The Ballad of the White Horse and Lepanto are inspiring ballads with themes about Catholic heroes trusting in God in seemingly hopeless battles.
Of course, a familiarity with the major works of Charles Dickens is essential for a well rounded literary education. I recommend beginning with A Tale of Two Cities , both for its riveting historical fiction storyline and its enduring fame as one of Dicken’s greatest works. Likewise, A Christmas Carol is another perfect first Dickens story due to its relative brevity and famous plot. Over the course of the high school years, I also recommend encouraging your child to readOliver Twist , Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, and David Copperfield .
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote a plethora of entertaining works, but as an introduction, I recommend The Prince and the Pauper, the classic story of two boy swapping places and learning and growing through the adventures that ensue. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are classic works of American fiction, simply entertaining on the surface but containing poignant themes about human dignity, the value of each person, societal norms versus natural law, and slavery.
Two Years Before The Mast is Richard Henry Dana’s gripping account of his voyages around Cape Horn, to California, and up and down the New England coast in the mid-nineteeneth century. This American classic showcases travel writing of the best caliber.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is a fictional biography of a castaway who spent twenty eight years on an island. Written over 300 years ago, this adventure story is still relevent and captivating to young readers of today, particularly for the cell phone generation which has almost no concept of being alone.
Rudyard Kipling may be best known as the author of The Jungle Book . However, I highly recommend also reading Kim , the story of an Indian street boy, Captains Courageous, in which a spoiled rich boy learns character through life as a sailor, and The Complete Stalky and Co., which chronicles the escapades of an irrepressible trio of English private school boys.
The Boy Knight of Reims by Eloise Lownsberry is a captivating account of an apprentice goldsmith inthe Middle Ages growing up in the shadow of the great cathedral at Reims. Action and historical information blend together and the reader closes the book knowing a great deal about cathedrals, Joan of Arc, the 100 Year War, and goldsmithing.
BaronessOrczy’sThe Scarlet Pimpernel is a superb blending of a touching love story and the suspense of the French Revolution. This famous novel is always a favorite with high schoolers, especially since it is a shorter read than many classics!
Animal farm: A Fairy Story by GeorgeOrwell is a dystopian novel of lasting fame due to its on point satire about the rise of Communism.
Shane by JackSchaefer is an American western classic about coming of age, manhood, and sacrifice.
Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe and Rob Roy have been ill represented in abridgments. Buy or borrow an unabridged version for your children, especially your sons, and let them be entranced by the chivalry of a different age, the grandeur of Scott’s language, and the noble themes of sacrifice and honor.
William Shakespeare. Get his The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Enough said. But really, read Shakespeare aloud to your protesting teenagers if need be. Exposure to Shakespeare cannot fail to improve a high schooler’s writing and language.
Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic which should be read for English literacy is, of course, Treasure Island. I also recommend The Black Arrow , a fascinating historical fiction novel about justice, revenge, and honor set during the War of the Roses.
I dare to count The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien as classics. Someday I will write an entire post on why this story of sacrifice and friendship, real love and twisted evil, should be read by every teenager.
Jules Verne‘s adventurous novels are as thoroughly enjoyable and readable for today’s high schoolers as they were for readers of the 1870’s when they were published. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be his most famous, but also read Around the World in 80 Days, a fascinating globe trot by a most unlikely duo: a straight-buttoned Englishman and his free-thinking French servant. My favorite Jules Verne, though, is The Mysterious Island , a spin off of sorts to the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which a group of Union prisoners of War escape their jailers in Richmond only to find themselves marooned on a very mysterious island.
I realize Willa Cather is a well-regarded author, but I never can muster up much enthusiasm for her famous My Antonia. I much prefer Death Comes for the Archbishop , a slow, gentle story about the sacrificial life of a Catholic missionary priest in the southwest.
Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly is both simple and magnificent. Mr. Blue is a modern day Saint Francis of Assisi, rejecting a vast fortune for a life of self-giving, which makes him joyful. If you love G. K. Chesterton, you will adore this book.
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith has been so referenced in literature that reading it seems inevitable. A bit slow going, with a decidedly didactic tone, this story of a poor vicar and his family in the eighteenth century is more for literacy than enjoyment.
Both fiction and nonfiction from C. S. Lewis provide excellent reading material for high schoolers, but focusing on fiction here, I recommend his Space Trilogy, which begins with Out of the Silent Planet, which explores the question of intelligent life of non-human origin on another planet. Perelandra posits the interesting scenario of a second Genesis-style temptation on a new planet, but with the Eve figure receiving advice both from a devil and a human. The final book, That Hideous Strength , is a powerful apocalyptic-type novel. I also highly recommend The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters purporting to be from an experienced demon explaining how to tempt and destroy humans.
O. Henry is a master of the short story and the twist in the plot! The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is a collection of 38 of his most famous and best loved stories, but he wrote over 600 stories in total so if possible find a complete works at a used book store or library.
Gene Straton Porter‘s Freckles is a heart-warming story of a disabled boy overcoming the odds and making a success of himself by hard work and good character. Porter’s works are notable for their emphasis on natural beauty and themes of nature leading people to God. However, be warned that not all her books are appropriate for younger teen readers! In addition to Freckles, I can recommend Laddie, a charming story of family life and love as told by the youngest in a large midwestern farm family.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini is a swashbuckling tale about an unassuming Irish physician whom circumstances turn into a successful pirate in the Caribbean. This book raises fascinating questions about honor and duty in the face of injustice and adversity, while also being by turn exciting and downright hilarious.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is the play on which the famous My Fair Lady was based. Inspired by a Greek myth, this is a story about what makes gentility, a love story, and a comedy, all at the same time.
Five travelers from diverse backgrounds die in a bridge collapse in Peru. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is a fascinating examination of their lives and the circumstances which placed them on the bridge together for the accident.
The Virginian by Owen Wister is my favorite western. Soft-spoken and mischievous, gallant and mostly good, the Virginian is a cowboy of the best sort. A thoroughly enjoyable look at cowboy life.
One of my favorite authors of all time is P. G. Wodehouse. He is inimitable in his mastery of the English language and ability to create a side-splittingly hilarious story. Even my very not-a-reader husband will read Wodehouse just for comedic relief after a tough work week! Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories, such as The Code of the Woosters, starring Bertie Wooster, an independently wealthy, idle, charming, good-natured young gentleman, and his ever-stoic, stupendously intelligent valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse also wrote a series set in the country at Blandings Castle. A Bounty of Blandings: Summer Lightning / Heavy Weather / Blandings Castle and several other loosely connected novels are my favorite Wodehouse books, full of wry humor, hilarious misunderstandings, and the society’s own water. The best in this series, and my favorite Wodehouse novel ever, is Leave It to Psmith!
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is the real Maria Trapp‘s wonderful, funny account of her family’s amazing story. A touching and inspiring story of trust in God, hope amid hardship,and love for all things Catholic, this is one of my favorite biographies.
A Philadelphia Catholic in King Jamess Court by Martin de Porres Kennedy is Catholic apologetics wrapped up in a fictional story about an average, Catholic teenage boy forced to live in the Bible Belt with his passionately Protestant relatives. His relatives’ challenges to the Catholic faith have the unforeseen result of causing the boy to deepen and study his Catholic faith in a new way.
Lord of the World: A Novel by Robert Hugh Benson is a dystopian novel about the coming of the anti-Christ and a Catholic priest who resists him. Teenagers love dystopia these days (think of the general obsession with Hunger Games) so this novel from over a century ago should be popular again.
The Song at the Scaffold: A Novel by Gertrud von Le Fort follows the fate of sixteen carmelite sisters as they face martyrdom during the French Revolution. Will they persevere in faith and joy to the scaffold?
The Robe by Lloyd Douglas is a fascinating interweaving of the story of a Roman Centurion’s search for truth with the fate of a seamless robe Jesus wore. A classic conversion story sure to captivate the imagination of the reader.
All Creatures Great and Small: The Warm and Joyful Memoirs of the Worlds Most Beloved Animal Doctor by James Herriot is the first of his many collection of anecdotes about his life as a vet in the English dales. James Herriot is a sheer delight to read. His insight into human nature is as deep as his understanding of animal nature. Funny or moving, all his stories are imbued with a love of God’s creation that is reminiscent of Saint Francis of Assisi. Warning: There is a decent amount of “gentle” swearing in Herriot’s books. If this is not something you want your children reading, I recommend arming yourself with a black permanent marker and editing!
Penrod by Booth Tarkington is a series of side-bustingly funny anecdotes about young Penrod, the all American mischief maker from midwest USA at the turn of the twentieth century.
Between the Forest and the Hills by Ann Lawrence is a “historical fantasy” according to the author, blending Roman Britain’s history with Christian tradition and a generous measure of humor. A thoroughly enjoyable book which defies categories.
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is a side-splittingly funny account of life in a huge family as told by two of the oldest children.
My Heart Lies South The Story of my Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino is a true story of a young American who finds herself marrying a Mexican despite herself, and the sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving story of their journey to blend their different backgrounds and attitudes into a harmonious marriage.
Stephen Lawhead‘s In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first in his fantasy Dragon King series. Not great classics, but still an enjoyable coming of age fantasy story about courage, honor, and friendship. There are some interesting themes about Christianity versus paganism which you can direct your teenager to try to identify.
I believe there is some merit to reading at least the first book in the The Hunger Games trilogy. Read my review here for my reasoning and discussion questions/book report ideas.
If your high schooler is over 16, check out Part 2 of my high school reading list!