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!
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!