Ruby in the Water by Catholic Indie author J.P. Sterling was as unexpected as a rainstorm in the middle of a sunny afternoon. As a pluviophile, I love rain, so this is actually a compliment! This book explores so many great themes about disabilities, family, adoption, and coming of age. And equally importantly, Ruby in the Water tells a fascinating, relatable story about family secrets, forgiveness, and the power of love.
Coming of Age with Disabilities
Peter Arnold is without question a twice exceptional child. Because he was born prematurely, he has cerebral palsy, an undeveloped urinary tract, and a host of neurological issues. But he also has an incredible gift: a unique musical ability which brings him fame as a pianist from a young age. Navigating young adulthood isn’t going to be easily for medically complex, talented Peter.
A Special Family
Fortunately, Peter has the support of his devoted parents and five brothers and sisters to help him through the coming storm. The Arnold family is by no means portrayed as perfect, but parents Thomas and Anne’s dedication to and love for their children are truly inspiring. Ruby in the Water is peppered with flashbacks from both Peter and his parents’ perspectives, giving the reader a window into Peter’s challenging childhood and his parents’ graceful acceptance.
All is Grace
Without question, Ruby in the Water is a deeply Catholic book, but Sterling takes the higher road and lets her story speak for itself as regards its message. There is no pontificating or preaching here; just a gripping story that happened to happen to Catholics. The reader is left to decide on his own whether Anne and Thomas handle their challenges with greater grace because of their faith.
An Unabashedly Pro-life Story
Ruby in the Water does have an amazingly strong pro-life message since Peter is a late-term abortion survivor. This is only revealed at the end of the book, but clearly had huge impacts on the lives of Peter, his adopted family, and his birth mother. The brave souls who chose to save Peter’s life after a botched abortion are an inspiring example of truly embracing the pro-life view that every human life is precious.
A Short, Inspiring Book Mothers Will Enjoy
The magic of this book is the bond between Peter and his adopted mother Anne, whose love and patience shines through the tragedies. I think most moms will find themselves smiling and commiserating with Anne’s struggles to raise her brood of young children, especially with Peter’s special needs. Her graceful yes to God’s plan is an inspiration.
The only negative things I found to criticize in this book are a few editing errors that do give it a slightly self-published feel. Otherwise I am happy to recommend it for adults, young adults, and older teenagers. There is no objectionable content that would preclude younger teens from reading it, but this book will resonate more with parents and older teens.
I received a copy of Ruby in the Water in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.
What is beauty?
What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.
San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.
In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.
Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.
The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.
Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.
Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?
The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”
Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.
This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.
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AT THE END OF A LONG DAY…
The kids have been up since o-dark-thirty. You’ve cooked and cleaned and worked and changed a dozen diapers and played referee to a hundred fights and gone over the silent e rule for the thousandth time and cooked again and cleaned again and read that story the kids want to hear for the zillionth time and finally, they’re asleep. You’re too tired to clean any more, and really what sounds best is dropping on the couch and binge watching a TV show until you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.
I know, I’m there too most nights. And I’ll confess there was a period where I did exactly that nearly every night: watched TV because it seemed like my brain was too foggy for anything else. But eventually, I broke the cycle and got back to my first love: reading books. Not because it’s easier, because it’s not. And not only because it’s better for me, though it is. I read because it makes me a better mom, wife, and person.
There are at least 9 great reasons to spend some time reading at the end of the day, even as a brain-fogged, busy mom.
2. Read to grow spiritually. Here’s an obvious one, but spiritual reading is a easy and accessible source of spiritual growth. What better way to form a more personal relationship with Christ than by studying His life and learning from His friends? Maybe you like to sit down with your Bible and a journal. Or perhaps you prefer to read a spiritual classic like St. Francis de Sales’ An Introduction to the Devout Life or St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle.
3. Read to give a better perspective on your life. We all get mired down in the difficulties of our particular here and now. Like little kids, we feel miserable because we’ve got a cold, or our favorite mug shattered, or the air conditioning broke, in July, in Florida, at 36 weeks pregnant. Reading other people’s stories can help us both gain perspective on our minor everyday woes and learn to embrace true suffering when it comes with grace. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a major wake-up call to me recently to be grateful for how blessed my life really is. A Severe Mercy had a similar effect, but also is an inspiring account of suffering leading to growth and hope.
4. Read to set an example for your kids. We all know the old “do what I say, not what I do” advice doesn’t work with kids. Telling your kids they should be reading instead of glued to electronics doesn’t carry much weight unless you’re following your own wisdom. I intentionally read in front of my kids sometimes so they see that I enjoy it. In fact, at breakfast time in our house I encourage everyone to read at the table!
5. Read to improve your vocabulary. Of course, I don’t think we all need to speak in words with a minimum of 12 letters at all times. But since what you read impacts your writing and speech, you will find reading well-written books helps your vocabulary and diction. Our family favorite for this purpose is P. G. Wodehouse. His mastery of the English language is truly unparalleled. His books are the perfect blend of easy to read, yet studded with wonderful words like ephemeral, insoluble, dearth, peremptory, and poltroonery. Really, though, any literary classic cannot but help improve your diction. Try some Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, L. M. Montgomery, or George Orwell.
6. Read to lower stress and improve sleep quality. Did you know that less than ten minutes of reading drastically lowers your stress levels? Studies show that your stress levels drop by 68% by the time you’ve read a book for ten minutes! If you struggle with falling asleep or insomnia, try curling up with a good book for a half hour before turning off the lights.
8. Read to escape to a better place. We all have difficult seasons. Maybe we struggle with depression, loss of a loved one, or financial trouble. A good book can be a refuge for a time from the stress of the moment. Our minds can be soothed and our hearts lifted for a time, at least by an engaging adventure, romance, or comedy. You can find some of my favorite “light” reads like Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy on this list.
9. Read so you can answer your kids’ questions. My kids are like sponge-shaped question marks. They ask questions like “Why can’t the devil be forgiven?” and “How do we know there isn’t life on the moon?” and “Why is that flower yellow?” Now, I know there’s no way I will ever be able to answer all their questions offhand, but I hope that if I continue to learn, I’ll be able to answer some of them anyway. Particularly that one about the devil.
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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.
Suffering. We all experience little sufferings on a daily basis. And sometimes, we experience great sufferings: when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, when a baby is lost, when a marriage crumbles, when a hurricane destroys one’s home, when a child falls away from the faith.
In moments of intense pain, we find ourselves confronted with the age old question: how can a loving God allow His children to suffer such pain? We ask, “Why, God? Why me? Why my child?” Or we meet friends who have fallen away from the Catholic faith because, “God let bad things happen to me.”
Fortunately, as Catholics, we have thousands of years of the human race’s most brilliant minds to look to for answers. Here are some of the books which have helped me come to terms with “The Problem of Pain,” as C. S. Lewis calls it.
To begin with a little philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is a particularly powerful tool in dialoguing with agnostics and atheists. Boethius relies solely on natural reason and Hellenic philosophy as he explains why bad things happen to good people.
Historically juxtaposed to Boethius is the Book of Job, the Hebrew look at the problem of evil and suffering. Although much of the Old Testament seems to imply that God inflicts suffering as a punishment for sins committed by individuals, the story of Job offers a completely different perspective. Job is the innocent, good man who still loses everything he loves and undergoes intense suffering. Look it up in your Bible if you’ve never read it. Also, if you enjoy fiction, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday explores many of the same themes found in Job.
In a personal favorite of mine, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis contemplates suffering and human pain with his usual lucidity and conciseness. I find his way for harmonizing a good God and the problem of suffering particularly helpful. He also has a fascinating chapter towards the end of the book in which he speculates about animals and heaven.
Another favorite author of mine, Peter Kreeft, takes on suffering in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering. Kreeft’s book is an apologia for the Catholic understanding of suffering as meaningful.
Sheldon Vanauken lost the love of his life to a terminal illness after a far too short marrigae. A Severe Mercy is both heartbreakingly tragic and breathtakingly beautiful. This is a powerful true story of how the death of a loved one can lead to a greater good.
Another powerful personal testimony, in Man’s Search for Meaning Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes his soul-crushing experience of spending three years in concentration camps during World War II. During his imprisonment, Frankl had to watch his pregnant wife and family all die from hardship and starvation. Yet Frankl’s book is full of hope and a message about finding meaning in suffering.
I love reading almost anything. Even calculus books and Russian novels. But when on vacation, I generally crave lighter literary fare. If sandy beaches or mountain views are in your not so distant future, here are some fun light novels to help you rest and rejuvenate. They’re organized by genre so pick your favorite flavor.
Christian fiction is a genre I recently spent some time exploring. My research netted me many poorly written novels I dropped after a few chapters, but also some clean, enjoyable mysteries, adventures, and romances, perfect for a vacation.
Dani Pettrey’s Submerged is a fast-paced mystery/romance set in beautiful Alaska. Pettrey is a decent writer and this book has a sweet theme about second chances and redemption. If you fall in love with the characters, there are several sequels including Shattered and Stranded.
Dee Henderson’s books vary greatly in quality, but I did enjoy her O’Malley series. The Negotiator is the first in a series of seven books about a family of adopted siblings who each work in a law enforcement or first-responder type career. Each book recounts an exciting mystery while also tackling a faith-related question such as the Resurrection, trust in God, or why bad things happen to good people. The answers Henderson provides to these questions are not always complete, but a Catholic reader can practice their apologetic skills and think about even better answers!
Long Time Coming by Edie Claire was a thriller with a twist: the biggest villain may not be a villain. A thought-provoking look at psychology, prejudice, and buried memories, with a healthy dose of romance to lighten the mood.
Leslie Lynch is actually a Catholic author, and the mention of subjects like theology of the body gives her novels a unique flavor. Her Appalachian Foothills series is another sequence of adventure-romance style novels about young women with dark troubled pasts who find healing through friendship, love, and the Catholic church. Kudos for a positive portrayal of Catholics, but also a warning that Lynch’s books are darker than most other Christian fiction, involving subjects like rape, abortion, and addictions.
Michael O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel might not actually be the best book to haul on vacation if you’re flying at over 800 pages, but if you’re not worried about tonnage, it is a typical O’Brien novel: thought-provoking, creative, and well-told.
I love a good mystery, and have yet to find a modern author that matches the brilliance of the writers in the golden age of mystery! Also, I appreciate that these writers were able to tell a captivating story without needing to have the sleuths be sidetracked with lurid sex scenes.
You can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie such as Ordeal by Innocence. Her mysteries are fast-paced, well-plotted, and utterly bewildering. She is truly the Queen of Mystery.
However, don’t overlook her contemporary and fellow female author Dorothy Sayers. I actually enjoy Sayers’ books even more than Christie’s. Her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, introduced in Whose Body?, actually does fall in love with a woman on trial for murder in Strong Poison. Their tempestuous courtship and marriage add interest to the mysteries they make a hobby of solving together.
Margery Allingham is another golden age mystery author. Her detective, Albert Campion, stars in a long series of novels including Look to the Lady, a whodunit, and The Tiger in the Smoke. Allingham’s mysteries are clever, but also follow the life events and character development of Campion.
Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is a new favorite of mine. Check out my Review of My Family and Other Animals for more details about this hilarious book, perfect for lovers of all creatures great and small.
Leave It to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse could, or to be more accurate has, made me smile during some of the most trying seasons of life. And on vacation? My husband and I laugh till we cry at this master writer’s spot on similes and knack for situational comedy. If you have not read Jeeves & Wooster, you need to. You will be a more cheerful person after encountering Wodehouse. Also your vocabulary will expand tremendously.
Although you may not immediately think of L. M. Montgomery in conjunction with comedy, I actually find her depictions of small town life and insight into human flaws and foibles quite amusing. Anne of Green Gables‘s escapades are even funnier to read as an adult, and the later Anne books are actually meant for adults.
I won’t deny that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma are her best works, but if you haven’t read some of her lesser known books, they are a perfect length and lightness for a vacation! For example, Northanger Abbey is a clever satire of Gothic novels.
Kristin Lavransdatter is has a graver theme and tone than most of the books on this list, but if you are more of a classics fans, then you won’t be disappointed by this sweeping tale by the master writer Sigrid Undset. If you have already enjoyed reading about Kristen, Undset’s The Master of Hestviken trilogy is also excellent.
Gone with the Wind is certainly worth reading. Margaret Mitchell’s novel captures the aura of the Civil War so vividly, and her heroine is so unforgettable (both for spirit and selfishness), that this novel just flies by despite its length.
If you are fascinated by World War II, read Aline’s unique account of her involvement in The Spy Wore Red. From clothing model in a department store to undercover agent to Countess, Aline’s life is colorful and captivating.
I also enjoyed The Zookeeper’s Wife, an account of how one family’s courage made a small difference and saved lives during the turmoil and persecution of World War II.
Without having watched a single episode of the hit TV show Fixer Upper, I read The Magnolia Story on a friend’s recommendation. What a beautiful story about a couple filled faith in God and each other.
Who doesn’t love the Sound of Music? But I love The Story of the Trapp Family Singers even more. Maria Von Trapp recounts the real story which inspired the beloved movie. Heartwarming and imbued with love for the Catholic faith, this book has always been a favorite of mine.
I know Jennifer Fulwiler by repute but this was my first time reading a single word she had written because- prepare for a deep dark secret- I do not read blogs. That’s right, I am the hypocritical blogger who loves to write but doesn’t bother to read other people’s blogs. Okay, in my defense I’m sure I’d love to read other people’s blogs, but equally sure that I would sink so swiftly and surely into the bottomless quicksand of blog surfing that I would never read a real, full-length book again. And then what would I write about?
To return to Jennifer Fulwiler and One Beautiful Dream: from the first page, her story resonated with me. She describes herself as a cerebral introvert who often feels that her gifts are not the best adapted to being super mom. Yep, that’s me too. And she even had the same theory I posit to my husband regularly:
“Decades of living in big houses with few people had carved deep grooves into my habits; I had a great need for quiet and for complete control of my surroundings. Sometimes it felt like my current life was a macabre psychological experiment to see exactly where the mental breaking point was for someone with my temperament.”
See I knew I wasn’t the only one with the theory about God running some kind of psychological experiment giving me this type of kid! (Actually, I’ve decided He just has a really good sense of humor.) The further I read, the more I felt like I was reading my own story of difficult pregnancies, high need children, and deep down a longing to just be alone with silence, a stack of books, and a computer for typing. At least, both Jennifer and I would have described our dream as such in our early years of motherhood.
But as Jennifer describes so lucidly, and as I am slowly realizing also, this individualistic dream of what my perfect imaginary life will someday be, is not cut out of the fabric of happiness, or even reality. Jennifer calls life a symphony, and that analogy struck home in my classically grounded soul. A mother, a wife, a daughter, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. A woman’s life and dreams are intertwined and harmonized with those of her loved ones.
Do not for an instant think that Jennifer is advocating a sacrificial immolation of all a mother’s dreams. On the contrary, she would be the first to tell you to nourish your “blue flame, the passion that ignites a fire within you when you do it.” She urges women to follow their dreams and utilize the gifts God has given them: to pursue the work that gives them energy and joy. On a personal note, I have come to the same conclusion. Writing fills me with energy and joy, which I can then channel into caring for my family with renewed vigor.
Jennifer is inspiring, but practical. At first I thought she was an advocate of the “have it all” mentality, but she tackled that topic with her usual forthrightness and pragmatism.
“I had set out on this quest to try to “have it all,” to use the terminology of the age-old debate about women and work. Now that I considered everything I’d learned along with what Joe was saying, I saw the entire concept differently. It occurred to me that you can have it all in the sense of having a rich family life and pursuing excellence in your work, but you’re going to need to re-imagine what having it all looks like. Your work will never be your number-one priority. You might need to walk away from glamorous opportunities that don’t allow you to live a love-first life. You’ll be bombarded with one interruption after another, yet you’ll find that those interruptions are the very building blocks of a good life.”
A good life. A love-first life. A life grounded in a wholeness of vision that melds family and personal goals. I think every woman really wants just this.
I have read a LOT of books by Catholic moms, for Catholic moms, and inevitably take away some nuggets of wisdom. But Jennifer’s story really spoke to me because she has had what some might call a difficult life: chronic money problems, difficult pregnancies, high need children, one setback after another in her personal goals. But if she hadn’t had all those experiences, how could she have given the world the wisdom in her books and blog? Each difficult moment shaped her into the woman who can inspire thousands of other Catholic mothers.
My own life has been a bit rocky for the last decade, and if Jennifer had an easier life or more natural inclination towards being a mom, her words would not have had this power to lodge deep in my soul and make me question my priorities and preconceived notions about what my life should look like or can look like.
Jennifer’s words have encouraged me to pursue writing more seriously again now, as opposed to waiting for the someday when my children are less demanding. I hope you read One Beautiful Dream too and it challenges and inspires you to recognize and nurture whatever gifts God has given you. And if you are that lucky mom whose gift is to be a home maker, pray for the rest of us!
Recently, I felt like refreshing my parenting techniques and exploring some new ideas. Browsing through recommendations of parenting books in a gentle parenting group, the title No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind intrigued me for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a mouthful. How did a publisher let that one slip by? Second of all, I personally am passionately adverse to drama in my relationships, so removing drama from my parenting sounded like a spectacular idea. Finally, I was interested in seeing how the authors, a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist, approached the subject of discipline.
The ideas on discipline in No-Drama Discipline are heavily influenced by emerging research on brain development. I personally found it fascinating to learn about the order in which the different parts of the brain develop, what brain integration means, and how neural connections are forged. The authors did a great job simplifying some weighty concepts so sleep-deprived parents like me can easily grasp them, using easy terminology like upstairs brain and downstairs brain. I appreciated their balance between keeping it simple, but explaining how each discipline strategy was focused on the ultimate goal of building your child’s brain.
CONTINUITY WITH THE SOCRATIC METHOD
Fans of the Socratic method of education will love this book, which advocates liberal use of questions and discussion. A huge part of “no drama discipline” is teaching your child to think, not just feel. One of the authors’ important concepts is “mindscape,” which is the ability to be not only the feeler and doer, but also be the observer. Put another way, mindscape is the ability to see one’s actions and feelings as if from the outside and analyze them. The authors say,
“When we teach our kids mindsight tools, we give them the gift of being able to regulate their emotions, rather than being ruled by them, so they don’t have to remain victims of their environment or emotions.”
One important way mindscape is taught is through a Socratic approach of initiating dialogues with your child to encourage empathy and insight.
IN HARMONY WITH THEOLOGY OF THE BODY
I was delighted to find that No-Drama Discipline presented a surprising cohesion with Theology of the Body’s respect for the human person. One of the fundamental tenets of No-Drama Discipline is that a parent must respect their child as a person, acknowledging and validating their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. No-Drama Discipline advocates collaborating with children to brainstorm discipline solutions together as a part of this respect for a person. It also empathizes the importance of developing your child’s neural network through relationships, noting that nourishing your relationship with your child is crucial in developing his full potential as a person.
DEVELOPING THE CHILD’S CONSCIENCE
Although the authors approach discipline from a secular and scientific perspective, they amazingly conclude that it is imperative for parents to help their child build a conscience! A big principle in this book is that instead of simply lecturing and demanding blind obedience, a parent should nurture the child’s innate feelings about right and wrong. They= authors explain that guilt is actually an important emotion to teach the child to recognize and respect as a sign that an action was wrong and not to be repeated. The authors say that
“Initial awareness of having crossed a line is extremely healthy, and it’s evidence of a child’s developing upstairs brain … It means she’s beginning to acquire a conscience, or an inner voice, along with an understanding of morality and self-control.”
One other thing I really appreciated about No-Drama Discipline is that I found it be almost entirely realistic. The authors readily admit that there is no “magic wand” that will instantly end all bad behavior forever. They teach that integral parts of no-drama discipline are response flexibility, taking your parenting philosophy off autopilot, and being creative. They don’t claim that their strategies result in perfect child. But they do claim that their strategies produce more positive interactions overall and minimize damage when those really dreadful parenting nightmares happen. I think they are right, although I would love to see them do a follow up book on applying no-drama discipline to a large family situation where a parent is constantly torn between conflicting demands from a small army of children.
A college psychology professor said that a child’s relationship with their parents forms their view of, and relationship with, God. If a parent is authoritarian and dictatorial, that is how the child will view God. But if a parent is a loving and gentle, yet also consistent and challenging, teacher figure like Jesus in the New Testament, then this is the image of God they will see. I think this book helps teach parents to present that latter example to their child, so I highly recommend it to any Catholic parent.
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
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Colllins was a smashing success, inspiring a plethora of dystopian young adult novels, none of which are remotely as gripping in my opinion. For Hunger Games is undeniably a well-told story with captivating characters. Collins uses the first person present tense: an unusual choice, but unexpectedly successful in drawing in the reader and providing a memorable voice for the heroine, Katniss.
To fill you in on the plot, Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who is chosen as a “tribute” or contestant in a mandatory “game” (fight to the death) between 16 children imposed as a punishment on the 12 districts of post-nuclear war Panem by its authoritarian government, the Capitol. The first book focuses on the two tributes from District 12, Katniss and Peeta’s, preparations, the game, and its aftermath. Book Two, Catching Fire, brings Katniss and Peeta back for another round of the games, and introduces a new plot line about Rebels working to overthrow the Capitol. Book Three, Mockingjay, describes Katniss’ uneasy alliance with the rebels, ostensibly to overthrow the Capitol, but in reality to get revenge on those she holds responsible for destroying her life.
There are a good number of problems with these books on a philosophical and moral level, some serious, so this is a series which it is important to discuss with your teenagers and encourage them to read with analytical attention. A first theme to have them watch for is the attitude towards religion. Or rather, the lack of any attitude towards religion. In fact, make that no mention of religion or God at all. For Panem apparently came to exist in a vacuum in which no one even thinks of a creator or supreme being, even to curse him. This complete and intentional refusal to even allow the characters to mention any religious sensibility is a glaring moral problem with the series, but honestly I also think one can see a theme here that a world that has no religion and no recognition of God is a harsh, barbaric world. Little wonder that one ends up with the horror of the Hunger Games when mankind is making up its own morality based on no objective moral standards. The real wonder is that Katniss, Peeta, and others actually do show loyalty, kindness, and compassion. In my opinion, despite an obvious attempt to remove God from the picture, Collins’ portrayal of good and bad characters and default to natural law morality still reflects the reality of God.
Another problematic theme in this series is revenge. Katniss cares deeply about friends and family, and spends much of the later books motivated by her desire for revenge on those who harmed her loved ones. Collins sometimes even portrays her desire for revenge as a somewhat laudable motivation. The question for Collins is not whether revenge is the answer, but who is ultimately responsible for the pain and suffering and deserving of death. Not should one take revenge, but upon whom should one wreak vengeance? Katniss, deeply damaged by her experiences, declares she wants the Hunger Games played out again by the Capitol children as a punishment. Readers need to realize that her desire for vengeance is disordered, again pointing back to the problems with removing God and eternity from the worldview. A fitting companion book to read is The Count of Monte Cristo, which has a powerful theme about revenge not ultimately bringing fulfillment or happiness.
Unsurprisingly given the lack of any belief in God or afterlife, suicide receives a troubling treatment in the Hunger Games. In the climatic final scene of the Hunger Games in the first book, Katniss and Peeta defy the Capitol by threatening to kill themselves rather than kill each other. This solution is cleverly designed by the author to portray suicide as a noble course of action in certain circumstances. Of course, as Catholics we know that suicide is never acceptable, and a discerning reader can point out that there were other options for Katniss and Peeta. For instance, they could have simply refused to fight at all and let themselves be killed by the mutant dogs that had been attacking them. Defying the Capitol did not need to involve a suicide threat.
One final negative influence I will point out is the theme that adults are incapable or unreliable. Almost without exception, the adults in the story disappoint Katniss and thrust her into taking an adult role herself. Her mother suffers from severe depression and her father is dead, so she is the head of her family from the age of 12. Her mentor for the games is a drunkard. The authority figures in the Capitol are the sick individuals who ordered the Games. The head of the Rebels proves to be as heartless and scheming as the Capitol rulers. Collins places Katniss into a world where every adult fails her, forcing her into the role of heroine and Rebel figurehead as a sixteen year old. The real wonder is that Katniss seems to understand intuitively how to be a leader given her complete dearth of positive role models.
Now while I clearly do not wholeheartedly embrace the Hunger Games as a moral tale, I do think there are some worthwhile positive themes that cancel the negative and make this series acceptable reading material. A first positive moral in this series is the theme that violence is bad. There is an odd dichotomy between the amount of violence described in the series, and the theme that violence is wrong: that violence is never the answer. In the first book, Katniss finds herself forced into scenarios where she must kill or be killed, but what sets her apart from most other players in the Games is her attitude that the violence and killing is wrong. Katniss sees killing human beings as horrible, and through her perspective so does the reader. This positive message about violence does become murkier as the series progresses, with the third book particularly devolving towards more gratuitously described violence and a damaged Katniss starting to become numb. I do think that Collins’ conclusion of the series with Katniss portrayed as a troubled, haunted woman who cannot move past the violence and trauma she has witnessed and endured is accurate and an important point to emphasize.
The overarching redeeming theme in the Hunger Games series is the positive message that human beings are persons to be valued, not objects to be used. Katniss’ charisma comes from her ability to see the people she meets as human, her compassion for them, her humanization of those she meets. The moments that everyone in the entire country loves her, such as her flower burial of a murdered 12 year old in the arena, are the moments when she combats dehumanization and makes everyone see the dignity of each person. Similarly, Peeta, the “good” character, is first seen as such for his kindness to Katniss and other people, even trying ones. His goodness is that he treats Katniss as a person from childhood onward. In contrast, the other character in the love triangle, Katniss’ friend Gale, loses her to Peeta because she cannot bear that he begins to treat people like animals. Likewise, the evil Capitol devalues human life, sentencing children to a sick game of slaughtering one another. The goodness or badness of persons and entities in the Hunger Games series is closely tied to their recognition or dehumanization of human persons.
Another theme that makes Hunger Games beautiful and memorable is that even in a brutal, dehumanizing totalitarian regime, people find the courage to help one another, treat each other as human beings, and resist, even if only by their silence. Several poignant scenes involve a protest where an entire District refuses to cheer, or offers a silent salute to Katniss’ human dignity-affirming actions. The message that evil flourishes when good people do nothing is strongly affirmed. All that it takes to begin to overthrow the Capitol’s power is a couple teenagers who refuse to kill one another. Their small resistance leads to silent protests, then to full out revolution.
The Hunger Games Trilogy teeters on the brink between truly worthwhile literature and sensational young adult fiction. The three books in the series vary greatly in coherency, theme, and merit. The first book, The Hunger Games, is the best in my opinion, and certainly worthy of having a high schooler read and discuss or write a paper on. Yes, there are some moral problems with the series, but with a little guidance, high schoolers can recognize the bad, take away the good themes, and enjoy a creative story.
Ideas for discussion questions or book report topics:
1. Does the author intentionally never mention God or religion? Is that a realistic picture of human nature: are people religious by nature? Despite attempting to remove God from the picture, does the author still acknowledge the natural law by creating good and bad characters? Does the author’s Godless world seem to need God?
2.Apply three of Peter Kreeft’s arguments for God’s existence to the world of Panem.
3. Are there any positive adult role models in Katniss’ life? Why would the author create a book where all the adults are deeply flawed? Does this play on a common teenagers’ assumption that they are wiser than adults?
4. Is violence portrayed as negative or positive? Killing? How well does Katniss recover from her ordeal? Peeta?
5. What are the moments Katniss most touches the world of Panem? Why do her compassionate, personhood-affirming actions resonate so strongly? Is it in contrast to the view of human dignity the Capitol takes?
6. How do people resist the Capitol regime? What does Catniss do (give examples) that is a catalyst for people waking up and refusing to allow the brutality of the Hunger Games any longer?