Review of “The Letzenstein Chronicles”

Cover "The Letzenstein Chronicles"

In turbulent mid-nineteenth century Europe, a young English girl is summoned to visit her dying grandfather, the Grand Duke of Letzenstein. Letzenstein is a fictional tiny European country, clearly inspired by Luxembourg. The young girl is Catherine Ayre, a lonely orphan. Her visit is to determine the future of a country on the brink of revolution. The Crystal Snowstorm is the exciting introduction in Meriol Trevor’s magnificent Letzenstein Chronicles.

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An Authentically Catholic Series

Meriol Trevor was a prolific twentieth century Catholic author. Originally from England, she helped in Italy during World War II as a relief worker. She eventually converted to Catholicism and wrote a wide variety of books for children and adults. Several of her children’s books have been republished in recent years by Bethlehem Books.

Meriol Trevor is that rare Catholic author whose books inspire virtue and love for truth and beauty so subtly you almost don’t see her trying. Like its inspiration Luxembourg, Letzenstein is a predominantly a Catholic country. Catherine Ayre gets to enter a city and country imbued with Catholic culture and art. She gets to encounter a variety of Catholics: some who strive to live their faith and some for whom faith is a facade. Tweens and young teens will appreciate the authenticity of Trevor’s depiction: there are corrupt Catholics, even corrupt clergy, in Letzenstein. But there are also Christ figures and repentant sinners who will lay down their lives to protect the innocent.

Trevor is truly a master of gently nudging her readers towards the path of virtue. The good characters in Letzenstein are compassionate and admirable, and the villains are slippery and scheming. No young reader wants to imitate devious Julius; everyone loves Rafael le Marre, the repentant sinner.

Exciting, but not just about the Action

The Letzenstein books certainly do have plenty of action. You will find daring escapes, fast-paced pursuits, clever disguises, sieges, and schemes and plots galore. Yet Trevor manages to avoid any graphic violence. Further, she manages to portray the villain’s acts of violence as truly deplorable and revolting.

Really, the Letzenstein Chronicles are about relationships: between friends, relations, rivals, families. Each character leaps from the page as if alive. Trevor is such a master storyteller she leads the reader to feel deeply invested in the fate of her characters. She tells each story from the viewpoint of a 10-12 year old child, which draws her readers into the story in a compelling way.

Any Content?

The Letzenstein Chronicles are very clean with no sexual content. There is no graphic violence or foul language. On the other hand, there is some light alcohol use. Remember this is a European book by a European author so children drinking a little wine is culturally normal. There is one episode where an adult character is given drugged alcohol by the villain in an attempt to extract information. This perfidy is portrayed as very reprehensible behavior on the villain’s part.

A Treasure Worth Finding

I highly recommend The Letzenstein Chronicles for 9-14 year olds. They also make a wonderful read-aloud for 3rd-6th graders.

The bad news is, these books can be a bit hard to find. All four Letzenstein Chronicles are available as E-Books. And you can buy the paperback of The Crystal Snowstorm from the publisher, Bethlehem Books. But to buy the paperbacks of Following the Phoenix, Angel and Dragon, or The Rose and Crown, you will have to settle for a used copy. Consider emailing publisher Bethlehem Books and asking for them to reprint this wonderful series!

For more great books for Catholic Kids, check out my book lists!

Review of “The Sword and the Serpent” Trilogy

Would you become a Christian if it meant certain persecution?

Cover "Sword and Serpent" review

The Sword and Serpent Trilogy is an exciting series which weaves together legends of many early Christian saints and martyrs into a fascinating narrative. Dr. Taylor Marshall, a Catholic Theologian and Philosopher, draws on what we know of the lives of iconic saints such as St. George, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Nicholas, and St. Christopher. Get to know these fourth century saints in a personal and inspiring way through these notable new novels.

“Saints aren’t born. They are forged.”

In his creative retellings, Dr. Marshall seeks to convey the humanity of great saints to the reader. By showing the journey of growth and conversion which saints like St. George and St. Christopher might have taken, Dr. Marshall makes these saints accessible and relatable to readers in a new way.

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In the first book, Sword and Serpent, Jurian (St. George) loses his home and family because of Christian persecution. Jurian’s coming of age and maturity parallels his journey in faith as he moves past anger and revenge to follow God’s gentle guidance. Along the way Jurian encounters and is helped by courageous saints like St. Nicholas, St. Blaise, and St. Christopher. The dragon Jurian meets is not quite quite the dragon you might be expecting. And he slays the dragon, but not by himself.

In the second book, The Tenth Region of the Night, female saints get more page space. St. Catherine of Alexandria, Aikaterina, jumps off the page with her prodigious intellect and insatiable thirst for truth which leads her to the One Truth eventually. Intermingled with Aikaterina’s story, Jurian’s journey continues as he works to free St. Christopher from his persecutors.

In the third book, Storm of Fire and Blood, Jurian travels into exile in the wilds of Britain, bearing the sword Excalibur back to its homeland. Meanwhile, Aikaterina rules Alexandria for her ailing father and debates with Emperors. All the Christians prepare themselves for the coming storm of Diocletian persecution.

Some Fine Storytelling

Quite independent of the religious merit, the Sword and Serpent trilogy is worth reading as a well-crafted story. The attention to historical detail is meticulous. The balance of humanizing the saints without diminishing their holiness is superbly executed. There’s a fascinating subplot about the sword Excalibur and Arthurian legends. There’s another intriguing storyline about the influence early Christian saints may have had on a young Constantine. A bit of myth, a bit of legend, a bit of historical fact combine to make a captivating and inspiring series.

Wisdom from the Past

The Sword and Serpent books superbly portray the first centuries of the Church when to be Christian was to accept persecution and eventual martyrdom. The courage and faith of these early saints during the Diocletian persecution offers an inspiration and a challenge to us all. In our post-Christian world, our children need books like these to remind them of where we came from and what heroic virtue we as Christians are capable of achieving.

Enjoyable For Teens and Adults

The Sword and Serpent series is completely clean and appropriate for teens. There is no foul language. Alcohol use is somewhat frequent, in keeping with the historical time period when beer or watered wine was commonly drank by all people with meals. No glorification of drunkenness though.

Given the backdrop of Christian persecution in the fourth century, there is some level of moderate violence. For example, some Christians are burned to death; others are fed to wild beasts. However, there are no gratuitously graphic descriptions of these acts of violence.

I wholeheartedly recommend this fine series for all teenagers and also for adults! The Sword and Serpent series is a perfect impetus to renew our sense of faith and hope and rediscover the power of the Gospel message.

Looking for more great books for Catholic teens? Check out my book lists!

Review of “The Restless Caterpillar”

The Restless Caterpillar: Heavenly Allegories For Children by [Kristina Schoettle, Christopher Schoettle, Elizabeth Welch]

The Restless Caterpillar is a cute picture book in the allegorical style. In this thought-provoking little story, a caterpillar notices other animals flying by and wishes that he too could soar through the sky. At first, children wonder if the caterpillar is ungrateful or envious, but as the story unfolds they realize that his desire to soar points to his true end as a butterfly.

This sweet little allegory will resonate particularly with small children who possess a melancholic temperament. One of my children, like many melancholics, already talks about how sad he feels in this world and how much he wants the eternal happiness of heaven. This story helped him understand his restless heart is really a God-given desire for the reality of heaven.

This is a very short, simple story perfect for 2-4 year olds. I appreciated the gentle rhyming text and simple pictures. I also loved the prefacing St. Augstine quote and concluding Bible verse which illustrate the themes of the story. Personally, computer graphic pictures aren’t my favorite. My only critique is that I would prefer more classical artwork. Otherwise, this is a wonderful little parable for the littlest Catholic children!

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The Restless Caterpillar was created by husband and wife team Kristina and Christopher Schoettle. You can support the Schoettles in their mission to provide parables for little Catholic children by purchasing The Restless Caterpillar on Amazon.

I received a copy of “The Restless Caterpillar” from Kristina Schoettle in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

For more of my favorite Catholic picture books for Catholic children, check out my list of Good Catholic Books for Catholic Preschoolers and Kindergartners.

The Restless Caterpillar: Heavenly Allegories For Children by [Kristina Schoettle, Christopher Schoettle, Elizabeth Welch]

Review of “St. Conrad and the Wildfire”

St. Conrad and the Wildfire Book Cover

St. Conrad and the Wildfire is a brand-new children’s book by Maura McKeegan. Our family had never heard of St. Conrad of Piacenza before, but after reading this book he is one of our new favorite saints. Both adults and children can appreciate this inspiring true story about the importance of telling the truth and owning up to one’s mistakes.

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Who was St. Conrad?

St. Conrad of Piacenza was an Italian nobleman in the fourteenth century. He ordered his servants to set a fire to smoke out a stag while hunting, but the fire grew out of control and razed nearby villages and fields. At first, Conrad is ashamed to admit he caused the fire. But after an innocent man is arrested and charged with his crime, Conrad chooses to step forward and take responsibility for the fire. The process of making restitution to his victims costs Conrad nearly all his wealth. But to his surprise, Conrad feels happier as a poor but honest man than ever before in his life.

These Themes!

Already, you can see the beauty and power of this story. Without being at all didactic, the facts of this story illustrate so clearly the importance of telling the truth, owning up to one’s mistakes, having contrition, and making restitution. My 5 year old immediately compared this story to going to Confession.

Another part of this story we loved was Conrad’s sweet, loyal wife Euphrosyne. Euphrosyne stands by Conrad at his worst moment when he admits he has destroyed the village, saying, “I will stand by my husband, and we will make amends together, even if it means relinquishing all that we own.” What an awesome example of an inspiring married couple, moving towards sainthood hand in hand!

One of the Best Picture Books I’ve Read This Year

On top of being a simply fantastic story, this picture book is graced with beautiful, peaceful illustrations. I enjoyed the subtle medieval notes such as the illuminated first letter on some pages, which fit with St. Conrad’s fourteenth century life. St. Conrad and the Wildfire is one of my new favorites. It certainly deserved a place on any Catholic family’s bookshelf.

For more of my favorite Catholic picture books for Catholic children, check out this list!

Review of “Our Lady’s Wardrobe”

Cover "Our Lady's Wardrobe" Sophia Press

Looking for a book for the Easter Basket? Anthony DeStefano’s newest book has just released from Sophia Institute Press and it’s simply gorgeous! This beautiful book provides a simple introduction to a variety of Marian apparitions in a novel way. Our Lady’s Wardrobe familiarizes young children with Marian apparitions by focusing on the many beautiful costumes Mary has worn when she appeared on earth.

Amazing Illustrations

Can I say again the illustrations in this book are wonderful? Juliana Kolesova’s light-filled style perfectly suits this book about the Queen of Heaven. Each page glows with an other-worldly luminescence that draws the reader upwards, like a Gothic church. My little girls can’t decide on which costume they like best: Fatima, Lourdes, Knock, or Guadalupe. Check out a full preview of Our Lady’s Wardrobe on Sophia Institute Press to see these beautiful images in full.

Simple Poetry for Retention

DeStefano uses rhyming verse to tell this story. The simple verse style reflects the atmosphere of simplicity and comfort in this story about how Mary loves and visits her children on earth. The rhyming verses also help children remember the various apparitions: Carmel, Knock, Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, the Miraculous Medal, and more.

Mary Leads us to Jesus

DeStefano takes a thoughtful approach in this children’s introduction to Mary, being careful to begin with stating the Catholic position on Mary. He begins the book with explaining Mary’s importance in the context of God’s plan and role in leading us to Jesus.

“Our Lady leads us to the Lord, that’s what she’s always done.

She gave us Jesus Christ the King, God’s one and only Son.”

DeStefano also wisely focuses on the Marian apparitions which have been judged “worthy of belief and public veneration” by the Holy See, the highest approval a Marian apparition can receive.

Contrasting Heaven and Earth

DeStefano usually weaves some intricate themes into his children’s books, and Our Lady’s Wardrobe is no exception. I loved the subtle contrasting he uses between heaven and earth. On earth, Mary had simple clothes and was poor. In heaven, she is queen with a gorgeous wardrobe. This contrast is a great reflection of Jesus’s teachings in the Beatitudes. Mary’s life on earth surely exemplifies the Beatitudes, and in heaven she receives the rewards promised.

A Great Marian Book for the Family Library

Catholic parents can feel confident that this lovely picture book provides an orthodox, yet uniquely memorable, introduction to Mary. It’s a perfect way to help little children build a personal connection and familiarity with our Mother in Heaven. I think two to seven year olds will most enjoy Our Lady’s Wardrobe. This book is so beautiful it also makes a great gift for a sacrament or birthday!

For more great books for Catholic kids, check out my book lists!

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of Our Lady’s Wardrobe from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Review of “A Lenten Journey with Mother Mary”

Book cover of "A Lenten Journey with Mother Mary"

Looking for a daily Lenten Meditation? A way to grow closer to Mary and Jesus this Lent? Check out Lenten Journey with Mother Mary by Fr. Edward Looney, a brand new book from Sophia Institute Press. Whether you’re new to Marian devotion or already pray the rosary every day, this book will help enrich your relationship with Mary and Jesus.

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A Meditation a Day

Lenten Journey with Mother Mary has a meditation for every single day of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday! As an additional bonus, Fr. Looney continues the devotions through the Easter Octave to Divine Mercy Sunday! Each day’s devotion begins on a very personal note with a direct quote from Our Lady, such as: “Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.” These quotes are drawn from a variety of approved Marian apparitions and set the theme for the day. The devotion then continues with a 2-3 page meditation, a sentence-long prayer, and a suggestion for a Lenten action.

Theme of the Week

Each week has a broad theme under which the individual days fall. Themes include intentional prayer, praying for others, healing, and examination of conscience. I particularly enjoyed the meditations during the Easter Octave, which focus on faith and trust in Divine Providence.

A Lenten Journey

The title about journeying is very appropriate for this book, which certainly leads you on a journey to deepen your relationship with Mary. By increasing your Marian knowledge and deepening your prayer life, this book leads you closer to Jesus through Mary. The heart-warming takeaway message in this Lenten devotional is: Mary prays for you. Mary loves you.

Want to learn more? See a full preview of Lenten Journey with Mother Mary on the publisher page.

Have children? Check out my list of favorite picture books to prepare for Lent and Easter!

I received a free copy of “Lenten Journey with Mother Mary” from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

"Lenten Journey with Mother Mary" cover

Review of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Book Poster Image

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is one of those oft-recommended young adult series. It’s promoted as a modern classic by many libraries. Even some reputable review sites like commonsensemedia.org recommends it for 12+. The series premise is that four close friends share a special pair of jeans which help them stay close even when apart. The depiction of strong, healthy female friendship is moving and imitable, but there are definitely concerning aspects of this series Catholic parents need to be tracking.

Great premise, poor writing

Bridget, Lena, Tibby, and Carmen share a robust, close friendship. Always there for each other, always ready to sacrifice for one another, the parts of this series that focus on their friendship are in fact quite inspiring. The writing style, however, is shallow. The plot is not well-planned, and the character growth is uneven or inconsistent with some of the characters. I might have forgiven some of this though if I wasn’t so concerned with the amount of sexual content in a tween/teen series.

Too much focus on sex

There are really two themes in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. One is female friendship, the other is discovering your sexuality and losing your virginity. This series is written for a secular audience, so perhaps this is the norm in public schools, but Catholic parents may be startled to learn that this series describes events such as 15 year old Bridget seducing her 19 year old soccer coach. In a later book, 18 year old Bridget begins a similar seduction of her married archaeology professor, but at least stops at passionate making out, for what that’s worth. Tibby, at 18, fornicates with her boyfriend and then has a pregnancy scare. Lena, at 18, engages in nude modeling in art school and eventually loses her virginity to a guy she admits to not really loving or seeing marrying. Throughout the series, a lot of the plot is concerning who will sleep with who and when? Interesting content for a series that is supposed to be promoting positive teen behavior.

Lessons: too vague, too incoherent

Are the consequences of all this sexual misconduct negatively portrayed? Sometimes. Bridget falls into a year long depression after seducing her soccer coach and being rejected. The message is that it was a mistake because she was “too young.” But then, two years later, when she meets the soccer coach again and they fall in love, apparently she is now “old enough” and having sexual relations is acceptable. According to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, having sex with your boyfriend is just fine as long as you’re “old enough” and “feel” right about it.

After Tibby fornicates with her boyfriend, she is terrified she’s pregnant, which causes her major anxiety and leads to breaking up with the boyfriend. But again, the message is not that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but rather that the timing was wrong. Even as Tibby regrets that she might be pregnant, the author makes sure to clarify that she didn’t actually regret having sex, because “she was ready.”

So The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants delivers a typical secular message that sex outside of marriage is okay overall, as long as you’re “ready” and not “too young.”

Great Premise, but unfit for Christian consumption

I would love to see a similar series with themes about strong female friendships, loyalty, and growing up, but done in a way that is appropriate for Catholic teens. Sadly, none of the teens in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have any sort of moral compass regarding sexuality and relationships. Lacking guidance from wise adults or any philosophical or religious formation, they make decisions based strictly on what feels right to them. Consequently, the characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are poor role models. I cannot recommend this series for Catholic teens under any circumstances.

Review of “North American Martyrs”

North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book by Bonnie Way and Katherine Babcock

North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book is a fantastic resource for Catholic families. Written by Bonnie Way, the Koala Mom, this is a creative and well-researched activity book. It provides both biographical information on eight Catholic men who were martyred for their faith in seventeenth century North America and fun activities.

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Focus on Courage and Charity

The eight North American martyrs are inspiring men who vividly demonstrated both the great commandments in their curtailed lives. Each martyr possessed such a burning love for God that they risked their lives to spread the Gospel to the Native Americans and First Nation people of Canada and the United States. Often tortured and persecuted, they willingly returned to their mission fields and the American people they loved until their deaths. In North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book, the selfless life of each martyr is described briefly but with sufficient detail to inspire twenty first century children with a admiration for what these men endured for their faith.

A Great Unit Study Resource

In addition to the stories of these martyr’s lives, North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book contains plenty of mazes, crosswords, word finds, decoding, and writing prompts to emphasize the important information. The book is divided into each sections, each with a biography and activities, making it a perfect unit study or saint a week book for the summer months. I also think this book would be great to keep an 8-12 year old occupied on a long road trip or vacation.

A Catholic Activity Book

The neatest thing about this book is its originality: a specific Catholic martyr themed activity book? Who’d have thought! At $15.00 for a 130 page activity book, it’s even very reasonably priced! Would I change anything? I might add color photos and more images in general, but overall this is a well-done and worthwhile activity book for the 8-12 year old crowd.

I received a free copy of North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book from thekoalamom.com in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Looking for more books for middle grade kids? Check out my lists for Boys and Girls!

North American Martyrs Kids Activity Book by Bonnie Way and Katherine Babcock

Review of “The Weapons of War”

Weapons of War, Brendan and Eric in Exile
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The Weapons of War

Catholic Apologetics in graphic novel form: what could be better? In this latest volume of the Brendan and Eric in Exile series, everyone’s favorite space pilots are reassigned to fly the space taxi in recently settled Mars. There, they find a society where religion has been outlawed and Christians face real persecution and death. Brendan and Eric find themselves defending the sacraments and Catholicism like never before in Weapons of War!

Solid Apologetics

The mysterious author of the Brendan and Eric books is actually a contemplative monk and priest, so it comes as no surprise that these books are steeped in solid theology. Readers will find handy notations in the bottom margins of the story noting key passages in the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church which back up Brendan’s reasoning. In this latest volume, Eric and Brendan debate on a wide range of apologetical issues: with Protestants who challenge them about the priesthood, confession, and Baptism, with atheists on marriage and the Eucharist, and even with a lady who believes in universal salvation. The Bible verses fly as fast as the drones in this novel!

Ecumenical Cooperation

In this latest book, Brendan and Eric spend a good deal of time debating Biblical interpretation with the Protestant pastor. But when faced with a anti-Christian society, the Protestants and Catholics on Mars work together to get the message of Jesus’ love and promise of salvation broadcast to the uncatechized inhabitants of the planet. Risking all their lives, they broadcast a message about Jesus’ love and mercy. Later, the Protestant pastor and his assistant again help the Catholic characters to rescue their priest, who has been imprisoned. There’s a great message in this novel about working together with our separated Protestant brethren, who are Christians too.

Great For Teens

The graphic novel style of this book will speak to tweens and teens. This book would make a great gift for First Holy Communion or Confirmation, or even for someone completing RCIA. Even adults will enjoy brushing up their Sacrament Apologetics with this easy to read format! The other two books in the series are also excellent. In the first volume, The Truth Is Out There, Brendan and Eric learn about God, and how faith and reason are not contradictory. Then in The Big Picture they combat a maniac who wants to change God’s plan for salvation. This series is a wonderful way for Catholic kids to learn about the Catholic faith and apologetics in a fun, engaging format.

For my great graphic novels for Catholic kids, check out this list!

I received a copy of Weapons of War from Catholic Answers Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Weapons of War, Brendan and Eric in Exile

Review of “The Wind, The Road, and the Way”

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By request of a couple different blog followers, I recently read The Wind, the Road, and the Way, one of Jenny L. Cote’s popular Epic Order of Seven series. This Biblical fiction series follows the adventures of seven special talking animals who, in this fantasized version of the Bible, play a key role in helping Jesus and His apostles. Sound a bit bizarre? Well, it is definitely a creative interpretation. In this part of the series, Max, Liz, and the other animals race around freeing Peter and Paul from jail and conversing with Mary and Jesus. The question is: are these books misleading for Catholic kids?

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To Give Due Credit

The commendable part of this series is that Cote really does do a tremendous job weaving in some serious Biblical exegesis. In this book which focuses on the end of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, she includes explanations of Jewish feasts and how Jesus fulfills them. She explains how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies. She includes interesting tidbits about what the number of fish the disciples catch represents, and what a net breaking or not breaking might symbolize. There’s a lot of fascinating information that I would love my kids to encounter. But, big caveat here, not all the exegesis is is line with Catholic teaching.

Out of Line with Catholic Teaching

For all the solid exegetical details Cote includes, whenever she retells a part of the Bible that supports Catholic teaching, she ignores the implications, or even changes details to suit her story line. For example, in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaeus in Luke 24:13-35, Catholic scholars typically interpret the disciples recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread as a Eucharistic reference. Cote instead adds in her own details about the disciples noticing Jesus’ pierced hands during the meal and thus recognizing Him.

Another convenient example of skirting tricky verses comes with anything to do with Peter and Petrine privelege. In fact, I laughed about the explanation of Matthew 16 which somehow completely ignored that the verse is about Peter at all.

But the big deal breaker for me was that Cote takes the common Protestant position that Mary had other children. In parts of The Wind, the Road, the Way, Mary is described as interacting with her four “other sons,” Jude, James, Simon, and Joses. Denying Mary’s perpetual virginity is a very common Protestant stance, and another example of why the theology and exegesis in these books cannot be trusted.

I’ll pass

Although I appreciate Cote’s attempt to bring Biblical exegesis to tweens and teens in an accessible package, I cannot recommend her books for Catholic readers. Unless a parent is willing to put considerable effort into dissecting these books sentence by sentence with their child and verifying or disproving the exegetical claims, there is a serious danger that young Catholic readers will become confused or shaken in their faith. I’d rather have my kids reading great Catholic Biblical exegetical works like Scott Hahn’s Understanding The Scriptures, Life of Jesus, or, for younger readers, Cavin’s Great Adventure Storybook.