These two lovely books from Catholic author Diana Gonzalez Tabbaa are a breath of peace in a stormy world. With a simple and gentle voice, Tabbaa takes on the difficult question of children facing the problem of suffering. (Have you noticed I love books about the question of suffering?) The Tree of Healing and The River of Life are the perfect books to help tweens and teens grapple with the problem of pain.
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The River of Life
Twelve year old Anthony lives on a beautiful estate with his loving and holy parents. But when his father dies suddenly, Anthony’s faith and trust in God are shaken. He sinks deeply into grief and loneliness. But soon, he rediscovers God’s love and goodness through the healing power of nature, hard work, and a little help from a mysterious young man named Raphael.
The Tree of Healing
Thirteen year old Rose, Anthony’s daughter, can’t remember her deceased father. Her mother is broken by the loss of her spouse and emotionally distant with Rose. This is a moving story of a lonely young teen who finds love in the right place: God’s arms. As in The River of Life, Tabbaa weaves in themes about Creation, mysticism, and heavenly help.
Beautiful and Moving Books
I can’t say how much these beautiful stories moved me. The lovely art and poetry round out the stories and provides a spark to encourage contemplative prayer. The mystical undertones are unusual to find in fiction- a wonderful surprise. I imagine The Tree of Healing and The River of Life will help draw many young people closer to Christ through contemplation of suffering and Divine Providence.
I received a copy of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
St. Maximilian Kolbe is truly a saint for day modern-day Catholics to admire and emulate. From his successful media outreach work to his missionary work to his sacrificial death, St. Maximilian Kolbe lived a life of charity and love. This exciting new graphic novel from Sophia Institute Press brings St. Maximilian Koble’s story to life with high quality illustrations and photographs of the saint.
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The Whole Story
Most Catholics are familiar with St. Maximilian Kolbe’s dramatic sacrificial death as Auschwitz: so much so that he is often known as The Saint of Auschwitz. But this graphic novel delves deeper and follows the thread of Maximilian’s life from childhood to death. Through St. Maximilian’s remembrances in concentration camp, you will learn about Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s work establishing the Militia of the Immaculata, establishment of Catholic magazines and newspapers, missionary work in Japan, and more. As I read The Saint of Auschwitz, I was blown away by how much a young priest with tuberculosis accomplished in his short life.
Inspiration for Today’s Teens
This graphic novel will powerfully motivate tweens, teens, and even adults to live life with joy, charity, and a missionary zeal in the spirit of St. Maximilian Kolbe. I think most tweens will be fine with the level of intensity. St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story is sad and intense; fifteen days in a bunker waiting to die of hunger and thirst is a horrifying death. But his choice to embrace this death out of charity for a stranger and his joy in suffering is an inspiration that today’s youth will respond to with enthusiasm.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz” from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
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 LetzensteinChronicles 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.
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.
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is an exciting, character-forming book about friendships, overcoming hardships, and true happiness. A Newberry Honor book in 2006, this popular fantasy series aimed at tween and teen girls seemed too good to be true. But Princess Academy completely surprised me-in a good way!
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A Fantasy World
Fourteen year old Miri lives on Mount Eskel, the linder stone quarry of Danland. Utterly uneducated, her life consists of struggling alongside her poverty-stricken family for basic survival. But one day life on Mount Eskel changes forever. The next Princess of Danland will be selected from among the 20 girls on Mount Eskel. A Princess Academy opens to provide them with education and ideas that change their mindsets and way of life forever.
The Power of Education
So obviously, the power of education, especially reading books, is a huge theme in Princess Academy. Miri learns something from each course she takes: etiquette, poise, history, diplomacy, economics, and, of course, reading. Over the course of the book, Hale cleverly shows how Miri needs the lessons she learned at the Academy to conquer various challenges. Notably, Miri learns from her economic lessons that her town on Mount Eskel is being systematically underpaid for their stone by the traders. Then she uses her diplomacy lessons to advocate for her town with the traders to come to a better arrangement.
Friendship & Forgiveness
The lessons in diplomacy also help Miri work past the initial ostracism she experiences from her fellow classmates. With the help of a little diplomacy, and thanks to her cheerfulness and resourcefulness, she begins to forge real friendships. There’s a great theme running through the book about forgiving wrongs, not harboring anger, and second chances.
Another great theme in Princess Academy is that being virtuous is more important than money, power, or winning. The other girls learn to admire and accept Miri due to her positive character traits: her kindness, cheerfulness, helpfulness, and courage. When Miri focuses on winning the title of Academy Princess, she feels restless and unsure. When she focuses on her own self-improvement and helping her friends, she finds peace and clarity.
A True Twist in the Tale
Just from the title, Princess Academy, you think you know how this book is going to end. Surely Miri will end up graduating top of the academy and being chosen by the Prince and living happily ever after. But in a masterful twist that really elevates this book to classic status, author Hale has Miri instead choose to help all her friends graduate, help her best friend be chosen as the Princess, and find happiness in improving life for her family and tiny community.
A Great Fantasy Series for Young Girls
Princess Academy and its two sequels, Palace of Stone and The Forgotten Sisters, are great book options for girls who love fantasy. The messages about the importance of family, friendships, and virtue-growth are powerfully conveyed by the story itself. The writing is solid, and the song snippets “from” Mount Eskel which begin each chapter add some needed depth.
Looking for more fantasy titles? More books for girls? Check out my other lists:
Here’s a list for the boys: those 8-12 year old middle grade boys with their burgeoning desire for adventure and love of facts. There are a lot of classic adventure stories on this list, tons of exciting historical fiction, some mysteries, some fantasy, and some humor. All these books are good, clean fun that parents can feel confident handing to their sons to peruse (or devour, depending on the kid).
The books on this list are generally arranged by difficulty level with the easiest books coming first.
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Are their actually bears on Hemlock Mountain? In The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Jonathan finds out when he ventures up the mountain alone in this easy to read, exciting story.
Beverly Cleary’s Henry and Ribsy books are simple but humorous stories about one of the best-loved plots in children’s literature: a boy and a dog.
A crippled boy, a wise monk, a journey, an adventure. The Door in the Wall is a great historical fiction novel with themes both about trusting God and pushing oneself to personal heroism.
McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm is a collection of hilarious tall tales. McBroom has a large, happy family and a miraculous one acre farm. Boys crack up at these tall tales.
In the tradition of Charles Dicken’s Prince and Pauper, The Whipping Boy is a story of swapping places. A funny, exciting story of an unlikely friendship.
Clyde Robert Bulla wrote the perfect chapter books for 8 year olds: exciting historical fiction stories complete with illustrations to hold interest. Riding the Pony Express and The Secret Valley are two favorites with boys.
Boys who enjoy mysteries will love The Boxcar Children Books. These four caring siblings help solve problems while always looking out for one another. The first 19 books in the series were written by the original author and are the ones worth buying.
Freddy is a pig-of-all-trades: detective, football player, politician, lawyer. Thesetalking animal stories are classics of the innocent, humorous older variety.
The Happy Hollisters are a large, cheerful family who love to help others. As they travel around the world, they solve mysteries, make friends, and always smile. Lots of clean outdoor family fun in this series. See my full review here.
Prince Martin Wins His Sword is the first in this quartet of books written in the time-honored epic style of the Iliad. These great books inspire courage and loyalty. Read my full review here!
Red Sails to Capri is a thought-provoking story about superstition and truth. It’s also gently humorous in places, describes a truly inspiring friendship between two young boys, and a great introduction to Italian culture.
In this Newberry Medal winner, a cricket, a mouse, and a cat form an unlikely friendship. The Cricket in Times Square truly captures the flavor of New York City.
This adventure story by Ian Fleming of Bond fame is always a hit with boys! In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a family heads off on a trip with their magical car; along the way they’ll encounter dastardly villains and some scrumptious French desserts.
In the same style as her more famous Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her husband’s childhood in Farmer Boy. Boys will enjoy this account of life on an American farm with all the requisite animal training and feasting.
Owls in the Family is a hilarious boyhood memoir from naturalist Farley Mowat. My kids laugh until they cry at the escapades of Farley and his two horned owls, dogs, gophers, pigeons, and other animal friends.
Follow My Leader is a heart-warming classic about a young boy who is blinded in an accident. As he adjusts to life without vision, his family and friendships are his anchor. This book is great for building awareness about disabilities, blindness, and guide dogs.
Five for Victory is the first in Hilda Van Stockum’s beloved Mitchells series. This World War II era American family must pull together to build a victory garden, help their mother, and, maybe, capture a spy.
By the Great Horn Spoon! is a Gold Rush era novel by Sid Fleischman, who has a talent for humorous adventures. A boy and his butler set out to make their fortunes and general comedy ensues.
The Redwall books are always a favorite with middle grade boys. Mice, badgers, and other forest animals engage in epic quests, battles, and feasts.
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey is clean, old-fashioned small town fun. Homer captures bank robbers, helps the stuttering town sheriff, and makes hundreds of donuts in this comedic classic.
In Snow Treasure, a group of Norwegian children and their families come up with a daring plan to smuggle their country’s gold out of Norway- right under the Nazi’s noses! This is a tale of courage that is loosely based on a true story.
The Green Ember is the first in a fantasy series by a Christian author. These tales of a rabbit’s quest and journey are reminiscent of Narnia and Redwall.
The Good Master describes Jansci’s happy life in Hungary, which is stirred up when his family takes in his wild cousin Kate. This is a great story about family relationships, Hungarian Catholic culture, and family love changing a person.
The Singing Tree is the sequel to The Good Master, and a truly beautiful and memorable story about World War II. Not at all a typical war novel, this book focuses on the toll the war took on the tiny Hungarian town where Jansci’s family lived. Jansci’s family illustrates incredible Christian compassion as they open their farm to townsfolk, refugees, distant relatives, orphan children, and even a group of Russian prisoners of war.
The Chronicles of Narnia is, of course, a must-read for middle grade children. I believe in reading them in the original publication order: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first, then Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and last of all The Last Battle.
The Winged Watchman is a fantastic World War II historical fiction adventure about the underground movement in Holland. Despite the suffering and poverty of life under Nazi rule, one boy finds courage to be a hero and save a downed RAF pilot.
Big Red is just one of many wonderful outdoor adventure books by Jim Kjelgaard. These books are at once action-packed and exciting while also inspiring an appreciation for the beauties of nature and all animals. Irish Red, Outlaw Red, Snow Dog, and Stormy are all favorites.
Tintin, boy reporter, is always finding himself drawn into hair-raising escapades by his cast of quirky friends Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and Thomson and Thompson (with a p). Funny and clean, these do contain some very inventive “cussing” along the lines of “billions of blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon.” There is also some alcohol abuse by Captain Haddock, portrayed as a negative habit.
King of the Wind is the story of the origin of a great grandsire of Arabian and Thoroughbred horses: the Godolphin Arabian. It’s also the story of a quiet boy who believed in this horse despite the superstition that his markings were bad luck. Master writer Marguerite Henry captures the atmosphere of Morocco in a powerful way.
Adam, after losing his father and dog, sets off on a journey across England, determined to find them. Adam of the Road is an enjoyable historical fiction book depicting life in 13th century England, especially for a wandering minstrel.
Shipwrecked on an island with a wild stallion, Alex must rely on his wits and courage to help them both survive. The Black Stallion is a timeless adventure story about the special friendship between a boy and a horse.
The Toothpaste Millionaire is a great introduction to the concept of entrepreneurship. Two middle schoolers envision and develop a successful toothpaste business.
The Melendy children have boundless curiosity and creativity. These four siblings work as a team whether building a dam to make a swimming pond, planning a play, or adopting a sibling. The Four-Story Mistake and Then There Were Five have great themes about sibling relationships and older adoption.
In My Side of the Mountain , Sam feels stifled in the city. He decides to move to the mountains and live alone. Can a boy survive alone and forage for food in the wilderness? Maybe with a little help from a peregrine falcon!
Beorn the Proud is an exciting story about two countries and two faiths colliding when a Viking boy and an Irish girl meet. This is one of Catholic Publisher Bethelehm Books‘ Living History Library, all of which are excellent historical fiction titles for this age range!
Enemy Brothers is a thought-provoking historical fiction novel about World War II. Amidst the turmoil of World War II, an English boy who was kidnapped as a baby and raised in Germany is recovered by his birth family. Thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazism, Max hates his family at first. But their Christian love and patience win him over eventually.
Red Hugh is Irish historical fiction about a Prince of Donegal who heroically resisted English oppression of Ireland. This is a nail-biting novel of intrigue and adventure.
Based on what is known of the dog who accompanied Lewis and Clark, SeaMan is an account of westward exploration through a lovable Newfoundland’s big black eyes.
The Great Wheel chronicles the adventures of an Irish lad who ends up in Chicago helping build the first Ferris wheel for the Chicago 1893 Exposition.
Bush Boys on the Move is part of a wonderful series by an Australian Catholic priest. Sadly out of print, these are worth buying used.
Johnny Tremain is one of those classic historical fiction war books boys love. This book follows the events leading up to the American revolution through a silversmith apprentice’s eyes.
In The Sign of the Beaver, a 13 year old frontier boy, already scared to be home alone, loses the family rifle. He finds unexpected help, friendship, and wisdom from the nearby Indian tribe.
The Small War of Sergeant Donkey is a story of small heroisms in Italy during World War II. A fascinating story about a young boy and a diminutive donkey, this book brings attention to a little known part of World War II: American action in Italy.
North to Freedom is another World War II novel: a classic about a boy who has spent almost his entire life in concentration camp and escapes. Thought-provoking and touching story that makes the reader appreciate freedom and peace.
The son of American diplomats, Henry has spent most of his life outside his homeland. This quirky boy returns home for a summer in small town America, and general mayhem ensues. Henry Reed, Inc. is a classic “summer” book that keeps readers laughing throughout.
In The Mysterious Benedict Society, four exceptional children are recruited to defeat a psychopath bent on using mind control to gain world domination. This book is full of puzzles and mystery. Read my full review here.
Tom Playfair: Or Making a Start is in the classic school story tradition, but with a Catholic twist. This book is the beginning of a trilogy written by Father Finn, a Catholic priest, inspired by the boys at his boarding school. These wholesome stories encourage sports, friendship, Latin, and virtue.
In The Great and Terrible Quest, a near feral boy finds himself swept up in mission to find the true king. This book has an amazing mystical undertone combined with an action-packed quest and a sprinkling of mystery.
Outlaws of Ravenhurst is one of those inspiring historical fiction Catholic books I believe every child should read for perspective. Set during a time when hearing Mass was a rare joy, this exciting story sheds light on persecution in Scotland.
The Good Bad Boy is a simple book in the school story tradition, describing the 8th grade year of a Catholic school boy. This book gives a positive depiction of Catholic private schools as they once were, rich with Catholic culture and tradition.
The Hobbit is, of course, a classic that all middle grade boys should read. Tolkien’s books about the struggle between good and evil are timeless and important.
The Trumpeter of Krakow is Newberry Award winning historical fiction book set in 15th century Poland. A young boy and his family must protect a precious crystal from a mad tartar villain. A little slow in the beginning but the excitement builds as the story goes.
Little Britches is the first in a fantastic American memoir by Ralph Moody. In this first book, Ralph and his family settle out west and Ralph learns to ride and be a real help to his father. Great father/son relationship depiction.
Animal lovers always enjoy Lad: A Dog by Terhune. This clever collie protects his family from robbers. Based on Terhune’s own experience with his pet collies.
The Ruins of Gorlan is the first in the popular Ranger’s Apprentice series. Will is disappointed at first to be apprenticed to a quiet ranger instead of a bold knight, but soon learns that there is more than one way to serve bravely. This fantasy series has great friendships, lots of adventure, and a little humor.
Where the Red Fern Grows is another classic dog story that every boy should read. This is a great tale of loyalty, friendship, and making the right decision even when it’s difficult. Note: sad ending.
Banner in the Sky is a great story about a teenage boy who is determined to honor his father’s memory by climbing the great Citadel mountain. Can he succeed where his father died trying?
In The Red Badge of Courage, a young soldier runs away from battle. Later, he conquers his fear and rejoins the army, hoping to be wounded to erase his cowardice. This is a heavy novel dealing with war, death, and psychology.
Midshipman Quinn is a collection of four novels starring a young English midshipman fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Septimus Quinn’s quirky, clever personality adds humor this wartime historical fiction novel.
Coming up on its 150 year anniversary, Treasure Island is as exciting now as it was at its first printing. This tale of pirates, treasure, betrayal, and greed is a true adventure novel.
The Eagle of the Ninth is a fine historical fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. It follows Marcus, a Roman youth who is determined to uncover the mystery of what happened to his father’s legion. Skillful writing and attention to detail really bring Sutcliff’s novels alive. Read my Guide to Sutcliff for clarity about which of her novels are appropriate for children.
What type of books should middle grade girls read? Books with admirable, imitable female characters. Books with uplifting themes about growing up and growing in character. Books about friendships and family relationships. Classic chapter books for the 8-12 year old crowd.
The books on this list are time-tested classics, beloved by middle grade girls over the decades. They’re all completely clean, don’t focus on romance, and have great themes!
This list is arranged by age, with the easier books coming first.
The first four Betsy-Tacy Books are combined into one collection here, perfect for young girls encountering this charming trio for the first time. Three girls with very different personalities, families, and even hair colors become best friends in this beloved series from Maud Hart Lovelace.
The Courage of Sarah Noble has a great theme about discovering the true nature of courage: freedom from fear, or bravery in the face of fear?
Mystery lovers will enjoy the adventures of the Hollister family, which begins with The Happy Hollisters. Check out my full review of the series here!
I have yet to meet an 8-10 year old girl who didn’t love The Ordinary Princess. Her older sisters have all the typical princess qualities of beauty and grace and talent, but Amy is simply ordinary. What will life look like for an ordinary princess?
Thoughtful 8 year old Lisa tells about life in a tiny Swedish village. The Children of Noisy Village is a great early chapter book due to its short 2-4 page chapters. Each chapter tells an anecdote that happened in or around Noisy Village.
Love Noisy Village? Read more adventures of Lisa, Britta, Anna, and the brothers in Happy Times in Noisy Village. Humorous yet great exposure to Swedish culture and traditions.
The Secret Valley is a pioneer story set during the Gold Rush years. A sister and brother travel west with their parents searching for gold, but learn that true happiness is not found in a gold nugget.
The Boxcar Children are easy mysteries about a harmonious set of siblings. Girls will easily identify with responsible, confident Jessie or shy, sweet Violet. Each sibling’s skills help solve the mysteries.
In A Lion to Guard Us, big sister Amanda courageously sets off with her little brother and sister to follow their father across the ocean to Jamestown. She’ll have to have both courage and faith to succeed. This is a classic historical fiction easy enough for younger readers.
Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy series begins with “B” Is for Betsy. The Betsy books follow Betsy through her school years starting with 1st grade. In this book, Betsy learns that going to school can actually be fun and makes new friends. Betsy and Billy follows Betsy into 2nd grade, and Back to School with Betsy covers 3rd grade.
Twenty and Ten is a wonderful World War II historical fiction novel about a group of Catholic schoolchildren who successfully hide a group of Jewish children from the Nazis. The 1st person narration by a schoolgirl gives a truly authentic feel to this story.
Wild and charming, sassy and sweet, who can resist Pippi? The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking is a collection of three Pippi books, Swedish classics by Astrid Lindgren. Note that Pippi gets into a decent amount of mischief and there is some level of outsmarting adults that occurs.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle loves children, and children love Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s wisdom and spirit.
Family From One End Street is a collection of short stories about the seven siblings in a large, very poor London family. Set in the early 20th century, the poor but happy Ruggles family has various escapades as they scrape a living.
In these stories which span generations, a bored young girl finds treasures like a special quilt in her Grandma’s attic. Each random object has a story attached. Grandma’s Attic Treasury are sweet stories of a simpler time.
For girls who enjoy older classics, the Five Little Peppers are a good fit. Another set of stories about a large family and their adventures living on a shoestring budget.
Fern’s compassion for Wilbur saves his life. Charlotte’s Web is a true children’s classic.
My family loves all the Hilda Van Stockum books, but Five for Victory, and its sequels Canadian Summer and Friendly Gables, are particularly special. Girls will love these funny, heartfelt stories about a Catholic military family during World War II and the years following.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a lovely classic girls’ book about bearing hardships with fortitude and courage.
A shy girl must reach deep in herself to find the bravery to help save her country in Toliver’s Secret. American Revolutionary War historical fiction.
E. Nesbit is a beloved British author of children’s fantasy, and The Enchanted Castle is one of her more accessible books for modern day children. Girls love the mysterious castle and princess in this book.
Hitty, or Methibale, is a doll from the 1800s. She recounts her memoirs of life over the course of a different century in Hitty: Her First Hundred Years.
In this very well-known children’s classic, Heidi is raised by her grandfather, goes to school, and embarks on
Girls love the tiny, imaginative world of Mary Norton’s The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers. These books record the adventures of a group of miniature people who live a hidden life in the houses of the big humans.
Narrated by a girl, The Toothpaste Millionaire is the story of two middle schoolers who come up with a brilliant business idea. A celebration of entrepreneurship and friendship.
The Little House books are such classics they don’t need a description! These gentle stories are perfect for middle grade girls. The first four books in the series are best for this age range.
The All-of-a-Kind Family books are another wonderful series for middle grade girls. These stories are about a joyful Jewish family with five girls living in New York city in the early 1900’s. Great exposure to Jewish traditions and fun stories.
Lois Lenski does an amazing job bringing alive the realities of the tough, even brutal life of a poor farm family in the early 1900’s. Yet Strawberry Girl also is a celebration of simple joys and the beauty of peace.
I trace my love of gardening back to reading The Secret Garden as a child. Cranky Mary’s transformation from a fretful, selfish little person to a good friend and young woman can be traced to the “magic” of caring for a garden.
The Princess and the Goblin by master writer George MacDonald is on my must-read list of children’s classics. This beautiful book is filled with Christian symbolism and allegory. And it’s an engaging story about a Princess, a Miner Boy, and some Goblins.
Caddie Woodlawn is a growing-up story about a tomboyish young girl in early America. From uproarious adventures with her brothers to getting a voice in deciding her family’s future, Caddie grapples with growing up and learning what being a young lady truly means.
The Good Master and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy are windows into life in Hungary before and during World War I. Young Jansci and his family’s life is upended by the arrival of his wild cousin Kate, but their patience and love work a miracle. In the second book, Jansci must grow up quickly as his father leaves for the war.
Misty of Chincoteague is the story of a sister and brother and their love for a special horse. Great themes about hard work, perseverance, and unselfish love.
The Kellyhorns is like an older, cleaner version of The Parent Trap. Long-estranged twins find each other and conspire to unite their beloved aunt and father.
The Swallows and Amazons series is a quintessential middle grade classic: well-written, exciting adventures, and a great assortment of relatable characters for both girls and boys.
Calico Bush by Rachel Field is a serious look at the reality of life for indentured servants and the hardships the early American settlers experienced. But it’s also a celebration of a young girl’s loyalty and courage and will to survive.
In Number the Stars, young Annemarie’s family risks their lives to save her Jewish friend from the Nazis. Focuses on the heroism of the Danish resistance during World War II.
In Turn Homeward, Hannalee, brave 12 year old Hannalee embarks on a long journey to escape the Northern factory she is forced to work at and return home to Georgia.
The Saturdays is the first of the Melendy Quartet books from the great storyteller Elizabeth Enright. Four creative children with a small allowance pool resources so each can have a special adventure once a month. Great stories about harmonious sibling relationships, creativity, and adopting an older child. The Melendy story continues with The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a fun, quirky adventure series about exceptional children who are sent on a mission to save the world from a pyschopath bent on universal mind control. Read my full review here!
Cheerful Pollyanna is a sunbeam to her grumpy old aunt. But when tragedy strikes and leaves her a cripple, can Pollyanna still be cheerful?
Historical fiction about a courageous girl who must step up to defend her family when her father is away. Madeleine Takes Command will resonate with middle grade girls.
Living alone on a desolate island with only animals for companions, Karana must find courage to fight for survival. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a sometimes gritty but inspiring story.
The Light Princess is a short but thought-provoking fairy tale by George MacDonald. Full of puns but also great themes about the true meaning of love.
Little Women is another classic that needs no introduction. This story of the love between four very different sisters has charmed generations.
Eight Cousins is another great Lousia May Alcott book for middle grade girls. Rose learns to see beyond surface appearances to which of her many cousins are the most worthy.
Jack and Jill was actually my favorite Alcott book as a child. A sledding accident cripples two children and forever changes a small town. A wonderful look at the power of friendship and compassion.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting story of spies, counter-spies, and palace plots set in ancient Egypt. It’s also a story of a girl learning to choose loyalty and self-sacrifice over selfishness. This book does have a romance and is better for older middle grades.
The Sherwood Ring has a satsifyingly twisty plot with time travel, a gentle love story, and fascinating American revolution details all twined masterfully together.
An Old-Fashioned Girl offers a much-needed theme about staying true to one’s values and beliefs despite peer pressure.
Drovers Road is the first of one of my favorite coming of age series about Gay, a spirited young girl growing up in New Zealand. Gay lives in a rougher, more exotic world of horses, sheep-herding, and hunting. The subsequent two books follow Gay through college and beyond.
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What kid doesn’t love The Chronicles of Narnia? As an 8-12 year old, it was one of my favorite series, and I still enjoy re-reading it as an adult.
The question is: what to read after Narnia? What other fantasy books can satisfy after such a wonderful series?
This question is particularly tricky given the murkiness about magic, magical powers, witches, and sorcerers commonly found in popular contemporary fantasy series. More insidious but even more harmful is the dualism and Gnostic worldview often normalized in fantasy series.
But don’t lose hope! Today I bring you an entire list of wholesome series for your kids and teens to devour after finishing Narnia.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander tell a wonderful coming of age story and adventure. Over the course of the five books, a young man named Taran grows from being a rebellious teen to a valiant and courageous warrior, in the process forging friendships, finding love, and helping save a kingdom.
Recommended for 10 and older.
Redwall by Brian Jacques has delighted generations of children with its amusing animal heroes, high feasts, and epic battles. This series is satisfyingly long: a whopping 22 books. Some of the later volumes drag, but be sure and buy the first six books at least, which are excellent!
Recommended for 10 and older.
In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first of Stephen Lawhead’s Dragon King Trilogy. Complete with heroic quests, giant serpents, fair maidens to rescue, and a chilling necromancer to defeat, this series is guaranteed to please fantasy lovers. But it also has a solid plot, well-developed characters, and a Christian worldview.
Recommended for 12 and older.
The Green Ember Series by S. D. Smith is a Narnia-like series of epic adventure and talking animals that gets bonus points for being written with a clearly Christian world view. Best of all, it is free to download as an Ebook so you can preview it before deciding whether to buy a paper copy.
Recommended for 10 and older.
E. Nesbit’s classic children’s books that blend magic, adventure, family, and outdoor fun are coming back into print. Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet are just two of her many fine books, which make great read-alouds or independent reads.
Recommended for 8 and older.
The Ruins of Gorlan is the first book in John Flanagan’s captivating 12 volume Ranger’s Apprentice Series. These exciting tales follow teenage Will and his friends as they grow from impulsive teens into capable adults. Battling evil creatures, they learn to rely on one another. Each possessing a different talent, they must learn to cooperate. The characters do grow older during hte series, so this is a great series to dole out a book at a time as your child gets older.
First book recommended for 10 and older.
Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis are the clear must-reads on this list in my opinion. Similar to Narnia in that they are allegorical, they are written for an adult audience and explore deeper questions about creation, the nature of man, and the will for power.
Recommended for 14 and older.
To conclude with the master, everything by J. R. R. Tolkien is naturally recommended for fantasy fans. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy should be a part of any home library. Don’t forget The Silmarillion and The Great Tales of Middle-earth also! They provide fascinating details about the making of middle earth and the tales of many of the heroes mentioned in passing in the Lord of the Rings.
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Teens and Romances
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What type of romance should teens be reading?
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
Themes in true romances
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
This list would be incomplete without some Louisa May Alcott! Though Little Women focuses mostly on sister-relationships, other Alcott books like Rose in Bloom and An Old-fashioned Girl are about finding love, sometimes in unexpected places. Rose and Polly learn to remain true to their beliefs and wait for a man wiht a pure heart.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting historical fiction novel about a fiery teenage girl who becomes deeply involved in palace intrigues, caught between two rivals for the Egyptian throne. Oh, and of course there is romance too. I love how this story shows Mara’s growth from utter selfishness to understanding the sacrificial nature of love.
Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is another book that fits many genres. I call it a romance for two reasons. First, because it teaches the reader that everyday life is romantic. Second, because a third of the book is about two characters falling in love and fighting in court to be allowed to marry.
Here are some novels with romantic plots I recommend for teens over 14.
Funny and memorable, My Heart Lies South is a true story about a young American journalist who falls in love on a trip to Mexico and ends up staying. Readers will love this amusing love story that also touches on the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture and family.
Do not assume all of Gene Stratton-Porter is appropriate for teens, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is really a charming story told by Laddie’s Little Sister, who explores themes about family, nature, redemption, and forgiveness. She also recounts how Laddie fell in love with and won the heart of a Princess.
Freckles is another great book by Gene Stratton-Porter. Similar to Laddie in many ways, a simple lad must win the heart of a high-born girl. A charming romance, and a great story of personal growth and overcoming disability.
The Robe is the story of one man’s quest for love and truth. He finds it in Christ. But he does also find love with a special young woman, which teen readers will enjoy.
The James Herriot Books are the funny and endearing stories of everyday life as a country veterinarian. James Herriot weaves his story of wooing and winning his wife into his animal anecdotes.
[Parental warning: mild language]
Everyone knows that teenage girls should read Pride and Prejudice, but don’t stop there. Read The Jane Austen Collection for more classic stories about finding love, with a side of social commentary and comedy.
[Parental warning: mentions of out of wedlock relationships, illegitimate children, mistresses]
The Virginian is a classic western full of cowboys, shoot-outs, and true love. With his quiet humor and gentle nature, the reader is rooting for the Virginian to win the lady.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as I mentioned above, a stellar example of how true love is sacrificial. No-good Sydney Carton never does get the girl, but his pure love for her ends up being his redemption.
P. G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he also wrote some hilarious romantic comedies such as the Adventures of Sally. Many of his Blandings Castle novels also include a strong romantic plot, such as in Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a love story, which is kept carefully PG. Strong female heroines abound in these novels. [Parental warning: one of the girls is wilder and does break some of the rules, occasionally is described as dressing in a more risque fashion, etc. There is also mention of someone keeping a mistress, which is portrayed negatively.]
[Parental warnings: one scene of attempted date rape in the very first book]
Older teens (16+) will enjoy these more difficult novels.
A classic mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is driven by a romantic interest. The protagonist and narrator must solve the mystery of who the woman in white is in order to gain a happily ever after with his wife.
The Weka-Feather Cloak: A New Zealand Fantasy is a fairly recent young adult fantasy set in New Zealand. Author Leo Madigan attempted to produce an engaging fantasy story which stretches the limits of time and space, while also writing a book deeply imbued with a Catholic vision. Catholic parents can rejoice that Madigan succeeded in his mission. Here is a young adult novel that parents can happily hand to their teens without fear of excessive violence, inappropriate content, or a secular agenda. On the contrary, teens will glean a wealth of positive lessons and experience a deeply Catholic worldview.
The Weka-Feather Cloak is the story of Danny Mago, a Maori boy coming of age in New Zealand. Quiet, artistic Danny’s life is forever changed when he meets the mysterious new student at school, Zelia, and begins to work for a strong-willed nun, Mother Madeleine. Danny finds himself suddenly involved in an angelic mission, experiencing time travel, and helping Zelia recover a precious relic lost for centuries.
EXCITING ADVENTURE AND FANTASY WITH A CATHOLIC FLAVOR
This book is not a fantasy in the common sense of taking place in an imaginary world such as Middle Earth or Narnia. Instead, it takes place in New Zealand; the fantasy element comes from an elevator which can bridge time and space. Instead of elves or wizards, this book’s nonhuman characters are angels and demons. I loved the uber-rational angel who helps Danny understand his mission, and shuddered at the demon who attempts to thwart it.
Sometimes, The Weka-Feather Cloak is reminiscent of Indiana Jones adventures. Danny and Zelia are racing to save a precious relic of Christ from the villain William Kydd. The exotic New Zealand locale, quest for a precious historical artifact, and other-worldly elements of angels and demons impacting human events are sure to intrigue teenagers as much as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But unlike an Indiana Jones film, in The Weka-Feather Cloak Danny must turn to spiritual weapons to defeat the demon. He finds strength in saying the rosary, protection in wearing a crucifix, and eventually defeats the demons through a liberal use of holy water. Because Danny is a small, shy teenager, he must learn to turn to God for help. He is a great example of what St. Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he talks about God’s power being made perfect through human weakness. If Danny had been less frail, he might not have realized how much he needed God’s help.
A final particularly Catholic flair to this book comes from the intriguing glimpses Danny gets into eternity. Danny gets to see what angels may be like. He gets to experience some of the attributes of a glorified body. Most of all, he gets to see history from a perspective outside of time.
APPRECIATING GOD’S CREATION
New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful: a fitting setting for this story which has major themes dealing with art and beauty. The book contains some truly beautiful descriptions of nature and what it reveals about our Creator:
“These vast continents with their mountains, deserts and rain forests, were a letter written by the Creator to mankind, a letter which told of his tender good-will, of his greatness and of his capacity to be little, of all his infinite variety of shade and color and light and impenetrability, it said everything mankind needed to know about him until he was ready to tell more.”
Little gems like this paragraph are tucked into this exciting adventure, making the reader pause and revel in the beauty of creation.
Another theme about beauty is that spiritual beauty is more important than mere physical beauty. Danny has a certain clarity of vision which allows him to see the beauty in a humongous, elderly nun, or in his disabled sister.
SEEING SPECIAL NEEDS ADULTS THROUGH GOD’S EYES
Danny’s older sister Angela has a neurological disability which renders her mute and confined to a wheel chair. From the beginning of the book, Danny’s attitude towards Angela is truly beautiful. He says that having a sister like her is a “strange, mysterious gift.” Danny and Angela have their own private sign language to communicate. Danny confides his deepest secrets to Angela, who sometimes gives him amazingly wise advice. Yet it is not until Danny experiences a miraculous journey outside of the normal time-space continuum that he sees Angela in all her beauty and potential as she will be in heaven.
ENCOUNTER INTERESTING SAINTS AND RELIGIOUS
Both while traveling through time and at home in New Zealand, Danny meets fascinating saints and religious who are friendly, fascinating people. He meets Lady Juliana of Norwich in 1399 and learns about the Eucharistic and God’s will while enjoying her hospitality and kindness. He also gets to meet Fra Angelico and the Silvestrine monks, learning how to create a fresco and participating in a snowball fight.
Back in current-century New Zealand, Danny becomes acquainted with the redoubtable Mother Madeleine and her eclectic order of nuns. Sister Eileen is admired and respected even by bullies. Sister Paula has a dry sense of humor and a practical bent. Mother Madeline herself is wise and simple, extroverted and shy all at once. From all of them, Danny learns that the path to sainthood is for everyone.
CAVEATS AND CONCLUSION
This wonderful novel is great for teens and even mature tweens. One aspect for parents to consider is that it features some truly disturbing demons, clawed, hooded, and fire-breathing that terrorize Danny on several occasions. Beware these descriptions if you have an extremely sensitive tween or young teen. The only other potentially problematic point is that there is a decent amount of bullying described. Danny is called a “maggot” and threatened by the bigger kids at his high school on multiple occasions. However, on the positive side, these same bullies do eventually cooperate with Danny to save the day so there is some redemption here. Other than these two areas, the The Weka-Feather Cloak is a joy to read! And it’s on a steep discount at Amazon right now: half off!
The Drovers Road Collection by Joyce West could be described as a New Zealand Little House on the Prairie. I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy, yet sadly it is little known in the United States. Tweens and Teens who love adventures, a story with a strong female protagonist, and a generous dose of humor, will enjoy Drover’s Road.
These adventures are narrated by Gay Allan, a lively and adventurous girl growing up on a New Zealand sheep station. The trilogy begins with Gay and her three cousins’ humorous escapades as they “help” their Uncle Dunsany on his ranch, deep in the Maori country. The cousins may be far from civilization, but life is never quiet at Drover’s Road with its colorful cast of characters both human and animal. In Cape Lost, Gay describes growing into a young woman, experiencing first loves and heartbreaks. But don’t worry; Gay, true to her name, is always resilient and able to see the humorous side of her adventures as she comes of age. The final book, The Golden Country, is Gay’s story of taking over a sheep station of her own as a young adult.
What makes these stories so worthwhile and memorable is Gay’s worldview, wise beyond her years yet still joyful. Growing up on a sheep station, she is used to hard work and responsibility. Yet she is also gentle-hearted and merry by nature. In each chapter, whether funny or poignant, a disaster or celebration, she provides a lesson for the reader without moralizing.
Drover’s Road is a story of a different era a century ago, when cell phones and the internet were not even imagined. Gay and her cousins fill their days taming wild horses, building a hideaway under a waterfall, hunting treasure, and playing matchmaker to their various relations. I think reading about their adventure-filled, joyful lives is a great inspiration to today’s teens and tweens to turn away from their screens and consider what real adventure might look like.
Despite being an old story when it comes to technology, Gay’s atypical family situation may strike a chord in today’s kids. Gay and her three cousins are all being raised by their young uncle and a distant cousin, “Aunt” Belle. Their parents all either died or abandoned them. Though they have an idyllic life on the cattle station, the cousins still experience a sense of missing and emptiness over their lost parents. Later in the books, Gay delves into her difficult relationship with her father, whom she struggles to forgive.
The romance is light and clean, and there is no language or violence. This wonderful book is perfect for twelve and older. The only sad part is that it is out of print so you have to buy it used here, or you can buy it as an e-book from publisher Bethlehem Books or on Amazon.