I’ve ragged on a few New York Times Bestseller’s recently, so I wanted to share one I did love. Piranesi is that rare contemporary book I can wholeheartedly recommend to all my friends with no reservations. It’s well-written, superbly plotted, and has just the right amount of nods to the classics without coming across as trying too hard. Probably I mostly like it because the author is clearly playing with a Magician’s Nephew theme and you all may have noticed that I’ve never outgrown my childhood love of Narnia.
For the Moms
To be clear, this book is for you, mom, not your kids. Well, if you have a high schooler they might like it too, but mostly I’m thinking of moms here. If you love fantasy, or mystery, or art, or fairy tales, or books about social issues, you’ll probably enjoy this book. That’s a pretty eclectic list, I know, but this is a book that keeps you guessing. It defies categorization. I was telling a friend, “It’s like a mystery… noooo, more of a suspense…. no, actually, more fantasy. You just have to read it.”
Piranesi plays with contrasts: ancient versus modern consciousness, freedom versus bondage, contemplation versus action. There’s a compelling sense of place. A touch of art history. It deals with important topics like misuse of power, but in the most powerful way: through the story. It’s that rare book with great depths to ponder, but you read it in 24 hours. Then, if you’re me, you re-read it.
I really don’t want to give away any spoilers, but here’s a few tips on how to read it. First, this book is all told in diary form by an unreliable narrator (echoes of Wilkie Collins). Second, it helps to have read The Magician’s Nephew recently. Third, enjoy the mystery of it and don’t get turned off by the intentional strangeness of the first few chapters!
You can buy Piranesi through my Amazon affiliate link: Piranesi
Check out this FREE downloadable printable list to help your sons track their reading throughout the middle grade! It’s based on my popular book list 60 Classic Books for Middle Grade Boys, but has even more awesome book ideas!
Here’s a preview of what the first page looks like!
Both boys and adventure-loving girls will love these classic books about high adventure, funny talking animals, mysteries, and more!
To download this FREE pdf, click on the link below!
Today I’m excited to share my new project with you! Due to popular demand from my readers, I’m beginning a series of printable reading lists with check boxes and space for date read so your children can track their reading! Click the link below to download!
This is a free printable pdf for your daughter to keep track of her middle grade reading. I based this list on my popular book list 50 Classic Books that Middle Grade Girls Love but added in sequels and a few extra titles to bring the total number of titles up to 90! That’s a lot of books! Challenge your daughter to read them all between the ages of 8-12. These are classics, so most libraries should have a high percentage of these books available to borrow.
Here’s a peek at what it looks like!
I’m so happy with how it turned out!
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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.
This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
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.
Do you have a dog lover in the family? A horse crazy daughter? A budding naturalist? The child who loves all creatures great and small? I was one of those children, and here is a list of some of my very favorite children’s stories about dogs, horses, and more exotic animals! This list is for the books with animals which act like, well, real animals.
If you’re familiar with the movie Homeward Bound, you’ll already know the basic plot of The Incredible Journey. Three animal companions set off on an incredible cross-country journey, determined to return home to their family. Unlike the movie, in the book the animals don’t actually talk.
Jim Kjelgaard, one of my favorite childhood authors, is best known for Big Red, the story of a boy named Danny and the friendship with an Irish Setter that changes his destiny. Kjelgaard was a prolific author who wrote a plethora of adventure stories about the outdoors, animals, and boys. I can recommend everything I’ve read by him, including: Snow Dog, Irish Red, Stormy, Wild Trek, Trailing Trouble, and Swamp Cat.
Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune is heaven for dog lovers. Lad’s big, gentle heart and courage are guaranteed to make the reader want a collie. Terhune’s other collie books are all excellent. I particularly love Bruce, Gray Dawn, and Treve.
James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories are a delightful introduction to this beloved Yorkshire author. This is a collection of some of the funniest, and most poignant, dog stories Herriot wrote.
Follow My Leader is a heart-warming story about a middle school boy whose life is shattered when he loses his eyesight in an accident. Thanks to his supportive family and friends, Jimmy soon bounces back and learns to navigate life blind. But the real game-changer is when he meets Leader, his guide dog. Great book that offers a window into life with a disability.
Where the Red Fern Grows can be a love-hate experience for dog lovers since it has a bittersweet ending. If your child is sensitive to animal dying, steer clear of this one. Otherwise, it is a great story about grit, loyalty, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard.
Along Came a Dog is an out of print treasure by Meindert DeJong. A homeless dog encounters a little red hen and a lonely man, and all their lives are changed. This one is worth buying a used copy!
SeaMan is based on the true story of the dog who explored the west with Lewis Clark. The gentle Newfoundland is always a favorite with dog lovers who appreciate his loyalty, courage, and personality. Historical fiction fans will also enjoy the attention to historical detail in this book.
Did you know 101 Dalmatians was originally a novel? This classic story about Pongo the Dalmation father’s fight to find and rescue his kidnapped puppies is sure to be a hit.
Scout by Julie Nye is a lovely story about a boy, boats, horses, and a dog set in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula. When Scout appears half dead in the water, no one knows where he came from. Jeff nurses him back to health but eventually has to make a tough decision about where Scout really belongs. Warning: there is a slight fundamentalist Christian flavor to this book since the family is Baptist. Nothing anti-Catholic or heretical though.
Beverly Cleary’s classic humorous stories about Henry and Ribsy are always popular with animal lovers! Everyone cracks up at Henry’s schemes and Ribsy’s escapades.
Part of the wonderful Little Britches series The Home Ranch has always been a favorite of mine since it’s all about horses, really. Barely a teenager, young Ralph goes to work as a hand on a cattle ranch. He soon learns that the key to sucess is having the right string of horses and learning to work with them.
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley is a beloved classic about a boy and a horse. Shipwrecked on a desert island, Alec and the Black forge a friendship that survives their return to civilization. The themes about resilience, self-reliance, trust, and friendship always resonate with kids.
Smoky the Cowhorse was a 1927 Newberry Medal Winner about a wild mustang and a cowboy. Will Smoky give up his freedom in return for friendship?
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold is another old equestrian classic, this time about a girl and a horse. Horse-crazy Velvet breaths all things equine but money is tight. Very different from the more famous movie, this is a book about an awkward adolescent girl’s determination to ride.
Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat is a hilarious, delightful memoir of the author’s boyhood in rural Canada with a veritable zoo of pets. His fond memories of the escapades of his animal friends are strung together into an engaging book. The reader also learns quite a bit about the likes, dislikes, and peculiarities of Great Horned Owls.
My Side of the Mountain is a true modern classic by Jean Craighead George. Teenaged Sam flees his overcrowded city life and decides to learn to survive on old family property in the wilderness of the beautiful Catskill Mountains. He wouldn’t be able to survive without the assistance of his Peregreine Falcon, Frightful.
How’s Inky? is the first in the Living Forest series by naturalist and philosopher Sam Campbell. Fun for adults and children alike, this series follows the escapades of the orphaned baby animals Sam cares for in his wilderness sanctuary.
Animals You Will Never Forget is a wonderful collection of excerpts from articles and books by the best animal writers and naturalists of the 20th century. An anthology that is worth tracking down a used copy of for your family library!
When a down-on-his-luck painter receives a mysterious package from an Arctic explorer, life takes an unexpected turn. Mr. Popper’s Penguins have soon taken over the Popper house!
Why a list of books in Latin, you’re wondering? Well, first of all, Latin in the official language of the Catholic Church! Second, Latin is making a comeback with the resurgence and popularity of classical schools, liberal arts colleges, and traditional Latin Masses. Yes, Latin is a dead language, but lots of Catholic (and non-Catholic) kids are learning it these days! If your kids are taking Latin, or you might want them to take Latin someday, here are some fun English classics translated into Latin. Even if your kids aren’t officially taking Latin, the best way to learn a language is by immersion! So dive into one of these fun classics!
For little kids, check out Puer Zingiberi Panis: et Fabulae Alterae, the Gingerbread Boy and other favorite fables such as the Little Red Hen. This book is fun and easy for little kids and beginners since it has very simple text and illustrations to aid in comprehension.
Fairy Tales in Latin: Fabulae Mirabiles is a collection of popular fairy tales such as the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and more. The familiar stories help the beginning Latin student to comprehend the action and increase their vocabulary.
Ferdinandus Taurus, better known as Ferdinand and the Bull, is another great story for beginners to enjoy since it’s such as well-known story. Here you have the original illustrations combined with Latin text!
Winnie Ille Pu in Latin! What could be more fun? (Hint, look down for The Hobbit). But really, what a great tool for immersion Latin! A. A. Milne’s subtle humor makes this children’s classic a favorite even with adults.
Tela Charlottae, better known as Charlotte’s Web, is another children’s classic is perfect for children learning Latin to test out their skills on.
Alicia in Terra Mirabili is yet another favorite children’s classic that has been cleverly translated into classical Latin!
If you’re trying to lure a teenager into spending more time studying Latin, buy them Hobbitus Ille! I bet Tolkien, a philologist, would have enjoyed this Latin translation of his famous work, The Hobbit.
For the really committed classics lover, Insula Thesauraria, better known as Treasure Island, is a great choice.
What is the real magic in fairy tales? Why are they timeless and what do they teach us? Literature professor Mitchell Kalpakgian sets out to answer these questions by analyzing some of the themes repeated throughout classics children’s literature with a particular focus on fairy tales. The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature is a wonderful book for parents to read. This book clarifies so many of the enigmatic themes in children’s stories, empowering you as the parent to point out these themes to your children in stories from Cinderella to Pandora’s Box. It also helps Catholic parents understand the importance of exposing our children to these classic stories as a type of faith formation in shaping their hearts and imaginations.
What is a children’s classic?
Kalpakgian believes that a classic explicates one of the mysteries of life for children (and adults). A great story illuminates the connection between the spiritual and physical. Kalpakgian writes: “Dreams and fairy tales are as useful and necessary as windows which join the outside realm to the inside world, which bring heaven to earth and draw the human world to the divine world.”
The themes in children’s literature can sometimes seem mysterious and contradictory.
For example, what’s the deal with wishes in fairy tales? Why do they sometimes come true, and sometimes don’t? Why are the consequences of wishing in fairy tales sometimes positive, like Cinderella receiving fairy help and a happily ever after, and sometimes negative, like Midas’ daughter turning to metal?
Kalpakgian classifies wishes in stories in four distinct categories: whims, fantasies, temptations, and true wishes. Whims are random, thoughtless wishes. Fantasies are “excessive, uncontrollable desires for gold or power that reflect the sin of pride, the worship of money, and self-delusion.” Temptations in children’s classics are false promises of excitement which entice innocent children to disobey. But true wishes begin in the deepest longings of the heart and reflect desires associated with genuine human happiness such as true love or the blessing of children.
Children’s classics help form an appreciation and desire for the transcendentals.
Kalpagian devotes three chapters to the Mystery of the Good, the Mystery of Truth, and the Mystery of Beauty. The transcendentals- the good, the true, the beautiful, and the one- are attributes of God. Each transcendental is intimately connnected to the others and points us to the others. For example, true beauty draws are heart and mind to truth and goodness. Kalpagian writes, “The mystery of beauty in children’s literature evokes a love and desire for knowledge.” Beauty drawing the beholder to truth and goodness can be seen in many fairy taeles such as Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.
Looking at the connection between the transcendentals from another angle, inability to appreciate beauty correlates with blindness to truth and goodness, as in Anderson’s Swineherd. These chapters on each transcendental and also the inextricable bond between them were the best in the book in my opinion.
To quibble a bit, I found Kalpagian’s chapter on The Mystery of Luck slightly lacking.
Of course, I didn’t agree with every part of this book. To nitpick, I wish Kalpakgian’s treatment of “luck” had a more overtly Christian tone. He treats luck or fortune as a mysterious force that brings gifts to some and ruins others. I found this treatment not so much incorrect as incomplete; as Catholics we believe that all events are part of God’s plan. What agnostics call luck, Catholics call Divine Providence or blessings from God. In The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, Arthur Ransome uses this Christian understanding of luck: “This is a story that shows that God loves simple folk and turns things to their advantage in the end.”
Kalpakgian actually does have a wonderful chapter on Divine Providence in children’s stories. He points out the mysterious yet very real motif of Divine Providence seen in the form of fairy godmothers, guardian angels, and mysterious elves in books. His explanation of Irene’s grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin is really exceptional as an example of Divine Providence as that invisible thread also seen in Chesterton’s Father Brown. But for some reason, Kalpagian doesn’t also see Divine Providence as represented by “luck” in children’s literature.
Classic stories help children develop a strong moral compass.
By reading or listening to classic stories at a tender age, children’s imaginations and hearts are formed to accept simple truths about virtue and life. Goodness, when done out of a generous heart and without desire for reward, is exalted and repaid twofold. The simple folk with no deviousness in their hearts are blessed. True wishes for genuine human goods are granted. Beauty leads to truth, which leads to goodness. Divine providence is a mysterious, but real and powerful force.
Not only are the pure of heart rewarded, the wicked or selfish are punished. Fairy tales and fables teach that ultimately good does triumph over evil. Often good triumphs in this life, but sometimes not until the next. For example, in the original Little Mermaid tale by Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid doesn’t get to marry the prince and dies, but she is lifted up by the sky fairies at death and given the opportunity for immortality, which is the real desire in her heart.
The great writer G. K. Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy that the lesson he retained from fairy tales and stories from his childhood had a profound effect on his eventual conversion. I conclude that as Catholic parents we can not do better than to nourish our children’s minds, hearts, and imaginations with truly worthwhile stories that impart the lessons Kalpagian writes about in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature.
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
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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.