Review of “The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature”


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.”

Kalpakgian draws on a wide range of literature, poetry, fairy tales, and myths to exemplify the unfolding of each mystery for children to understand.  Examples of great stories in The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature range from The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald to Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book to The Wind in the Willows. From A Child’s Garden of Verses to Little Women. And after reading The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, the parent is empowered to recognize noteworthy themes in children’s books beyond those Kalpagian cites.

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.

 

 

Review of “All Creatures Great and Small”


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.

 

9 Reasons to Prioritize Reading even as a Busy Parent

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.

1. Read to stimulate your mind. I know the brain fog that can descend from hour after hour of talking with little kids and doing the mundane housework and reading Goodnight Moon over and over. Reading a good book helps your focus and memory improve. Defy entropy and improve your intellect! Find a subject you are interested in and read a book on it. Does World War II fascinate you? Try reading Victor Frankl’s moving story of incarceration in a death camp in Man’s Search for Meaning. Interested in learning more about finances and psychology? Try Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

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.


7. Read to avoid repeating history. Remember that famous quote attributed to Santayana: “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” There’s certainly truth there, which is why I like to work a little history into my reading stack. If you are a scholarly type who likes a true history book, you may enjoy a tome like The Founding of Christendom. If, like me, you prefer to learn your history indirectly, try historical fiction, like Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

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.

Good Romances for Catholic Teens

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 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.

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.

 

 

 

 


The Drovers Road Collection is a favorite series of mine. It follows Gay from girlhood through falling in love and marriage. Read more about in my Review of “The Drover’s Road Collection”.

 

 

 

 


The Sherwood Ring has time travel, multiple romances, period costumes, and a mystery. What more can a teenage girl ask for?

 

 

 

 

 


The beloved Anne of Green Gables series is perfect for teenage girls, mostly. Read my Review of the “Anne of Green Gables” Series for tips on which books are appropriate for teens and which have some adult content.

 

 

 

 


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.

 

 

 


I may be stretching a bit in including Between the Forest and the Hills on a list of romances, but it does indeed have a romance as one of the many, many strands of its plot. Read my Review of “Between the Forest and the Hills” to learn more about this book.

 

 

 

 


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.]

 


Catholic author Regina Doman has a whole series of fairy tale retellings such as The Shadow of the Bear: A Fairy Tale Retold,
Black as Night: A Fairy Tale Retold, and
Waking Rose: A Fairy Tale Retold. All are fine for teens except her retelling of Rapunzel, which is intended for adults.

[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 Prisoner of Zenda is a classic romance and adventure novel. Read my Review of “The Prisoner of Zenda” for a discussion of this novel which has some awesome themes about love and honor.

 

 

 

 


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a classic story of overcoming prejudices and differences to find love. After reading the book, teenagers can also enjoy the BBC series North and South.

 

 

 

 


Jane Eyre is such an iconic love story, and the happiest of the Bronte girl novels. Of course, Jane must still overcome huge difficulties to find her happily ever after.

[Parental warning: attempted bigamy]

Good Books for Catholic Kids that are also Good Movies

Have you ever promised your kids they can see a movie after they finish a book? Here are some awesome books which are also enjoyable movies appropriate for children ten and up. In fact, most of these movies might be enjoyed by the whole family, so consider reading aloud the book, and then having a family movie night!


Arthur Ransome’s books are some of my favorite read alouds. He combines lively characters and action packed plots with vivid descriptions of life in the English lake country. Coot Club and The Big Six are two of his books which were actually made into movies: Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club and Swallows and Amazons Forever! Coot Club.

 

 

 


Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and its film adaption Misty is the perfect book and movie duo for children who love animals, particularly horses. Marguerite Henry’s poignant story of love and loss on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is equally appreciated by adults.

 

 

 


By the Great Horn Spoon! is Sid Fleischman’s hilarious account of a boy who goes to make his fortune on the gold fields. It has been creatively adapted to movie form with The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, a hilarious comedy for the whole family to watch.

 

 

 


Redwall by Brian Jacques is a modern children’s classic about an animal world full of intrigue and battle, loyalty and betrayal, and the most delectable feasts imaginable. The animated movie based on the book is quite funny: Redwall-The Adventures Begin.

 

 

 

 


If you have a kid who loves graphic novels, try gifting them a copy of The Adventures of Tintin by Herge. The recent movie adaption is good fun for anyone over ten, or even younger if not bothered by mild animated violence: The Adventures of Tintin.

 

 

 


In Search of the Castaways: The Children of Captain Grant is a lesser known work by Jules Verne of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame. I have enjoyed every Jules Verne book I ever read, and this one is no exception. Mary and Robert Grant embark on an epic treasure hunt around the globe to find their shipwrecked father. It was adapted rather successfully into a fun film starring the Mary Poppins children: In Search Of The Castaways. This one is sure to become a family favorite.

 

 


The Swiss Family Robinson is a case where the movie may be better known than the book. The Swiss Family Robinson movie is a classic family film, and the book has even more interesting details about how the Robinson family survived on the island.

 

 

 

 


The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the most popular of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. This magical children’s book has been made into The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, which closely follows the book’s plot. (Note that I did not think the subsequent films in this series to stick close enough to their respective novels to be considered good adaptations.)

 

 

 


There are several film adaptations of A Little Princess, but my favorite is this version of A Little Princess, since I felt the film really captured the magic of Sarah’s imagination.

 

 

 

 


L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz still offers children an escape into a magical world, but also the message that “there’s no place like home.” The old Judy Garland film is still magical too: The Wizard of Oz.

 

 

 

 


I think the old version of the Anne of Green Gables Trilogy was well done, and captured the spirit of Anne well. And as you may know from my post about the Anne of Green Gables Series, I thoroughly approve of the books by L. M. Montgomery. I recommend reading and watching these for over twelves.

 

Have a favorite family movie that is also a great book? I’d love to hear about it in the comments! Have older kids? Check out my list: Good books for Catholic Teenagers to Adults that are also Good Movies.

Review of “The Penderwicks”


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, published in 2005, rapidly established itself as a modern children’s classics, garnering awards, rave reviews, and immediate bestseller status. Though published so recently, its plot and style is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright or E. Nesbit’s books. The focus on simple outdoor fun, lack of electronics, and four creative, intelligent sisters seem to belong to a different era than the twenty-first century. However, there are a few elements in the book which do give away its more modern origin, and these happen to be the same elements which the Catholic parent will want to know about before offering the book to their children.

PROBLEMATIC ELEMENTS

The most concerning component of the story is the message about lying. The two middle sisters agree to lie to their father and older sister about nearly letting the littlest Penderwick get gored by a bull. They repeatedly lie about this episode, maintaining that their little sister was caught in a rose bush. I was really hoping that eventually the plot would show the girls learning some sort of lesson about lying, but alas, no. The message about lying here is certainly that one can lie with impunity and no guilty conscience.

Another detail I disliked was a subplot about Rosalind, the oldest Penderwick at 12, having a huge crush on Cagney, the 19 year old gardener. I found this both ridiculous and inappropriate, but fortunately the author did intend a positive message here, as Rosalind discovers she is being foolish: “I’m an idiot, [Rosalind] thought. I’m only twelve years old -well, twelve and a half,- and Cagney’s much too grown-up to be my boyfriend.”

This leads into another negative aspect of the book: the name-calling. Skye, the 11 year old, has a hot temper and is the worst culprit, saying things like: “Darn that Dexter. Double darn that lousy rotten no-good creep.” She also calls her littlest sister a stupid idiot and midget. However, there is character development about her learning she needs self control: “She sat up and swung her arms around wildly. This controlling her temper wasn’t going to be easy.” The 10 year old, Jane, calls names such as “fish head” and “silly git” playfully while practicing soccer. This is portrayed as meant merely in fun.

The final element parents might want to know about is a vampire reference which I found quite needless and out of sync with the feel of the rest of the book. At one point the four year old, Batty, is described as “playing vampires with Hound.” She “leap[s] over Hound’s water bowl, shrieking, ‘Blood, blood!'”

POSITIVE MESSAGES

On the positive side of the scale, by and large the book contains positive messages about being courageous, pursuing your dreams, loyalty to family and friends, kindness, and forgiveness. The four sisters each have a unique, strong personality to which tween girls will easily relate. Rosalind is kind and responsible. Skye is independent, hot tempered, and smart. Jane is a creative, aspiring writer. Batty is a dreamy animal lover.

I appreciated all the positive interactions between Mr. Penderwick, a widower, and his four daughters. Although a tad absent minded, Mr. Penderwick is a refreshingly loving, affirming father figure who is always willing to listen. He also notices and empathizes whenever a daughter is upset and encourages each daughter to develop her particular talents.

Mr. Penderwick is a foil to the neighbor boy Jeffrey’s overbearing mother who tries to force him into military school when he really wishes to be a musician. I thought this part of the plot was handled exceptionally well. The Penderwicks encourage Jeffrey to be honest with his mother, and have the courage to tell her that he wants to attend a Music Conservatory instead. Jeffrey and his mother are able to come to a compromise thanks to the Penderwicks’ advice.

TAKEAWAY

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would probably allow my tweens to read it, then discuss the problematic elements.  If your children are well versed in children’s classics like Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, and Narnia, they will particularly enjoy the literary references Birdsall sprinkles throughout the pages of her books. If they haven’t yet read these classics, maybe The Penderwicks will inspire them to try them!

Review of “The Princess Bride”


Growing up, I watched The Princess Bride at least a dozen times and knew half the lines by heart. It really is a hilarious movie, so I was excited all these years later to read the book that inspired it: The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman. Because the book is always better than the movie, right?

If you haven’t seen the movie, it is in essence a spoof on fairy tale adventures. Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, is being forced to marry a wicked prince. But she is rescued by her her lover Wesley, a Sicilian bent on revenge, and a giant. There are swashbuckling sword fights, miraculous rescues, wicked villains who are satisfactorily punished, and a hilarious commentary from the narrator. The book also has these elements. In fact, the movie contains all the best parts of the book and leaves out the muck.

And there is so much muck in this book. Before you get to the adventure proper, you must wade through 32 pages of Goldman describing, first, making a pass at a bikini-clad Hollywood starlet (note that Goldman is married). Second, lying repeatedly to his wife. Third, complaining about how his wife doesn’t understand him. Fourth, describing how he knows all the above is wrong, but doing it anyway.

By the end of these 32 pages I was so angry I almost destroyed the library book. After cooling down, I continued to the story proper. The book version of The Princess Bride opens with an account of the most beautiful woman in the world, a maid who is having an adulterous affair with a duke. The duke’s shrewish wife ruins the maid’s beauty by plying her with chocolates. I’m not a psychologist, but by this point I was convinced that Goldman had a very dysfunctional marriage. I later found out that he and his wife, who was actually a psychologist, divorced after the book was published.

It’s rather sad, really, to realize how Goldman views marriage. There isn’t a happy relationship in the book. Buttercup’s parents are described as having an unhappy marriage: “All they ever dreamed of was leaving each other.” Buttercup and Wesley do not even have a particularly inspiring relationship. Buttercup is rude, slovenly, and quite dull-witted when Wesley falls in love with her. Basically, he loves her because she’s beautiful. And once he rescues her, they soon fall to bickering and belittling one another.

Now there is still some decent comedy in the story. As I said, the movie combines all the best parts of the book with a wise cutting out of the love-doesn’t-exist theme. But a little comedy does not make this book worthwhile reading, so do not waste your time or give it to your teenagers. While disappointing, I will give The Princess Bride credit for being life changing for me in one way. I am never again going to be able to say “the book is always better than the movie.”

Review of the “Anne of Green Gables” Series

Reading at least Anne of Green Gables, if not the entire Anne series, is basically a rite of passage for young girls in America and Canada. L. M. Montgomery’s classic series is so beautifully written and her vivid characters, particularly Anne herself, are so memorable, these books deserve to be read and re-read over the years. There is a certain sense of the transcendent and sacramental in the Anne books which is wonderful to imbue in a girl’s imagination. So the question for a Catholic parent is not “if” to give your daughter a copy of the Anne books but “when” is the most appropriate age. Too early and they may be cast away unappreciated. Too late and the first at least may be discarded as too childish. My aim in this review is to introduce you very briefly to each of the eight books about Anne and explain the most appropriate age for each to be read by your daughter.

In Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery’s most famous work, the reader is introduced to Anne with an E, the irrepressible red-headed orphan whose pluck and cheerfulness earn her the love of an entire village. This first book begins with Anne coming to Green Gables at age 11, and follows her up until about age 16. There are so many wonderful themes in this book about both self-improvement and self-acceptance, loyalty and forgiveness, hard work and true happiness. Add to this gentle humor and Montgomery’s beautiful prose, and you have one of my very favorite books. Of course every girl will be different, but I think around age 12 is the perfect age for first encountering Anne.

Anne of Avonlea recounts Anne’s adventures from ages 16-18. This book is a touching coming of age story as Anne sacrifices some of her own dreams to support her family at Green Gables. I really appreciated how Montgomery portrayed Anne as mostly disinterested in boys and dutifully accepting Marilla’s opinion that 16-18 is too young for courting. This second volume of the Anne series is also appropriate for 12 and olders.

In Anne of the Island, Anne heads off to Redmond College with several of her friends from Avonlea. I found this one to be among the most amusing of the series, humorously recounting Anne’s college escapades, early attempts at getting stories published, and horrifically memorable marriage proposals. I consider the story line about college life more appropriate for 14 and up, but there is no material that would be objectionable for a 12 year old to read.

Anne of Windy Poplars  is a collection of the letters Anne wrote to Gilbert during the three years of their engagement and separation while he attended medical school and she worked as a Principal at Summerside High School. This book is particularly delightful since Anne herself narrates her experiences far from Avonlea. With careful propriety, Montgomery “omits” those paragraphs where Anne’s pen is not too scratchy for her to write of her love for Gilbert, so these letters read as very PG, though I would personally save them for 14 and older again since I think they will be more appreciated at that age.

Starting with the fifth book, Anne’s House of Dreams, and continuing with Anne of Ingleside, the Anne books take a decided turn towards more adult conflicts and themes. While they are still tame compared to the sordidness spewed forth in many modern novels, these books simply present a realistic picture of adult life with believable concerns, cares and crosses. Anne and Gilbert suffer through the death of their first child. Anne helps a friend stay true to her difficult husband despite loving another man. The Blythes navigate their first disagreements. Anne even begins to doubt that Gilbert still loves her and worries about an old flame of his who is attempting to ensnare him. Stories along these lines were meant for a more mature audience, and I would definitely not recommend them before age 16.

In Rainbow Valley, Montgomery returns to her style in the very first Anne book, recounting the adventures of the six Blythe children and their young neighbors, the four Merediths. These stories are innocent and fun, all about helping the Merediths find the perfect stepmother and taking care of a young runaway girl named Mary Vance. Girls 12 and older will enjoy them.

Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne series. Rilla is Anne’s youngest daughter, a slightly spoiled but still sweet fifteen year old who comes of age during the different years of World War I. The book focuses on the effects of the War on the tiny village of St. Mary’s Mead, and the Blythe family particularly. Rilla’s story of a rather selfish young girl learning true courage and selflessness in a chaotic world is quite inspiring, and a great book for girls 14 and older.

One fun way to present the Anne books would be to give one book each year as a traditional birthday gift starting at about age 12. In this case, I would recommend giving the first four books in order, then skipping to give books 7 and 8, then ending with books 5 and 6 since they have the most mature themes. You could even continue the tradition by gifting further Montgomery books about the Blythes such as Chronicles of Avonlea and The Road to Yesterday. I hope your daughters come to love Anne and the village of Avonlea as much as I do.

Review of “Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy”


I recently had the delectation of inhaling Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden. I really could not put this book down after the first chapter. Although Godden’s style is discursive, almost rambling, this book gripped me from the start. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy  switches back and forth between a peaceful, pastoral description of convent life and the dramatic, vicious ambiance of a Paris brothel. I hazard a guess that Godden intentionally chose these incongruous settings, for Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy  is in essence a book of contrasts: the depths of evil versus the height of heroic virtue, the healing power of love versus the destructive force of hate, freedom versus bondage.

This is the story of Lise, known by many names: Elizabeth Fanshawe, a middle-class English orphan; Lise Ambard, the prostitute; La Balafree, the youngest brothel manager in Paris; and Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire. This is Lise’s story of conversion and redemption, but also the story of the many people whose lives she touches in her journey, their lives intertwined to form a chain, not unlike a rosary. Lise, a recipient of God’s mercy, becomes an instrument of God’s mercy to so many others.

There are so many wonderful themes woven into Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy . Forgiveness, for one. Lise is a modern Magdalen figure, one who sinned so greatly yet grasped at the promise of God’s mercy with childlike trust. As I read, a line from the Our Father echoed over and over in my memory: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Lise, although a sinner, has been sinned against even more grievously. Yet she is a perfect exemplification of the Our Father forgiveness, not only pardoning but loving those who have most deeply wronged her.

Another theme is freedom. Modern wisdom might maintain Lise was most free as a young girl in Paris, choosing to flaunt tradition and move in with her lover. Yet following her own desires brings her no lasting happiness or satisfaction. Then she begins to find true freedom in a prison, where she meets the Sisters of Bethaine and hears a call to true freedom. And in the convent, where her life is regulated and regimented, and she voluntarily gives her life to God, she finds the greatest freedom: contemplation of God.

Rumer Godden tastefully handled the adult content which is an unavoidable part of the plot of this story, but Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is still not for the naive or easily scandalized. If you are considering letting your teenager read this, be aware that there are descriptions of brothel life, implied fornication and adultery, characters who are prostitutes or former prostitutes, incest, child molestation, and more. This book reveals the darkness and evil in mankind, which makes the light of God’s mercy shine brighter. Lise’s redemption would not be as convicting if she had not been so great a sinner. This is a truly inspiring book well worth taking the time to procure and peruse.

Review of “A Wrinkle in Time”

Many book lovers have a soft spot for Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time based on fond childhood memories. Though perhaps not on par with The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of popularity, A Wrinkle in Time has quite a fan following. I am in the unusual position of a bibliophile who did not read A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I believe my late, adult introduction to A Wrinkle in Time gives me a certain advantage in writing an unprejudiced review since my clarity of analysis is not obscured by any warm emotional attachment rooted in a childhood identification with Meg.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
My first impression upon finishing A Wrinkle in Time was a certain vague disappointment. After all the hype I had heard about Christian themes, gripping plot, and memorable characters, I was hoping for so much more than I found. Upon reflection, I decided my dissatisfaction might in a small measure be rooted in the fact that I was not the twelve year old audience at which the book is aimed. But more fundamentally, I think I was disappointed because I grew up reading and re-reading Fantasy and Sci Fi such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ The Space Trilogy , and Children of the Last Days. And L’Engle’s skill as a writer, depth of thought as a philosopher, and moral imagination is not remotely on par with the likes of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Michael O’Brien.

BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
I do truly appreciate that L’Engle tries to clearly define the conflict as a cosmic battle between good and evil. In this aspect, I believe A Wrinkle in Time was intended to be reminiscent of Lewis and Tolkien. The evil fog and IT are supposed to be evil, while the Mrs W’s and humans from earth are combating in the name of good and love. However, though L’Engle had good intentions, I believe her portrayal of good is flawed in several essential areas.

JESUS: ANOTHER GOOD MAN
Madeleine L’Engle was an Episcopalian, and her book reflects a watered down Protestant version of Christianity. Biblical references are strewn generously throughout A Wrinkle in Time, although Meg and the other characters are not overtly identified as Christian. There is on the one hand an acceptance that certain Christian themes, such as free will, and Bible passages contain wisdom and even a certain inherent beauty, truth, and power. Yet on the other hand Jesus is placed on par with other artists and spiritual leaders like Michelangelo and Gandhi. If you say Jesus is just another good teacher, you discredit the Bible message, reducing it to just another good book. In this sense, A Wrinkle in Time is a decidedly poor witness to Christianity.

Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Witchcraft
I don’t by any stretch accuse L’Engle of nefarious intentions, but another reason I would hesitate to hand my tween a copy of this book is her comparatively lighthearted take on the occult. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which are described as guardian angels and messengers from God. Yet these angels  “play” at being witches. Calvin calls the witch symbolism of broomsticks, cauldron, haunted house, old crones, “their game.” Since Catholic popes, priests, and theologians have repeatedly cautioned again any “games” dealing with occult objects, I find the concept of playing at witchery disturbing. I immediately thought of the passage in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters in which Screwtape says one of the best ways to allow power to a devil is to deny its existence.

WHOSE LOVE?
One final detail in the plot that I found particularly troublesome is that when the climax comes, Meg finds she must rely on herself. Her love is most powerful.  A common theme in Catholic literature is a person realizing that they are nothing before God, but with God they are everything. Perhaps one could try to make a case that Meg’s love for her brother must come from God, and so bring God into the victory. But your average ten or twelve year old is not going to leap to this interpretation, which is a stretch even for me. L’Engle is pretty clear that Meg herself sees it coming down to just her love alone.

LEWIS DID IT BETTER
I kept having this reaction while reading A Wrinkle In Time: “Lewis already used this idea, and he did a better job.” To be clear, I am not accusing L’Engle of plagiarizing. But for a devotee of C. S. Lewis, details such as the disembodied brain controlling people and scientists being taken to another planet by celestial guardian angel figures will inevitably lead to comparisons. And in my opinion, A Wrinkle In Time just can’t begin to compete with The Chronicles of Narnia, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Add to that the fact that I find L’Engle to lack an authentically Christian voice, and my advice is to skip A Wrinkle In Time, or at least be sure to have a discussion with your children about it before handing it over. And also make sure they read some C. S. Lewis.