Would you become a Christian if it meant certain persecution?
The Sword and Serpent Trilogy is an exciting series which weaves together legends of many early Christian saints and martyrs into a fascinating narrative. Dr. Taylor Marshall, a Catholic Theologian and Philosopher, draws on what we know of the lives of iconic saints such as St. George, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Nicholas, and St. Christopher. Get to know these fourth century saints in a personal and inspiring way through these notable new novels.
“Saints aren’t born. They are forged.”
In his creative retellings, Dr. Marshall seeks to convey the humanity of great saints to the reader. By showing the journey of growth and conversion which saints like St. George and St. Christopher might have taken, Dr. Marshall makes these saints accessible and relatable to readers in a new way.
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In the first book, Sword and Serpent, Jurian (St. George) loses his home and family because of Christian persecution. Jurian’s coming of age and maturity parallels his journey in faith as he moves past anger and revenge to follow God’s gentle guidance. Along the way Jurian encounters and is helped by courageous saints like St. Nicholas, St. Blaise, and St. Christopher. The dragon Jurian meets is not quite quite the dragon you might be expecting. And he slays the dragon, but not by himself.
In the second book, The Tenth Region of the Night, female saints get more page space. St. Catherine of Alexandria, Aikaterina, jumps off the page with her prodigious intellect and insatiable thirst for truth which leads her to the One Truth eventually. Intermingled with Aikaterina’s story, Jurian’s journey continues as he works to free St. Christopher from his persecutors.
In the third book, Storm of Fire and Blood, Jurian travels into exile in the wilds of Britain, bearing the sword Excalibur back to its homeland. Meanwhile, Aikaterina rules Alexandria for her ailing father and debates with Emperors. All the Christians prepare themselves for the coming storm of Diocletian persecution.
Some Fine Storytelling
Quite independent of the religious merit, the Sword and Serpent trilogy is worth reading as a well-crafted story. The attention to historical detail is meticulous. The balance of humanizing the saints without diminishing their holiness is superbly executed. There’s a fascinating subplot about the sword Excalibur and Arthurian legends. There’s another intriguing storyline about the influence early Christian saints may have had on a young Constantine. A bit of myth, a bit of legend, a bit of historical fact combine to make a captivating and inspiring series.
Wisdom from the Past
The Sword and Serpent books superbly portray the first centuries of the Church when to be Christian was to accept persecution and eventual martyrdom. The courage and faith of these early saints during the Diocletian persecution offers an inspiration and a challenge to us all. In our post-Christian world, our children need books like these to remind them of where we came from and what heroic virtue we as Christians are capable of achieving.
Enjoyable For Teens and Adults
The Sword and Serpent series is completely clean and appropriate for teens. There is no foul language. Alcohol use is somewhat frequent, in keeping with the historical time period when beer or watered wine was commonly drank by all people with meals. No glorification of drunkenness though.
Given the backdrop of Christian persecution in the fourth century, there is some level of moderate violence. For example, some Christians are burned to death; others are fed to wild beasts. However, there are no gratuitously graphic descriptions of these acts of violence.
I wholeheartedly recommend this fine series for all teenagers and also for adults! The Sword and Serpent series is a perfect impetus to renew our sense of faith and hope and rediscover the power of the Gospel message.
Looking for more great books for Catholic teens? Check out my book lists!
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is an exciting, character-forming book about friendships, overcoming hardships, and true happiness. A Newberry Honor book in 2006, this popular fantasy series aimed at tween and teen girls seemed too good to be true. But Princess Academy completely surprised me-in a good way!
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A Fantasy World
Fourteen year old Miri lives on Mount Eskel, the linder stone quarry of Danland. Utterly uneducated, her life consists of struggling alongside her poverty-stricken family for basic survival. But one day life on Mount Eskel changes forever. The next Princess of Danland will be selected from among the 20 girls on Mount Eskel. A Princess Academy opens to provide them with education and ideas that change their mindsets and way of life forever.
The Power of Education
So obviously, the power of education, especially reading books, is a huge theme in Princess Academy. Miri learns something from each course she takes: etiquette, poise, history, diplomacy, economics, and, of course, reading. Over the course of the book, Hale cleverly shows how Miri needs the lessons she learned at the Academy to conquer various challenges. Notably, Miri learns from her economic lessons that her town on Mount Eskel is being systematically underpaid for their stone by the traders. Then she uses her diplomacy lessons to advocate for her town with the traders to come to a better arrangement.
Friendship & Forgiveness
The lessons in diplomacy also help Miri work past the initial ostracism she experiences from her fellow classmates. With the help of a little diplomacy, and thanks to her cheerfulness and resourcefulness, she begins to forge real friendships. There’s a great theme running through the book about forgiving wrongs, not harboring anger, and second chances.
Another great theme in Princess Academy is that being virtuous is more important than money, power, or winning. The other girls learn to admire and accept Miri due to her positive character traits: her kindness, cheerfulness, helpfulness, and courage. When Miri focuses on winning the title of Academy Princess, she feels restless and unsure. When she focuses on her own self-improvement and helping her friends, she finds peace and clarity.
A True Twist in the Tale
Just from the title, Princess Academy, you think you know how this book is going to end. Surely Miri will end up graduating top of the academy and being chosen by the Prince and living happily ever after. But in a masterful twist that really elevates this book to classic status, author Hale has Miri instead choose to help all her friends graduate, help her best friend be chosen as the Princess, and find happiness in improving life for her family and tiny community.
A Great Fantasy Series for Young Girls
Princess Academy and its two sequels, Palace of Stone and The Forgotten Sisters, are great book options for girls who love fantasy. The messages about the importance of family, friendships, and virtue-growth are powerfully conveyed by the story itself. The writing is solid, and the song snippets “from” Mount Eskel which begin each chapter add some needed depth.
Looking for more fantasy titles? More books for girls? Check out my other lists:
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Teens and Romances
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What type of romance should teens be reading?
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
Themes in true romances
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
This list would be incomplete without some Louisa May Alcott! Though Little Women focuses mostly on sister-relationships, other Alcott books like Rose in Bloom and An Old-fashioned Girl are about finding love, sometimes in unexpected places. Rose and Polly learn to remain true to their beliefs and wait for a man wiht a pure heart.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting historical fiction novel about a fiery teenage girl who becomes deeply involved in palace intrigues, caught between two rivals for the Egyptian throne. Oh, and of course there is romance too. I love how this story shows Mara’s growth from utter selfishness to understanding the sacrificial nature of love.
Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is another book that fits many genres. I call it a romance for two reasons. First, because it teaches the reader that everyday life is romantic. Second, because a third of the book is about two characters falling in love and fighting in court to be allowed to marry.
Here are some novels with romantic plots I recommend for teens over 14.
Funny and memorable, My Heart Lies South is a true story about a young American journalist who falls in love on a trip to Mexico and ends up staying. Readers will love this amusing love story that also touches on the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture and family.
Do not assume all of Gene Stratton-Porter is appropriate for teens, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is really a charming story told by Laddie’s Little Sister, who explores themes about family, nature, redemption, and forgiveness. She also recounts how Laddie fell in love with and won the heart of a Princess.
Freckles is another great book by Gene Stratton-Porter. Similar to Laddie in many ways, a simple lad must win the heart of a high-born girl. A charming romance, and a great story of personal growth and overcoming disability.
The Robe is the story of one man’s quest for love and truth. He finds it in Christ. But he does also find love with a special young woman, which teen readers will enjoy.
The James Herriot Books are the funny and endearing stories of everyday life as a country veterinarian. James Herriot weaves his story of wooing and winning his wife into his animal anecdotes.
[Parental warning: mild language]
Everyone knows that teenage girls should read Pride and Prejudice, but don’t stop there. Read The Jane Austen Collection for more classic stories about finding love, with a side of social commentary and comedy.
[Parental warning: mentions of out of wedlock relationships, illegitimate children, mistresses]
The Virginian is a classic western full of cowboys, shoot-outs, and true love. With his quiet humor and gentle nature, the reader is rooting for the Virginian to win the lady.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as I mentioned above, a stellar example of how true love is sacrificial. No-good Sydney Carton never does get the girl, but his pure love for her ends up being his redemption.
P. G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he also wrote some hilarious romantic comedies such as the Adventures of Sally. Many of his Blandings Castle novels also include a strong romantic plot, such as in Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a love story, which is kept carefully PG. Strong female heroines abound in these novels. [Parental warning: one of the girls is wilder and does break some of the rules, occasionally is described as dressing in a more risque fashion, etc. There is also mention of someone keeping a mistress, which is portrayed negatively.]
[Parental warnings: one scene of attempted date rape in the very first book]
Older teens (16+) will enjoy these more difficult novels.
A classic mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is driven by a romantic interest. The protagonist and narrator must solve the mystery of who the woman in white is in order to gain a happily ever after with his wife.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga consists of four volumes: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, and The Warden and the Wolf King. I recently enjoyed reading all four books for the first time, and was quickly captivated by Peterson’s realistic characters and the fascinating world of Aerwiar. The Wingfeather Saga is the story of a family: the former royal family of Anniera, now in hiding from the great evil one, Gnag the Nameless. Each of the three children- Janner, Kalmer, and Leeli- has a special gift and role to play in saving their world from the great evil. Children and teens who love fantasy will certainly enjoy these novels with a subtle yet decidedly Christian world view.
In the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Wingfeather Saga is not overtly pushing a Christian agenda, yet details throughout reflect the author’s Christian worldview. “The Maker” is referenced repeatedly throughout the series as the creator of the world of Aerwiar. In times of need, the children call on the Maker for aid, and sometimes receive it. There are many references to all things ultimately being in the Maker’s hands. There is even a major theme throughout of the Maker bringing good out of evil:
“Gnag bends things for breaking, and the Maker makes a flourish! Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well! That is his way.”
There are also many parallels to the Biblical story of Creation in the history of Aerwiar: a first couple created by the Maker, evil entering the world through misuse of free will, and so on.
SELF-SACRIFICE AND REDEMPTION
In line with the Christian worldview, major themes in The Wingfeather Saga are self-sacrifice and redemption. Janner is repeatedly placed in situations where he must choose between self-preservation and protecting his siblings. At first he resents this duty to sacrifice himself, but by the end of the series recognizes his selfishness and embraces the Biblical ideal of laying down one’s life for one’s brother.
There are several characters who undergo redemption of various sorts. For example, Kalmar is “fanged” (changed into an animal) when in a time of weakness he loses hope and succumbs to the desire for power. With Janner’s help, Kalmar repents of his sin and regains humanity in the end. Another notable redemption is of the villain in the series, Gnag the Nameless. Peterson accomplishes the difficult feat of portraying Gnag as utterly evil, yet by a strange concatenation of circumstances redeeming him in the last seconds of his life.
Another wonderful aspect of The Wingfeather Saga is its positive portrayal of family love and loyalty. The three siblings overcome jealousies and resentments to forge a close bond. The relationship between the brothers, Janner and Kalmar, is particularly noteworthy for its loyalty and sacrificial aspect. Their mother, Nia, is truly awesome: loving, supportive, protective, always willing the good for them. Their father, Esben, is believed to be dead, but eventually comes into the story and (here’s the self-sacrifice theme again) gives his life to save his children’s.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Music as healing, music as an art form, music as a weapon. Music comes into the book over and over as a powerful force for good. Leeli is a skilled whisle-harpist, and her music saves lives, tames animals, and can carry messages. The pure of heart are roused to courage and imbued with energy when they hear her music. The evil cringe and cover their ears at the beauty of her music.
One of the trickiest parts of finding good fantasy novels is evaluating the “magic” factor. What does the author mean by magic? Does he equivocate about whether magic is good or evil? Does he encourage children to dabble in magic?
I found that Peterson had a unique approach to the magic question. In The Wingfeather Saga, there are no spells, potions, or witches’ hats. Instead, Peterson uses the term “magic” to be more synonymous with “mystery.” Nia explains the magic of Leeli’s music to her children:
“What’s magic, anyway? If you asked a kitten, ‘How does a bumblebee fly?’ the answer would probably be ‘Magic.” Aerwiar is full of wonders, and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker- it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. … The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when He knit the world.”
Portraying magic as synonymous with a mystery may be slightly confusing for younger readers, so I would discuss how Peterson portrays magic with my children when they read this book.
I ascribe to Michael O’Brien’s views on dragons (see my post Concerning Dragons), so I approached a series which I knew contained dragons with major misgivings. I found Peterson’s views on dragons slightly nebulous. He doesn’t try to make them good, portraying them as having done many dark deeds such as sinking the mountains and destroying the countryside. The primary dragon character, Yurgen, is vengeful, destructive, and lusts for power. But Peterson also doesn’t consider all dragons as inherently evil. Upon hearing Leeli’s music, a few dragons are even moved to contrition for their past evil deeds and end up helping in a final battle for Aerwiar.
Overall, the dragons come into the story fairly infrequently and are not major characters. The question is whether the “redemption” of a few dragons is a form of demythologizing? Does it contradict the centuries of western tradition which use the dragon as a symbol for evil? I think Peterson does unintentionally contradict tradition here a bit. But given how overwhelmingly Christian and wholesome these books are as a whole, this is another time where I would discuss the dragon question with my children when they read the books.
WHO SHOULD READ IT?
Overall, The Wingfeather Saga is refreshingly clean from any sexual content, adult humor, and language. There are, however, loads of violent battles. Note that the descriptions of the battles are not graphic like in “The Maze Runner” or “The Hunger Games”. But still, you have Janner and Kalmar killing many fangs in self-defense. A couple beloved characters such as Leeli’s dog and grandfather also die. Given the violence and the need for a nuanced discussion about magic and dragons, I would recommend this book for those over 12.
If you enjoyed my last list of Good Books for Catholic Kids that are also Good Movies, here is a companion list for older teens, young adults, and parents too! How much fun would it be to have a book club that read one of these books, discussed it, and then watched the movie together?
To begin with the obvious, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is such a masterpiece of fantasy and literature that if your teenager has not read it yet, they most certainly should! And the Lord of the Rings movies are a splendid adaptation, mostly because they tried to stick to the book as closely as possible even if that resulted in a 10 hour plus movie.
Another amazingly successful adaptation is Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s TV series Jeeves & Wooster. I am a die-hard fan of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster books, which are each comedic masterpieces. But I happily admit that Fry and Laurie so capture the dynamics of Wodehouse’s hilarious duo that it is difficult to choose whether to read or watch in this case!
Yet another brilliant adaptation: the BBC version of Jane Austen’s book Pride and Prejudice. The book is a classic of wit and wisdom, humor and human nature. And it is hard to imagine a better adaptation than the Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
While talking about Jane Austen, another enjoyable adaptation is the Sense and Sensibility movie starring Emma Thompson. The book Sense and Sensibility is a less mature Austen work stylistically than Pride and Prejudice, but still a worthwhile novel about two impoverished sisters with very different personalities.
For animal lovers, James Herriot’s humorous and touching memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small will be a true joy to read. These were my very favorite books as a teenager, and I still enjoy re-reading them as an adult. These books were made into six seasons of an enjoyable TV series: All Creatures Great & Small. Parental advisory: books and shows contain some colorful Yorkshire cursing at times.
North to Freedom is a powerful book by Ann Holmes about a boy who grows up in a Nazi concentration camp and finally escapes. His wide-eyed wonder at the world outside the camp, and journey to find his family, is sure to bring tears and smiles. The awesome movie adaptation is as least as good as the book and is called I Am David. This is a fun one to watch with both mature tweens and teens.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is the classic story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who grow up during the Civil War. There are many movie adaptations, but I like the old Little Women with Katherine Hepburn as Jo best. Another fun one for all teenagers.
Gone with the Wind is a unusual book movie duo in that the movie is actually appropriate for a younger audience than the book. The book Gone with the Wind is a magnificent, sweeping account of the Civil War and its impact on Southerners, seen through the lens of the memorable and irrepressible Scarlett O’Hara. Although a must-read for adults, parents should be advised that the book contains content dealing with subjects like adultery, fornication, and prostitution. I would recommend it for older teens, who will also love the movie Gone with the Wind. Starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh, the movie is great in its own right, though there is no way to really adequately condense the 800+ pages of the book to a two hour film.
Who doesn’t love The Sound of Music? This beloved film was inspired by the real life Trapp Family. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the real Maria Augusta Trapp’s version of the family’s story, is charming and inspiring and even better than the movie! (Appropriate for fourteen and up.)
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh is a Catholic classic. Best understood and enjoyed by older teens, this is a story of great sin and redemption, a war torn world, a family destroyed, and an unexpected conversion. An acclaimed TV series was produced based on the book: Brideshead Revisited . The movie is best for college aged and older, mostly due to one unfortunate scene involving adultery.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most popular and easily read of Charles Dicken’s numerous works. Historical fiction about the French Revolution, it is a touching story of love and sacrifice juxtaposed with the horror of the guillotine. The 1935 movie A Tale of Two Cities is a good adaptation if you enjoy older movies.
I’ve done a review for you on why I think The Hunger Games is acceptable reading for older Catholic teens. If you agree, your older teens will be thrilled to also watch The Hunger Games movie. Yes, it is violent, and I would recommend this book and movie for high schoolers and older, not younger teens.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is a wonderful novel about revenge and redemption. The movie The Count Of Monte Cristo is entertaining, but does fail to capture one of the major themes of the book: that revenge is not the right answer. I would recommend watching it for discussion purposes to see how differently Dumas and the movie producers viewed happiness and revenge. There is one scene of implied fornication (easily skipped) that makes this more appropriate for older teens.
Recently, Christie’s book Crooked House was adapted into a creepy, captivating movie: Crooked House. Her book Ordeal by Innocence was also adapted into a multi-episode Amazon Prime series of the same name. These two films deal with more chilling evil and some adult content which make them more appropriate for viewers over 18.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Ocrzy has always been one of my favorite novels. This fascinating historical fiction novel captures the terror of the French Revolution and also has one of the most memorable love stories in literature. The old black and white adaptation, Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon has wonderful acting and is my favorite, despite the the blurry film quality common in early black and whites. The Scarlet Pimpernel made more recently in 1982 with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour is also excellent, though parents need to beware of one scene, fairly easily skipped.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel by Kathleen Baldwin is a fast-paced alternative historical fiction novel that offers the reader a captivating blend of adventure, romance, and mystery. This first installment in the Stranje House novels is told by Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam, a young lady of noble birth and many talents. Unfortunately for her, being a brilliant mathematician with a scientist’s curiosity is not an asset to a young lady in 1814. Exiled to Stranje House by her exasperated parents, Georgiana finds herself swept up in a world rife with mystery, romance, and most importantly opportunities for a girl with unusual abilities.
In contrast to many teen novels I read (like my recent experience with “The Selection”), I actually enjoyed Kathleen Baldwin’s writing style and plot. She writes a swift moving story without sacrificing descriptive language and character development. One of the parts I most appreciated was that while Georgiana was clearly the heroine of this book, the other girls at the school also receive character development and seem to be fascinating people too. This harmonizes with one of the major themes in A School for Unusual Girls: acceptance, both of your own gifts and those of others. Each of the girls at the school is highly gifted in their own unique way, but has been rejected by society for not fitting the accepted mold for young ladies. At first Georgiana envies her schoolmates their beauty or talent in other areas, but in the end comes to peace with accepting the gifts she has been given and appreciating what her friends have without jealousy.
The main problem in A School for Unusual Girls is a typical one in secular teen novels: God and religion are left completely out of the world of Stranje House. Personally, I do not see this as a reason to utterly discount a well-written book, as long as your teenagers are noticing the void. In the area of sex, parents need to know that the “romance” in this novel borders on sensual at times, with some passionate kisses. There is also a point in the plot where one of the girls dresses seductively to distract some soldiers. For these latter reasons, I would suggest parents use their judgment in determining the appropriate age for their teens to read this. I would not this book recommend for a girl younger than fourteen.
THE BOTTOM LINE A School for Unusual Girls may not be great literature on par with Leave It to Psmith, but it a thoroughly enjoyable novel with some encouraging themes for teenage girls. I do not see boys enjoying this book at all, but it will resonate with teenage girls who may not quite fit in easily for some reason, whether that be introversion, unusual interests, high intelligence, or something else entirely. I hope this book will encourage girls to explore and develop their individual, God-given gifts.
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These book recommendations are intended for high schoolers of all ages, but should contain nothing inappropriate for those high schoolers on the younger side. I have divided the books into three rough categories: literary classics, Catholic fiction, and just for fun. Concentrating on reading the great classics at an early age gives your teenager a solid foundation in and appreciation of the literary riches of western civilization. The books under Catholic fiction range from saint biographies to apologetics disguised as fiction. The books under “for fun” are exactly for that purpose!
Every girl needs to read Jane Austen! Pride and Prejudice and Emma offer an education in the weaknesses and follies of human nature, but also a tribute to people’s ability to change and grow. All of Austen’s books belong on a teenage girl’s bookshelf!
Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton is best known for his non-fiction such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, but he is also the author of many fanciful, delightful fictional works. The Complete Father Brown Stories, short mystery stories starring a humble Catholic priest, is a great introduction to the genius of Chesterton. Another loosely connected set of short stories, The Club of Queer Trades, offers thought-provoking ideas about work and leisure wrapped up in captivating stories. Chesterton was also a skilled poet, and his The Ballad of the White Horse and Lepanto are inspiring ballads with themes about Catholic heroes trusting in God in seemingly hopeless battles.
Of course, a familiarity with the major works of Charles Dickens is essential for a well rounded literary education. I recommend beginning with A Tale of Two Cities , both for its riveting historical fiction storyline and its enduring fame as one of Dicken’s greatest works. Likewise, A Christmas Carol is another perfect first Dickens story due to its relative brevity and famous plot. Over the course of the high school years, I also recommend encouraging your child to readOliver Twist , Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, and David Copperfield .
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote a plethora of entertaining works, but as an introduction, I recommend The Prince and the Pauper, the classic story of two boy swapping places and learning and growing through the adventures that ensue. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are classic works of American fiction, simply entertaining on the surface but containing poignant themes about human dignity, the value of each person, societal norms versus natural law, and slavery.
Two Years Before The Mast is Richard Henry Dana’s gripping account of his voyages around Cape Horn, to California, and up and down the New England coast in the mid-nineteeneth century. This American classic showcases travel writing of the best caliber.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe is a fictional biography of a castaway who spent twenty eight years on an island. Written over 300 years ago, this adventure story is still relevent and captivating to young readers of today, particularly for the cell phone generation which has almost no concept of being alone.
Rudyard Kipling may be best known as the author of The Jungle Book . However, I highly recommend also reading Kim , the story of an Indian street boy, Captains Courageous, in which a spoiled rich boy learns character through life as a sailor, and The Complete Stalky and Co., which chronicles the escapades of an irrepressible trio of English private school boys.
The Boy Knight of Reims by Eloise Lownsberry is a captivating account of an apprentice goldsmith inthe Middle Ages growing up in the shadow of the great cathedral at Reims. Action and historical information blend together and the reader closes the book knowing a great deal about cathedrals, Joan of Arc, the 100 Year War, and goldsmithing.
BaronessOrczy’sThe Scarlet Pimpernel is a superb blending of a touching love story and the suspense of the French Revolution. This famous novel is always a favorite with high schoolers, especially since it is a shorter read than many classics!
Animal farm: A Fairy Story by GeorgeOrwell is a dystopian novel of lasting fame due to its on point satire about the rise of Communism.
Shane by JackSchaefer is an American western classic about coming of age, manhood, and sacrifice.
Sir Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe and Rob Roy have been ill represented in abridgments. Buy or borrow an unabridged version for your children, especially your sons, and let them be entranced by the chivalry of a different age, the grandeur of Scott’s language, and the noble themes of sacrifice and honor.
William Shakespeare. Get his The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Enough said. But really, read Shakespeare aloud to your protesting teenagers if need be. Exposure to Shakespeare cannot fail to improve a high schooler’s writing and language.
Robert Louis Stevenson‘s classic which should be read for English literacy is, of course, Treasure Island. I also recommend The Black Arrow , a fascinating historical fiction novel about justice, revenge, and honor set during the War of the Roses.
I dare to count The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien as classics. Someday I will write an entire post on why this story of sacrifice and friendship, real love and twisted evil, should be read by every teenager.
Jules Verne‘s adventurous novels are as thoroughly enjoyable and readable for today’s high schoolers as they were for readers of the 1870’s when they were published. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be his most famous, but also read Around the World in 80 Days, a fascinating globe trot by a most unlikely duo: a straight-buttoned Englishman and his free-thinking French servant. My favorite Jules Verne, though, is The Mysterious Island , a spin off of sorts to the more famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which a group of Union prisoners of War escape their jailers in Richmond only to find themselves marooned on a very mysterious island.
I realize Willa Cather is a well-regarded author, but I never can muster up much enthusiasm for her famous My Antonia. I much prefer Death Comes for the Archbishop , a slow, gentle story about the sacrificial life of a Catholic missionary priest in the southwest.
Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly is both simple and magnificent. Mr. Blue is a modern day Saint Francis of Assisi, rejecting a vast fortune for a life of self-giving, which makes him joyful. If you love G. K. Chesterton, you will adore this book.
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith has been so referenced in literature that reading it seems inevitable. A bit slow going, with a decidedly didactic tone, this story of a poor vicar and his family in the eighteenth century is more for literacy than enjoyment.
Both fiction and nonfiction from C. S. Lewis provide excellent reading material for high schoolers, but focusing on fiction here, I recommend his Space Trilogy, which begins with Out of the Silent Planet, which explores the question of intelligent life of non-human origin on another planet. Perelandra posits the interesting scenario of a second Genesis-style temptation on a new planet, but with the Eve figure receiving advice both from a devil and a human. The final book, That Hideous Strength , is a powerful apocalyptic-type novel. I also highly recommend The Screwtape Letters, a series of letters purporting to be from an experienced demon explaining how to tempt and destroy humans.
O. Henry is a master of the short story and the twist in the plot! The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is a collection of 38 of his most famous and best loved stories, but he wrote over 600 stories in total so if possible find a complete works at a used book store or library.
Gene Straton Porter‘s Freckles is a heart-warming story of a disabled boy overcoming the odds and making a success of himself by hard work and good character. Porter’s works are notable for their emphasis on natural beauty and themes of nature leading people to God. However, be warned that not all her books are appropriate for younger teen readers! In addition to Freckles, I can recommend Laddie, a charming story of family life and love as told by the youngest in a large midwestern farm family.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini is a swashbuckling tale about an unassuming Irish physician whom circumstances turn into a successful pirate in the Caribbean. This book raises fascinating questions about honor and duty in the face of injustice and adversity, while also being by turn exciting and downright hilarious.
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is the play on which the famous My Fair Lady was based. Inspired by a Greek myth, this is a story about what makes gentility, a love story, and a comedy, all at the same time.
Five travelers from diverse backgrounds die in a bridge collapse in Peru. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is a fascinating examination of their lives and the circumstances which placed them on the bridge together for the accident.
The Virginian by Owen Wister is my favorite western. Soft-spoken and mischievous, gallant and mostly good, the Virginian is a cowboy of the best sort. A thoroughly enjoyable look at cowboy life.
One of my favorite authors of all time is P. G. Wodehouse. He is inimitable in his mastery of the English language and ability to create a side-splittingly hilarious story. Even my very not-a-reader husband will read Wodehouse just for comedic relief after a tough work week! Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories, such as The Code of the Woosters, starring Bertie Wooster, an independently wealthy, idle, charming, good-natured young gentleman, and his ever-stoic, stupendously intelligent valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse also wrote a series set in the country at Blandings Castle. A Bounty of Blandings: Summer Lightning / Heavy Weather / Blandings Castle and several other loosely connected novels are my favorite Wodehouse books, full of wry humor, hilarious misunderstandings, and the society’s own water. The best in this series, and my favorite Wodehouse novel ever, is Leave It to Psmith!
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers is the real Maria Trapp‘s wonderful, funny account of her family’s amazing story. A touching and inspiring story of trust in God, hope amid hardship,and love for all things Catholic, this is one of my favorite biographies.
A Philadelphia Catholic in King Jamess Court by Martin de Porres Kennedy is Catholic apologetics wrapped up in a fictional story about an average, Catholic teenage boy forced to live in the Bible Belt with his passionately Protestant relatives. His relatives’ challenges to the Catholic faith have the unforeseen result of causing the boy to deepen and study his Catholic faith in a new way.
Lord of the World: A Novel by Robert Hugh Benson is a dystopian novel about the coming of the anti-Christ and a Catholic priest who resists him. Teenagers love dystopia these days (think of the general obsession with Hunger Games) so this novel from over a century ago should be popular again.
The Song at the Scaffold: A Novel by Gertrud von Le Fort follows the fate of sixteen carmelite sisters as they face martyrdom during the French Revolution. Will they persevere in faith and joy to the scaffold?
The Robe by Lloyd Douglas is a fascinating interweaving of the story of a Roman Centurion’s search for truth with the fate of a seamless robe Jesus wore. A classic conversion story sure to captivate the imagination of the reader.
All Creatures Great and Small: The Warm and Joyful Memoirs of the Worlds Most Beloved Animal Doctor by James Herriot is the first of his many collection of anecdotes about his life as a vet in the English dales. James Herriot is a sheer delight to read. His insight into human nature is as deep as his understanding of animal nature. Funny or moving, all his stories are imbued with a love of God’s creation that is reminiscent of Saint Francis of Assisi. Warning: There is a decent amount of “gentle” swearing in Herriot’s books. If this is not something you want your children reading, I recommend arming yourself with a black permanent marker and editing!
Penrod by Booth Tarkington is a series of side-bustingly funny anecdotes about young Penrod, the all American mischief maker from midwest USA at the turn of the twentieth century.
Between the Forest and the Hills by Ann Lawrence is a “historical fantasy” according to the author, blending Roman Britain’s history with Christian tradition and a generous measure of humor. A thoroughly enjoyable book which defies categories.
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is a side-splittingly funny account of life in a huge family as told by two of the oldest children.
My Heart Lies South The Story of my Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino is a true story of a young American who finds herself marrying a Mexican despite herself, and the sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving story of their journey to blend their different backgrounds and attitudes into a harmonious marriage.
Stephen Lawhead‘s In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first in his fantasy Dragon King series. Not great classics, but still an enjoyable coming of age fantasy story about courage, honor, and friendship. There are some interesting themes about Christianity versus paganism which you can direct your teenager to try to identify.
I believe there is some merit to reading at least the first book in the The Hunger Games trilogy. Read my review here for my reasoning and discussion questions/book report ideas.
If your high schooler is over 16, check out Part 2 of my high school reading list!