After thoroughly enjoying and reviewing Shannon Hale’s Princess Academytrilogy, I’ve been working my way through her Young Adult series, The Books of Bayern. Like Princess Academy, there is much to admire in the Books of Bayern. These books have a similar focus on strong female characters, the importance of friendship, and sacrifice. They are overall a clean and captivating fantasy series that older teens will enjoy.
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The Books of Bayern are set in a fantasy world where certain people are given the “gifts” of being able to communicate with and even control animals, wind, fire, water, or people. In the first book, The Goose Girl, Princess Ani finds her throne usurped by a ruthless imposter who uses her gift of people-speaking for evil. Ani’s gentle spirit wins her friends, and these friendships prove as important as her own gift of wind-speaking in regaining her throne. And, of course, winning the heart of the heir to the throne.
The subsequent books, Enna Burning, River Secrets, and Forest Born, have similar plotlines about consciously choosing to use your gifts for good or evil, friendships, and young love. Each features a unique, strong heroine: gentle Ani, fiery Enna, smart Dasha, and shy Rin. Each heroine must learn to control her gifts and use them for good.
Overall, these books have inspiring, positive themes for older teens. Free will is one major theme. Ani and Dasha consciously choose to use their talents to benefit others. Enna misuses her gift at first, but repents and resolves to never harm another person again. Rin also struggles with her power to manipulate others but chooses to not use her gift rather than use it for evil. Always, personal choice and responsibility are upheld.
Other major themes include friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. Friends undergo great dangers to help one another. Ani saves Enna’s life in the second book at the risk of her own. There’s also a theme of sacrificing for country. Enna and Razo are willing to undertake a dangerous diplomatic mission in the hopes of preserving a fragile international peace.
Another great theme is mercy and forgiveness. On many occasions, Ani, Enna, and their friends go the extra mile to attempt to capture enemies without having to kill them. These heroines have an innate respect for human life, even if it’s the life of a sworn enemy. They even attempt to save Ani’s nemesis throughout the series. They also extend mercy and forgiveness to one another with grace.
Although the first three books have romantic plot aspects with main characters pairing off, I appreciated that Hale deviated from this pattern in the fourth book by having Rin remain single for now. Rin is more troubled by her gift than the other heroines, and makes a very mature choice to refrain from relationships for the time being to work on improving herself.
A Few Criticisms
Although the themes are mostly positive in The Books of Bayern, there are a few potential areas of concern for parents of tweens and younger teens.
These are fantasy-adventure-romance stories, so invariably there is a certain level of romantic exchanges and kissing. Overall, these exchanges are not particularly graphic. No more than the occasional passionate kiss. But teen romantic love is a definite plot aspect, so if you have a younger teen you don’t want focusing too much on romance, skip these for now.
Along the same lines, there are a few occasions where bad guys leer at or threaten the heroines where there are definite sexual harassment undertones. There are also a couple occasions where even the good guys notice a girl’s figure or beauty in a somewhat objectifying way.
There’s also a decent amount of violence, especially in the second book, when Enna gets too obsessed with burning and revenge and starts setting people on fire. More sensitive younger teens might not like the death toll in these books.
Overall, A Fun Fantasy Series for Mature Teens
Teens who enjoy fantasy and adventure will enjoy these books as light, overall uplifting reads. Given the caveats above, I recommend them for older teens versus tweens and younger teens. Tweens and younger teens will appreciate the Princess Academybooks much more!
For more of my favorite books for teens, check out these 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:
Catholic Apologetics in graphic novel form: what could be better? In this latest volume of the Brendan and Eric in Exile series, everyone’s favorite space pilots are reassigned to fly the space taxi in recently settled Mars. There, they find a society where religion has been outlawed and Christians face real persecution and death. Brendan and Eric find themselves defending the sacraments and Catholicism like never before in Weapons of War!
The mysterious author of the Brendan and Eric books is actually a contemplative monk and priest, so it comes as no surprise that these books are steeped in solid theology. Readers will find handy notations in the bottom margins of the story noting key passages in the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church which back up Brendan’s reasoning. In this latest volume, Eric and Brendan debate on a wide range of apologetical issues: with Protestants who challenge them about the priesthood, confession, and Baptism, with atheists on marriage and the Eucharist, and even with a lady who believes in universal salvation. The Bible verses fly as fast as the drones in this novel!
In this latest book, Brendan and Eric spend a good deal of time debating Biblical interpretation with the Protestant pastor. But when faced with a anti-Christian society, the Protestants and Catholics on Mars work together to get the message of Jesus’ love and promise of salvation broadcast to the uncatechized inhabitants of the planet. Risking all their lives, they broadcast a message about Jesus’ love and mercy. Later, the Protestant pastor and his assistant again help the Catholic characters to rescue their priest, who has been imprisoned. There’s a great message in this novel about working together with our separated Protestant brethren, who are Christians too.
Great For Teens
The graphic novel style of this book will speak to tweens and teens. This book would make a great gift for First Holy Communion or Confirmation, or even for someone completing RCIA. Even adults will enjoy brushing up their Sacrament Apologetics with this easy to read format! The other two books in the series are also excellent. In the first volume, The Truth Is Out There, Brendan and Eric learn about God, and how faith and reason are not contradictory. Then in The Big Picture they combat a maniac who wants to change God’s plan for salvation. This series is a wonderful way for Catholic kids to learn about the Catholic faith and apologetics in a fun, engaging format.
For my great graphic novels for Catholic kids, check out this list!
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Have a 6-12 year old who loves high adventure? Check out Prince Martin Wins His Sword, the first in Brandon Hale’s epic series of Prince Martin adventures. In the first book the reader meets Prince Martin, a young boy whose wise father the King of the land sends him on quests to learn virtue and build character. In order to win his sword, Prince Martin must demonstrate friendship and loyalty.
A major theme in the Prince Martin books is positive portrayal of the virtues of loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, and compassion.
In Prince Martin and the Thieves, Prince Martin helps save a wolf from a trap; later the wolf saves the prince’s life. Further on in the story, Prince Martin chooses to give away his reward money to a poverty-stricken beggar instead of buying a new weapon.
Many times in the stories, Prince Martin must choose between running for safety or standing his ground and sticking with his friends in the face of fear. In Prince Martin and the Dragons, Prince Martin and his three friends choose to risk death by fighting the dragons in order to save their country. Prince Martin is a hero boys can both relate to and want to imitate.
These books are mini-epics, reminiscent of the Iliad or the Odyssey.
Like great epics like Beowulf, Odyssey, and The Iliad, these terrific tales are cleverly written in rhyming cadence. I loved how author Hale used epic conventions such as beginning in medias res in the second adventure, Prince Martin and the Thieves. There are many other examples of epic conventions, such as cataloging of weapons, formal speeches, and enemies of superhuman proportions. These epic qualities bring authenticity and excitement which will captivate kids. They also make the Prince Martin books a great early preparation for reading classics like The Odyssey in high school or college.
Overall, these are eminently enjoyable epic tales that will appeal especially to boys.
This is not to say girls will not find them inspiring too! Adventure-loving girls will be thrilled that the newest book in the series, Prince Martin and the Cave Bear, features a female character: Prince Martin’s cousin Meg. If you have a 6-12 year old, check out all four books, available for purchase on Amazon!
The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West (Andrew Svenson) is the first in a completely charming series of books featuring a joyful, adventurous large family. In each book in the series, the Hollister family is confronted with mystery and adventure. Working together, the children and parents find solutions and bring justice. Svenson wrote 33 volumes about the Happy Hollisters, which makes this a great series for voracious readers!
A Different World
Mr. and Mrs. Hollister and their brood of five children live an idyllic life by a lake with Dad working a flexible schedule at his hardware store and Mom staying home with the children. The girls wear dresses, and the boys say “Gee, whiz!” Yes, these books are a bit archaic in terms of dress, speech, and gender roles. They were first published in the 1950’s, which rightfully feels like a different century to our 21st century sensibilities.
Despite the book’s old-fashioned trappings, children today will still love reading about the Hollister family adventures because the essential things in the books are timeless. There are still bullies, and the difficulty of moving to a new town, and sibling relationships to navigate, and nature to explore. Children today will also enjoy the parts of the book all children wish would happen to them: a mystery, an adventure, and a chance to save the day.
Mystery and Adventure
The Happy Hollisters captivates young readers quickly because of it’s cliffhanger style chapter endings. Each chapter brings a small adventure such as a lost child, a bear sighting, a parade, or a contest. Meanwhile, the book as a whole builds up the overlying mystery of why a strange man keeps breaking into the Hollister’s house.
In future books in the series, the family travels a good deal, finding adventure wherever they go. Through this, the reader gets some great geography exposure as the Hollister family explores the United States and beyond.
Wholesome and Inspiring
The best part of The Happy Hollisters from a parent’s perspective is its focus on encouraging virtue. The Hollister children model a variety of positive character traits such as responsibility, kindness, fairness, and generosity. When they fail to choose the best course of action, their parents are always nearby to correct them. Overall, the Hollister books are full of beneficial messages about protecting smaller children, being kind to animals, obeying your parents, and sticking up for your siblings.
Full of Fun Illustrations
One reason my children love The Happy Hollisters is the plentiful illustrations in every single chapter. The illustrations give faces to the characters and depth to the stories. There are over 70 illustration in this book, which is only 187 pages, so you get a half of page of illustration for every 2-3 pages. This really helps children hold the interest of younger children when reading aloud. The wealth of illustrations also helps retain the interest of reluctant readers who struggle with chapter books.
Who would enjoy The Happy Hollisters?
As far as intensity of adventure goes, these books are gentle enough for 6-12 year olds. Some 4-5 year olds will also enjoy this as a read-aloud, though very sensitive little ones may find the cliffhanger style story-telling too anxiety-producing. These books really do make a great read-aloud, since the range of ages in the Hollister family make these books relatable for children ages 4-12.
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What kid doesn’t love The Chronicles of Narnia? As an 8-12 year old, it was one of my favorite series, and I still enjoy re-reading it as an adult.
The question is: what to read after Narnia? What other fantasy books can satisfy after such a wonderful series?
This question is particularly tricky given the murkiness about magic, magical powers, witches, and sorcerers commonly found in popular contemporary fantasy series. More insidious but even more harmful is the dualism and Gnostic worldview often normalized in fantasy series.
But don’t lose hope! Today I bring you an entire list of wholesome series for your kids and teens to devour after finishing Narnia.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander tell a wonderful coming of age story and adventure. Over the course of the five books, a young man named Taran grows from being a rebellious teen to a valiant and courageous warrior, in the process forging friendships, finding love, and helping save a kingdom.
Recommended for 10 and older.
Redwall by Brian Jacques has delighted generations of children with its amusing animal heroes, high feasts, and epic battles. This series is satisfyingly long: a whopping 22 books. Some of the later volumes drag, but be sure and buy the first six books at least, which are excellent!
Recommended for 10 and older.
In the Hall of the Dragon King is the first of Stephen Lawhead’s Dragon King Trilogy. Complete with heroic quests, giant serpents, fair maidens to rescue, and a chilling necromancer to defeat, this series is guaranteed to please fantasy lovers. But it also has a solid plot, well-developed characters, and a Christian worldview.
Recommended for 12 and older.
The Green Ember Series by S. D. Smith is a Narnia-like series of epic adventure and talking animals that gets bonus points for being written with a clearly Christian world view. Best of all, it is free to download as an Ebook so you can preview it before deciding whether to buy a paper copy.
Recommended for 10 and older.
E. Nesbit’s classic children’s books that blend magic, adventure, family, and outdoor fun are coming back into print. Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet are just two of her many fine books, which make great read-alouds or independent reads.
Recommended for 8 and older.
The Ruins of Gorlan is the first book in John Flanagan’s captivating 12 volume Ranger’s Apprentice Series. These exciting tales follow teenage Will and his friends as they grow from impulsive teens into capable adults. Battling evil creatures, they learn to rely on one another. Each possessing a different talent, they must learn to cooperate. The characters do grow older during hte series, so this is a great series to dole out a book at a time as your child gets older.
First book recommended for 10 and older.
Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis are the clear must-reads on this list in my opinion. Similar to Narnia in that they are allegorical, they are written for an adult audience and explore deeper questions about creation, the nature of man, and the will for power.
Recommended for 14 and older.
To conclude with the master, everything by J. R. R. Tolkien is naturally recommended for fantasy fans. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy should be a part of any home library. Don’t forget The Silmarillion and The Great Tales of Middle-earth also! They provide fascinating details about the making of middle earth and the tales of many of the heroes mentioned in passing in the Lord of the Rings.
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
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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.
I consider Swallows and Amazons and its sequels to be one of the greatest series ever written for children. In these 12 books, author Arthur Ransome presents tales of stirring adventure and ingenious discoveries, all written in the most beautiful yet accessible English prose. Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and the rest of the series chronicle the holiday adventures of the four Walker children and their friends. Not fast-paced in the modern sense of violence and high drama, these books nevertheless are chock full of age-appropriate adventures involving (for a small sampling) exploring deserted islands, sailing, gold mining, boat races, and wilderness survival. Ransome is a master writer, and these books are pure joy to read, even as an adult. But the are intended for children, and impart many great lessons quite subtly.
Every book revolves around the children’s adventures in the great outdoors. Sometimes sailing through the English lake country, sometimes trekking across the moors, sometimes exploring the China Sea, each book offers an example of how exciting and fascinating the outdoors can be. The children are always active, never lazy, because there is always something to explore or build. They show that camping, boating, and roughing it can be fun and invigorating. There is never a bored moment on a Walker holiday.
CURIOSITY AND INGENUITY
Several of the children have an ardent curiosity about how things work. They model ingenuity and creativity as they research, experiment, and learn as they go. In one book alone, Pigeon Post, they discover how to use carrier pigeons, dig a well, make charcoal out of peat, prospect and pan for metals, build a blast furnace, and do chemical assays for gold. In other books, they gain extensive knowledge about sailing boats both small and large, navigation, astronomy, ornithology, a variety of codes, and survival skills. Nearly everything they learn is on their own initiative during holidays. These books definitely inspire kids to be inquisitive and innovative!
Friendship is a major theme in the Swallows and Amazons series. Parents will appreciate how broad and inclusive the friendships in these books are. Siblings of various ages work and play harmoniously together. The Walker and Blackett children range in age from six to twelve in the first books, and all get along wonderfully most of the time. There is no pettiness, exclusion, or cliquishness. No silly immature romances spoil the simple camaraderie these children share. Diverse in interests and personalities, they are united in their friendship by a shared love for outdoor exploration and adventure.
POSITIVE PARENT FIGURES
Another wonderful theme in these books is their positive portrayal of parents. The Walker children adore their mother, who is at once properly caring and concerned yet willing to give them the space and freedom to foster their independence and creativity. The Walker father is absent in the first few books for work, but always in conctact via letter and telegram and clearly respected and admired by the children. Later in the series, Captain Walker returns and makes sure to prioritize taking his children on sailing adventures. The Blackett girls are being raised by their widowed mother, who, like Mrs. Walker, combines a motherly spirit with respect for her children’s individuality and independence. She gets extra points for being a patient and understanding mother to Nancy, the headstrong child in the series. The parents of the third sibling set, Dick and Dot, are archaeologists who feature little in the series, but their relationship still seems connected and loving. So many modern books embrace the theme of misunderstood child and flawed parent, it’s refreshing to read a story where parent-child relationships are natural and loving.
For reading order, it’s best to start with Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and Winter Holiday in that order, then read the rest as you can find them. Some of the books are hard to find or out of print, but these stories are really worth buying and adding to your family library. One of the best things about this series is the entire 12 books are appropriate for all ages. That makes this a wonderful series to read aloud as a family or listen to as an audio book in the car. Of course, they are also enjoyed read solo by a competent reader; around ten years old is usually perfect. I hope you find and enjoy these marvelous children’s classics!