Review of “The Nightingale”


The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a truly compelling historical fiction novel: inspiring, humbling, thought-provoking, and devastating in turn. The story follows two French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, from the time the first rumbles of World War II begin to affect France to immediately after the end of the war. By focusing on these two sisters’ very different but equally difficult paths through the war, The Nightingale succeeds in powerfully conveying the reality of the horror, the magnitude of the losses, the utter wrecking of lives in World War II. This book does not spare the reader from the awful depths that man can sink to. Yet the depravities man conducts are but a foil to the heights of heroism to which everyday people can rise. The Nightingale offers inspiration and hope with its themes about unbreakable love, heroic sacrifice, and the miracle of children.

The Nightingale is an affirmation of the power of all the forms of love to survive and thrive in the worst conditions imaginable.

The bonds of friendship are a potent force. In her small French hometown, Vianne and her best friend Rachel encourage and help one another to keep supporting their families, whether that is with words or by sharing the last morsels of food. When Jewish Rachel is taken away to a concentration camp, Vianne risks her own life to save Rachel’s son.

The love between sisters also survives the horror of war. Vianne and Isabelle had a tumultuous relationship growing up, but during the war each strives to protect the other as best they can. Vianne attacks a German soldier to save Isabelle. Isabelle distances herself from her sister’s family to protect them from the repercussions of her underground work. At the end of the war, Vianne searches tirelessly for her lost sister and brings her home.

The Nightingale depicts the love between parents and children as particularly beautiful and powerful. Vianne and Isabelle’s father Julien eventually gives his life to save Isabelle’s. Vianne repeatedly reflects that the only reason she continues struggling to survive is out of love for her children. Vianne’s husband Antoine writes to her from POW camp that she must remain strong for their children.

Love between man and woman also gets its due, mostly through Vianne’s clinging to Antoine’s memory through the years of war, and determination to rebuild their relationship afterwards. Isabelle’s relationship with Gaetan also illustrates the power of love to endure torture, sickness, and imprisonment.

The Nightingale is a paean to sacrifice, a tribute to the countless simple folk who made unimaginable sacrifices to help save lives during World War II.

At first, parents sacrifice for their children, townsfolk for their neighbors. But soon, the war make each person question what they truly believe about the sanctity of human life and how much they will risk to preserve it. First, Vianne saves and hides her Jewish friend’s son Ariel. Later, she helps save the lives of 18 other Jewish children, hiding them in an orphanage and forging identity papers for them. Her actions are all a heroic sacrifice, since they seriously endanger her life and her children’s lives. When asked how she could risk so much, Vianne tellingly says she does it for her daughter Sophie: what would she be teaching her daughter if she did not help save lives?

Her sister takes an even more risky path to help save lives. Isabelle envisions a way to help the English and American airmen escape from occupied France into neutral Spain. Although she realizes that she will almost certainly be captured eventually, tortured, and killed, she begins the “Nightingale Route.” She leads over 27 groups of airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to safety before her capture.

One of the most beautiful sacrifices in the novel is after Isabelle is captured, when her father chooses to enter SS headquarters and confess to begin the ringleader of the “Nightingale Route” so that her life will be spared.

The Nightingale offers a strongly pro-life message about the blessing of children.

Returned POW Antoine says it most plainly: “This child… is a miracle.” All the main characters believe and live this truth throughout the novel: children are a miracle. They are the reason to keep going during the darkest years of the war. They are the cause for hope in a shattered world at the end of the war. Their existence is the healing as rebuilding begins.

The Nightingale is surprisingly clean with few exceptions.

As with any novel that attempts to accurately capture the atmosphere of occupied France, The Nightingale has its share of brutal violence. Vianne sees pregnant women shot, and experiences beatings and rapes herself. Isabelle is tortured and endures concentration camp life. The focus is not on the violence, though, but on the will to endure and survive the sisters exhibit.

There is little to no language. The only instances are the rare curse  in French or German.

As far as sexual content, there is only one rape scene described, and it is short and easily skimmed over by sensitive readers. There are references to a husband and wife making love, but no descriptions. The most problematic content from a Catholic perspective is that Isabelle and Gaetan do sleep together despite being unmarried. Again, there is nothing graphic described, but parents should be aware if considering letting their teens read this book. I personally think it is too intense for any but very mature older teens.

The Nightingale is a sobering yet gripping novel which I highly recommend for Catholic adults.

This book leaves you reeling, yet inspired. It’s an important book because World War II needs to be remembered. The unspeakable evils committed and the heroic virtue shown both need to be kept in memory. Laugh, cry, enjoy this fantastic novel.

Review of the “Prince Martin” Books

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!

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 “The Awakening of Miss Prim”


The Awakening of Miss Prim is one of those rare, delectable books that you find yourself savoring, trying to spin out each chapter to the utmost. This novel by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera was first published in Spain in 2011 and translated to English a few years later. The English translation is professionally done, and I could almost believe the novel was set in England, except for the Spanish character names. Spain or England, The Awakening of Miss Prim has a cozy, old world charm about it that makes it the perfect book to curl with of an evening, beverage of choice in hand.

What is beauty?

What is marriage? What is peace? What is the purpose of education? What is friendship? What is truth? What is love? What is beauty? These are the questions pondered in The Awakening of Miss Prim. Miss Prim, a young woman with a string of impressive scholarly qualifications, comes to the tiny village of San Ireneo in search of “refuge.” Refuge from what? She can’t quite say.

San Ireneo is a village some might call backwards in its way of life. It ascribes to a distributism of Chesterton, the courtesy of old England, and the educational principles of the Greeks. People from around the world with a shared vision of creating a utopia, a The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, have created a unique society and culture in San Ireneo. Miss Prim is at once charmed, bewildered, and offended by San Ireneo and its people, but soon finds herself forming unexpected friendships.

In The Awakening of Miss Prim, friendship is the key to changing hearts.

Naturally a deep thinker who prides herself on her acumen, Miss Prim feels consternation when both her employer and new friends habitually challenge her every presupposition about life, religion, and literature. For example, at first she is mortally offended when her friends in the San Ireneo feminist society speak of finding her a husband. Over time, through her friendships with some of the members, Miss Prim realizes their intentions were loving, and even becomes open to listening to their views on how marriage is liberating.

The most important relationship Miss Prim forms is her unlikely friendship with her employer, enigmatically referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair. A dead language expert with a formidable intellect, he seems to delight in poking holes in Miss Prim’s pet theories about education, religion, and literature. Yet even as he exasperates her, his courtesy and genuineness lead her to contemplate his arguments with an open mind.

Rather than providing all the answers to the “what” questions, this novel offers food for thought.

Is the redemption a fairy tale? Or is it The Only Real Fairy Tale? Is marriage a harmony? A drawing together of opposites? Or both? Is beauty a painting, a field of flowers, a feeling? Does absolute truth exist?

The Awakening of Miss Prim provides trails of breadcrumbs leading the reader to what truth, goodness, and beauty is. Or rather, as the wise old monk advises, “Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something but Someone.”

Perhaps in keeping with the theme of raising questions that aren’t quite answered, the book ends quite abruptly, leaving the reader to imagine the ending. This precipitous farewell to Miss Prim and San Ireneo is, in my opinion, the only real flaw in this imminently enjoyable novel.

This book is refreshingly clean of all objectionable content, and can be safely read by teens, though I think adults will appreciate it more thoroughly. On the other hand, the abundance of references to master writers like Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Virgil, and more may inspire teens to read some of these other great works.

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Norcia, Italia where Miss Prim went in search of beauty.  Photo credit to my husband.

 

Review of “The Happy Hollisters”


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.

Try it for $1.95!

If you want to try the first book, The Happy Hollisters, at an amazing deal, the publisher has a free trial of The Happy Hollisters Book Club running right now. For $1.95 and free shipping, you can receive The Happy Hollisters, and if you enjoy it and continue with the club they offer 80% off subsequent books. Check out The Trading Post at TheHappyHollisters.com!

Beyond Narnia: More Great Fantasy Series for Catholic Kids and Teens

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.


It is hard to be surpass On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and its sequels in The Wingfeather Saga in the category of edge of your seat fantasy adventure. Check out my Review of the Wingfeather Saga for plot summary, discussion points, praise, and cautions.
Recommended for 12 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.


Good Fairy Tales, Fables, and Tall Tales for Catholic Kids

From ancient times onward, parents and grandparents have passed on their wisdom to the next generations through fairy tales, tall tales, fables, and cautionary tales. Each culture has its own special stories, such as the American tall tales, while other stories such as Cinderella are told by many cultures with their own variations. Here are some of my favorite picture book versions of fairy tales, fables, and tall tales both  old and new, renowned and little known, from around the world.


I love the gorgeous illustrations and Medieval manuscript letters in this beautiful version of Sleeping Beauty!


In this version of The Princess and the Pea, the queen and king get a slightly larger role than usual. The side banter between the queen and her son is amusing, and the illustrations take pride of place.


This beautiful version of Rapunzel is so vividly illustrated the witch may scare you! I think it uniquely captures the mixed love and hate the witch has for Rapunzel.


We enjoy this Spanish American version of the classic Cinderella story. Little Gold Star brings a Catholic flavor to this familiar favorite with Marian intercession taking the place of the fairy godmother.


My other favorite retelling of the Cinderella story is Jan Brett’s imaginative chicken-themed version: Cinders. The accurate depictions of a brood of bantam hens are amazingly detailed and gorgeous.


But, if you want the classic, simple Cinderella story, Marcia Brown’s Cinderella is what you’re looking for!


The charming illustrations in this edition of Little Red Riding Hood contrast with this rather dark cautionary tale. True to the original Grimm fairy tale, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood and her Grandma. But in the end, the woodsman cuts them out and saves the day!


E. Nesbit’s fanciful chapter books are favorites of mine, so I am happy to include her retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk on this list. She omits some of the more grisly details of the original tale, but adds in her unique touch with explanations of details such as why Jack’s shutters don’t work.


The Adventures of Brer Rabbit and Friends is a clever retelling of the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus tales. My children love this collection of ten of Harris’ funniest tales, complete with plenty of onomatopoeia and wonderful illustrations on every page.


With The Firebird, you have at once a fairy tale and a ballet (by Igor Stravinsky). This version of the fairy tale contains both a depiction of the ballet and a gorgeous fanciful illustration on each page. Caveat that the evil wizard villain in the story is quite disturbing looking and might terrify very young children.


Another Russian fairy tale of the quest genre, the The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring has some of the most magnificently done illustrations. This tale is about an exciting quest and the winning of a princess, yet also raises questions about listening to your conscience versus blind obedience.


A third Russian folk tale we enjoy is The Magic Nesting Doll. On her deathbed, Katya’s grandma bequeaths her a magic nesting doll which contains animals that will help her break the spell which binds her kingdom in a dark, icy winter. This story has a touch of Narnia and a touch of Sleeping Beauty.


Arthur Ransome’s retelling of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship: A Russian Tale deserves a place in any library. My children find this tale about how God watches out for simple folk both funny and inspiring.


The Legend of the Bluebonnet is a sad but beautiful story of self-sacrifice. A little Indian girl gives up her one cherished toy to save her people from famine.


The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush is an old folk tale about finding and pursuing your own particular calling. A young Indian boy feels more drawn to painting the scenes around him then joining in usual hunting activities of his friends.


We love our American Tall Tales, especially Steven Kellog’s fun editions of Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, and Johnny Appleseed. His detail-rich illustration style brings a wealth of amusing tidbits to these already entertaining tales.


Stone Soup is an old French folk tale about some smart soldiers who outwit a village of selfish people. A lesson in sharing.


Tikki Tikki Tembo has a fun rhythmic cadence that children love. An old Chinese folk tale, it cautions against giving children very, very, very long names.


The Mitten by Jan Brett is a retelling of a Ukranian folk tale, complete with wonderfully realistic illustrations.


The Ugly Duckling is a favorite fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson. The theme of not judging someone by their outward appearance has a timeless appeal, and Jerry Pinkney’s gorgeous illustrations bring this story to life in a powerful way.


The Pancake Boy is a fun Norwegian version of the tale Americans recognize more readily as “The Gingerbread Man.” In the Norwegian version, a pig devours the gullible Pancake Boy in the end!


Speaking of Gingerbread Baby, we love Jan Brett’s version of this favorite folk tale.


Honey… Honey… Lion! has all of Jan Brett’s trademark attention to detail and beautiful illustrations. In this African tale, Honey Badger learns the hard way not to be selfish and hog all the honey!


The 3 Little Dassies  is an African-themed version of the classic Three Little Pigs tale. Jan Brett uses vivid colors and a variety of desert creatures to bring this story to life in a new way.


Speaking of old tales, The Classic Treasury of Aesop’s Fables is a beautiful version of the traditional fables from the ancient world. Each fable has a wonderful painting to accompany it which captures children’s eyes while a parents reads the fable.


Though a pricey investment, My Book House contains an amazing array of folk tales, fairy tales, and legends from around the world.

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]