St. Maximilian Kolbe is truly a saint for day modern-day Catholics to admire and emulate. From his successful media outreach work to his missionary work to his sacrificial death, St. Maximilian Kolbe lived a life of charity and love. This exciting new graphic novel from Sophia Institute Press brings St. Maximilian Koble’s story to life with high quality illustrations and photographs of the saint.
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The Whole Story
Most Catholics are familiar with St. Maximilian Kolbe’s dramatic sacrificial death as Auschwitz: so much so that he is often known as The Saint of Auschwitz. But this graphic novel delves deeper and follows the thread of Maximilian’s life from childhood to death. Through St. Maximilian’s remembrances in concentration camp, you will learn about Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s work establishing the Militia of the Immaculata, establishment of Catholic magazines and newspapers, missionary work in Japan, and more. As I read The Saint of Auschwitz, I was blown away by how much a young priest with tuberculosis accomplished in his short life.
Inspiration for Today’s Teens
This graphic novel will powerfully motivate tweens, teens, and even adults to live life with joy, charity, and a missionary zeal in the spirit of St. Maximilian Kolbe. I think most tweens will be fine with the level of intensity. St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story is sad and intense; fifteen days in a bunker waiting to die of hunger and thirst is a horrifying death. But his choice to embrace this death out of charity for a stranger and his joy in suffering is an inspiration that today’s youth will respond to with enthusiasm.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz” from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.
Step straight into Medieval England as you open Shadow in the Dark, the first volume in a brand new series by Antony Kolenc. With a meticulous attention to the historical setting and thoughtful insight into Medieval Catholicism, Kolenc weaves a fascinating and exciting tale. The story begins with young Xan’s dramatic conflict with a band of robbers, which results in Xan losing his family, memory, and feeling of identity. While packing in plenty of action, what makes Shadow in the Dark really stand out among middle grade historical fiction is Xan’s insightful search for the meaning of his suffering and journey of faith.
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What is Identity?
12 year old Xan loses his memory completely at the beginning of the book which leads him to question who he is, and seek a purpose in life. Although most tweens and young teens don’t have to deal with amnesia, they will identify with Xan’s quest to define himself and his place in life. A major theme in Shadow in the Dark is Xan’s quest for identity. He looks to his new “family” of monks at Hardwell Abbey for assistance in his search.
A wise nun tells him: “If you find our purpose- where you fit into this new life of yours- then you will find your joy again.” One of the monks suggests that Xan may find meaning in learning to read and write and study. Later, Xan begins to see himself as an integral part of God’s plan for the Abbey: the boy who can solve the mystery. When Xan begins to see himself as following God’s plan, he begins to find peace. This message about identity being found in your vocation, in doing God’s will, is a great one for young teens to read!
Meaning in Suffering
Twined with Xan’s search for meaning is his struggle to understand his own suffering: why did his parents die? Why did he lose his memory? Difficult questions, and Shadow in the Dark doesn’t give a trite answer. Eventually, with prayer and thought, Xan accepts that his parents are in heaven and, in a way, better off, though he will always miss them. As he sees his purpose in God’s plan for the Abbey, he begins to glimpse meaning in his own suffering. The question of suffering is another great subject for tweens and teens to begin to ponder, since this is an inevitable question in any Christian’s life.
Bullying and Friendship
When Xan joins the other orphan boys at the Abbey, he immediately runs afoul of the bully, John. Shadow in the Dark does a wonderful job depicting Xan’s initial attempts to avoid trouble and eventual rise to the occasion to protect the younger boys. Even better, Xan later works as a peacemaker and gives John a role in solving the Abbey mystery. In the end, Xan and John are striking up a friendship.
Reading Historical Fiction Critically
Although I loved Shadow in the Dark as a whole, there are a few points parents may want to be aware of for an advance discussion with their children. Author Kolenc definitely agrees with this; he provides a handy preface that encourages his young readers to notice historical differences in practice and attitude and evaluate whether these differences are positive or negative. For example, there’s one old monk who has special permission from his Abbot to engage in self flagellation to unite himself with Christ’s sufferings. The other monks emphasize that this is a “dangerous” practice and only to be undertaken with special permission from a religious superior.
Emotional Cliff Hanger Conclusion
Although I loved the emphasis on identity and meaning in suffering, and Xan grew a lot over the course of the book, he still has a long way to go in his spiritual journey! In the poignant conclusion, Xan witnesses the Abbot forgive and spare the life of a bandit. This bandit not only tried to kill the Abbot, but is also responsible for the death of Xan’s parents and many others. The Abbot, with infinite wisdom and holiness, extends forgiveness and touches the bandit’s heart, moving him to repentance. However, Xan, furious still about his parents’ deaths, feels no forgiveness towards the man who is responsible. Clearly, Xan still has a long way to go on his spiritual journey! Hopefully the second volume will follow soon so we can find out how he learns to forgive!
Great for the Middle Grades
5th-8th grade tweens and teens will enjoy this masterfully constructed historical fiction novel. There’s adventure, there’s mystery, there’s justice, there’s friendship. Xan is a relatable hero grappling with common coming of age problems. The overall positive depiction of a medieval Abbey as a center of learning and charitable works is refreshing and inspiring. I look forward to seeing the future volumes in this series!
This book starts out with an epigraph from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a true classic about acting like a princess inside even in the worst of circumstances. Unfortunately, The Princess Diaries does not live up to the epigraph or remotely inspire princess-like behavior in its young audience. I really dislike it when books marketed for tweens and young teens are full of sexual content, so prepare for a rant!
This diary is clearly intended to appeal to the 12-14 year old crowd. It’s the secret musings of Mia, a 14 year old high school freshman with tough hair and a phlegmatic personality. Used to hanging out with the school misfits, Mia becomes unexpectedly popular when she finds out she’s actually a European princess. Positives in this book? There are some basic positive themes about good friendships and anti-bullying and Mia is a reasonably likeable heroine.
But really, who wants their 12 year old reading about sex stuff?
This book is chock full of a completely unnecessary amount of content focused on sex. For example, right off the bat Mia speculates about her mother’s new boyfriend: “he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.” Mia goes on to wish that the cool boy in school would put his tongue in her mouth though. Throughout the book, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about whether her mom is sleeping with her new boyfriend, and at one point does discover him in her apartment in boxers.
Another highlight is a long conversation between Mia, her best friend Lilly, and Lilly’s 18 year old brother. They talk about condoms and spermicidal fluid, losing their virginity, and who they’d choose to have sex with if they were the last person alive.
Other highlights include joking about her best friend’s brother sexually harassing her, and also Mia brushing off a creepy blind guy who gropes her as unimportant. Mia also laughs at herself for not knowing what “frenching” was when she was 11, like her cousin did. At one point, Mia’s grandmother the Princess Dowager calls her a hooker. At another point Mia describes a woman who inspired her; the inspiring part seems to be that the woman has plastic surgery lips made from her vagina.
What’s the big deal with lying again?
Like other modern “children’s” books, The Princess Diaries sadly normalizes lying and deception as a part of life. Mia frequently lies to her parents. At first, she tells herself in her diary to “stop lying.” But then she seems to “grow” in her view on lying and her self-coaching becomes: “tell the truth except when doing so would hurt someone’s feelings.” And later, “stop lying, and/or think of better lies.”
Another issue of note is Mia’s rather anti-religion, “open-minded” worldview. She admires Madonna because she “revolutionized” fashion by dancing in front of burning crosses and “wasn’t afraid to make the Pope mad.” Mia is proud that she refuses to go to church because she “refused to pray to a god who would allow rain forests to be destroyed in order to make grazing room for cows who would later become Quarter Pounders.”
Mia is also anti-gun, and pro-propaganda. She tells her readers that a stalker is allowed to buy a machine gun “in this country thanks to our totally unrestrictive gun laws.” Fact check: you can’t just buy a machine gun in America. That’s been illegal since 1986.
Mia’s a proud child of divorce. She lives primarily with her doting Bohemian mother and spends summers with her filthy rich royal father. Her parents are friendly to each other, but Mia confides that “things would majorly suck, I think, if they lived together.” She’s “perfectly happy” with her divorced parents.
Turning over in her grave
I doubt that Frances Hodgson Burnett and her heroine Sara are grateful for the tributary epigraph, which really doesn’t fit this teen novel. Unlike Sara, who strives to be a princess, Mia spends most of the book either complaining and acting out because she’s a princess or obsessing about boys and sex. I found little to redeem this book. It really reads like an intentional attempt to indoctrinate young girls into a certain political and sexual mindset.
There are so many better princess books out there! Shannon Hale’s fantastic Princess Academy series is a great example of a modern princess book which focuses on female friendships, sacrifices, and coming of age.
For other worthwhile Princess books, check out this list!
For better romances for teens, check out this list!
In turbulent mid-nineteenth century Europe, a young English girl is summoned to visit her dying grandfather, the Grand Duke of Letzenstein. Letzenstein is a fictional tiny European country, clearly inspired by Luxembourg. The young girl is Catherine Ayre, a lonely orphan. Her visit is to determine the future of a country on the brink of revolution. The Crystal Snowstorm is the exciting introduction in Meriol Trevor’s magnificent Letzenstein Chronicles.
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An Authentically Catholic Series
Meriol Trevor was a prolific twentieth century Catholic author. Originally from England, she helped in Italy during World War II as a relief worker. She eventually converted to Catholicism and wrote a wide variety of books for children and adults. Several of her children’s books have been republished in recent years by Bethlehem Books.
Meriol Trevor is that rare Catholic author whose books inspire virtue and love for truth and beauty so subtly you almost don’t see her trying. Like its inspiration Luxembourg, Letzenstein is a predominantly a Catholic country. Catherine Ayre gets to enter a city and country imbued with Catholic culture and art. She gets to encounter a variety of Catholics: some who strive to live their faith and some for whom faith is a facade. Tweens and young teens will appreciate the authenticity of Trevor’s depiction: there are corrupt Catholics, even corrupt clergy, in Letzenstein. But there are also Christ figures and repentant sinners who will lay down their lives to protect the innocent.
Trevor is truly a master of gently nudging her readers towards the path of virtue. The good characters in Letzenstein are compassionate and admirable, and the villains are slippery and scheming. No young reader wants to imitate devious Julius; everyone loves Rafael le Marre, the repentant sinner.
Exciting, but not just about the Action
The Letzenstein books certainly do have plenty of action. You will find daring escapes, fast-paced pursuits, clever disguises, sieges, and schemes and plots galore. Yet Trevor manages to avoid any graphic violence. Further, she manages to portray the villain’s acts of violence as truly deplorable and revolting.
Really, the LetzensteinChronicles are about relationships: between friends, relations, rivals, families. Each character leaps from the page as if alive. Trevor is such a master storyteller she leads the reader to feel deeply invested in the fate of her characters. She tells each story from the viewpoint of a 10-12 year old child, which draws her readers into the story in a compelling way.
The Letzenstein Chronicles are very clean with no sexual content. There is no graphic violence or foul language. On the other hand, there is some light alcohol use. Remember this is a European book by a European author so children drinking a little wine is culturally normal. There is one episode where an adult character is given drugged alcohol by the villain in an attempt to extract information. This perfidy is portrayed as very reprehensible behavior on the villain’s part.
A Treasure Worth Finding
I highly recommend The Letzenstein Chronicles for 9-14 year olds. They also make a wonderful read-aloud for 3rd-6th graders.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a Science Fiction cult classic. Intended for adults, this clever book, full of sometimes off-color British humor, is now often featured on reading lists for kids as young as 10 and 12. Is it appropriate for young Catholic middle schoolers? I submit that it is not for several reasons.
As is not unusual in British humor, there is a fair amount of innuendo in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For example, there are similes such as: “He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman’s husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.” There are also references to sex, whores, and nudity. For example: “Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.” Or “five hundred entirely naked women dropped out of the sky on parachutes.”
There’s a fair amount of drinking, often portrayed humorously. Ford, an alien stranded on earth, drinks excessively to pass the time. He also encourages Arthur, a human, to get drunk as a suitable preparation for death.
Poking fun at Religion
Another favorite “humorous” topic in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is religion. One of the major plot lines is that the Earth was created by Slartibartfast, a custom planet designer, by order of a group of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who appear on earth as mice. These “mice” build super computers who are more intelligent than they are to answer questions such as “what is the meaning of life.” The answer to that question, according to the computer, is 42.
In the Name of Humor
Both the sexual innuendo and the religious jabs are obviously supposed to be funny. Sensibilities vary greatly about whether this sort of humor is actually funny or, in fact, offensive. Obviously this is a prudential judgment on each parents’ part about whether they are comfortable with their children reading this material. I most often see this book recommended for tweens and teenagers. Please remember that it was not intended for children and be forewarned about the religious jabs and sexual innuendo.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is one of those oft-recommended young adult series. It’s promoted as a modern classic by many libraries. Even some reputable review sites like commonsensemedia.org recommends it for 12+. The series premise is that four close friends share a special pair of jeans which help them stay close even when apart. The depiction of strong, healthy female friendship is moving and imitable, but there are definitely concerning aspects of this series Catholic parents need to be tracking.
Great premise, poor writing
Bridget, Lena, Tibby, and Carmen share a robust, close friendship. Always there for each other, always ready to sacrifice for one another, the parts of this series that focus on their friendship are in fact quite inspiring. The writing style, however, is shallow. The plot is not well-planned, and the character growth is uneven or inconsistent with some of the characters. I might have forgiven some of this though if I wasn’t so concerned with the amount of sexual content in a tween/teen series.
Too much focus on sex
There are really two themes in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. One is female friendship, the other is discovering your sexuality and losing your virginity. This series is written for a secular audience, so perhaps this is the norm in public schools, but Catholic parents may be startled to learn that this series describes events such as 15 year old Bridget seducing her 19 year old soccer coach. In a later book, 18 year old Bridget begins a similar seduction of her married archaeology professor, but at least stops at passionate making out, for what that’s worth. Tibby, at 18, fornicates with her boyfriend and then has a pregnancy scare. Lena, at 18, engages in nude modeling in art school and eventually loses her virginity to a guy she admits to not really loving or seeing marrying. Throughout the series, a lot of the plot is concerning who will sleep with who and when? Interesting content for a series that is supposed to be promoting positive teen behavior.
Lessons: too vague, too incoherent
Are the consequences of all this sexual misconduct negatively portrayed? Sometimes. Bridget falls into a year long depression after seducing her soccer coach and being rejected. The message is that it was a mistake because she was “too young.” But then, two years later, when she meets the soccer coach again and they fall in love, apparently she is now “old enough” and having sexual relations is acceptable. According to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, having sex with your boyfriend is just fine as long as you’re “old enough” and “feel” right about it.
After Tibby fornicates with her boyfriend, she is terrified she’s pregnant, which causes her major anxiety and leads to breaking up with the boyfriend. But again, the message is not that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but rather that the timing was wrong. Even as Tibby regrets that she might be pregnant, the author makes sure to clarify that she didn’t actually regret having sex, because “she was ready.”
So The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants delivers a typical secular message that sex outside of marriage is okay overall, as long as you’re “ready” and not “too young.”
Great Premise, but unfit for Christian consumption
I would love to see a similar series with themes about strong female friendships, loyalty, and growing up, but done in a way that is appropriate for Catholic teens. Sadly, none of the teens in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants have any sort of moral compass regarding sexuality and relationships. Lacking guidance from wise adults or any philosophical or religious formation, they make decisions based strictly on what feels right to them. Consequently, the characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are poor role models. I cannot recommend this series for Catholic teens under any circumstances.
What type of books should middle grade girls read? Books with admirable, imitable female characters. Books with uplifting themes about growing up and growing in character. Books about friendships and family relationships. Classic chapter books for the 8-12 year old crowd.
The books on this list are time-tested classics, beloved by middle grade girls over the decades. They’re all completely clean, don’t focus on romance, and have great themes!
This list is arranged by age, with the easier books coming first.
The first four Betsy-Tacy Books are combined into one collection here, perfect for young girls encountering this charming trio for the first time. Three girls with very different personalities, families, and even hair colors become best friends in this beloved series from Maud Hart Lovelace.
The Courage of Sarah Noble has a great theme about discovering the true nature of courage: freedom from fear, or bravery in the face of fear?
Mystery lovers will enjoy the adventures of the Hollister family, which begins with The Happy Hollisters. Check out my full review of the series here!
I have yet to meet an 8-10 year old girl who didn’t love The Ordinary Princess. Her older sisters have all the typical princess qualities of beauty and grace and talent, but Amy is simply ordinary. What will life look like for an ordinary princess?
Thoughtful 8 year old Lisa tells about life in a tiny Swedish village. The Children of Noisy Village is a great early chapter book due to its short 2-4 page chapters. Each chapter tells an anecdote that happened in or around Noisy Village.
Love Noisy Village? Read more adventures of Lisa, Britta, Anna, and the brothers in Happy Times in Noisy Village. Humorous yet great exposure to Swedish culture and traditions.
The Secret Valley is a pioneer story set during the Gold Rush years. A sister and brother travel west with their parents searching for gold, but learn that true happiness is not found in a gold nugget.
The Boxcar Children are easy mysteries about a harmonious set of siblings. Girls will easily identify with responsible, confident Jessie or shy, sweet Violet. Each sibling’s skills help solve the mysteries.
In A Lion to Guard Us, big sister Amanda courageously sets off with her little brother and sister to follow their father across the ocean to Jamestown. She’ll have to have both courage and faith to succeed. This is a classic historical fiction easy enough for younger readers.
Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy series begins with “B” Is for Betsy. The Betsy books follow Betsy through her school years starting with 1st grade. In this book, Betsy learns that going to school can actually be fun and makes new friends. Betsy and Billy follows Betsy into 2nd grade, and Back to School with Betsy covers 3rd grade.
Twenty and Ten is a wonderful World War II historical fiction novel about a group of Catholic schoolchildren who successfully hide a group of Jewish children from the Nazis. The 1st person narration by a schoolgirl gives a truly authentic feel to this story.
Wild and charming, sassy and sweet, who can resist Pippi? The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking is a collection of three Pippi books, Swedish classics by Astrid Lindgren. Note that Pippi gets into a decent amount of mischief and there is some level of outsmarting adults that occurs.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle loves children, and children love Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s wisdom and spirit.
Family From One End Street is a collection of short stories about the seven siblings in a large, very poor London family. Set in the early 20th century, the poor but happy Ruggles family has various escapades as they scrape a living.
In these stories which span generations, a bored young girl finds treasures like a special quilt in her Grandma’s attic. Each random object has a story attached. Grandma’s Attic Treasury are sweet stories of a simpler time.
For girls who enjoy older classics, the Five Little Peppers are a good fit. Another set of stories about a large family and their adventures living on a shoestring budget.
Fern’s compassion for Wilbur saves his life. Charlotte’s Web is a true children’s classic.
My family loves all the Hilda Van Stockum books, but Five for Victory, and its sequels Canadian Summer and Friendly Gables, are particularly special. Girls will love these funny, heartfelt stories about a Catholic military family during World War II and the years following.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a lovely classic girls’ book about bearing hardships with fortitude and courage.
A shy girl must reach deep in herself to find the bravery to help save her country in Toliver’s Secret. American Revolutionary War historical fiction.
E. Nesbit is a beloved British author of children’s fantasy, and The Enchanted Castle is one of her more accessible books for modern day children. Girls love the mysterious castle and princess in this book.
Hitty, or Methibale, is a doll from the 1800s. She recounts her memoirs of life over the course of a different century in Hitty: Her First Hundred Years.
In this very well-known children’s classic, Heidi is raised by her grandfather, goes to school, and embarks on
Girls love the tiny, imaginative world of Mary Norton’s The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers. These books record the adventures of a group of miniature people who live a hidden life in the houses of the big humans.
Narrated by a girl, The Toothpaste Millionaire is the story of two middle schoolers who come up with a brilliant business idea. A celebration of entrepreneurship and friendship.
The Little House books are such classics they don’t need a description! These gentle stories are perfect for middle grade girls. The first four books in the series are best for this age range.
The All-of-a-Kind Family books are another wonderful series for middle grade girls. These stories are about a joyful Jewish family with five girls living in New York city in the early 1900’s. Great exposure to Jewish traditions and fun stories.
Lois Lenski does an amazing job bringing alive the realities of the tough, even brutal life of a poor farm family in the early 1900’s. Yet Strawberry Girl also is a celebration of simple joys and the beauty of peace.
I trace my love of gardening back to reading The Secret Garden as a child. Cranky Mary’s transformation from a fretful, selfish little person to a good friend and young woman can be traced to the “magic” of caring for a garden.
The Princess and the Goblin by master writer George MacDonald is on my must-read list of children’s classics. This beautiful book is filled with Christian symbolism and allegory. And it’s an engaging story about a Princess, a Miner Boy, and some Goblins.
Caddie Woodlawn is a growing-up story about a tomboyish young girl in early America. From uproarious adventures with her brothers to getting a voice in deciding her family’s future, Caddie grapples with growing up and learning what being a young lady truly means.
The Good Master and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy are windows into life in Hungary before and during World War I. Young Jansci and his family’s life is upended by the arrival of his wild cousin Kate, but their patience and love work a miracle. In the second book, Jansci must grow up quickly as his father leaves for the war.
Misty of Chincoteague is the story of a sister and brother and their love for a special horse. Great themes about hard work, perseverance, and unselfish love.
The Kellyhorns is like an older, cleaner version of The Parent Trap. Long-estranged twins find each other and conspire to unite their beloved aunt and father.
The Swallows and Amazons series is a quintessential middle grade classic: well-written, exciting adventures, and a great assortment of relatable characters for both girls and boys.
Calico Bush by Rachel Field is a serious look at the reality of life for indentured servants and the hardships the early American settlers experienced. But it’s also a celebration of a young girl’s loyalty and courage and will to survive.
In Number the Stars, young Annemarie’s family risks their lives to save her Jewish friend from the Nazis. Focuses on the heroism of the Danish resistance during World War II.
In Turn Homeward, Hannalee, brave 12 year old Hannalee embarks on a long journey to escape the Northern factory she is forced to work at and return home to Georgia.
The Saturdays is the first of the Melendy Quartet books from the great storyteller Elizabeth Enright. Four creative children with a small allowance pool resources so each can have a special adventure once a month. Great stories about harmonious sibling relationships, creativity, and adopting an older child. The Melendy story continues with The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a fun, quirky adventure series about exceptional children who are sent on a mission to save the world from a pyschopath bent on universal mind control. Read my full review here!
Cheerful Pollyanna is a sunbeam to her grumpy old aunt. But when tragedy strikes and leaves her a cripple, can Pollyanna still be cheerful?
Historical fiction about a courageous girl who must step up to defend her family when her father is away. Madeleine Takes Command will resonate with middle grade girls.
Living alone on a desolate island with only animals for companions, Karana must find courage to fight for survival. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a sometimes gritty but inspiring story.
The Light Princess is a short but thought-provoking fairy tale by George MacDonald. Full of puns but also great themes about the true meaning of love.
Little Women is another classic that needs no introduction. This story of the love between four very different sisters has charmed generations.
Eight Cousins is another great Lousia May Alcott book for middle grade girls. Rose learns to see beyond surface appearances to which of her many cousins are the most worthy.
Jack and Jill was actually my favorite Alcott book as a child. A sledding accident cripples two children and forever changes a small town. A wonderful look at the power of friendship and compassion.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting story of spies, counter-spies, and palace plots set in ancient Egypt. It’s also a story of a girl learning to choose loyalty and self-sacrifice over selfishness. This book does have a romance and is better for older middle grades.
The Sherwood Ring has a satsifyingly twisty plot with time travel, a gentle love story, and fascinating American revolution details all twined masterfully together.
An Old-Fashioned Girl offers a much-needed theme about staying true to one’s values and beliefs despite peer pressure.
Drovers Road is the first of one of my favorite coming of age series about Gay, a spirited young girl growing up in New Zealand. Gay lives in a rougher, more exotic world of horses, sheep-herding, and hunting. The subsequent two books follow Gay through college and beyond.
Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer of historical fiction for children from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Her fascination with ancient England in its earliest days led her to write primarily about this exciting time period. Although often labeled juvenile historical fiction, her well-researched and finely written books can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Although most of her books are refreshingly clean, enjoyable stories, a few of her books contain more adult content that Catholic parents might not appreciate their younger children reading. In this review, I include plot summaries and guides to objectionable content for over 10 of Sutcliff’s best known books.
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The Eagle of the 9th
The Eagle of the Ninth is a fantastic story of Roman-occupied Britain and one of Sutcliff’s most beloved books. A young Roman centurion embarks on a quest to clear his father’s legion from the dark rumors which surround it. There are great themes about friendship, loyalty, true freedom, and coping with disabilities. There’s also a subplot of a clean, sweet romance, though parents might want to know that the girl is quite young: earlier teens. This is true to the historical time period in which girls married quite young and therefore didn’t bother me. Appropriate for 10 year old advanced readers; I recommend age 12 or older for most readers.
The Silver Branch
Generations after the events of The Eagle of the 9th, a young Roman surgeon lands in Britain and finds himself thrust into a pivotal role as Emperors rise and fall in the disintegrating Roman empire. The Silver Branchis a completely clean and enjoyable book with a shy, brave protagonist. Great for 10 and older.
The Lantern Bearers
Another volume which follows the descendants of The Eagle of the 9th hero, The Lantern Bearers is a more serious look at the repercussions of Rome withdrawing from Britain. A major theme is trying to save bits of civilization from the darkness of barbarian invasion. Other themes include the horror of slavery and family loyalty. There is a forced marriage which turns out all right in the end; clean and appropriate for young readers.
Sword at Sunset
Sword at Sunset, a retelling of the Arthurian legends, is one of my least favorite Sutcliff books. This sequel to The Lantern Bearers unexpectedly jumps into all sorts of more adult content, such as a steamy incestuous seduction scene. A theme throughout the book is homosexuality among the “knights.” Artos, the Arthur character, says he wishes his whole army was homosexuals since it saves trouble with girls. The homosexual couple is highly romanticized, actually having the most stable and loving relationship in the book. This stable homosexual couple is a foil to Artos and his queen’s troubled marriage. There is also an adultery scene with some explicit details. Definitely avoid this one for younger readers.
Mark of the Horse Lord
The Mark of the Horse Lord is a darker, more violent Sutcliff book. In several ways reminiscent of The Prisoner of Zenda, The Mark of the Horse Lord is the story of an ex-slave who is asked to impersonate a British king. Parents will want to be aware that the ending involves the protagonist committing suicide in an attempt to protect his tribe from annihilation. Suicide is portrayed as the noble course of action and admirable. Better for older teen readers.
In Outcast, Sutcliff is at her best with a clean, intriguing story about a Roman boy, raised by a British tribe, then outcast due to superstition. The story of this boy’s sufferings is sad, but there are great themes about the horror of slavery and the light of friendship. Younger sensitive readers may be upset by the cruelty of the slave treatment described. Readers who enjoyed The Eagle of the Ninth will also enjoy Outcast.
Song for a Dark Queen
Song for a Dark Queen is another darker Sutcliff story. This book tells the tragic story of Boadicea, the British queen who was treated unjustly and cruelly by the Romans. In addition to being a very tragic, dark story, this book is relatively high on sexual references, including jokes, tribal customs of fornication during the Harvest Festival, and an erotic naked dancing scene.
Black Ships Before Troy
In this retelling of the Iliad, Sutcliff succeeds in capturing some of the splendor of this epic while simplifying the language to make it accessible for younger readers. Black Ships Before Troy follows the original plot closely, so plot elements include Paris abandoning his wife to pursue Helen, and Helen in turn abandoning her husband to run away with Paris. There are no explicit scenes. However, the terrible repercussions of their sins are very clear; the message is that Paris and Helen acted dishonorably and caused incredible suffering to many in a ripple effect. Appropriate for 14 and older.
Flame-Colored Taffeta is an unusual Sutcliff story insofar as the protagonist is a young girl and the setting nearly a millennia later than most of her works. This is a clean, interesting book about two children who act mercifully towards a Jacobite spy. The caveat with this book is a plot element involving Damaris, the protagonist, using a witch charm to blackmail someone into helping her. Damaris knows she’s doing something wrong; it is a classic scenario of the ends justifying the means in the author’s eyes.
Blood Feud is a fascinating book which delves into the movements of the Saxon races south to Constantinople. It also explores the dark custom of blood feuds among the Saxon people where sons fight to the death to right family wrongs. This is not portrayed as particularly right or wrong but rather the way the custom went. Another interesting theme in this book is Sutcliff’s “tolerant” approach to religion. She portrays religion as being more rooted in an individual’s ethnicity and family history than in a conviction of absolute truth. Better for older teen readers.
The Sword and the Circle
The Sword and the Circle is Sutcliff’s second take on the Arthurian legends. In a more typical courtly style than Swords at Sunset, Sutcliff recounts the tales of Arthur’s knights of the round table. Sutcliff uses the unsavory version of Arthur’s origins: his father lusted after a married duchess and started a war to have his way with her. Arthur himself ends up committing incest with his sister which leads to Mordant. Various knights fall into sexual sins, such as Lancelot being seduced and committing fornication with Elaine, and Tristan and Iseult committing adultery. Overall these scenarios are recounted factually rather than with graphic details.
A Mixed Bag
As you can see, Sutcliff’s books are a bit like Russian roulette if your children pick them up at random. A few of her books contain a fair amount of sexual references, though they are generally not graphic. However, many of her other books are completely clean and excellent historical fiction. The best part of her books is an ongoing theme about saving “keeping the light burning,” by which she means saving culture, art, civilization itself from being smothered.
Guides to more books will be added here as I read them.
This list is for every child and teen who has loved an animal so much they were sure that they could secretly talk.
In children’s literature, there are classics about animal which talk, and classics about animals which don’t talk. To accompany my list of 25 Great Books for Children who love Animals, here are my favorite books about talking animals! If you have an 8-14 year old animal lover, they will love these books!
Black Beauty is a classic, both inspiring and heartbreaking in turns. This story of a gentle horse who just wants friendship and peace is beloved by both children and adults. However, it is very sad at times so use discretion for highly sensitive young readers.
Ben and Me and Mr. Revere and I are two fantastic and funny tales of American Patriots and the founding of America as recounted by their loyal pets, a mouse and horse respectively.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is the story of the unlikely friendship that grows between a pig, a spider, and a girl: a friendship that is truly life-saving for one of the three.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is one of the best loved classics about talking animals. The happy, simple world of Badger, Mole, and Rat has captured the imagination of more than one generation. This book is a staple in any collection of children’s books.
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden is notable on several levels. First, it’s a timeless story of friendship between a cat, mouse, cricket, and boy. Second, it’s a great introduction to the variety of cultures in New York City, notably Italian and Chinese. Third, it’s illustrated by Garth Williams, of Little House fame. Worth reading on all three counts.
The Song of the Winns: The Secret of the Ginger Mice by Frances Watts is a fun little known talking animal story about mice triplets. When one of the triplets is kidnapped, his siblings set out to find him. Their journey is filled with mystery, adventure, and surprises.
The Redwall books by Brian Jacques are always favorites with Catholic children, even the most reluctant readers. These books have a wonderfully medieval feel with their high feasts, epic battles, and quests. There are over 22 Redwall Books, all enjoyable, though the first six are generally considered the best.
In some ways reminiscent of Redwall, the The Green Ember series nevertheless manages to find its own voice. This series follows the adventures, battles, and quests of a rabbit clan. Great themes about growing up, bravery, loyalty, and more.
All of the Narnia books include talking animals, but The Horse and His Boy stands out as having a truly memorable talking animal leading character. Bree, the kidnapped horse who longs to get home to Narnia, goes on a journey of self-knowledge and character growth just as much as his rider, Shasta. This is my very favorite of the Narnia books.
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary is the first of the Ralph S. Mouse books. Young Ralph is a mouse who longs for speed and adventure. Life in a hotel is boring at best until a sympathetic boy shows up.
Freddy the Detective by Walter Brooks is one of the classic Freddy the Pig series. These charming older books follow Freddy, a kind-hearted pig, on a series of ventures from starting a detective agency to becoming a lawyer. Other titles in the series include Freddy the Politician,
In The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, Doctor Dolittle struggles to deal with his stuffy English patients. His parrot, Polynesia, teaches him animal language and he becomes a veterinarian instead.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll has several talking animal characters, such as the unforgettable white hare on his way to have tea with the queen. This is a classic that every child should read at some point in their life.
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling is actually a collection of stories about the jungle. Many feature the classic cast of movie characters such as Baloo, Mowgli, and Shere Khan. These stories are more challenging than many books on this list, but offer great exposure to India.
The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner are both included in this beautiful color version of the classic Pooh stories. These hilarious stories are actually better enjoyed by an independent reader than a younger child!
Watership Down by Richard Adams is a talking animal classic about a small band of rabbits’ struggle for survival. Warning for parents of younger and sensitive children that a few lovable main characters do die in this story.
Thornton Burgess is well known for his animal stories about clever Peter Cottontail, sneaky Reddy Fox, and the rest of Mother West Wind’s children. You can start reading about their escapades in Old Mother West Wind, then continue with the whole series. These short books are great for encouraging younger readers to finish a whole book!
Do you have a dog lover in the family? A horse crazy daughter? A budding naturalist? The child who loves all creatures great and small? I was one of those children, and here is a list of some of my very favorite children’s stories about dogs, horses, and more exotic animals! This list is for the books with animals which act like, well, real animals.
If you’re familiar with the movie Homeward Bound, you’ll already know the basic plot of The Incredible Journey. Three animal companions set off on an incredible cross-country journey, determined to return home to their family. Unlike the movie, in the book the animals don’t actually talk.
Jim Kjelgaard, one of my favorite childhood authors, is best known for Big Red, the story of a boy named Danny and the friendship with an Irish Setter that changes his destiny. Kjelgaard was a prolific author who wrote a plethora of adventure stories about the outdoors, animals, and boys. I can recommend everything I’ve read by him, including: Snow Dog, Irish Red, Stormy, Wild Trek, Trailing Trouble, and Swamp Cat.
Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune is heaven for dog lovers. Lad’s big, gentle heart and courage are guaranteed to make the reader want a collie. Terhune’s other collie books are all excellent. I particularly love Bruce, Gray Dawn, and Treve.
James Herriot’s Favorite Dog Stories are a delightful introduction to this beloved Yorkshire author. This is a collection of some of the funniest, and most poignant, dog stories Herriot wrote.
Follow My Leader is a heart-warming story about a middle school boy whose life is shattered when he loses his eyesight in an accident. Thanks to his supportive family and friends, Jimmy soon bounces back and learns to navigate life blind. But the real game-changer is when he meets Leader, his guide dog. Great book that offers a window into life with a disability.
Where the Red Fern Grows can be a love-hate experience for dog lovers since it has a bittersweet ending. If your child is sensitive to animal dying, steer clear of this one. Otherwise, it is a great story about grit, loyalty, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard.
Along Came a Dog is an out of print treasure by Meindert DeJong. A homeless dog encounters a little red hen and a lonely man, and all their lives are changed. This one is worth buying a used copy!
SeaMan is based on the true story of the dog who explored the west with Lewis Clark. The gentle Newfoundland is always a favorite with dog lovers who appreciate his loyalty, courage, and personality. Historical fiction fans will also enjoy the attention to historical detail in this book.
Did you know 101 Dalmatians was originally a novel? This classic story about Pongo the Dalmation father’s fight to find and rescue his kidnapped puppies is sure to be a hit.
Scout by Julie Nye is a lovely story about a boy, boats, horses, and a dog set in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula. When Scout appears half dead in the water, no one knows where he came from. Jeff nurses him back to health but eventually has to make a tough decision about where Scout really belongs. Warning: there is a slight fundamentalist Christian flavor to this book since the family is Baptist. Nothing anti-Catholic or heretical though.
Beverly Cleary’s classic humorous stories about Henry and Ribsy are always popular with animal lovers! Everyone cracks up at Henry’s schemes and Ribsy’s escapades.
Part of the wonderful Little Britches series The Home Ranch has always been a favorite of mine since it’s all about horses, really. Barely a teenager, young Ralph goes to work as a hand on a cattle ranch. He soon learns that the key to sucess is having the right string of horses and learning to work with them.
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley is a beloved classic about a boy and a horse. Shipwrecked on a desert island, Alec and the Black forge a friendship that survives their return to civilization. The themes about resilience, self-reliance, trust, and friendship always resonate with kids.
Smoky the Cowhorse was a 1927 Newberry Medal Winner about a wild mustang and a cowboy. Will Smoky give up his freedom in return for friendship?
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold is another old equestrian classic, this time about a girl and a horse. Horse-crazy Velvet breaths all things equine but money is tight. Very different from the more famous movie, this is a book about an awkward adolescent girl’s determination to ride.
Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat is a hilarious, delightful memoir of the author’s boyhood in rural Canada with a veritable zoo of pets. His fond memories of the escapades of his animal friends are strung together into an engaging book. The reader also learns quite a bit about the likes, dislikes, and peculiarities of Great Horned Owls.
My Side of the Mountain is a true modern classic by Jean Craighead George. Teenaged Sam flees his overcrowded city life and decides to learn to survive on old family property in the wilderness of the beautiful Catskill Mountains. He wouldn’t be able to survive without the assistance of his Peregreine Falcon, Frightful.
How’s Inky? is the first in the Living Forest series by naturalist and philosopher Sam Campbell. Fun for adults and children alike, this series follows the escapades of the orphaned baby animals Sam cares for in his wilderness sanctuary.
Animals You Will Never Forget is a wonderful collection of excerpts from articles and books by the best animal writers and naturalists of the 20th century. An anthology that is worth tracking down a used copy of for your family library!
When a down-on-his-luck painter receives a mysterious package from an Arctic explorer, life takes an unexpected turn. Mr. Popper’s Penguins have soon taken over the Popper house!