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.
Amazon affiliate links included.
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!
James Alfred Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, wrote a wonderful series of books for adults, in addition to several collections for children. Drawing on his years of experience as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, Herriot wrote his memoirs beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. These memoirs take the form of a series of loosely connected stories, mostly anecdotes about the animals and owners he encountered. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, Herriot’s uncanny gift for storytelling makes these books classics I love to recommend to animal lovers young and old.
“All things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small”
The poem The Creation by Cecil Frances Alexander inspired the titles of Herriot’s books. This poem really captures the spirit with which Herriot approached creation, always marveling at its wonders and seeing the hand of the Creator. In a spirit very similar to St. Francis of Assisi, Herriot cares for each animal, great and small, he encounters. He embodies a great example of stewardship of creation, often helping animals whose owners have no way to pay for his services. His great love for nature surpasses the boundaries of Kingdom Animalia. He also loves natural beauty, often describing the breathtaking vistas of the Yorkshire dales with the affection of a lover.
Community and good old-fashioned virtues praised.
Herriot writes of a different generation and lifestyle. He describes a now old fashioned way of life based on hard work and simple pleasures. Both Herriot himself and the farmers he encounters endure back-breaking work, whether birthing cows or forking hay. They enjoy good food, family time, and the occasional treat of an outing to a concert. The lack of technology and slow pace of life is a shock, perhaps a necessary one, to the twenty-first century reader. Was Herriot’s generation more peaceful in their hard labor? Happier in their simple pleasures?
Community is of great importance to Herriot. Neighborliness is an important quality in an isolated, low-tech community- even if the nearest neighbor is a mile away! The farmers are almost always hospitable and kind, taking care of the vet with a cup of tea and a seat by the fire after a call. In return, Herriot and his partner Siegfried often extend credit to cash-strapped customers.
Any questionable content?
Herriot’s memoirs are somewhat autobiographical. He recounts his charming, clean story of falling in love with Helen, his future wife. This is no more graphic than the description of a few kisses. On the other hand, the young veterinary student, Tristan, is a wild college student who is described as having several lady friends. Nothing graphic again, but the insinuation is that he knows them rather too well.
Tristan is also described as being frequently drunk. Herriot’s partner in the firm, Siegfried Farnon, is also occasionally described as drunk, and even rarely Herriot himself. Usually the consequences of drunkenness are portrayed as unpleasant: embarrassment at the least, or even a lost client. But occasionally Herriot does recount a drunken episode with a humorous twist.
The only other caveat I have about these books is the occasional foul language. The farmers are earthy men who swear when angry. Their language ranges from taking the Lord’s name in vain to the occasional f-word. The language is infrequent enough that is easy to take a permanent marker and cross out any words you don’t want your teens reading.
Who will enjoy the James Herriot books?
Anyone who appreciates a masterfully told anecdote with a lilting rhythm punctuated by impeccably timed punch lines. Anyone who loves animals and nature. Anyone who likes autobiographies, comedy, or a sweet love story. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying these books. I wholeheartedly recommend them for teens and adults who are looking for a light-hearted series.
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Teens and Romances
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What type of romance should teens be reading?
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
Themes in true romances
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
This list would be incomplete without some Louisa May Alcott! Though Little Women focuses mostly on sister-relationships, other Alcott books like Rose in Bloom and An Old-fashioned Girl are about finding love, sometimes in unexpected places. Rose and Polly learn to remain true to their beliefs and wait for a man wiht a pure heart.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is an exciting historical fiction novel about a fiery teenage girl who becomes deeply involved in palace intrigues, caught between two rivals for the Egyptian throne. Oh, and of course there is romance too. I love how this story shows Mara’s growth from utter selfishness to understanding the sacrificial nature of love.
Manalive by G. K. Chesterton is another book that fits many genres. I call it a romance for two reasons. First, because it teaches the reader that everyday life is romantic. Second, because a third of the book is about two characters falling in love and fighting in court to be allowed to marry.
Here are some novels with romantic plots I recommend for teens over 14.
Funny and memorable, My Heart Lies South is a true story about a young American journalist who falls in love on a trip to Mexico and ends up staying. Readers will love this amusing love story that also touches on the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture and family.
Do not assume all of Gene Stratton-Porter is appropriate for teens, but Laddie: A True Blue Story is really a charming story told by Laddie’s Little Sister, who explores themes about family, nature, redemption, and forgiveness. She also recounts how Laddie fell in love with and won the heart of a Princess.
Freckles is another great book by Gene Stratton-Porter. Similar to Laddie in many ways, a simple lad must win the heart of a high-born girl. A charming romance, and a great story of personal growth and overcoming disability.
The Robe is the story of one man’s quest for love and truth. He finds it in Christ. But he does also find love with a special young woman, which teen readers will enjoy.
The James Herriot Books are the funny and endearing stories of everyday life as a country veterinarian. James Herriot weaves his story of wooing and winning his wife into his animal anecdotes.
[Parental warning: mild language]
Everyone knows that teenage girls should read Pride and Prejudice, but don’t stop there. Read The Jane Austen Collection for more classic stories about finding love, with a side of social commentary and comedy.
[Parental warning: mentions of out of wedlock relationships, illegitimate children, mistresses]
The Virginian is a classic western full of cowboys, shoot-outs, and true love. With his quiet humor and gentle nature, the reader is rooting for the Virginian to win the lady.
A Tale of Two Cities is, as I mentioned above, a stellar example of how true love is sacrificial. No-good Sydney Carton never does get the girl, but his pure love for her ends up being his redemption.
P. G. Wodehouse is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he also wrote some hilarious romantic comedies such as the Adventures of Sally. Many of his Blandings Castle novels also include a strong romantic plot, such as in Heavy Weather and Summer Lightning.
A School for Unusual Girls: A Stranje House Novel is the first in a series of historical fiction novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a love story, which is kept carefully PG. Strong female heroines abound in these novels. [Parental warning: one of the girls is wilder and does break some of the rules, occasionally is described as dressing in a more risque fashion, etc. There is also mention of someone keeping a mistress, which is portrayed negatively.]
[Parental warnings: one scene of attempted date rape in the very first book]
Older teens (16+) will enjoy these more difficult novels.
A classic mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is driven by a romantic interest. The protagonist and narrator must solve the mystery of who the woman in white is in order to gain a happily ever after with his wife.
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The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart looked like a fairly simple book. I had recently finished reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, which in typical Chestertonian fashion is absolutely amazing but also leaves you feeling like your head may explode from his awe-inspiring insights. Anyway, I wanted a simple book to review and ended up choosing The Mysterious Benedict Society at the library. I soon realized this book was a poor choice if I wanted a straightforward subject. In no time, I found myself dusting off my Theology major cap and delving into the Catechism, Aquinas, and Augustine trying to ascertain the exact position the Catholic Church holds on spying and lying while spying.
A STRAIGHTFORWARD PREMISE
The plot of The Mysterious Benedict Society is fairly simple. Four lonely but gifted children (Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance) are recruited by a benevolent genius (Mr. Benedict) to assist in foiling a plot by an evil genius. The evil genius aspires to control the minds of all humankind via his hi-tech invention, “The Whisperer.” The children are chosen because they have a particularly strong love for the truth and therefore a certain immunity to The Whisperer. Reynie and his friends have to go incognito into the evil genius’ organization to uncover his plans and foil them. On the surface, it’s a classic conflict of good versus evil with the reader rooting for the good guys.
LYING AND SPYING
The potentially troublesome scenario which this book creates is placing the four children undercover, in situations where they may have to lie, cheat, and otherwise practice deception. The children are repeatedly described as special because they have a strong love for the truth. This doesn’t jibe well with portraying them as lying, cheating, and so on.
The first question I had when analyzing the morality of the children’s actions was: are all the scenarios where the children tell lies under coercion or in order to preserve their secret identities? Mostly yes. Mostly. There are one or two occasions where Sticky tells a completely unnecessary lie, such as when he lies about his parents in the beginning of the book. These occasions are quite indefensible. It is up to you as a parent to decide if your child has the maturity to recognize these lies as deplorable and know not to imitate.
The rest of the lying and cheating is in the context of the children preserving their secret identities. What does the Church have to say on the morality of deception in this context? Not much, actually. There isn’t an infallible teaching about the morality of spying. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ argument would preclude lying when spying. But Aquinas isn’t always right.
In a fascinating article in First Things, Ethics professor Janet Smith provides a round-up of various Catholic positions on the lying and spying question. She notes that the lack of an official Church teaching on this subject points to it being a moral gray area, rather situation dependent. She draws an analogy to taking human life. Killing is wrong, but in order to defend oneself or another innocent, one can kill. Similarly, she says, lying is wrong, but in particular situations such as to save human life, one can lie. I recommend reading her article for a more thorough understanding of her argument.
Whatever your position on the question of lying and spying, the inclusion of such a tricky subject definitely makes this children’s book more complicated than your average adventure story. I would highly recommend discussing the morality of the children’s lying in the story. In fact, this makes for a great book report topic or family discussion!
To counterbalance the lying question, I found a plethora of redeeming themes in The Mysterious Benedict Society. Watching four children with diverse personalities coalesce into a team is a great lesson for the reader. Sticky is shy, Reynie is a natural leader, Kate is independent, and Constance is contrary. Their only similarity is a shared love of truth and common mission. Which is plenty to form a team and eventually friendships!
Another great theme throughout the book is overcoming fear. Sticky particularly struggles with overcoming his fears to do the right thing. The Whisperer soothes his fears and makes him feel happy: a seductive evil to resist. Reynie and Sticky both find themselves tempted to succumb to The Whisperer. Reynie thinks:
“The Whisperer’s version of happiness is an illusion – it doesn’t take away your fears, it only lies to you about them, makes you temporarily believe you don’t have them. And I know it’s a lie, but what a powerful one!”
Reynie and Sticky overcome The Whisperer’s seductive pull by relying on their friendships with each other and Kate and Constance. Reynie also turns to an adult, Mr. Benedict, for his wisdom. Through the help of other people rather than a machine’s lies, Sticky and Reynie learn to push past fear to complete their mission.
TV AND TRUTH
A third theme that will make most parents smile is the juxtaposition of TV and truth. The four children are chosen because they love the truth. What is one of the primary signs of their attachment to truth? They dislike TV and its messages. Now of course, in the story the evil villain is piggybacking poisoned messages on TV waves. We don’t have that in our world… or do we? Are the messages our children ingest from the media a positive or negative in forming their moral imaginations?
Weighing the pros and cons, I found The Mysterious Benedict Society to be an enjoyable adventure story with overall wholesome themes. After a discussion of the morality of lying and spying, this book is quite appropriate for children ten and older. Younger children could also enjoy it if they are mature enough to grasp the concepts of spying, mind control, and temptation.
I consider Swallows and Amazons and its sequels to be one of the greatest series ever written for children. In these 12 books, author Arthur Ransome presents tales of stirring adventure and ingenious discoveries, all written in the most beautiful yet accessible English prose. Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and the rest of the series chronicle the holiday adventures of the four Walker children and their friends. Not fast-paced in the modern sense of violence and high drama, these books nevertheless are chock full of age-appropriate adventures involving (for a small sampling) exploring deserted islands, sailing, gold mining, boat races, and wilderness survival. Ransome is a master writer, and these books are pure joy to read, even as an adult. But the are intended for children, and impart many great lessons quite subtly.
Every book revolves around the children’s adventures in the great outdoors. Sometimes sailing through the English lake country, sometimes trekking across the moors, sometimes exploring the China Sea, each book offers an example of how exciting and fascinating the outdoors can be. The children are always active, never lazy, because there is always something to explore or build. They show that camping, boating, and roughing it can be fun and invigorating. There is never a bored moment on a Walker holiday.
CURIOSITY AND INGENUITY
Several of the children have an ardent curiosity about how things work. They model ingenuity and creativity as they research, experiment, and learn as they go. In one book alone, Pigeon Post, they discover how to use carrier pigeons, dig a well, make charcoal out of peat, prospect and pan for metals, build a blast furnace, and do chemical assays for gold. In other books, they gain extensive knowledge about sailing boats both small and large, navigation, astronomy, ornithology, a variety of codes, and survival skills. Nearly everything they learn is on their own initiative during holidays. These books definitely inspire kids to be inquisitive and innovative!
Friendship is a major theme in the Swallows and Amazons series. Parents will appreciate how broad and inclusive the friendships in these books are. Siblings of various ages work and play harmoniously together. The Walker and Blackett children range in age from six to twelve in the first books, and all get along wonderfully most of the time. There is no pettiness, exclusion, or cliquishness. No silly immature romances spoil the simple camaraderie these children share. Diverse in interests and personalities, they are united in their friendship by a shared love for outdoor exploration and adventure.
POSITIVE PARENT FIGURES
Another wonderful theme in these books is their positive portrayal of parents. The Walker children adore their mother, who is at once properly caring and concerned yet willing to give them the space and freedom to foster their independence and creativity. The Walker father is absent in the first few books for work, but always in conctact via letter and telegram and clearly respected and admired by the children. Later in the series, Captain Walker returns and makes sure to prioritize taking his children on sailing adventures. The Blackett girls are being raised by their widowed mother, who, like Mrs. Walker, combines a motherly spirit with respect for her children’s individuality and independence. She gets extra points for being a patient and understanding mother to Nancy, the headstrong child in the series. The parents of the third sibling set, Dick and Dot, are archaeologists who feature little in the series, but their relationship still seems connected and loving. So many modern books embrace the theme of misunderstood child and flawed parent, it’s refreshing to read a story where parent-child relationships are natural and loving.
For reading order, it’s best to start with Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and Winter Holiday in that order, then read the rest as you can find them. Some of the books are hard to find or out of print, but these stories are really worth buying and adding to your family library. One of the best things about this series is the entire 12 books are appropriate for all ages. That makes this a wonderful series to read aloud as a family or listen to as an audio book in the car. Of course, they are also enjoyed read solo by a competent reader; around ten years old is usually perfect. I hope you find and enjoy these marvelous children’s classics!
The Drovers Road Collection by Joyce West could be described as a New Zealand Little House on the Prairie. I cannot say enough good things about this trilogy, yet sadly it is little known in the United States. Tweens and Teens who love adventures, a story with a strong female protagonist, and a generous dose of humor, will enjoy Drover’s Road.
These adventures are narrated by Gay Allan, a lively and adventurous girl growing up on a New Zealand sheep station. The trilogy begins with Gay and her three cousins’ humorous escapades as they “help” their Uncle Dunsany on his ranch, deep in the Maori country. The cousins may be far from civilization, but life is never quiet at Drover’s Road with its colorful cast of characters both human and animal. In Cape Lost, Gay describes growing into a young woman, experiencing first loves and heartbreaks. But don’t worry; Gay, true to her name, is always resilient and able to see the humorous side of her adventures as she comes of age. The final book, The Golden Country, is Gay’s story of taking over a sheep station of her own as a young adult.
What makes these stories so worthwhile and memorable is Gay’s worldview, wise beyond her years yet still joyful. Growing up on a sheep station, she is used to hard work and responsibility. Yet she is also gentle-hearted and merry by nature. In each chapter, whether funny or poignant, a disaster or celebration, she provides a lesson for the reader without moralizing.
Drover’s Road is a story of a different era a century ago, when cell phones and the internet were not even imagined. Gay and her cousins fill their days taming wild horses, building a hideaway under a waterfall, hunting treasure, and playing matchmaker to their various relations. I think reading about their adventure-filled, joyful lives is a great inspiration to today’s teens and tweens to turn away from their screens and consider what real adventure might look like.
Despite being an old story when it comes to technology, Gay’s atypical family situation may strike a chord in today’s kids. Gay and her three cousins are all being raised by their young uncle and a distant cousin, “Aunt” Belle. Their parents all either died or abandoned them. Though they have an idyllic life on the cattle station, the cousins still experience a sense of missing and emptiness over their lost parents. Later in the books, Gay delves into her difficult relationship with her father, whom she struggles to forgive.
The romance is light and clean, and there is no language or violence. This wonderful book is perfect for twelve and older. The only sad part is that it is out of print so you have to buy it used here, or you can buy it as an e-book from publisher Bethlehem Books or on Amazon.