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.
Most teenage girls go through a stage of craving romance novels. Beware of letting your daughter even browse the romance section of your library these days though! She will be bombarded with sensual images on covers and graphic content within. Even many “Christian” romances are heavy on the sensuality and low on any sort of inspiring theme.
What should you look for in a romance for a Catholic teenager? There are the obvious “no’s”: no graphic sexual content, no positive portrayal of premarital sex, no living together before marriage, no dark drama about failing marriages. But a worthwhile romance is so much more than a list of “no’s.” Great romances showcase the true nature of love and humanity.
What is true love? It’s desiring the good of the other. Some of the greatest romances ever written explore this theme, like A Tale of Two Cities, in which Sydney Carton undergoes an incredible redemption and gives his life for the good of the woman he loves. Truly great romances will portray true love as selfless, giving, or redemptive. These type of romances often show the love between a man and woman as reflecting the love of God for us.
Is any human being perfect? Is love a feeling or a choice? Great romances do not portray the protagonists as perfect in every way. They often show that all people are imperfect, and forgiveness is the way to happiness. Or that true love isn’t just a magical feeling, but sticking together when life is tough and rekindling the flame of love in the face of adversity.
Are humans made for solitude or community? As much as we might sometimes envy the hero and heroine of Riders of the Purple Sage who push a boulder and cut off the rest of the world, this is not reality. Worthwhile romances usually have greater depth than a simple boy-meets-girl-engagement-marriage story line. They examine relationships with family, community issues, world events, or other broader topics.
Fortunately for your teenage daughters, there are plenty of novels which combine love stories that range from passionate to funny with worthwhile themes.
Here are a few of my favorite novels for teens that have themes about true romance and love.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy is such a wonderful combination of adventure, intrigue, and romance. This classic novel has a strong romantic plot about an estranged husband and wife falling in love with each other that teens will love. And it also has great themes about sacrificial love and forgiveness that parents love to see their kids reading.
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp is particularly powerful because it a true story. The real Maria who inspired The Sound of Music writes with a simple, charming voice how she met her future husband and family. This is a love story about Maria and the Captain, but also an example of a loving relationship in the context of family, community, and society.
They Loved to Laugh is another love story where love is experienced on several levels. It has great themes about family, friendship, and forgiveness.
The Rose Round is by the wonderful Meriol Trevor, a fantastic Catholic author who wrote one of my favorite children’s series, The Letzenstein Chronicles. The Rose Round is intended for a teen audience and follows a brother and sister pair who both find friendship and love in unlikely places. It has a great theme about looking beyond physical appearance to determine personal worth.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald is a classic fairy tale about a princess who loses her gravity, physically and emotionally. Only true sacrificial love from a prince can restore her to health and balance.
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.
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.
Comic Books and Graphic Novels are the reading material of choice for many kids these days, especially boys. Fortunately for Catholic parents, there are some awesome options being published in this genre by Catholic publishers. Check out these great options which teach about Saints, the Bible, the Catechism, and apologetics! Also included are a few clean, enjoyable comic books just for fun!
I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing “The Saints Chronicles, Collection 1”, the first in a great new series being published by Sophia Institute Press. For more details, check out my review here.
The Adventures of Loupio chronicle the escapades of Loupio, a young troubador whose life is forever changed when he meets Saint Francis of Assisi.
The Action Bible is one of the most professional looking graphic novels on this list. Little surprise since its illustrator works for Marvels Comics! This Bible isn’t specifically Catholic, but it sticks fairly close to the Bible stories and is a great way to get kids interested in reading God’s word.
The Picture Bible, which inspired The Action Bible, is also a great resource for bringing to the Bible to life for kids! It points out themes and has some discussion questions for the major stories.
The Illustrated Parables of Jesus is published by Ignatius Press, which also publishes an entire New Testament by the same illustrator and author. We love these versions of the Bible with their gentle pictures which even toddlers enjoy pouring over.
I’ve included the Catechism of the Seven Sacraments on other book lists already because I can’t say enough good things about this brilliant idea for a Catechism. The information is simply presented, yet somehow touches on information many adult Catholics don’t know. For example, my six year old understands the Four Cups and how they relate to the Mass after reading this book. He had to explain it to me because I barely knew what he was talking about!
I was extremely impressed by the caliber of apologetics presented in The Truth Is Out There: Brendan & Erc in Exile, Volume 1. This book, and its sequel, The Big Picture: Brendan and Erc in Exile, Volume 2, present arguments for Christian and Catholic doctrines in a format that will be accessible and memorable for tweens and teens. Volume 1 deals with big picture questions about God’s existence, heaven, and happiness. The presupposition is that you are talking to someone who is an atheist or agnostic, which will resonate with teenagers as they begin to interact more with secularists. In Volume 2, The Big Picture, Brendan and Eric begin to learn about God’s plan. Again, there is an outspoken agnostic character who challenges the RCIA teacher about everything from Galileo to the Trinity. All this hard core apologetics is set against an appealing Sci Fi backdrop complete with junky space ships and villains.
The Zita the Spacegirl Trilogy is an award winining series from Catholic graphic novelist Ben Hatke. His books are clean, age-appropriate, fun, and definitely worth buying!
Mighty Jack is the first in another great series by Hatke. With nods to Jack and the Beanstalk, Hatke creates an exciting world inhabited by dragons and biting pumpkins. I love that one of the characters is a (mostly) mute autistic girl. I found the themes about having a sibling with a disability timely in our current day with autism rates skyrocketing.
The Adventures of Tintin by Herge. What can I say? TinTin is a classic boy-sleuth series that every boy (and lots of girls) inhale. These books are clean, fun, and funny. Lots of adventure and quirky characters. Note that there is some drug and alcohol use, not portrayed favorably. Also some rather humorous swearing along the lines of “Billions of Blue Blistering Barnacles in a Thundering Typhoon.”
Have you ever promised your kids they can see a movie after they finish a book? Here are some awesome books which are also enjoyable movies appropriate for children ten and up. In fact, most of these movies might be enjoyed by the whole family, so consider reading aloud the book, and then having a family movie night!
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and its film adaption Misty is the perfect book and movie duo for children who love animals, particularly horses. Marguerite Henry’s poignant story of love and loss on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is equally appreciated by adults.
Redwall by Brian Jacques is a modern children’s classic about an animal world full of intrigue and battle, loyalty and betrayal, and the most delectable feasts imaginable. The animated movie based on the book is quite funny: Redwall-The Adventures Begin.
If you have a kid who loves graphic novels, try gifting them a copy of The Adventures of Tintin by Herge. The recent movie adaption is good fun for anyone over ten, or even younger if not bothered by mild animated violence: The Adventures of Tintin.
In Search of the Castaways: The Children of Captain Grant is a lesser known work by Jules Verne of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame. I have enjoyed every Jules Verne book I ever read, and this one is no exception. Mary and Robert Grant embark on an epic treasure hunt around the globe to find their shipwrecked father. It was adapted rather successfully into a fun film starring the Mary Poppins children: In Search Of The Castaways. This one is sure to become a family favorite.
The Swiss Family Robinson is a case where the movie may be better known than the book. The Swiss Family Robinson movie is a classic family film, and the book has even more interesting details about how the Robinson family survived on the island.
There are several film adaptations of A Little Princess, but my favorite is this version of A Little Princess, since I felt the film really captured the magic of Sarah’s imagination.
L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz still offers children an escape into a magical world, but also the message that “there’s no place like home.” The old Judy Garland film is still magical too: The Wizard of Oz.
I think the old version of the Anne of Green Gables Trilogy was well done, and captured the spirit of Anne well. And as you may know from my post about the Anne of Green Gables Series, I thoroughly approve of the books by L. M. Montgomery. I recommend reading and watching these for over twelves.
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, published in 2005, rapidly established itself as a modern children’s classics, garnering awards, rave reviews, and immediate bestseller status. Though published so recently, its plot and style is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Enright or E. Nesbit’s books. The focus on simple outdoor fun, lack of electronics, and four creative, intelligent sisters seem to belong to a different era than the twenty-first century. However, there are a few elements in the book which do give away its more modern origin, and these happen to be the same elements which the Catholic parent will want to know about before offering the book to their children.
The most concerning component of the story is the message about lying. The two middle sisters agree to lie to their father and older sister about nearly letting the littlest Penderwick get gored by a bull. They repeatedly lie about this episode, maintaining that their little sister was caught in a rose bush. I was really hoping that eventually the plot would show the girls learning some sort of lesson about lying, but alas, no. The message about lying here is certainly that one can lie with impunity and no guilty conscience.
Another detail I disliked was a subplot about Rosalind, the oldest Penderwick at 12, having a huge crush on Cagney, the 19 year old gardener. I found this both ridiculous and inappropriate, but fortunately the author did intend a positive message here, as Rosalind discovers she is being foolish: “I’m an idiot, [Rosalind] thought. I’m only twelve years old -well, twelve and a half,- and Cagney’s much too grown-up to be my boyfriend.”
This leads into another negative aspect of the book: the name-calling. Skye, the 11 year old, has a hot temper and is the worst culprit, saying things like: “Darn that Dexter. Double darn that lousy rotten no-good creep.” She also calls her littlest sister a stupid idiot and midget. However, there is character development about her learning she needs self control: “She sat up and swung her arms around wildly. This controlling her temper wasn’t going to be easy.” The 10 year old, Jane, calls names such as “fish head” and “silly git” playfully while practicing soccer. This is portrayed as meant merely in fun.
The final element parents might want to know about is a vampire reference which I found quite needless and out of sync with the feel of the rest of the book. At one point the four year old, Batty, is described as “playing vampires with Hound.” She “leap[s] over Hound’s water bowl, shrieking, ‘Blood, blood!'”
On the positive side of the scale, by and large the book contains positive messages about being courageous, pursuing your dreams, loyalty to family and friends, kindness, and forgiveness. The four sisters each have a unique, strong personality to which tween girls will easily relate. Rosalind is kind and responsible. Skye is independent, hot tempered, and smart. Jane is a creative, aspiring writer. Batty is a dreamy animal lover.
I appreciated all the positive interactions between Mr. Penderwick, a widower, and his four daughters. Although a tad absent minded, Mr. Penderwick is a refreshingly loving, affirming father figure who is always willing to listen. He also notices and empathizes whenever a daughter is upset and encourages each daughter to develop her particular talents.
Mr. Penderwick is a foil to the neighbor boy Jeffrey’s overbearing mother who tries to force him into military school when he really wishes to be a musician. I thought this part of the plot was handled exceptionally well. The Penderwicks encourage Jeffrey to be honest with his mother, and have the courage to tell her that he wants to attend a Music Conservatory instead. Jeffrey and his mother are able to come to a compromise thanks to the Penderwicks’ advice.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and would probably allow my tweens to read it, then discuss the problematic elements. If your children are well versed in children’s classics like Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, and Narnia, they will particularly enjoy the literary references Birdsall sprinkles throughout the pages of her books. If they haven’t yet read these classics, maybe The Penderwicks will inspire them to try them!
Did you know many Catholic saints were princesses? Sadly, in recent years, the word “princess” has become synonymous with a spoiled or arrogant girl. But for centuries, the word “princess” connoted a young lady who exhibits beauty both interior and exterior, grace, kindness, wisdom, and self-control. I am a proponent of resurrecting the image of the virtuous princess as a positive role model for our daughters. Because what little girl doesn’t instinctively admire a princess? So let’s read them stories about the type of princess we want them to emulate. Here are some great stories about real princesses for girls of all ages.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary is a Catholic saint and queen who truly exhibited charity through her great love of the poor. Roses in the Snow is a beautiful picture book about this beautiful soul.
The Princess and the Kiss is a wonderful story about cherishing the gift of purity. I love how the king and queen in the story guide their princess to develop virtues! Also check out the sequel, The Three Gifts of Christmas, which describes how the princess is cured of her selfishness.
FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOLERS
I was thrilled to discover the Twin Princess series at our local library recently. These sweet little easy readers offer great lessons for little girls. In The Princess Twins and the Tea Party, Princess Abby learns a lesson in humility as her sister Princess Emma reminds her: “Only God is perfect!” And in The Princess Twins and the Puppy, Abby learns a lesson in trusting God.
The Queen and the Cats is a retelling of little known legend about St. Helena, Queen mother of Constantine and finder of the true Cross. After finding the Cross, legend has it that Helena visited Cypress and helped save their churches from the rats.
Once upon a Time Saints offers the stories of some lesser known saints who also happened to be princesses such as Alice, who trusted God and married two different kings. And Elizabeth of Portugal who was a great peacemaker and patron of the poor.
M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess was a favorite princess story of mine as a girl. Princess Amy’s godmother bestows on her the gift of being ordinary. At first this seems like an impossible gift to burden a princess with, but eventually Amy finds a prince who likes her exactly as she is- especially her ordinariness.
FOR TWEENS TO TEENS
The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie are two classics from master storyteller George MacDonald. Princess Irene explores labyrinths with a magic ring, avoiding malicious Goblins with the help of Curdie, a simple miner boy.
The Light Princess is another George MacDonald story. A princess loses her gravity: both her ability to stay on the ground and her ability to be serious. She is insipid and carefree, and utterly selfish. Will even the prospect of her suitor dying rouse any compassion?
Catholic author Regina Doman’s series of fairy tale princess retellings are fun books with good themes for Catholic girls, if not necessarily memorable for their great prose. The Shadow of the Bear, the first book, is a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red. (Parental Warning: mention of date rape)Black as Night is a creative take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featuring friars as the dwarfs. Waking Rose is Sleeping Beauty retold, and the final book in Doman’s initial trilogy, which I would consider appropriate for about 14 and up. The Midnight Dancers is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a timeless theme about teenage rebellion, modesty, and obedience. (Parental Warning: mention of unwanted sexual advances, a torture scene, drug and alcohol use)Alex O’Donnell and the 40 Cyberthieves is Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, of course. Note that Doman’s latest book, Rapunzel Let Down, is meant for a much older audience.
FOR OLDER TEENS (18+)
Helena is Catholic author Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Saint Helena. This is a story of Helena’s quest for meaning, for love, for eternity. Also it an inspiring story of a woman who suffered many humiliations with great graciousness and channeled her sufferings into a search for eternal love.
Rapunzel Let Down is Regina Doman’s latest book, intended for a much older audience than her previous novels aimed at high schoolers. This is a very dark story of temptation, sin, and selfish love, juxtaposed to forgiveness, true love, and second chances. Only for readers over 18.
Reading at least Anne of Green Gables, if not the entire Anne series, is basically a rite of passage for young girls in America and Canada. L. M. Montgomery’s classic series is so beautifully written and her vivid characters, particularly Anne herself, are so memorable, these books deserve to be read and re-read over the years. There is a certain sense of the transcendent and sacramental in the Anne books which is wonderful to imbue in a girl’s imagination. So the question for a Catholic parent is not “if” to give your daughter a copy of the Anne books but “when” is the most appropriate age. Too early and they may be cast away unappreciated. Too late and the first at least may be discarded as too childish. My aim in this review is to introduce you very briefly to each of the eight books about Anne and explain the most appropriate age for each to be read by your daughter.
In Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery’s most famous work, the reader is introduced to Anne with an E, the irrepressible red-headed orphan whose pluck and cheerfulness earn her the love of an entire village. This first book begins with Anne coming to Green Gables at age 11, and follows her up until about age 16. There are so many wonderful themes in this book about both self-improvement and self-acceptance, loyalty and forgiveness, hard work and true happiness. Add to this gentle humor and Montgomery’s beautiful prose, and you have one of my very favorite books. Of course every girl will be different, but I think around age 12 is the perfect age for first encountering Anne.
Anne of Avonlea recounts Anne’s adventures from ages 16-18. This book is a touching coming of age story as Anne sacrifices some of her own dreams to support her family at Green Gables. I really appreciated how Montgomery portrayed Anne as mostly disinterested in boys and dutifully accepting Marilla’s opinion that 16-18 is too young for courting. This second volume of the Anne series is also appropriate for 12 and olders.
In Anne of the Island, Anne heads off to Redmond College with several of her friends from Avonlea. I found this one to be among the most amusing of the series, humorously recounting Anne’s college escapades, early attempts at getting stories published, and horrifically memorable marriage proposals. I consider the story line about college life more appropriate for 14 and up, but there is no material that would be objectionable for a 12 year old to read.
Anne of Windy Poplars is a collection of the letters Anne wrote to Gilbert during the three years of their engagement and separation while he attended medical school and she worked as a Principal at Summerside High School. This book is particularly delightful since Anne herself narrates her experiences far from Avonlea. With careful propriety, Montgomery “omits” those paragraphs where Anne’s pen is not too scratchy for her to write of her love for Gilbert, so these letters read as very PG, though I would personally save them for 14 and older again since I think they will be more appreciated at that age.
Starting with the fifth book, Anne’s House of Dreams, and continuing with Anne of Ingleside, the Anne books take a decided turn towards more adult conflicts and themes. While they are still tame compared to the sordidness spewed forth in many modern novels, these books simply present a realistic picture of adult life with believable concerns, cares and crosses. Anne and Gilbert suffer through the death of their first child. Anne helps a friend stay true to her difficult husband despite loving another man. The Blythes navigate their first disagreements. Anne even begins to doubt that Gilbert still loves her and worries about an old flame of his who is attempting to ensnare him. Stories along these lines were meant for a more mature audience, and I would definitely not recommend them before age 16.
In Rainbow Valley, Montgomery returns to her style in the very first Anne book, recounting the adventures of the six Blythe children and their young neighbors, the four Merediths. These stories are innocent and fun, all about helping the Merediths find the perfect stepmother and taking care of a young runaway girl named Mary Vance. Girls 12 and older will enjoy them.
Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne series. Rilla is Anne’s youngest daughter, a slightly spoiled but still sweet fifteen year old who comes of age during the different years of World War I. The book focuses on the effects of the War on the tiny village of St. Mary’s Mead, and the Blythe family particularly. Rilla’s story of a rather selfish young girl learning true courage and selflessness in a chaotic world is quite inspiring, and a great book for girls 14 and older.
One fun way to present the Anne books would be to give one book each year as a traditional birthday gift starting at about age 12. In this case, I would recommend giving the first four books in order, then skipping to give books 7 and 8, then ending with books 5 and 6 since they have the most mature themes. You could even continue the tradition by gifting further Montgomery books about the Blythes such as Chronicles of Avonlea and The Road to Yesterday. I hope your daughters come to love Anne and the village of Avonlea as much as I do.