scenic view of rainforest

Review of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life”

These two lovely books from Catholic author Diana Gonzalez Tabbaa are a breath of peace in a stormy world. With a simple and gentle voice, Tabbaa takes on the difficult question of children facing the problem of suffering. (Have you noticed I love books about the question of suffering?) The Tree of Healing and The River of Life are the perfect books to help tweens and teens grapple with the problem of pain.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

The River of Life

Twelve year old Anthony lives on a beautiful estate with his loving and holy parents. But when his father dies suddenly, Anthony’s faith and trust in God are shaken. He sinks deeply into grief and loneliness. But soon, he rediscovers God’s love and goodness through the healing power of nature, hard work, and a little help from a mysterious young man named Raphael.

“God has been using all creation to draw me to Him.”

The River of Life

The Tree of Healing

Thirteen year old Rose, Anthony’s daughter, can’t remember her deceased father. Her mother is broken by the loss of her spouse and emotionally distant with Rose. This is a moving story of a lonely young teen who finds love in the right place: God’s arms. As in The River of Life, Tabbaa weaves in themes about Creation, mysticism, and heavenly help.

Beautiful and Moving Books

I can’t say how much these beautiful stories moved me. The lovely art and poetry round out the stories and provides a spark to encourage contemplative prayer. The mystical undertones are unusual to find in fiction- a wonderful surprise. I imagine The Tree of Healing and The River of Life will help draw many young people closer to Christ through contemplation of suffering and Divine Providence.

“It is within Your Heart, open at the cross, that I may pour myself out with You and share in Your Life, the Life of God.”

The tree of healing

I received a copy of “The Tree of Healing” and “The River of Life” from the author in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Printable Reading List: 110 Classic Books for Middle Grade Boys

Did you enjoy my recent printable reading list of 90 Classic Books for Middle Grade Girls? Here’s a similar list for the boys!

Check out this FREE downloadable printable list to help your sons track their reading throughout the middle grade! It’s based on my popular book list 60 Classic Books for Middle Grade Boys, but has even more awesome book ideas!

Here’s a preview of what the first page looks like!

Both boys and adventure-loving girls will love these classic books about high adventure, funny talking animals, mysteries, and more!

To download this FREE pdf, click on the link below!

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love heart flowers spring

Review of “The Plans God Has for You”

The Plans God Has for You

The Plans God Has for You: Hopeful Lessons for Young Women is a fantastic new book from Amy Smith and Emmaeus Road Publishing. Our modern world is fast-paced, stress inducing, and confusing for teens. Teenage girls desperately need to hear Amy’s message about hope, trust, and being a Christian in a fallen world.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

Jeremiah 29:11

The heart of Amy’s message is found in Jeremiah 29:11, a perfect verse for teenage girls to memorize.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.

Jeremiah 29:11

The Plans God Has for You dives deep into this verse, applying it to friendship, the sacraments, family, dating, and more. Amy urges girls to internalize this message of hope and love from God to us. She explains how this verse can carry girls through suffering, how it helps us approach our friendships and relationships, and how it calls us to shine Christ’s light in the world.

What Makes This Book Special

Amy speaks directly to teen girls with a voice they will easily connect with. She keeps her points short, sweet, and poignant. In The Plans God Has for You, teens will find references and quotes from their favorite Christian bands, classic movies, and popular modern saints. Of course, my favorite part was Amy’s generous quoting of classic books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Jane Austen. The best chapter, in my opinion, is the one where Amy delves into Austen’s themes about happiness, marriage, and true love. There’s deep wisdom in these classic novels that can teach modern day teens that true love waits, is patient, is hopeful.

Perfect for Teen Girls

I would happily gift this book to teenage girls I know. It’s inspiring, it’s easy to read, and it’s clean! The only mention of sex is a paragraph that affirms the value of chastity and the goodness of sex, when used as God intended between husband and wife. Parents will appreciate Amy’s effort to focus teens on enjoying friendships, family, personal growth, and their relationship with God. Although I think the target audience is teens, there is a lot of wisdom for college aged women too. And I enjoyed it as a mom! The Plans God Has for You is a breath of fresh air!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “The Plans God Has For You” from Emmaeus Road Publishing in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

The Plans God Has for You

For more great books for Catholic teens, check out my lists!

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook

Printable Reading List: 90 Classic Books for Middle Grade Girls

90 Classic Books for Middle Grade Girls

Today I’m excited to share my new project with you! Due to popular demand from my readers, I’m beginning a series of printable reading lists with check boxes and space for date read so your children can track their reading! Click the link below to download!

This is a free printable pdf for your daughter to keep track of her middle grade reading. I based this list on my popular book list 50 Classic Books that Middle Grade Girls Love but added in sequels and a few extra titles to bring the total number of titles up to 90! That’s a lot of books! Challenge your daughter to read them all between the ages of 8-12. These are classics, so most libraries should have a high percentage of these books available to borrow.

Here’s a peek at what it looks like!

I’m so happy with how it turned out!

90 Classic Books for Middle Grade Girls Reading Checklist preview

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Review of “Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz”

St. Maximilian Kolbe is truly a saint for day modern-day Catholics to admire and emulate. From his successful media outreach work to his missionary work to his sacrificial death, St. Maximilian Kolbe lived a life of charity and love. This exciting new graphic novel from Sophia Institute Press brings St. Maximilian Koble’s story to life with high quality illustrations and photographs of the saint.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

The Whole Story

Most Catholics are familiar with St. Maximilian Kolbe’s dramatic sacrificial death as Auschwitz: so much so that he is often known as The Saint of Auschwitz. But this graphic novel delves deeper and follows the thread of Maximilian’s life from childhood to death. Through St. Maximilian’s remembrances in concentration camp, you will learn about Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s work establishing the Militia of the Immaculata, establishment of Catholic magazines and newspapers, missionary work in Japan, and more. As I read The Saint of Auschwitz, I was blown away by how much a young priest with tuberculosis accomplished in his short life.

Inspiration for Today’s Teens

This graphic novel will powerfully motivate tweens, teens, and even adults to live life with joy, charity, and a missionary zeal in the spirit of St. Maximilian Kolbe. I think most tweens will be fine with the level of intensity. St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story is sad and intense; fifteen days in a bunker waiting to die of hunger and thirst is a horrifying death. But his choice to embrace this death out of charity for a stranger and his joy in suffering is an inspiration that today’s youth will respond to with enthusiasm.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of “Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz” from Sophia Institute Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Looking for more great graphic novels for Catholic kids? Check out my list of Graphic Novels and Comic Books!

Review of “Shadow in the Dark”

Shadow in the Dark book cover. Catholic book review.

Step straight into Medieval England as you open Shadow in the Dark, the first volume in a brand new series by Antony Kolenc. With a meticulous attention to the historical setting and thoughtful insight into Medieval Catholicism, Kolenc weaves a fascinating and exciting tale. The story begins with young Xan’s dramatic conflict with a band of robbers, which results in Xan losing his family, memory, and feeling of identity. While packing in plenty of action, what makes Shadow in the Dark really stand out among middle grade historical fiction is Xan’s insightful search for the meaning of his suffering and journey of faith.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

What is Identity?

12 year old Xan loses his memory completely at the beginning of the book which leads him to question who he is, and seek a purpose in life. Although most tweens and young teens don’t have to deal with amnesia, they will identify with Xan’s quest to define himself and his place in life. A major theme in Shadow in the Dark is Xan’s quest for identity. He looks to his new “family” of monks at Hardwell Abbey for assistance in his search.

A wise nun tells him: “If you find our purpose- where you fit into this new life of yours- then you will find your joy again.” One of the monks suggests that Xan may find meaning in learning to read and write and study. Later, Xan begins to see himself as an integral part of God’s plan for the Abbey: the boy who can solve the mystery. When Xan begins to see himself as following God’s plan, he begins to find peace. This message about identity being found in your vocation, in doing God’s will, is a great one for young teens to read!

Meaning in Suffering

Twined with Xan’s search for meaning is his struggle to understand his own suffering: why did his parents die? Why did he lose his memory? Difficult questions, and Shadow in the Dark doesn’t give a trite answer. Eventually, with prayer and thought, Xan accepts that his parents are in heaven and, in a way, better off, though he will always miss them. As he sees his purpose in God’s plan for the Abbey, he begins to glimpse meaning in his own suffering. The question of suffering is another great subject for tweens and teens to begin to ponder, since this is an inevitable question in any Christian’s life.

Bullying and Friendship

When Xan joins the other orphan boys at the Abbey, he immediately runs afoul of the bully, John. Shadow in the Dark does a wonderful job depicting Xan’s initial attempts to avoid trouble and eventual rise to the occasion to protect the younger boys. Even better, Xan later works as a peacemaker and gives John a role in solving the Abbey mystery. In the end, Xan and John are striking up a friendship.

Reading Historical Fiction Critically

Although I loved Shadow in the Dark as a whole, there are a few points parents may want to be aware of for an advance discussion with their children. Author Kolenc definitely agrees with this; he provides a handy preface that encourages his young readers to notice historical differences in practice and attitude and evaluate whether these differences are positive or negative. For example, there’s one old monk who has special permission from his Abbot to engage in self flagellation to unite himself with Christ’s sufferings. The other monks emphasize that this is a “dangerous” practice and only to be undertaken with special permission from a religious superior.

Emotional Cliff Hanger Conclusion

Although I loved the emphasis on identity and meaning in suffering, and Xan grew a lot over the course of the book, he still has a long way to go in his spiritual journey! In the poignant conclusion, Xan witnesses the Abbot forgive and spare the life of a bandit. This bandit not only tried to kill the Abbot, but is also responsible for the death of Xan’s parents and many others. The Abbot, with infinite wisdom and holiness, extends forgiveness and touches the bandit’s heart, moving him to repentance. However, Xan, furious still about his parents’ deaths, feels no forgiveness towards the man who is responsible. Clearly, Xan still has a long way to go on his spiritual journey! Hopefully the second volume will follow soon so we can find out how he learns to forgive!

Great for the Middle Grades

5th-8th grade tweens and teens will enjoy this masterfully constructed historical fiction novel. There’s adventure, there’s mystery, there’s justice, there’s friendship. Xan is a relatable hero grappling with common coming of age problems. The overall positive depiction of a medieval Abbey as a center of learning and charitable works is refreshing and inspiring. I look forward to seeing the future volumes in this series!

Shadow in the Dark is available for pre-order now!

I received a copy of “Shadow in the Dark” from Loyola Press in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.

Book cover "Shadow in the Dark" book review Catholic kids

Review of “The Princess Diaries”

Princess Diaries review book cover

This book starts out with an epigraph from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which is a true classic about acting like a princess inside even in the worst of circumstances. Unfortunately, The Princess Diaries does not live up to the epigraph or remotely inspire princess-like behavior in its young audience. I really dislike it when books marketed for tweens and young teens are full of sexual content, so prepare for a rant!

The premise

This diary is clearly intended to appeal to the 12-14 year old crowd. It’s the secret musings of Mia, a 14 year old high school freshman with tough hair and a phlegmatic personality. Used to hanging out with the school misfits, Mia becomes unexpectedly popular when she finds out she’s actually a European princess. Positives in this book? There are some basic positive themes about good friendships and anti-bullying and Mia is a reasonably likeable heroine.

But really, who wants their 12 year old reading about sex stuff?

This book is chock full of a completely unnecessary amount of content focused on sex. For example, right off the bat Mia speculates about her mother’s new boyfriend: “he’s not so cool if he’s sticking his tongue in your mom’s mouth.” Mia goes on to wish that the cool boy in school would put his tongue in her mouth though. Throughout the book, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about whether her mom is sleeping with her new boyfriend, and at one point does discover him in her apartment in boxers.

Another highlight is a long conversation between Mia, her best friend Lilly, and Lilly’s 18 year old brother. They talk about condoms and spermicidal fluid, losing their virginity, and who they’d choose to have sex with if they were the last person alive.

Other highlights include joking about her best friend’s brother sexually harassing her, and also Mia brushing off a creepy blind guy who gropes her as unimportant. Mia also laughs at herself for not knowing what “frenching” was when she was 11, like her cousin did. At one point, Mia’s grandmother the Princess Dowager calls her a hooker. At another point Mia describes a woman who inspired her; the inspiring part seems to be that the woman has plastic surgery lips made from her vagina.

What’s the big deal with lying again?

Like other modern “children’s” books, The Princess Diaries sadly normalizes lying and deception as a part of life. Mia frequently lies to her parents. At first, she tells herself in her diary to “stop lying.” But then she seems to “grow” in her view on lying and her self-coaching becomes: “tell the truth except when doing so would hurt someone’s feelings.” And later, “stop lying, and/or think of better lies.”

Political Bent

Another issue of note is Mia’s rather anti-religion, “open-minded” worldview. She admires Madonna because she “revolutionized” fashion by dancing in front of burning crosses and “wasn’t afraid to make the Pope mad.” Mia is proud that she refuses to go to church because she “refused to pray to a god who would allow rain forests to be destroyed in order to make grazing room for cows who would later become Quarter Pounders.”

Mia is also anti-gun, and pro-propaganda. She tells her readers that a stalker is allowed to buy a machine gun “in this country thanks to our totally unrestrictive gun laws.” Fact check: you can’t just buy a machine gun in America. That’s been illegal since 1986.

Mia’s a proud child of divorce. She lives primarily with her doting Bohemian mother and spends summers with her filthy rich royal father. Her parents are friendly to each other, but Mia confides that “things would majorly suck, I think, if they lived together.” She’s “perfectly happy” with her divorced parents.

Turning over in her grave

I doubt that Frances Hodgson Burnett and her heroine Sara are grateful for the tributary epigraph, which really doesn’t fit this teen novel. Unlike Sara, who strives to be a princess, Mia spends most of the book either complaining and acting out because she’s a princess or obsessing about boys and sex. I found little to redeem this book. It really reads like an intentional attempt to indoctrinate young girls into a certain political and sexual mindset.

There are so many better princess books out there! Shannon Hale’s fantastic Princess Academy series is a great example of a modern princess book which focuses on female friendships, sacrifices, and coming of age.

For other worthwhile Princess books, check out this list!

For better romances for teens, check out this list!

Review of “The Letzenstein Chronicles”

Cover "The Letzenstein Chronicles"

In turbulent mid-nineteenth century Europe, a young English girl is summoned to visit her dying grandfather, the Grand Duke of Letzenstein. Letzenstein is a fictional tiny European country, clearly inspired by Luxembourg. The young girl is Catherine Ayre, a lonely orphan. Her visit is to determine the future of a country on the brink of revolution. The Crystal Snowstorm is the exciting introduction in Meriol Trevor’s magnificent Letzenstein Chronicles.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I earn a small fee for qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

An Authentically Catholic Series

Meriol Trevor was a prolific twentieth century Catholic author. Originally from England, she helped in Italy during World War II as a relief worker. She eventually converted to Catholicism and wrote a wide variety of books for children and adults. Several of her children’s books have been republished in recent years by Bethlehem Books.

Meriol Trevor is that rare Catholic author whose books inspire virtue and love for truth and beauty so subtly you almost don’t see her trying. Like its inspiration Luxembourg, Letzenstein is a predominantly a Catholic country. Catherine Ayre gets to enter a city and country imbued with Catholic culture and art. She gets to encounter a variety of Catholics: some who strive to live their faith and some for whom faith is a facade. Tweens and young teens will appreciate the authenticity of Trevor’s depiction: there are corrupt Catholics, even corrupt clergy, in Letzenstein. But there are also Christ figures and repentant sinners who will lay down their lives to protect the innocent.

Trevor is truly a master of gently nudging her readers towards the path of virtue. The good characters in Letzenstein are compassionate and admirable, and the villains are slippery and scheming. No young reader wants to imitate devious Julius; everyone loves Rafael le Marre, the repentant sinner.

Exciting, but not just about the Action

The Letzenstein books certainly do have plenty of action. You will find daring escapes, fast-paced pursuits, clever disguises, sieges, and schemes and plots galore. Yet Trevor manages to avoid any graphic violence. Further, she manages to portray the villain’s acts of violence as truly deplorable and revolting.

Really, the Letzenstein Chronicles are about relationships: between friends, relations, rivals, families. Each character leaps from the page as if alive. Trevor is such a master storyteller she leads the reader to feel deeply invested in the fate of her characters. She tells each story from the viewpoint of a 10-12 year old child, which draws her readers into the story in a compelling way.

Any Content?

The Letzenstein Chronicles are very clean with no sexual content. There is no graphic violence or foul language. On the other hand, there is some light alcohol use. Remember this is a European book by a European author so children drinking a little wine is culturally normal. There is one episode where an adult character is given drugged alcohol by the villain in an attempt to extract information. This perfidy is portrayed as very reprehensible behavior on the villain’s part.

A Treasure Worth Finding

I highly recommend The Letzenstein Chronicles for 9-14 year olds. They also make a wonderful read-aloud for 3rd-6th graders.

The bad news is, these books can be a bit hard to find. All four Letzenstein Chronicles are available as E-Books. And you can buy the paperback of The Crystal Snowstorm from the publisher, Bethlehem Books. But to buy the paperbacks of Following the Phoenix, Angel and Dragon, or The Rose and Crown, you will have to settle for a used copy. Consider emailing publisher Bethlehem Books and asking for them to reprint this wonderful series!

For more great books for Catholic Kids, check out my book lists!

Review of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Cover image The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a Science Fiction cult classic. Intended for adults, this clever book, full of sometimes off-color British humor, is now often featured on reading lists for kids as young as 10 and 12. Is it appropriate for young Catholic middle schoolers? I submit that it is not for several reasons.

Sexual humor

As is not unusual in British humor, there is a fair amount of innuendo in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For example, there are similes such as: “He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman’s husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.” There are also references to sex, whores, and nudity. For example: “Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.” Or “five hundred entirely naked women dropped out of the sky on parachutes.”

Drinking

There’s a fair amount of drinking, often portrayed humorously. Ford, an alien stranded on earth, drinks excessively to pass the time. He also encourages Arthur, a human, to get drunk as a suitable preparation for death.

Poking fun at Religion

Another favorite “humorous” topic in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is religion. One of the major plot lines is that the Earth was created by Slartibartfast, a custom planet designer, by order of a group of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who appear on earth as mice. These “mice” build super computers who are more intelligent than they are to answer questions such as “what is the meaning of life.” The answer to that question, according to the computer, is 42.

In the Name of Humor

Both the sexual innuendo and the religious jabs are obviously supposed to be funny. Sensibilities vary greatly about whether this sort of humor is actually funny or, in fact, offensive. Obviously this is a prudential judgment on each parents’ part about whether they are comfortable with their children reading this material. I most often see this book recommended for tweens and teenagers. Please remember that it was not intended for children and be forewarned about the religious jabs and sexual innuendo.

Looking for better books? Check out my book lists!

Review of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Book Poster Image

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.