A frequent question: What books are good for Catholic teenagers and young adults looking to deepen their faith? I have some suggestions!
Time for another round of Darwin’s Immediate Book Meme! The Darwins (who are not responsible for the terrible image at the top. I’m responsible for it. I alone) say:
There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let’s focus on something more revealing: the books you’re actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let’s call it The Immediate Book Meme.
1. What book are you reading now?
This is one of the books I agreed to read in our almost-successful summer book swap. It’s a dystopian YA novel (I know. WHERE DID I EVER FIND SUCH A THING?). The author’s vocabulary has an oddly stunted, juvenile quality to it, but the way the story unfolds is pretty skillful, and the plot is a pretty good adventure. The action takes place in Opium, a country that runs between the US and the former Mexico, where super-wealthy drug lords control the lives of everyone else, even putting brain implants on some, to make them pliant, witless slaves, and making clones of themselves to use as ever-ready organ donors. But . . . dun dun dun . . . one clone is different. Not bad at all, and unexpectedly Catholic in its ideas and also explicitly in the plot, in places.
I’m also in the middle — well, “middle,” but really about 3/4 of an inch in, and the thing is about seven inches thick — of War and Peace.
As far as I can remember, I’m reading the Constance Garnett translation.
In a reverse from last time I read this book, I’m finding the “war” part much more compelling than the “peace” part; and I’m finding Tolstoy much snippier than I may be able to handle for the whole seven inches.
Nothing at the moment, sadly. We’re still adjusting to the school schedule, and we’re doing well if we get to bed half an hour later than we meant to, so read-alouds aren’t happening now. I’d like to read Out Of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
to the middle and older kids, and probably a Narnia book to the younger kids.
2. What book did you just finish?
Here’s a book I avoided my whole life, because something something Oprah something, bestseller ptui ptui. You know: Lit major reasons. Well, my older girls assigned it to me, and it’s great. It’s great! It’s miraculously light on agenda and heavy on well-conceived characters, searingly memorable scenes, and a beautiful melancholy that stays with you (because you needed that). Each chapter could stand alone as a well-crafted short story. It’s not Dostoevsky, but it’s worth your time.
3. What do you plan to read next?
5. What book do you keep meaning to start?
Last week, I wrote about my idea to get everyone reading more and better books by doing a reading swap with my kids. It’s a simple plan: They read a book I think they’ll like, and I’ll read a book they think I’ll like.
Here’s what we have so far. (Note: All links are Amazon Associate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of every sale. If you click through and end up buying something else, I still earn! Thank you!)
My 19-year-old daughter has me reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett,
and I gave her The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.
My 18-year-old daughter is still mulling over my assignment, but I’m probably giving her The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth.
My 16-year-old daughter got me started on The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,
and I’m giving her The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.
My 15-year-old son gave me The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
and I’m giving him A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
My 13-year-old son assigned me Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
and I’m giving him Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
(if you order this book, beware of abridged editions!).
My 11-year-old daughter got me started on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham,
and I gave her The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (terrible, off-putting cover):
My 10-year-old daughter gave me The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (here’s hoping the cover is misleading)
My 8-year-old daughter gave me The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
and I’m giving her The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.
My five-year-old is just learning how to read, so she’s not playing, but I did order a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne for us to read together.
If your family is only familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, do yourself a tremendous favor and get ahold of the original. The stories are so weird and hilarious, highly entertaining for parents without being condescending for kids.
And we’re off! I’ll probably follow up with a bunch of quick reviews by me and the kids, and then we’ll get a second list going. So far, so good.
Are you interested in doing a book swap with your kids this summer? What books will you give them, and which books are they giving you? Please include their ages and maybe a little bit about why the books are on the list.
I really hate the mantra that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading. Of course it matters. I know we can do better than that, and I know how important it is to lay a deep, strong foundation of good ideas, powerful words and images, and memorable scenes and characters. Unfortunately, most of the books that are popular in my kids’ social circles don’t have any of these things.
Friday is usually “What’s for Supper?” day, but this week we had hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, tuna noodle, and pepperoncini beef sandwiches for supper, and no end of chips and carrot sticks. We had good reasons for eating cheap and easy all week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write 900 words about it.
Instead, just for fun, let’s talk about odd books we read as kids. Anybody remember these?
The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken (1980)
Joan Aiken’s more popular books are the funny and thrilling Wolves Chronicles (a loosely-connected historical fiction adventure series set mostly in an alternate London where James II was not deposed), many featuring the wonderful Dido Twite; and the hilarious Arabel and Mortimer series, about a sensible little girl and her almost-coherent pet raven; but Aiken also wrote several novels about the supernatural. One of these, The Shadow Guests is creepy, and fairly sad, but with a satisfying finish. An Australian teenage boy is sent off to live with a distant relative after his mother and her more-favored son apparently commit suicide together. Already lonely and upset, he begins to see ghosts — and they may have a particular message for him. Very dramatic and captivating. Aiken’s characters are always so well conceived and fleshed out and sympathetic. For middle school and up.
Miss Osborne-the-Mop by Wilson Gage, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (1963, so not technically from my childhood, but I did read it then)
Wilson Gage is the pen name of the prolific Mary Q. Steele, which sounds like even more of a pen name. A glum and shy girl has to spend the summer with a cousin she doesn’t like. They accidentally magically bring a mop to life — a mop who looks and acts disconcertingly like a bossy former teacher. The mop takes over their life, and their summer gets much harder, and much more fun, than they expected. Here’s a bunch of people who also remember this strange and charming book with fondness. It’s one of those books where something ridiculous and unlikely happens, and the characters know it’s ridiculous and unlikely, and they have to figure out how to deal with it like real people. For grade 3 and up.
Peter Graves by William Pène du Bois (1950)
The author is much better known for the offbeat fantasy The Twenty-One Balloons, but I think Peter Graves is the better book. A rowdy teenager, while showing off for his friends, accidentally destroys the home of an eccentric old inventor who lives on the outskirts of town. To help repay him, the boy goes on a mission to help him market an amazing but volatile substance he has invented. It turns out to be harder than it looks. The way I remember it, this story doesn’t really have a theme or a point; it’s just super interesting and funny and weird, and very much in tune with a real child’s imagination. For grade 4 and up.
Singularity by William Sleator (1985)
I honestly can’t remember if this book is any good or not. It centers on twin boys who are not alike and who do not get along. One summer, the smaller, less confident twin discovers something that may finally give him a leg up, but he’ll have to pay a horrible price. There was more to the plot — I think there was a monster? — but the unforgettable part is the scene where he’s deciding whether or not to go through with it. Anyone remember this book? Was it any good, or just weird? For middle school and up.
Banana Twist by Florence Parry Heide (1982)
Heide is best known for The Shrinking of Treehorn, illustrated by Edward Gorey, which I don’t think I’ve ever read. I’m only mentioning this book because I read it five billion times, hating it every time. Why do kids do this to themselves? I don’t know. The hero is an irritable TV- and candy-obsessed kid named Jonah B. Krock who is trying to finagle his way into a boarding school so as to escape his health-obsessed parents. His life becomes intertwined with his repulsive neighbor, who falls under the illusion that Jonah has an obsession with bananas. But at the end, there is a twist! This is such an 80’s book. It’s basically a lame and pointless joke spun out to book length for no reason at all. Naturally, there is a sequel.
Finally, a book that doesn’t fit in with the rest of these books at all, but maybe you can help me find it! It’s a picture book, with no words at all. The pages are cut into three or four horizontal strips. By opening the cut-up pages into different combinations, you can make all kinds of odd scenes. They were very cleverly drawn so that every combination worked. I remember it being in a hyper realistic style, or maybe sort of surrealist, like Chris Van Allsburg or David Wiesner. I feel like there were lots of umbrellas involved, and also factories and maybe giant lollipops. Anybody have any clue?
I don’t have non-Catholic and secular Facebook friends merely because I want to proselytize them (although I try to answer any questions they have about my faith, and I’m delighted when I hear that they have learned something about the Church through me!). Instead, I have non-Catholic and secular Facebook friends because I like them, and find them interesting — and yes, I learn from them. Of course I do.
P.S.: I heartily recommend the book I mention, Peter Kreeft’s Your Questions, God’s Answers. I’ve been reading a section a day with the kids ages 9 and up, and it does a good job of answering questions, reviewing stuff they already know, or opening up discussions about things they really wonder about. (And the rule is always: let the discussion happen! Doesn’t matter if it sticks to the original topic or not. If they ask a question about God, then right now is the right time to answer it, period.)
The segments are short enough to read in five minutes or less. It’s intended for teenagers and is slightly goofy but not pandering. It’s theologically meaty and profusely studded with scriptural references, but written in a clear and chatty style that is easy to understand. Not every last section is a whizz bang success, but it’s a painless way to keep a regular conversation about God open, and some of the discussions we’ve had have been really memorable.
Wow, I haven’t done a 7QT in forever! And I’m not actually doing one now. This post originally ran in 2010. I was inspired to rerun it when the The New Yorker printed this appreciation of A Canticle for Leibowitz . Enjoy, thou parents looking for some decent fiction for your older kids!
Sorry this is so long. I didn’t have time to write anything shorter.
Seven Quick Takes: Seven Really Good Books for Young Adults
When I was in high school, everything we read had to be about either the Holocaust, or suicide, or both. An exception could be made for books about racism, provided several lynchings were described in technicolor. Then, after we finished our assigned reading for the year, the school board would hold a workshop on what to do about rampant and debilitating depression in the student body.
Well, it’s too late for me, of course. As soon as I’m done with this post, I’m going to go huff some wood glue, write a note blaming my parents, and OD on some Xanax I stole from the locker room while listening to Nevermind (to my younger readers: check your oldies station if that reference puzzles you. Oh, lord. . . )
But you still have a chance. Here are seven books of fiction I recommend for your teenager or almost-teenager. Kids that age do enjoy a good bout of angst, but these are books that don’t glorify teenage gloom, or teach that it’s the world’s job to learn to appreciate the delicate genius that is Teenage Me. Not all of the books are about teenagers, and all of them could easily be enjoyed by adults. Most of these books are about courage, and about something that teenagers really need to know: how to discern true love from its flashier counterfit. With the possible exception of the Patterson novels, I don’t think this list is too girly. The only other thing they have in common is that they are stuffed with good ideas that young people need to hear, and the writing is far above average. There is even one post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, such as the young parsons enjoy these days.
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
This one is often included in YA lists, but not for the right reasons, I think. Teenagers won’t fully appreciate the themes of love and fidelity in this fleshing-out of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but there is plenty else in this gorgeous and searing novel to grab them by the scruff of the neck and shake the stupid ideas out of them. Heartrending and intense. For grades 9 and up.
–2 and 3–
Two novels by Katherine Patterson:
Jacob Have I Loved is a coming-of-age novel about twin girls living on a crabbing island in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1940′s. One sister is lovely, talented, fragile, and secretly vicious — the other, the narrator, is plain, strong, and full of rage. The character of the horrible old grandmother is unforgettable. The book achieves something I always look for in a novel: honesty about the flaws of the main character, with flashes of sympathy for even the worst characters. Flawless in structure, characterization, and style. For grades 7 and up.
Another excellent novel by Patterson, suitable for grades 5 and up, is The Great Gilly Hopkins.
It’s like Flannery O’Connor, Jr. Great portrayals of hypocrisy, great portrayals of genuine love by a genuine Christian, who happens to be a fat, trashy, semi-literate foster mother named Trotter. It could easily have dissolved into melodrama, but resists. My only quibble is with the character of the black teacher, Miss Harris — she seems a bit too glibly drawn as the hard-as-nails and smart-as-a-whip black teacher with a heart of gold, etc. All the rest of the characters, though, are thoroughly believable, from Trotter, to her pathetic ward William Ernest Teague (W.E.T.), to the greasy-haired would-be sidekick, Agnes Stokes. (See, I remember all their names, and I haven’t read this book for years. It sticks with you!) I believe it’s sold as a novel about racism, but it’s really just about love, failures of love, and redemption.
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
I know, I know. The guy passed it off as an autobiography, and it wasn’t. Pretty awful — but darn it, I still like the book. It is beautiful and funny, and I feel happy while reading it. I wish I knew the characters in real life, which is more than you can say for most novels or autobiographies. If you’ve heard that this book is just a piece of anti-white propaganda, you’ll be surprised. I suppose there’s a message in it, but it’s not the main point — the story is, and it’s a wonderful story about a boy growing up with his Cherokee grandmother and half-Cherokee grandfather in the mountains during Prohibition. Also, it makes descriptions of scenery interesting.
Apparently it’s been criticized as perpetuating the “noble savage” stereotype of the American Indian, but, again, I just don’t see that. What I read was an ancient story of happiness, broken by a terrible grief and darkness of separation, and then a return to happiness, until Eden is outgrown. To read more into it than that is to deprive yourself of a good story. For grades 6 and up.
A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
This one is for older teens, for sure. The story is complicated and demands a lot of the reader. To be honest, I’m too tired to explain the plot to you. It’s about Catholic monks and Jews and miracles and nuclear war and space travel and mutants. It’s a crazy, grotesque, hilarious, fascinating epic with lots and lots of ideas. There is a disturbing theme of the cyclic nature of history that seems to imply a “new” Immaculate Conception, but a teenager with a good grounding in the faith won’t be troubled by it. I like how the priests are real men. It will appeal to lovers of science fiction, but is so much more than that.
The Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi
Three collections of short, sweet, funny and poignant stories from post-WWII Italy about a large and rash village priest and his rival, the equally large and rash communist mayor Peppone. If you don’t enjoy these stories, there is something wrong with you. I could do without the cartoonish illustrations by the author, but the stories are hugely entertaining, and touch on all kinds of interesting theological ideas. Don Camillo’s conversations with the crucified Christ in his church are authentic and moving. For grades 7 and up.
Please note that, for your edification, I hunted until I found what is probably the most hideous and irrelevant book cover ever to cover a book. I mean, look at it! What the hell is that?
The first two books of the space trilogy are great stories and provide so many memorable scenes (the third in the series, That Hideous Strength, takes a different turn and is not for the kiddies). It was from Perelandra that I learned that evil isn’t interesting and the devil isn’t clever or charming — as Ransom learns one night as keeps watch on the beach with the Un-Man, and they have the following dialogue all night long “Ransom.” – “What?” – ” . . .Nothing.”
For more mature teenagers — there are ideas about sexuality which are entirely Catholic (yes, I know Lewis wasn’t), but which less mature kids won’t be able to manage. The only part that might strike readers as dated is the fact that the villain wants to conquer worlds and force humankind on the universe, whereas today’s humanist villains are more interested in shrinking and curtailing the human race. It might be an interesting conversation to discuss what the current evil ideas have in common with the ones in the books.
There are many, many wonderful scenes in both books. I was especially affected, as a teenager, by the passage in Perelandra where Ransom protests to God that there is a representative of Evil in the world, fighting for the soul of the unfallen Lady — and why is there no champion of Good? And the silent and terrifying answer comes booming back at him: you. There is also the memorable phrase, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, here goes! I mean, Amen!” Lewis’ descriptions of scenery are the only drawback to these books — he does go on and on, and you have to read really carefully to understand what he is describing. I think these passages could simply be excised without any damage to the books. For grades 10 and up.
You’ll notice there is no Madeleine L’Engle in this list. I read her books several times as a Young Adult, and I’m sure they influenced me, but I just don’t like her. I don’t like her smarmy characters, I don’t like how her ideals of family life are utterly saturated in six kinds of snobbery. I don’t like the loosey goosey games she plays with comparative religion, and her stories leave me cold, irritated and unsatisfied. I’m always astonished that she’s described as some kind of genius — her prose always strikes me as hokey and stilted. She is very original, I’ll admit, but I have very little patience with her “Oh-the-aching-wonder-of-it-all” genre. I wouldn’t say “don’t read her stuff,” but I think you’ll do just fine if you never do read her.
Okay, so, yay, I wrote a blog post! Thanks to the gracious and prolific (in every way)Jen Fulwiler for hosting Seven Quick Takes every Friday.
UPDATE: In the comments of the original post, several readers mentioned Patterson’s Bridge to Terebithia and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. My take: yes, Bridge to Terebithia is just awful. As reader Suburban Correspondent put it, “It was everything that was wrong with YA books in my youth – all the hopelessly messed-up adults, the characters manipulated by the author to send some sort of message.” Yup, pretty much a blight on Patterson’s career. Her books that I recommended are totally different. I also remember that her novel The Master Puppeteer was quite good, and is about a boy. She has written many historical novels for young adults.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is fantastic — good call, folks. I can’t imagine a boy really enjoying it, but it really is a wonderful book, despite some hokiness It’s about a girl growing up in the slums in Brooklyn before and during World War II. Betty Smith’s other books, unfortunately, are dreadful! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is fiction, but obviously semi-autobiographical, and is very moving and full of insight into a young girl’s mind. Some of her notions about sex could be a little damaging to susceptible girls, though, so you should probably read this one first, and discuss it with your daughter.