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Seven Really Good Books for Young Adults

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.

–1–

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.

–4–

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.

–5–

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.

–6–

The Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi

This is a self-portrait of the author. Couldn't find a decent picture of the books themselves.

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.

–7–

Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

HA! I chose this picture because it's the worst out of all the many, many bizarre and inappropriate book covers. No-o-o-o-obody knows how to illustrate these books, because they're so weird.

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:  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.  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.

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  • laura

    Hooray! I forgot about Jacob I Have Loved, and didn’t know a few of the others. I’ve been trying to come up with some good Christmas reads for my boys and my family has been utterly useless.

    Some of these are a bit beyond them still. While they are voracious and excellent readers, they’re not emotionally ready for some of this yet. Although my husband handed my 10 yr old Lewis’s Space Trilogy. And so I says, “Don’t those got some adult topics? I thought I remembered adult topics?” And he says, “Neh!”

    I may have to do some damage control – cursed ADD memory!

    I guess what I’m saying is, when you’re not busy, write another list for kids about three years younger. Boys. Get to it.

    • rebecca

      Boys, age 10 or so and up:

      Hatchet

      Brian’s Winter

      Brian’s Return

      Brian’s Hunt

      The River, all by Gary Paulsen

      The Redwall series by Brian Jacques

      Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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  • http://suburbancorrespondent.blogspot.com suburbancorrespondent

    Are the Patterson books really good? You promise? I read Bridge to Terabithia and HATED it, with a passion fierce and undying. 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 (did Jacob have to die? Really? Give me a break!); the lionization of the book by school librarians everywhere. What? Had they never read anything decent in their lives? What happened to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

    There. I feel better. Thanks for the list! I would add A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for sure…

    • Sarah M

      While Madeleine L’Engle’s novels might not be everyone’s cup of tea her little biopic “Two Part Invention” is a good read for adults. It is about her marriage, from courtship to the passing of her husband. Maybe it would shed some light on why she wrote the way she did, too.

      suburbancorrespondent, I am with you, I hated that Terabithia book. But the KP books Simcha mentions are among my all time favorites, I have even reread them as an adult. And A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was the best book I read as a girl, I agree it should be here. Maybe “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” should be too, from what I remember of it. Thanks for the list!

      • http://suburbancorrespondent.blogspot.com suburbancorrespondent

        Thanks, Sarah – I’ll try those 2 books, then. I’ve been avoiding that author simply because of “Bridge…”

        • Martha S.

          Please go read my comment below (12/11 @ 9:41 am) — I feel very differently about B to T. Maybe you could give it another chance as an adult, or at least see a different perspective on it?

        • Martha S.

          Oh, one more thing – I assume you meant Leslie in this comment “(did Jacob have to die? Really? Give me a break!)” and so you are still talking about Bridge to Terabithia — Anyway, maybe it didn’t work, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as manipulation; it exploring how a random-looking tragedy can occur in the world we know was created by a loving God. (The book was written a child Paterson knew was struck by lightning and killed while on vacation. Actually, it was her son’s best friend. ) Sorry, I used to work with this author, can you tell? :) But fiction should always work without the back story; so if it didn’t work for you, in that sense it failed.

          • Martha S.

            Argh that was supposed to say AFTER a child she knew was killed…

  • Elisa

    Awesome cover selection for Perelandra. It is actually my favorite book in the entire world, but I have yet to see a cover that I thought was even remotely accurate. However this one does take the cake for the MOST weird – I can’t even figure out what the illustraions are supposed to mean or how they connect to the story, and I’ve just about memorized the book!

    • melissa

      I actually have a copy of Perelandra with that cover. The covers for the other 2 in the set are equally weird. I bought them as new editions back in my college days (obviously more than a few years ago.) I reread this trilogy at least once every couple years because I love it so much. I alwaysfind it hard to believe that these books are so little known compared to the Narnia books.

  • http://baronvonkorf.blogspot.com Baron Korf

    A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of my all time favorites. I read it as a sophomore but didn’t understand all of it and the teacher was so hung up on Jung that it didn’t help. But when I read it about 7 years later, I was blown away.

    • Elisa

      I bought the ebook form of it yesterday after reading Simcha’s review and am about 1/3 of the way through it already. I’m really enjoying it, and even more, it’s so refreshing to have a book in which the main characters are Catholics (monks, even!) and the author actually knows something about Catholicism. I am so tired of the Albino Monk Plot where an author who really doesn’t know the first thing about Catholicism decides it would add “atmosphere” to their novel to make one or more characters Catholic, and ends up making them complete idiots who have no understanding of their faith.

      And yet Canticle for Leibowitz isn’t a “Catholic book” like some “Christian books”, written to try to convert the reader. It’s just a good story steeped in Catholicism.

  • http://stmonicasbridge.wordpress.com Kristen

    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. . . )

    Wait, Simcha, did we go to the same school?

    As far as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I seem to remember all the girls in our class loving it while the boys were decidedly unimpressed as it was a “girl book.” In fact, I know a parent of one of the boys complained about her son reading it because she felt it was geared toward the girls and was not encouraging her son to read as it did not hold his interest. I guess there could be something to that argument, but it’s been so long since I read it, I would be hard pressed to say for sure. I’m not even sure why we read it in school because it was not part of the curriculum (I remember that was a big part of the parent complaint, it was typed up and given to all the parents as well as the principal and school board).

    • Steve T.

      Yeah, it’s a girl book. And I live there. Enjoyed it. It coordinated with my aunts’ and father’s memories. But it’s a girl book.

      • http://suburbancorrespondent.blogspot.com suburbancorrespondent

        I agree – girl book. But was this list restricted to books that appeal to both genders?

  • Peter

    CS Lewis wrote a space trilogy? You’re blowing my mind! I have to read that.

    • Elisa

      Yes, you should! The first and second of the series are short, while the third (That Hideous Strength) is a lot longer and hard to get through, but keep going and the second half of that one is much more exciting than the first half.

    • melissa

      It is such a good trilogy – everyone should read it!

  • Maria

    I just read Jacob Have I Loved for the first time and really enjoyed it. Excellent book.

    I also second the recommendation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That’s a gem.

  • http://apostletosuburbia.blogspot.com LeeAnn Balbirona

    I haven’t read any of those except the CS Lewis books. I’m not sure I have the patience for some of those stories. I also liked Madeleine L’Engle as a teen and as an adult read more about her and saw more in her novels than previously. I do still have a fondness for Meg Murray and Charles Wallace and the cherubim in A Wind in the Door, but I have not been able to convince any of my children to like them. My very favorite ya author is John Christopher…but maybe that’s too dystopian for you. :)

  • http://remnantofremnant.blogspot.com priest’s wife

    Have you been looking through my mail? I just got Til We Have Faces and the Space Trilogy in the mail-

    (does that make me a teenager?)

    and I always loved Jacob have I loved- how about The Princess Bride?

  • http://momn3boys.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    I remember reading “Jacob Have I Loved” many years ago when my mom was taking a literature course for her Master’s degree, and it was on her required reading list. My mother took me to hear Katherine Patterson speak once, and it was a real treat.

    I think I read “Out of the Silent Planet,” but I swear I don’t remember any of it. My 13-year old likes science fiction-type books; maybe that’s one I can convince him to read. He has no interest in Tolkien or any of the Narnia books, and I’ve quit nagging him to read them.

  • http://www.thecottagechild.blogspot.com the cottage child

    Um, we’re finishing On the Banks of Plum Creek today. Starting Narnia next week. That’s as gritty as I’m down with – of course my oldest is only nine, but she’s got enough existential angst to go around, all on her own.

    I’ve never even heard of any of those books – is it because my Mom would never let me order anything from Scholastic Book Club?….were you the one who kept stealing my Xanax?

    I’m so glad I’m not alone in ambivalence for L’Engle’s work. I got creeped by all that Wrinkle in Time business in the fourth grade and never recovered. I don’t get the hype, either.

  • Christine McIntyre

    My girls loved the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books. Of course they are girly, but my daughter Hannah cried when the first Anne book was over because Anne was growing up and the subsequent books would be an older Anne. She was of course growing up herself and realized she “couldn’t go back ” to earlier childhood days. She refused to start the next book because it wouldn’t be the same! It is so awesome to connect with a book like that. It’s like an old friend.

  • Steve T.

    A Canticle for Leibowitz; Don Camillo; Perelandra: best books for boys. Ever.

    Why? They involve holy men, confronted by evil, hitting. Not metaphorically, actually punching.

    Not charitable? Let’s see, the targets: a doctor who just sent a woman and child to the euthanasia chamber; the Devil himself, in the fat middle-aged body of a professor; and a bunch of stunad characters who need a good kick in the pants to get them to straighten up and fly right.

    Yup, influenced my life, and I’ll be passing them on to my sons when they’re old enough.

  • http://aerinlissar.blogspot.com Kyra

    I hated ‘Jacob I have Loved’ and loved ‘Bridge to Terabithia’. In spite of the sad aspects of ‘Terabithia’ I thought it was a lot less grim than ‘Jacob’, which scared the pants off me.

    Mind you, I haven’t re-read ‘Jacob’ in at least seventeen years. Golly. That’s a long time.

    I liked Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction a lot when I was a kid. I like it much less well as an adult. Her non-fiction Two-Part Invention holds up well, I think. I’ve got a soft spot for her because her non-fiction pointed me towards a lot of writing that led me towards becoming Catholic, and kept me from sliding off into neo-paganism or atheism.

    Right now I’m re-reading The Dark is Rising series(traditional winter re-read, first read it when I was ten) and thinking about how Gnostic it is, with all the secret knowledge and good sometimes doing evil. Much less human than LotR. Still one of my favourites.

    Does anyone else like Rosemary Sutcliff? I really love her stories, especially about Roman Britain.

    • http://suburbancorrespondent.blogspot.com suburbancorrespondent

      My boys all love Rosemary Sutcliffe! Great historical fiction that shouldn’t be missed…

    • Laura V.

      i was just thinking of the Dark is Rising series (which i also re-read annually right about now). it is pretty dualistic but love the authurian-ness of it all. i borrowed them from a friend in high school and read them all over the course of many lunch periods.

      i read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid (all but the last one, because then the series would be over; finally read The Last Battle in college) and the space trilogy as a post-college adult, and honestly loved That Hideous Strength the best — probably because it was a little more straightforward.

      • Laura V.

        oops — the “arthurian-ness.” stupid windows vista.

        • http://aerinlissar.blogspot.com Kyra

          Yes. It’s one of my favourite fantasy series. I’ll be reading Silver on the Tree today or tomorrow. It’s great to read The Dark is Rising just at Christmas, with Will’s coming into power on Midwinter’s Day, and all the snow and ice imagery.

          I have all the prophecies permanently memorised. They occur to me at odd times. Does anyone else get bits of writing stuck in their heads, like snatches of songs?

  • Kevin

    I see some of the flaws in L’Engle, but still have fond memories of reading her books. What was then the Time Trilogy really sparked my imagination, and left any number of things deeply imprinted on my brain.

    My all-time favorite of hers, though, would be Arm of the Starfish. (I’ve had a wish to visit Lisbon ever since.) I’m excited that it’s finally due to be reprinted next year…it’ll be in next Christmas’ book collection for sure.

    Thanks for the Patterson and Guareschi recommendations. Those look like they’ll be wonderful for my kiddos.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

    Great discussion, everybody! I’ve updated the post to give my take on Bridge to Terebitha and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

  • Kevin

    Oh, and as a Westerner, I have to put in a word for the Little Britches series. Especially resonant for me, perhaps, because it depicts what gave birth to the time and place I was born into.

  • http://forkeatssake.blogspot.com Meredith

    For those who love fantasy, I highly recommend Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series – at least the first four books, which I think are more inspired than the tireless march of sequels which followed. I think Diane Duane took the best elements of Madeline L’Engle (I can’t read her either) and wove them together with Lewis and created her own sort of beauty and excitement. The basic premise isn’t any different from the Harry Potter series: some humans discover, during adolescence, that they are wizards, and enter a secret world of magic and danger and war against evil – but the execution is much more elegant and deeply imagined. (not that I don’t like Harry Potter, but the magic is only skin deep.) Magic, in these books, is a sort of gorgeous ancient computer language which can be used to tinker with the laws of physics. It is guaranteed by the One, who chooses his wizards and directs them against death and its author, the Lone One. Lets just say that by the time I got around to That Hideous Strength, I found its mode of storytelling very comfy and familiar. The magic doesn’t compete with religion, it coexists with it and complements it in an obviously fantastic and “what if” sort of way. And the stories are incredible, full of wonder and heartbreak.

    One book I discovered by accident and enjoyed in high school was The Mozart Season (can’t remember the author right now). I’d recommend it for teens who love music. The main character, Allegra Shapiro, is a young violinist preparing a Mozart concerto for a competition. Her parents are musicians as well, and the book is a lovely, low-key (but deeply felt) picture of Allegra, her family, her struggles with music and history (her great-grandmother died in the Holocaust), and her interactions with her friends, her parents, her violin teacher, her sardonic older brother, an opera singer with panic attacks, a homeless man who likes to dance at outdoor concerts, and her rivals in the competition. And Mozart’s 4th violin concerto (which I myself was learning at the time) is the lightly elegiac thread which ties it all together, although Sibelius makes a haunting appearance as well.

  • http://forkeatssake.blogspot.com Meredith

    I think it’s hilarious that the avatars of Mars and Venus on the cover of Perelandra appear to indicate men’s and women’s restrooms.

  • Clare

    I agree with you completely about L’engle’s snobbery–but I still enjoyed her books. De gustibus and all that.

    I also highly recommend anything by Willa Cather, especially My Antonia and O Pioneers. I think Jane Austen also can be started very young and grow with you into adulthood. For me, at least, each rereading brings a new and deeper perspective.

  • http://thriftymystics.blogspot.com/ Geomama

    Anybody else read “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?” We were obsessed with it in middle school. I remember absolutely nothing about the plot but do recall that 42 is the answer to life.

    Thanks for the Canticle of L. recommendation – I’ve heard the name but knew nothing about it

  • Brian

    “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death” by Daniel Pinkwater, along with it’s sequel, “The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror”. Because some kids are just weird.

  • http://www.CatholicTide.com Catholic Tide

    The Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi must be the basis for the Italian TV show that Pope Benedict enjoys so much. He mentions it on page 13 of “Light of the World”.

  • Regina

    Til We Have Faces is my favorite book in the whole wide world and I read it at least once a year. I’m very afraid that if a tween or early teen–or really, a teen under 18–read that wonderful book, they would not have the emotional gravitas to be anything but bored. I think of the dozens and dozens of similes he uses to explain someone’s feelings. You have to have a certain amount of experience of life to understand them. And I’m not sure the story is exciting enough on it’s face to hold interest. Of course I’m biased, maybe it IS exciting enough. I made this mistake myself with Anna Karenina as a sixteen year old. I totally didn’t GET her predicament and I avoided it thereafter until I was in my thirties. Of course I GET it now! But I could have gotten it at 25 or so and not missed out.

  • Anne-Marie

    Thanks for the Don Camillo–I’d heard of it but forgotten about it, and now I have a good Christmas present idea. I agree with all your other likes and dislikes. I remember even as a 12yo reading L’Engle and thinking how wrong it was to have Jesus as just another item on a list along with Buddha and Mohammed and Galileo.

    Canticle for Leibowitz is one of our family’s favorites. It’s what my kids give all their friends for their birthdays.

    Another vote for Rosemary Sutcliff. Also Jill Paton Walsh, especially The Emperor’s Winding Sheet (which is about an English boy accidentally caught in the last siege of Constantinople).

  • Joe

    Someone asked about books for boys a little younger. Certainly the early Little Britches books are a great choice. The Outlaws of Ravenhurst, while not a sophisticated book perhaps, is a good adventure story about Catholics living under persecution. Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron and Otto of the Silver Hand are good, and, if your boys can handle some more verbosity, Robert Louis Stevenson has some appropriate novels: The Black Arrow, Kidnapped, etc. (Not The Master of Ballantrae, though – that’s several pounds heavier and many shades darker.) Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series is a sort of poor man’s Tolkien, but enjoyable and age-appropriate. For shorter fiction, some of the Father Brown stories by Chesterton might be accessible and enlightening for kids in that age range. For much longer fiction (and a slightly older reader, perhaps), David Copperfield and some other of Dickens’ works could be a good choice. And of course there’s Huckleberry Finn, which can be enjoyed well before one is able to catch everything in it.

  • Clare

    Ugh. I read Huckleberry Finn when I was 12 and almost threw up. It’s an amazing book, but the unrelenting cruelty, emptineness, absurdity and inhumanity of the novel’s world really left me shivering. I was a very sensitive child though– it would be fine for a less sensitive kid who would just latch on to the adventure story, or for someone older who had have the emotional wherewithal to handle and learn from the undercurrent of vicious satire.

  • LW

    The Trumpeter of Krakow.

    I read this Newberry Award-winner when I worked as a school library tech and had to read numerous books as part of my job. It’s great juvenile historical fiction with a Catholic theme. I particularly enjoyed the interwoven history and legend in the sub-plot about the trumpeter who played the hejnal from St. Mary’s tower. The hejnal is still played today from the tower of St. Mary’s Church in Krakow, and the tune is still broken off abruptly at the same note to commemorate the trumpeter whose trumpet was silenced when he was felled by an arrow to the neck.

  • Mary Beth (Full Spectrum Mom)

    Incredibly helpful and well timed. Every year we buy new books for kids at Christmas, and was feeling a bit stale in my picks. THANKYOU.

  • Mary Beth (Full Spectrum Mom)

    p.s. we LOVE the Lewis space trilogy here.

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  • http://debsueknit.blogspot.com DebbieQ

    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is just about my favorite.

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com MrsDarwin

    Don Camillo! Awesome. We read aloud these stories in the evening, or sometimes Darwin and I read them to each other (he gets the style better). Guareschi’s book about his family life is just hysterical as well as being a good glimspe into life in post-war Italy.

    I confess I never made it all the way through Canticle of Lebowitz. Maybe if I went back as an adult and read it?

  • Kate

    I’m 17 and I love to read so I can’t wait to get some of these! Especially C.S. Lewis, he’s one of my favorites. I’m a senior in (public) high school and AP english so I definitely know about horrible required reading. I think what I hated most was Bless Me, Ultima as did any other Catholic I knew. It portrays us horribly and I was fielding questions about idol worship for weeks. I loved Poisonwood Bible though, thats an awesome book.

  • Jane

    The Space Trilogy is a big favorite of mine! I have been intending to read Til We Have Faces for some time – now I am inspired to find it at the library.

    I must be missing something when it comes to Canticle. I found the grotesque “virgin birth,” or whatever that was, seriously off-putting. I would love for someone, anyone, to explain what was going on there.

    I’ve read the book a couple of times, but haven’t picked it up in years. I really love everything about it up to that point. Seriously love it. Then it just gets weird, creepy, and seems to disturbingly parody or undermine the Incarnation.

    Someone please tell me I’m off base so I can like the book again!? I think my 13 year old would love it, but I’ve felt reluctant to give it to him.

  • Karen LH

    The Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome is very good for both boys and girls.

  • Beth in VA

    Maybe this is just one post tooo many on this topic: but what about some of the new books/authors out there? I’m reading everything: including Desson and Zevin, who many wouldn’t touch as they are seriously secular—but incredibly imaginative and honest. Being able to see the flaw in a particular thought process is paramount for our YAs. Now, would I suggest these for under 14? NO. Until a boy or girl is ready, keep a steady diet of solid moral values/ clear good and evil so their world view is solidly Christian (read: full of hope!).

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com Cari

    I used to teach 7th grade English in a public school. “The Giver” was mandatory reading. Now, looking at it with a Catholic filter, I can’t believe they let me teach it. The pro-life, and pro-traditional family undertones are glaring, and the concept that sexuality is something bigger than us, and shouldn’t be manipulated chemically is something I can’t believe passed the school board.

    The other books in the “trilogy” aren’t as powerful, though.

    • http://catholicanuck.blogspot.com JP

      I am glad someone mentioned The Giver.

      My dd read it in Catholic school, and it did the circuit at home while she had it. I, too, can really see the pro-life slant on it…which might be why we don’t hear about it anymore.

      I found the book very hopeful, especially considering what seems to be going on in the world. But some of the themes might be disturbing to younger/less mature teens.

  • Carol

    All of these are excellent for “adults” of any age, especially if (for whatever reason) they didn’t read them when they were “young”.

  • A Girl

    I loved the Great Gilly Hopkins when I was a young adult. I read it over and over again. But looking back though, it was kind of devastating. It still kind of devastates me now. Its one loss after another for her, and she’s just a kid. She suffers. Its fairly intense.

  • AM

    How about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling”? It has everything: a vivid picture of Florida backwoods pioneer life, a beautiful portrait of fatherhood at its best, the pathos of a classic animal story, and a lament for the end of childhood – all done with a light, humourous touch. And for the mom who wanted something for slightly younger boys, there’s no “adult” content, though it’s interesting enough for an adult to read.

  • Pam

    Thank you for putting into words my exact feelings about Madeleine L’Engle. Though I will still get my kids to read Wrinkle in Time as I think it is a good example of how using “nearly the truth” can be as dangerous as using an outright lie.

    And there was one book called, I think, Prelude, that I liked of hers as a teenager.

    For girls, the teen books by Mary Stolz were some of my favourites and they had much more going for them than teen books today. How to explain? It’s not all woe-is-me and there are parts that show how selfish teens can be, for example.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Oh, good call – the Laura and Amy and Veronica Ganz books by Mary Stolz were quite good and very realistic

  • Martha S.

    Oh my. If anything makes me stop reading your blog, it will be this. :) Bridge to Terabithia is my all-time, favorite children’s novel, ever. Great Gilly Hopkins is in the top 10. And I never ever liked Jacob Have I loved.

    I actually talked to Katherine Paterson about this once; she did not see the adults in Bridge to Terabithia as hopelessly messed-up; just people in a difficult situation doing their jobs, not always very well. I saw them that way too. I have a lot of sympathy for all the characters: as a child I was also the child of college-educated parents who got moved to a place where that was NOT the norm. As an adult, I have now been the mom trying to get through a rough spot financially, with my attentions divided between the older kids with boyfriends/ girlfriends and the little girls who desperately want a Barbie-whatever that you can’t afford. So yeah, to me that doesn’t look hopelessly messed up, it looks like life. And the book itself is not hopeless. Meanwhile, I have no experience with that fierce sibling rivalry & parent preference depicted in Jacob Have I Loved.

    This is not fiction, but sometime you might look at Who Am I?: What it means to be a child of God. Paterson wrote that years ago for a Presbyterian group and I actually found it helpful as a young adult.

    Thanks, this was a very nice soapbox.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Hi, Martha – not a bad idea. It’s a short book, so I will try and read it tonight. I remember disliking the stereotypical way the parents were portrayed, but it has been several years since I read it.

  • http://none tom hanson

    Another voice for Don Camillo! Loved him as a kid. Kept the old paperbacks. Still read them. The translation is simple and elegant English. Delightful take on how to go about loving enemies. Still funny as in laugh out loud in a few places but mainly droll in a uniquely Italian way. The best introduction to modern Italian culture I can possibly imagine for adults, just plain wise and witty for everyone.

  • http://rantingcatholicmom.blogspot.com/ Suzanne

    I appreciate the choices, but find too many of them to be girl-centric, reflective of popular culture, and the C.S. Lewis novel recommended bored me to tears. I’m otherwise a Lewis aficionado, so I think you chose the worst of the bunch. I completely agree that the suicidal artist books are far too prevalent in schools, especially high schools for girls.

    If I were to require books for the 10 to 18 set, and I have as an English literature teacher chosen books for all of those reading levels, I’d include:

    Forty Dreams of St. John Bosco (Great spiritual guidance for young men, because that is what made him a saint.)

    The Swiss Family Robinson (A survivalist handbook and generally wholesome story… much better than the movie.)

    All things Redwall (Girls and boys love these tales and return to them repeatedly. Like all good scholars, the read them more than once because you can live in that Abbey for years! My son talks about his abbey as a real goal.)

    Everyman. (A medieval play that walks a soul through the passage from life into the everlasting.)

    A Room With a View by E.M. Forrester. (Young Love, old Love, class distinctions… a beautiful tale. “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm- yes choose a place where you won’t do very much harm and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”)

    Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy. (Because we have allowed ourselves to believe that the dumbed-down education of psychobabble like The Bell Jar is superior to the logical connection between classic Greco-Roman philosophy and Catholic Faith.)

    • The Jerk

      Boy, thanks Suzanne. I’ve been too busy lately to post rude and condescending comments here. Nice job picking up the slack.

      • http://exlaodicea.wordpress.com berenike

        I had to read Suzanne’s comment several times, and some of the comments below, before I realized yours wasn’t some kind of in-joke.

        I didn’t notice anything rude or condescending at all about the comment! On the n-th re-reading, I thought one *might* be slightly offended by the “reminiscent of popular culture” bit. And I was surprised by the Room with a View and Boethius, as they and the St JOhn Bosco and Everyman recommendations seemed not to chime with the kind of thing mostly being proposed.

        Bit rude to assume she meant to be rude, though, no?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

      Thanks for the comment, Suzanne. I haven’t read the John Bosco book or Swiss Family Robinson, but the rest of your recommendations make me remember that the world certainly is all full of all different kinds of people.

      Not sure what you mean that my recommendations are “reflective of popular culture.” Do you mean that some of the stories take place in the 20th century? I’m sincerely puzzled by that phrase — I picked these novels because I thought they all dealt with timeless themes in varied settings. I didn’t include any ancient texts — not because I think young people can’t or shouldn’t read them, but because I thought my readers might want recommendations for Christmas presents. Please, please don’t give your kids Boethius for Christmas. Just . . . don’t.

      I found the Redwall series to be tedious and overwritten, and couldn’t even get through the first one — and neither could my kids. I also found it peculiar that they take place in an Abbey in which no praying or religious observation takes place. That wouldn’t keep me from enjoying the books, though — the hackneyed plots and derivative characters took care of that. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the author was picturing his future movie deal with every paragraph he wrote. Lots of people like these books, I know — they just don’t seem above average to me. There certainly are a lot of them, though.

      Finally: _Room with a View_ is not “girl-centric”? In the words of Gob Bluth: come ON!

    • Harvey

      Suzanne:

      Did the students *like* to read these suggestions? A Room With A View? Consolation of Philosophy? I’ve read the Consolation with students – and they tolerated it. “Everyman”? I read that as a young adult and thought it was saccharine and boring – had I assigned it to a student, they would have hated virtues too.

      How did the Bell Jar enter into this discussion at all?

      Suzanne – how about if you go have your own blog since this one seems too dumbed down for you.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher Simcha Fisher

        Ah, Harvey. My favorite part about your comment is that I can still hear all the things you decided NOT to say, because it’s Advent.

        Re my bizarre pro-Sylvia Plath propaganda: motherhood must have dulled your senses, so you didn’t notice the subliminal message that’s all over everything I write: MUST READ MORE PLATH. MUST READ MORE PLATH. I don’t know why I do it, because I HATE Sylvia Plath.

        • Harvey

          I like the fact that Plath admirers regularly vandalize her husband’s gravestone.

          Is that bad to say during Advent?

          • AM

            I’m similarly mystified by that list. Odd – how could anybody recommend “Redwall” in the same breath as criticizing someone else’s booklist as lowbrow?

            Also, “I enjoyed Room with a View” and I certainly wouldn’t stop a young adult from reading it, but I can’t see recommending it FOR its philosophic outlook. Forster is such an ardent secular humanist. His philosophy (even in that very quotation above) is pretty close to nihilism, in my opinion – soft and gentle nihilism, but still. . .

          • The Jerk
  • Clare

    Um, does it have to be one or the other? Boethius vs. Plath?

    They were writing in totally different genres and subject matters, and totally different aims. I really loved both.

  • http://www.scrutinies.blogspot.com Dorian Speed

    We can still be InterWebFriends, but…but…Madeline L’Engle? A Wind in the Door remains my favorite book from childhood, followed fairly closely by A Wrinkle in Time. I can see what you mean about the later books about the extended O’Keefe family and all, but the Echthroi in A Wind in the Door are a powerful depiction of evil which continues to resonate with me.

  • The Jerk

    That Mickey Spillane sure can write.

  • Mary

    I loved the Bell Jar and despise Ted Hughes who has only ever gotten anywhere on the coat deals of abandoning his wife to despair and suicide. That would make one bitter I supposed.

    But I guess this is off the topic.

    Good book suggestions. Totally agree on Redwall. Sometimes I think everyone has to pretend to like what they don’t understand or everyone will suspect they don’t understand it either.

  • allegra

    Great list! I remember loving/being terrified of Jacob Have I Loved.

    Another girly suggestion I read 1 million times: “Caddie Woodlawn”.

  • http://quiltingbibliophagist.blogspot.com catholicbibliophagist

    Ha! That Perelandra illo was on the edition I had the first time I read that novel. Yes, it has nothing to do with the book, but it’s still better than an earlier edition I once saw which had a blurb on its back cover that read, “Two Adams and a single Even on the planet of love…”

  • http://blog.earthlingshandbook.org ‘Becca

    How about The Chosen by Chaim Potok? I first read it when I was 12 and got a lot out of it. My review is here. It presents a style of parenting that most teenagers have never encountered, seen through the eyes of someone whose worldview is closer to the norm (although, as a 1940s Orthodox Jew, he’s also somewhat different from today’s norms) who gradually comes to a better understanding of what his friend’s father is thinking. It’s not girly at all, having no female characters of any significance, yet many females like it because it’s a story of friendship and feelings. And the narrator’s chastity is surpassed only by that of his Hasidic friend.

    To those looking for books for preteen boys: Try The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey. Plenty of adventure plus moral reasoning!

    I detested A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, although I have to admit I read only the first 1/4 or 1/3, when I was about 15. I can’t recall the details, just that it felt so cloying and obvious I couldn’t take it.

    • http://exlaodicea.wordpress.com berenike

      I read My Name is Asher Lev when I was about 16 (found it on English classroom bookshel), and I loved it. Thinking about it now: a young boy/man who lives orthodox Judaism without ifs or buts, but not in some odd mental museum – should be compulsory reading for all trads …

      I was on a great Singer trip from the age of about 15 – particularly loved Satan in Goray, though probably not something for younger readers :/

      Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch: short, not difficult, and immensely memorable.

    • melissa

      Anything by Chaim Potok is wonderful. When I first discovered him I checked out every book the library had of his and stayed up for many nights devouring them.

  • Sarah

    I whole heartedly second a previous comment made about the Anne of Green Gables books. Anne was like a sister to me as a child and i will be shoving those books into my daughters hands just as soon as they are old enough to read them! I also really loved The Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves. As an adult, I read and enjoyed the Father Elijah series and would imagine a mature teenager could handle those books. I also really enjoyed a book called In the Shadow of His Wings, which was written by a German priest who was forced to serve in Hitler’s army in WWII.

  • Sue

    I wonder if how you feel about books has to do with how you grew up. I read a Wrinkle in Time and I was shocked at the way the kids treated each other. It ruined the book for me, One of my friends parents were divorced and she was an only child and she loved the book. She thought the siblings were wonderful.

    My kids read the Giver in a book club and hated it. They all hated Sign of the Beaver because the baby brother died: too real for them because there have always been a lot of baby brothers.

    My 14 year old son just finished Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I made him read them but he liked them a lot. ( I had him listen to the Great Courses tapes about them too)

    But my girls all liked Jacob I have Loved and Iil We Have Faces. I have a bunch of daughters who are close in age so maybe Jacob deals with sibling rivalry in some way that resonated with them.

    There are a lot of good books out there for every kind of kid. If you can just sift. Thanks for the helpful reviews.

  • http://www.rantingcatholicmom.blogspot.com Suzanne

    Dear Simcha and others,

    I didn’t mean to sound like a snobby English-lit- b****h. I was talking about what has worked with my son, and what I really enjoy. That includes Everyman, most of E.M. Forster, and some things that I can’t recommend anymore because… Well truth is, I used to love Taylor Caldwell’s historical novels. And Nora Lofts as well. But the characters were so oversexed, I felt weird reading them when I was young. I love Tom Clancy now, but I’m wondering if I can edit them in a way that my son, who loves spies and anything military, could be allowed to see them. I really didn’t mean to be a snob. I guess I am sometimes.

    Maybe looking at my blog at: http://www.rantingcatholicmom.blogspot.com would help you to know more about me.

    I’ve probably violated the rules of the combox. I really like Redwall and have read them all. I love C.S. Lewis, but his sci-fi stuff is torture for me.

    Ah well, this was an old post of yours, but I just noticed how much response I received. Didn’t mean to insult anyone. For younger kids I loved Mrs. Switch, and I agree about the Wind in the Door. I loved that.

    No more wine for me, I’m rambling…

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    I don’t recommend “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or its sequels. It now seems to me that the reason Adams wrote them was to demonstrate that the existence is utterly nonsensical and absurd. That’s not a lesson I’d want anyone to learn.

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