The Weight of a Mass, by Josephíne Nobísso
Nobisso’s fairy-tale like story tells of how an old woman begs for some bread from a baker in exchange for praying for him at Mass. The skeptical baker, in order to mock her, writes down “one Mass” on a piece of paper, placing it on a scale opposite his bread. He finds, however, that no amount of baked goods can weigh down the scale against that piece of paper. Although the story can be a little over-the-top, it conveys an important message and is well balanced by a thoughtful twist at the end, aside from which it is enriched with beautiful art.
Good for children of any age.
The stunned baker saw that the only customer left in his shop was the old widow. He made a gesture of putting everything at her disposal. “Come every day,” he told her. “You will never go hungry again!” The widow smiled, and tucked only a thin slice of bread into her pocket.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
This series of children’s books has become a classic, and deservedly so. Thoroughly entertaining and full of fantastic creatures and happenings, Lewis’ books promote virtue and, in fact, are full of very obvious Christian allegory.
These books are easy to read and suitable for all ages—and perhaps especially apt for being read as a family.
“If you can’t ride, can you fall?”
“I suppose anyone can fall,” said Shasta.
“I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?”
Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien
As well-loved as Tolkien’s work is, relatively few people are familiar with this charming short story. Written as a way of consoling his son when he lost a toy dog, Tolkien describes the adventures which that dog had gone through—having been turned into a toy dog by a wizard—and his eventual reunion with the young boy who purchased him in the toy shop. Tolkien employs all his wit and whimsy in this fantastic tale which takes Rover (the dog) from the moon to the ocean floor and back.
Tolkien can’t help using occasionally complex sentence structures even in this work written for children. Even so, given the subject matter and the continuous and bewildering movement of the story, it can be appreciated even by young children: perhaps with some explanations.
The moon got bigger and brighter, and the world below got darker and farther off. At last, all of a sudden, the world came to an end, and Rover could see the stars shining up out of the blackness underneath. Far down he could see the white spray in the moonlight where waterfalls fell over the world’s edge and dropped straight into space. It made him feel most uncomfortably giddy, and he nestled into Mew’s feathers and shut his eyes for a long, long time.
The Light Princess, by George MacDonald
MacDonald has an odd knack for writing whimsical and apparently nonsensical fairy tales which nevertheless portrayed a deep sense of human nature and of spiritual truth. He exerted an influence on both Tolkien and Lewis. In this story, perhaps his most whimsical and humorous, he describes the plight of a young princess who loses her gravity—both that of Newton and that of character. MacDonald continues this play on words, along with others, throughout the work. Like all of MacDonald’s works, the story conveys a moral message without sounding preachy: in this case, a message primarily of self-sacrifice.
The construction of some of MacDonald’s phrases would make it difficult for young children to follow, and some of what he says almost frivolously could require some explanation to older children, but the work can more or less be enjoyed by all.
Perhaps the best thing for the princess would have been to fall in love. But how a princess who had no gravity could fall into anything is a difficulty—perhaps the difficulty.
The Golden Key, by George MacDonald
This strange fairy tale is laden with imagery with heavy Christian undertones. At the same time, it is not, like Lewis’ novels, a clear allegory of the spiritual life. Rather, it hints at and inspires reflection on questions of life, death, and the next life.
Although the themes in this fairy tale are heavy, and can be more fully appreciated by an adult, the simplicity of MacDonald’s story combined with his vivid, strange imagery can captivate any audience, and allows readers to be drawn in either by the tale itself or by various levels of meaning which can be drawn from its details.
There the gloom lay tossing and heaving, a dark, stormy, foamless sea of shadows, but no Mossy rose out of it, or came climbing up the hill on which she stood. She threw herself down and wept in despair. Suddenly she remembered that the beautiful lady had told them, if they lost each other in a country of which she could not remember the name, they were not to be afraid, but to go straight on. “And besides,” she said to herself, “Mossy has the golden key, and so no harm will come to him, I do believe.” She rose from the ground and went on.
Momo, by Michael Ende
Momo, a parentless girl who comes to the outskirts of a modern city, comes to be known for her unique ability to listen to others—to give them her time. But things change when the Men in Grey arrive in the city, convincing the citizens to organize their lives for the sake of maximum efficiency, saving up time like money. In reality, they survive on the time which is in this way stolen from the citizens. Although in no way subtle, Ende manages to produce an imaginative critique of modernity’s consumerist, utilitarian mentality, advocating for a slower, more receptive way of life.
Ende’s work falls neatly within the genre of middle grade books: it can be easily read by third graders and up. Even for those who do not pick up on the social critique, the story contains enough action and intrigue to keep young readers attentive.
People never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming ever poorer, bleaker and more monotonous. The ones who felt this most keenly were the children, because no one had time for them any more. But time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. And the more people saved, the less they had.
The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare
In this multiple-award-winning novel, Speare tells the tale of a young boy in Revolutionary times left to take care of his family’s new cabin in Maine as his father goes to bring back the rest of the family. The wait becomes much longer than expected, and the time of waiting becomes a time of survival. When he becomes close to one of the nearby natives, he ends up facing the difficult decision between joining them and persevering in his vigil for his lost family. Speare’s novel is, in many ways, a typical coming-of-age novel, and has its flaws. All the same, it does a good job of both entertaining and teaching virtue to young readers.
The book is easy enough to read for any child who is accustomed to chapter books.
Saknis looked at him soberly. “Maybe him not come,” he said quietly. Anger flared up in Matt. He could not allow this man to speak the fear he had never dared to admit to himself.
The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare
Fueled by anger over his father’s death at Roman hands, Daniel, a young Jewish boy, is determined to incite rebellion against the people who are occupying his land. His violence and hatred comes to cost him dearly, and he begins to see how the teaching of Jesus, who preaches in his town of Capernaum, is the only answer to his sufferings and to the sufferings of his family and friends, so often only made worse by his efforts. Speare’s writing, as always, is intriguing, and her depiction of Christ rests almost entirely on Biblical quotes and descriptions, giving readers a personal and unique angle on Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom.
Because this book involves various moral questions especially, it is likely better set aside for older children.
It is hate that is the enemy. Not men. Hate does not die with killing. It only springs up a hundredfold. The only thing stronger than hate is love.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Presented as if it were a children’s book, this story is at times whimsical and comical and at times deep and melancholic. It reads almost as if it were an allegory, although it would be impossible to pin down some particular reality to which each character or event refers. Rather, the book leads the reader to reflect broadly on human nature and on the experience of life. It might best be described as a unique merging of existentialism and children’s literature.
Several of the themes in the book are best understood by adolescents and adults—especially the themes of sorrow, regret, dependence, etc. At the same time, the story and even several of the reflections can be understood and enjoyed by older children as well.
The night had fallen. I had let my tools drop from my hands. Of what moment now was my hammer, my bolt, or thirst, or death? On one star, one planet, my planet, the Earth, there was a little prince to be comforted. I took him in my arms, and rocked him.
Lord of the World, by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson
This dystopian novel is unique in that it shows keen philosophical and spiritual insight. It has been described as prophetic and recommended by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. Written by an English convert and priest in 1907, the novel describes the reign of the antichrist in a post-Christian England. Fr. Benson displays considerable descriptive talent—from his detailing of an aircraft (or “volor”) crash to his explanation of a priest’s mental prayer. In these details, Benson maintains a very personal narrative while consistently dealing with universal questions.
Although some of the dialogue might be more difficult to follow because of its philosophical/political bent, this is a very readable work for adolescents who are mature.
A great shadow whirled across the sunlight at her feet, a sound of rending tore the air; and a noise like a giant’s sigh; and, as she stopped bewildered, with a noise like ten thousand smashed kettles, a huge thing crashed on the rubber pavement before her, where it lay, filling half the square, writhing long wings on its upper side that beat and whirled like the flappers of some ghastly extinct monster, pouring out human screams, and beginning almost instantly to crawl with broken life.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
It would seem that Tolkien’s masterpiece hardly needs an introduction. Here is the work that singlehandedly launched what is now known as the fantasy genre—and it is a work which has yet to be surpassed. In addition to this fact, or underlying it, is the fact that Tolkien brings into his fantasy world an understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty thoroughly formed by a deep Catholicism—giving his work a sense of depth and meaning which few authors achieve. If you have not read it, do yourself the favor.
The Lord of the Rings limits its audience more by its size than by anything else. Even children, however, can enjoy having it read. All the same, it is probably best appreciated by older adolescents.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion sets out the entire mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Combining themes and elements of Norse myths with a fundamentally Catholic metaphysics and spiritual understanding, Tolkien manages to create a world of astounding coherence and beauty. Because it covers long ages and many characters, the individual stories in the Silmarillion are not fully fleshed out: it is more like reading a historical account than reading a novel. Even so, the stories and their characters are entrancing and memorable, and the whole book weaves together into the beautiful account of creation, fall, and redemption which he outlines in his first chapter.
The main difficulty in reading this book is having to remember names and events—often having to flip back to a previous page to be reminded of what these were. For those who thoroughly enjoy the world of the Lord of the Rings, the effort is worth it.
For the Great Music had been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing; but now they had entered in at the beginning of Time, and the Valar perceived that the World had been but foreshadowed and foresung, and they must achieve it. So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Eä there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
This short novel follows a priest and bishop as they seek to establish a diocese in New Mexico. It is inspired, in part, by the lives of two clergymen. The plot often digresses into particular details of life in the southwest and of the involvement of priests therein. Although not a Catholic, Cather shows considerable respect for sincere Catholicism and portrays her main characters positively.
Cather’s prose is thought-provoking and deals with serious themes, but is approachable for older adolescents.
In New Mexico, he always awoke a young man, not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “To-day, to-day,” like a child’s.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
Miller’s strange post-apocalyptic novel follows the life of a monastery over twelve centuries, detailing three separate periods within that time. Previous to the events in the novel, humanity had destroyed itself in a “Flame Deluge” and all those involved in the technology which led to this were sought out and killed—their books and implements destroyed by the mob. The reader sees a parallel of the world after the collapse of the Roman Empire as the monks strive to preserve knowledge in the midst of a violent and turbulent world. Yet the very knowledge they keep returns humanity to the edge of hubris which led to the first nuclear war.
Undoubtedly influenced by his participation in the bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during WWII and his subsequent conversion to Catholicism, Miller brings diverse and serious themes to the table in his novel. It is best suited to readers who are eager to think over these themes than to those who are primarily looking for an entertaining story.
We are the centuries. Be born then, gasp wind, screech at the surgeon’s slap, seek manhood, taste a little godhood, feel pain, give birth, struggle a little while, succumb: (Dying, leave quietly by the rear exit, please.) Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with blood-stained vestments and nail-torn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens – and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same.
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
This three-volume work, finished in 1922, almost single-handedly won Undset the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. It details the entire life of a woman—Kristin—in fourteenth-century Norway, who abandons the man to whom she is betrothed in preference of a passionate and, at first appearances, chivalrous young man. What evolves is a tangle of life’s joys and difficulties which stem from Kristin’s choices—for good and for ill. Undset understands the twists and turns of fallen human nature very well, especially struggles with forgiveness, and she portrays this particularly well in her depiction of married life. Her style, which she refined over many years, conveys the sense that the story is being told from within Norway’s medieval culture: at a time when Christianity has taken hold, but remains mixed with pagan thought and custom. Her tone is harshly honest and often pessimistic, though not without a constant presence of Christian hope.
Because of its mature themes and content, this novel is best suited to adults, although mature teens could certainly benefit from reading it also. As a note, the Tiina Nunnally translation, published by Penguin Classics, is the best.
“You are good to everyone, my dear child, but I have also realized that you can be cruel to those you love too dearly. For the sake of Jesus, Kristin, spare me the need to be so worried for you—that your impetuous spirit might bring more sorrow upon you and yours. You struggle like a colt that has been tied up in the stable for the first time, whenever your heartstrings are bound.” Sobbing, she sank against her father, and he held her tight in his arms. They sat there for a long time in that manner, but Lavrans said no more.
The Master of Hestviken, by Sigrid Undset
In many ways, this four-volume series mirrors Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, only the story now revolves around a man, Olav Audunsson. The story is similarly set in fourteenth-century Norway and, in fact, includes a brief guest appearance of Lavrans from her previous novel. There are at least two major differences to note between these works. First, the events of this series are approached (very adeptly) from a masculine perspective. Second, since this series was written after Undset’s conversion to Catholicism, it shows greater familiarity and more frequent use of Scripture and Catholic hymns and chants in relation to what is going on in the characters’ lives. In this sense, it might be called the more Catholic of the two series. All the same, the main character is again flawed and haunted by his sins, which play out over the course of his lifetime. Of the two, Kristin almost undoubtedly stands as the best literary piece, but The Master of Hestviken holds its own as a poetic and deeply human novel.
As with Kristin, some of the mature themes and events in these novels (to include murder, suicide, abortion, and mental illness) make it most suited for adults and mature teens.
In this infinitely white world of wild, snow-covered forest he stood, the only human being in the wastes, and knew not where to hide that other little carcass, the dead man. Break through the carpet of snow and bury him—no. It must be done in such a way that beasts could not come at it—that he would not have. Let it lie and be found when folk moved up to the sæter—that was impossible; then it might come out who the dead man was—and after that all the rest.
The Burning Bush and The Wild Orchid, by Sigrid Undset
Astute readers will have noticed a theme by now in this section of recommendations: they are all by Sigrid Undset so far. This particular story, taking place over two separate novels, takes place in modern (turn of the century) Norway. With her typical insight into human nature, Undset unfolds the story of a young Norwegian’s conversion to Catholicism and the ways in which that permanently shapes his life. Again, Undset deals with difficulties in marriage and in a particular way reflects on the causes and effects of divorce in these novels. Thus, although this series does not quite contend in quality with her medieval masterpieces, it remains an insightful read that adds to the wisdom which Undset imparts through her writing and which, because of its setting, is more easily applicable to our own lives.
As usual, Undset deals with mature themes and is appropriate perhaps for the most mature of high schoolers, but more generally for adults.
If this was the truth, then the whole of life was inconceivably more wonderful and dangerous and rich, so unspeakably more serious and valuable than he had ever dreamt… But he felt himself shrink up with dread at the thought that this truth was to enter into his life, as though facing a terrible effort.
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh’s most famous novel follows the life of Charles Ryder, as he comes to know the aristocratic Marchmain family one by one and as his life is changed by them. It is also the story of Charles’ conversion to the faith, albeit a convoluted and difficult one, first passing through many trials and sins. Waugh’s style—already acknowledged to excel—is at its peak in this novel, with unabashed flourishes of imagery and unrealistically poetic dialogue. All the same, his characters are very human, and their struggles and questions are addressed with Waugh’s characteristic wit and humor.
Given the novel’s almost flippant treatment of moral depravation (although this treatment changes as the main character matures), it is probably best read by adults.
“One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is—no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him… I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love…” and then in condescension to my paganism, she added:”He’s in a very beautiful place, you know, by the sea—white cloisters, a bell tower, rows of green vegetables, and a monk watering them when the sun is low.”
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
At a time when Catholicism was forbidden in Mexico, churches were closed, and priests were forced to marry, the unnamed main character of this story—a fallen, alcoholic priest—remains in his province, driven by a sincere sense of priestly duty. Dealing simultaneously with dogged persecution and with his own selfishness and sinfulness, the priest experiences a continuous transformation through suffering.
Because the novel portrays a very broken character dealing at times in apparent moral ambiguities, it is better left to a more mature reader. This is not to say that it would not be a good recommendation for older teens.
He knew it was the beginning of the end—after all these years. He began to say silently an act of contrition, while they picked the brandy bottle out of his pocket, but he couldn’t give his mind to it. That was the fallacy of the death-bed repentance—penitence was the fruit of long training and discipline: fear wasn’t enough. He tried to think of his child with shame, but he could only think of her with a kind of famished love—what would become of her? And the sin itself was so old that like an ancient picture the deformity had faded and left a kind of grace.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Here, as elsewhere, Dostoevsky shows himself a master of human psychology and conscience. In this novel, he describes the circumstances and justifications that lead a young man to commit murder—followed by the guilt, remorse, and other consequences he had not expected to come. More than a psychological analysis, however, it is ultimately a story of one who has fallen into the modern confusion over moral questions and who is ultimately drawn by love towards the door which opens to redemption.
The inner turmoil of Raskolnikov’s mind makes this book most suited to those who have gained some life experience. There would be nothing to prevent recommending this book, however, to thoughtful teenagers.
“Enough,” he pronounced resolutely and triumphantly. “I’ve done with fancies, imaginary terrors and phantoms! Life is real! haven’t I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman! The Kingdom of Heaven to her—and now enough, madam, leave me in peace! Now for the reign of reason and light… and of will, and of strength… and now we will see! We will try our strength!”
The Cypresses Believe in God, by José María Gironella
This sweeping historical novel was written in part as a response to the narrow vision of the Spanish Civil War that famous writers like Hemingway provided. Gironella set about the task of portraying the various forces that led up to the war, personified and given emotional strength by his memorable characters. His work is decidedly balanced, showing good and bad motivations and actions on the various sides, and does a good job of concretizing a very complicated period in history. While giving a good historical overview in this way, he never loses sight of the personal and emotional in favor of relating history or philosophy.
This book is best approached with some background knowledge of the Spanish Civil War. However, it does provide a glossary of characters, political parties, and organizations which will help clarify things for readers willing to put a little bit of effort in. The novel is well worth the effort, but most approachable for adults because of this. Mature content and matter-of-fact presentations of atrocities, especially towards the end of the book, also make this best for adults.
While the Jesuit church was being gutted by the flames, the same scenes, but perfected by experience, were being repeated in the Church of the Carmen, which Blasco and his gang had taken over. El Cojo, who hated to imitate—and especially to imitate Cosme Vila or Gorki—instead of mounting the pulpit and performing other cheap tricks, had made straight for the ciborium, smashing it with the butt of his rifle… The wood of the altar gave way under his feet, and he found himself buried up to his waist, bleeding from deep scratches. Several comrades had to help him get loose. He was furious. On the floor gleamed a frame and glass. He stamped them to pieces with his heel. It was the Gospel according to St. John.