Books about Books

A Landscape with Dragons

Book cover: 'A Landscape with Dragons'
Author(s): 
Michael O'Brien
Copyright: 
1998
Publisher: 
Ignatius Press
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
261 pages
Subject(s): 
Review: 

This book has helped me to understand the importance of stories in a child's spiritual and intellectual formation. Mr. O'Brien explains how mythology, fiction, fantasy and fairy tales help children understand the real world - both what we can see and what we can't see. Stories help teach children the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. Unfortunately, many fiction stories give the wrong messages about good and bad. Mr. O'Brien gives parents the tools to tell good from bad and includes his own analysis of some popular stories and several Disney movies. Some of the work is rather scholarly and perhaps even heavy-handed at times. In particular, his theories about good fantasy, which even the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings can't quite live up to, seem overly particular to me.

Because of all the problems with offensive content in modern books and movies, I think it's easy for parents to fall into judging books and movies JUST by whether or not they are "clean." The problem with this is that some materials that appear to be non-offensive have problems of a more subtle nature. Conversely, there are some really fine books and movies that have some unfortunate scenes or even some scenes that seem offensive but are important to the story. A Landscape With Dragons helps sort out what's good and what's bad in a meaningful, rather than superficial way.

This book also contains an extensive recommended reading list compiled by the staff of Bethlehem Books. It's a very helpful resource categorized into Picture Books, Easy Readers, Short Chapter Books, Books for Intermediate Readers, and Adult Titles which are suitable for older teens. Included are many good secular titles that you can probably find in your local library. Also, titles are marked to let you know which ones are currently in print.

In keeping with the notion of deciding for yourself on some of the finer points (and remembering that good Catholics will disagree on some of these details), it is interesting to note that there are a few discrepencies between Michael O'Brien's recommendations and those present in the recommended book list from Bethlehem Books.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 

A Picture Perfect Childhood

Enhancing Your Child's Imagination and Education in 15 Minutes a Day
A Picture Perfect Childhood
Author(s): 
Cay Gibson
Copyright: 
2007
Publisher: 
Literature Alive!
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
256 pages
Subject(s): 
Review: 

There are only a few books that I know I'll love even before I see them - and this was definitely one. Picture book afficionado Cay Gibson serves up a delicious array of picture books of all sorts to discover and savor for yourself from your local library (and hopefully start a collection of your own as well).

I'm a big fan of picture books - especially the beautifully illustrated ones that are wonderfully in fashion at present (my habits run along the lines of prominently displaying them in our house to inspire reading, purchasing picture books to coordinate with our homeschool studies - particular in history and science, and even, occasionally, reading picture books aloud to unsuspecting dinner guests) and I'm delighted to have this great place to start to discover many new titles.

The substance of this book is comprised of essays on the value of picture books and how to incorporate them into your lives along with numerous creative and inspiring book lists. Here is a sampling of the booklists you'll find:

List for Teenaged Readers and Reluctant Readers

Children's Hour (A Twelve Month Historical Timeline along with supplementary reading in subjects like science, art, music and language arts)

The Never-Ending List of Children's Authors and Illustrators

Teaching Virtues Through Books

Spanning the Globe

Read Across America

Let's Get Cooking with Literature (Picture Books about Cooking and Recipes)

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

Black History Month

Around the World and Beyond with Cinderella

Gardening Treasures

Immigration Booklist

Pioneers and Westward Movement

World War II

Christmas Booklist

This is the sort of book (further enhanced by spacious margins and room for additional notes) that I can readily imagine dragging to the library and to book sales and keeping track of which favorites we've read and which ones we own. A very welcome addition to our home library and one that also looks to be useful in making purchasing recommendations to our public library. I've only read a small portion of the recommended books so far, but I eagerly await discovering many new favorites.

Though this book was written by a Catholic homeschool mom (and includes a number of fine, specifically Catholic titles), its scope is quite broad and would be of interest to many parents, teachers and librarians.

Available from the author's website.

Review Date: 
2-15-2008
Reviewed by: 

Catholic Authors - 4 Sight Edition

Book cover: 'Catholic Authors - 4 Sight Edition'
Author(s): 
Brother George N. Schuster, S.M.
Copyright: 
1949
Publisher: 
Catholic Authors Press
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
32 pages
Subject(s): 
Review: 

This book was designed for grades 7 through 9 to give "a vital, illustrated presentation of Catholic literature to help students 'see' and love Christ four ways always: in Himself, in Others, in His Creation, in His Mother." [from the back cover]

The author does this by first explaining how God is visible to us: In Himself (Seeing God: "Love the Lord thy God"), In Others ("Love thy Neighbor"), In Creation ("Consider the Lilies") and In His Mother ("Behold thy Mother"). The book reviews and brief author and illustrator biographies are broken up into these four categories. We are introduced to great authors of the past and present (at least as of 1949!) who have illustrated these concepts to us by use of real characters, action and life situations.The reviews themselves are rather brief - they really amount to short "teasers" - an attempt to interest students in reading these books. There are also a number of brief essays which elaborate on how some of the individual books teach us about God, even if indirectly.
Although Catholic Authors was designed for students, I think it should be required reading for homeschooling parents. Its value is two-fold for us: 1. A source of information about good reading for our children (although many of the books are out of print, others are available new from companies such as Bethlehem Books, TAN and Neumann Press). 2. An education for parents (without a huge amount of reading) in the importance of literature, and especially Catholic literature, in our children's education and spiritual formation.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 

For the Love of Literature

Teaching Core Subjects with Literature
Author(s): 
Maureen Wittmann
Copyright: 
2007
Publisher: 
Ecce Homo Press
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
256 pages
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

I'm so excited about my friend Maureen's new book from Ecce Homo Press. Maureen is a kindred spirit in the "living books" department and I know that this book will be a favorite on my shelf and have recommended it to friends who are interested in the way our family homeschools.

For the Love of Literature is a project Maureen has been working on for years and it's designed especially for Catholic homeschool parents. It's a well-organized guide to using real books - biographies, historical fiction, beautiful picture books, etc. to study any subject area of interest. The book lists are extensive and up-to-date (meaning that she only included books that are currently in print) which means, among other things, that this could be an extremely useful resource for using your library well. We've even found it to be a useful source of junior non-fiction titles to suggest for our library for purchase. Extensive book lists are included for the following subjects: Art and Music Appreciation, Math, History, Science and "Books about books".

In addition to the book lists are explanations of numerous possible ways to make a living-books curriculum work for your family. You'll find chapters on "Using Your Library", "Building a Home Library", "Reading Aloud", "Classical Education", "Charlotte Mason" and "How to Create a Literature Unit Study."

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1-8-2008
Reviewed by: 

Let the Authors Speak

A Guide to Worthy Books Based on Historical Setting
Book cover: 'Let the Authors Speak: A Guide to Worthy Books Based on Historical Setting'
Author(s): 
Carolyn Hatcher
Copyright: 
1992
Publisher: 
Old Pinnacle Publishing
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
114 pages
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

This book offers approximately 1300 "living books" (books that make history come alive such as biographies, historical accounts, historical fiction and related literature) organized into several lists - chronologically, by author and by title. These books were chosen from a number of guides to worthwhile books, including Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt and the Masterplots series. They include many fine Catholic books and lives of the Saints. I must admit to being a little disappointed that the author hasn't read all the books herself. This would cause me to use extra care and I did find one book that I would hesitate recommending for teens - Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy.

The introductory chapters (18 pages) provide an excellent, down-to-earth, discussion of the importance of reading good books, and other worthwhile aspects of the educational philosophies of Charlotte Mason. This introduction is probably worth the price of the book even without all the subsequent book lists! This book provides a helpful resource in adding good books to a history course and excellent background reading on educational philosophy for parents.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1-19-01
Reviewed by: 

Literature Alive

Book cover: 'Literature Alive'
Author(s): 
Cay A. Gibson
Copyright: 
2003
Publisher: 
Wise Publications
Binding: 
Spiralbound
Number of pages: 
317 pages
Subject(s): 
Review: 

Although this is a hefty tome, the relaxed, informal tone begs you to snuggle up with it on the sofa with a cozy afghan, a crackling fire, and a hot cup of tea. Of course, it's winter here in Wisconsin: overcast, chilly and white outside. Whatever the weather or circumstances, this book is guaranteed to soothe the soul and inspire the book lover within. You feel like you are having a conversation with a best friend and will often find yourself saying, "Yes" and nodding in agreement, or pausing to reflect and say, "Hmm, interesting, I will have to think about that."

Appropriately subtitled How to Turn a Living Book into a Cherished Book within the Home, Literature Alive covers just about every imaginable topic related to books, book collecting, and creating book lovers in your children. There are a whopping 111 topics. Topic titles include: Compiling a Book List; Finding Old Book Friends; Narration and Writing for Beginners; Guiding Teens to Writing; Notebooking! Easy as A, B, C; A Journey into the World of Dyslexia; and The Art of Journals. There are also several articles on Maria Montessori and Charlotte Mason. Although the majority of the book is written by Cay Gibson, there are a number of contributing authors as well. If you enjoy books and have been homeschooling for a while, you will probably recognize a few of the contributing authors, such as: Ann Ball, Joan Stromberg, Penny Gardner and MacBeth Derham.

This is not the kind of book you will want to plow through quickly. You will want to pause often and reflect on passages and quotes about books while taking notes about favorite authors or helpful resources. For the bibliophile, you will be tempted to check out the lists of books about books and resources for literature study from the library or elsewhere. The book also includes blank spaces to add your own notes. The informal type face adds to the comfortable tone.

You might want to jump to your favorite topic or enjoy the journey from beginning to end with pit stops along the way. The spiral binding allows you to fold back the pages, making it easier to handle when reading. If you are a lover of great literature and good books, or just learning about the importance of literature in the lives of your children, you will enjoy this book. Even for those of us who don't need to be convinced of the value of good books, there is much to ponder within the pages of this wonderful resource.

Available through this link.

Review Date: 
2-23-05
Reviewed by: 

Reading the Saints

Lists of Catholic Books for Children plus Book Collecting Tips for the Home and School Library
Author(s): 
Janet McKenzie
Copyright: 
2007
Publisher: 
Biblio Resource Publications
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
218 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

This is an interesting and helpful book of lists designed for parents and teachers interested in collecting Catholic stories (particularly saint stories) for their children and incorporating them into their school studies.

The first part of the book consists of listings of Catholic book series (both in and out of print), including titles with Catholic content that have been awarded the Caldecott Award and the Newbery Award, Catholic Readers, the Clarion Series, the Vision Series, American Background Books, Catholic Treasury Books and much more.

The main portion of the book (over 100 pages) includes historical and geographical charts of these books of interest (including separate listings for individual stories in the story collections). These charts provide information on where and when the story took place, what series it belongs to, whether it's in print or not and a general age recommendation.

Also included are extensive listings of Catholic authors and publishers of interest.

The appendix includes a helpful and detailed guide to collecting and caring for books.

I found this to be a very useful and well-organized book and I'm sure it's one I'll turn to again and again - particularly when doing school planning over the summer.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
3-3-2008
Reviewed by: 

The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature

Author(s): 
Mitchell Kalpakgian
Copyright: 
2000
Publisher: 
Neumann Press
Binding: 
Sewn Hardcover
Subject(s): 
Review: 

This book is not too "scholarly" to enjoy, and I have truly enjoyed it. Each of the chapters discusses a different element of children's literature in the context of actual books. There is a complete synopsis of the book at this address:

http://www.neumannpress.com/mysoflifinch.html

Be forewarned: you will be running to your bookshelves to start reading some of these books to your children and to re-read them yourself.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
1999
Reviewed by: 

The Mystery of Harry Potter

A Catholic Family Guide
Author(s): 
Nancy Carpentier Brown
Copyright: 
2007
Publisher: 
Our Sunday Visitor
Binding: 
Paperback
Number of pages: 
176 pages
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Nancy C. Brown's The Mystery of Harry Potter, a Catholic Family Guide is a book I've been waiting for. Weary of defending the fact that I've allowed Harry into our home, I longed for some good Catholic mom to write down all the reasons why Harry can be perfectly compatible with a faithful, orthodox Catholic family.

I've mentioned on my own blog a couple of times that I wanted to write a series of posts about how I came to be a fan, came to allow the books for my older children, and about the ways in which I believe the books are misinterpreted or misrepresented by some outspoken Catholic critics. I haven't gotten that series done because other things have simply taken priority in life and writing, putting Harry on the back burner. And, being a stickler, I didn't want to write about the books until I could devote the time necessary to do them justice.

I still don't have that series of posts written, but now it doesn't seem nearly as important. My own experience of initial reluctance, followed by treading slowly and carefully into Harry Territory, and then not only allowing the series, but enjoying it along with my kids, is very similar to Nancy Brown's experience.

And, my overall take is the same as Nancy's, and it's simple:

Read ... Guide ... Discuss.

But, then, that's my take on everything with my kids. We read a lot of stuff together. Their dad and I guide them. There's discussion, often fun and lively, sometimes critical and dissecting. Isn't that what we parents are supposed to do?

I really enjoyed the opening of Nancy's book, because it all sounded so familiar. Like Nancy, I was initially reluctant to jump on the Harry bandwagon. Like Nancy, I'd read a number of critical reviews from writers I respected. Like Nancy, I'd concluded that there were good reasons to stay away. My kids weren't interested anyway, so there was no conflict. But then, my kids started to ask about the books. I began quizzing friends who were simultaneously HP fans and orthodox Catholics. Then I decided to do the most common-sensical thing:

It was time to read the books for myself. (Hmmm ... just like Nancy.)

I previewed Book One about four years ago. I found it delightful. Not perfect, but delightful. A "rattlin' good story," as C.S. Lewis liked to call such yarns. And by the time I reached the last page, I was surprised by the overarching themes: sacrificial love, friendship and doing "what is right over what is easy."

I decided to share the book with the kids as a read-aloud. From the get-go, we talked about the difference between "magic" as it is forbidden in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future.48 Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.

and "magic" as it is portrayed in Harry Potter:

the magic of an imaginary fantasy world. J.K. Rowling's creation is an imagined, alternate universe in which "wizards" and "witches" are people who are born with the ability to do magical things. They do not call upon Satan or demons and they do not try to tame occult powers. There are no "occult" powers, because there is not a "source" for their kind of magic. "Magical" in Harry's world, is simply the way some people are born. There's an entire alternate wizarding world, unseen by "Muggles" (that would be us -- non-magical people) in which the fantastic is normal: unicorns exist, giants dwell in the forest, invisible creatures pull carriages and folks fly on broomsticks for a fast-paced game called Quidditch. Wizards can travel through fireplaces and wave a wand to get dinner going or to knit a cap for an elf.

This is all quite different from the case of a Catholic child sitting in her bedroom and attempting to call upon spirits, summon the dead, read tarot cards, use a Ouija board or rely on a horoscope. We know and understand these Harry Potter issue, both pro and con. Suffice to say for the time being that it's been extensive, and over the past few years I've read a great deal of the resources Nancy lists on her bibliography page at Our Sunday Visitor.)

Back to the Harry Potter books. We kept reading. I previewed, then we did them as read-alouds together. We made it through the first three and I was hooked. I quickly read Books 4 and 5 just before Book 6 came out two years ago. The kids and I were sharing the adventure, and we talked about everything: from Harry and his friends' mistakes, to their courageous choices, from the ways in which they were growing up to the ways in which they stayed the same, from the Christian symbolism and the theme of free will to the delightful imagination of the author.

And this is exactly the sort of thing that Nancy Brown recommends in The Mystery of Harry Potter, which is why I'm so grateful to have this book to share with friends. Nancy says, and I agree, that we need to know what our kids are reading. We need to talk to them, help them figure it out and, most importantly, place it in the context of their faith. My goal as a Catholic mother is to do this with everything my kids encounter. This is how we teach them to be in the world but not of it.

The Mystery of Harry Potteraddresses the concerns that Catholic parents may have about J.K. Rowling's books. Nancy Brown answers the objections with clarity and common sense, as well as literary and theological support. She doesn't give the books her unconditional approval, and rightly so. She doesn't brush off concerns and counter that the books are harmless fun for all ages. No -- Nancy Brown is a responsible mom who gave the series a critical read and moved forward from there. She encourages other parents to do the same.

My only quibble with the book is a selfish one: I would have loved to see more explication of specific examples from the books that illustrate the Christian themes. But Nancy, an avid reader who is considerate of other readers, didn't want to create a book full of spoilers, and I have to admire that consideration and restraint.

The Mystery of Harry Potter doesn't try to convert anyone to Potterism. But, if you've wondered what all the fuss is about, if you've had doubts or concerns, if you've read things that convince you your children will be drawn into the occult as a result of reading the series, then Nancy Brown's book can help you. It offers a concise guide to the objections that have been floating around for years, as well as reassurance that not only is Harry not going to harm your well-guided children, but you and your family just might even find joy and unexpected delight in Harry's extraordinary, imaginary life.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Review Date: 
8-5-2007
Reviewed by: 

Related Links:

C.S. Lewis on the importance of reading old books (from his introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius)