A summer reading list for Catholic kids of all ages

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During this strange year of instability, twists, turns and surprises, I noticed a few bright sides to the COVID crisis, including a renewed appreciation for family, friends and those small things that make life beautiful. On the downside, many of us battled screen overdosing in our homes. Early in the COVID lockdowns, I gave my children extra screen privileges, but their eyeballs seemed to be glued to their screens far too often. How did extra privileges lead to constant consumption under my watch? So, a few months in, I made an effort to plant around my home other enticing invitations that would lure my children away from their screens. One of my favorite invitations: a good story. 

Even if COVID restrictions are easing in your area, we have the summer ahead of us with more unstructured hours in the day, so I’d like to share some of my favorite book suggestions for summer reading. I only include a handful of titles per age group so as not to overwhelm you right now when you are probably getting too many survival tips! Included here are stories that ignite our children’s imaginations — lively books they will love for the rest of their lives. These books are not only entertaining, but they spark conversations and questions about human nature, our purpose and our relationships. I’m suggesting a few well-written fictionalized saints’ lives and the autobiography of a Corrie Ten Boom. 

One often-overlooked benefit of reading stories: they allow us to touch indirectly on losses or emotions that seem too big to face directly. We face these difficulties through the experiences and reactions of fictional characters. This past year, just about every child has experienced the loss or disruption of their routines and roles (as athletes or students, for example). Some children have suffered devastating losses — deaths, relocations, fractured relationships. So, I also include some titles that allow our children to face losses or setbacks once removed.

Consider choosing a few selections for family summer read-alouds. Reading to your children and teenagers has many benefits. It’s good for their vocabulary, attention span and brain development, and spending time together hearing stories improves family rapport and communication. Even after your child can read independently, consider having a special read-aloud time built into your family’s calendar and daily routine. 


bookAnimal Folk Tales of America (Sterling, $12.95) adapted by Tony Palazzo: A beautifully illustrated book of American tall tales, including Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, The Jumping Frog, Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed and Sweet Betsy. The characters in folk tales often possess exaggerated character traits. Ask your child how the characters seem “bigger than life.” 

James Herriot’s Treasury for Children (Macmillan Young Listeners, $22.99): A country vet narrates this timeless and charming collection of stories set in Yorkshire, England. Ask your child why the vet’s work was so important for the farmers and the animals. How did the vet demonstrate the virtues of compassion, love, and joy?

How to Heal a Broken Wing (Candlewick, $16.99) by Bob Graham: In a story of compassion and possibility, a little boy and his mother are walking in a big city when the boy spots an injured bird. Others don’t seem to notice the bird, but the boy rescues it and brings it home. Ask your child why so many people didn’t seem to see the bird. (They were too busy and distracted.) 

In the Forest (Viking, $15.95) by Marie Hall Ets: “In the Forest” is a delightful story about a boy’s ramble through the forest playing his new horn as animals begin to join him. What does each animal bring to the boy’s walk? This might lead to a conversation about how each of us has special gifts that we are meant to use as followers of Christ.

Mad about Madeline: The Complete Tales by Ludwig Bemelmans(Viking, $35): These beautifully illustrated stories have delighted generations of children. Madeline sometimes behaves impulsively and gets into trouble, but she finds her way back to the adults who love her. In the aftermath of conflicts and chaos, the routines and rituals of her community ground Madeline’s life. 

No Matter What(HMH Books for Young Readers, $8.99) by Debi Gliorik: This is a tender story about unconditional love. Use this story as a reminder to your children that you will love them no matter what. Your love for them will survive their moods, their behavior and times of separation. This is how God feels about us: Nothing we do can make him love us less. Note: The British version ends with a message that love survives death; the American version leaves out death and instead focuses on loving through thick and thin. Both versions have their place in our children’s lives.

Young children

bookThe Princess and the Goblin (Puffin Books, $13.95) by George MacDonald: This great work of children’s fantasy can be enjoyed by “the child-like” of any age! Try to find an edition with the original illustrations by Arthur Hughes. G.K. Chesterton said this book “made a difference to my whole existence.” MacDonald influenced later fantasy writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien. 

The Children’s Homer(Simon Pulse, $13.99) by Padraic Colum: Some children’s adaptions of classical literature are flat and uninspiring, but Colum’s adaptation of Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” (both stories covered in one book) is well-done and engaging. This book could be enjoyed by middle-schoolers, too. Colum also wrote “The Children of Odin” (Aladdin, $18.99) another good book for summer reading. Talk to your kids about heroism and holiness. What do these words mean? Can you have heroism without holiness? 

The Penderwicks (Knopf Books, $20.99) by Jeanne Birdsall: “The Penderwicks is a witty, charming story about four sisters and their widowed father who take a vacation in the Berkshires, where they have many adventures and misadventures! How does the love of family help the girls survive setbacks? Which virtues do your kids see in each character? Which virtues are missing sometimes?

First Farm in the Valley (Ignatius, $22.95) by Anna Pellowski: The first of a series, both my daughters loved this book; it’s kind of a Catholic Little House book. “First Farm in the Valley” is a story about an immigrant family settling into their new homestead in Wisconsin. The protagonist dreams of returning home to Poland, but she eventually realizes she is already home. A story about the power of family, community and faith, it’s also a good reminder about our tendency to look for our “real life” elsewhere when we’re already living the life God wants to give us. 

bookThe Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (Atheneum, $7.99) by Betty Birney: When Eben’s father challenges him to find seven wonders in their seemingly sleepy little town, he discovers many marvels in his midst. Toward the end of the story, Eben faces his mixed feelings about leaving behind the safety of home to visit his relatives in St. Louis. This scene provides parents an opportunity to explain to children that it’s quite natural to feel both excited and nervous about new experiences, especially when they require a temporary separation (starting school, first sleepovers, away camps). 

Augustine Came to Kent(Bethlehem Books, $12.95) by Barbara Willard: “Augustine Came to Kent” is an engaging account of the life of St. Augustine of Canterbury told through the eyes of a young boy, Wolf. The reading level is probably appropriate for older kids and tweens, but it’s a good read-aloud for younger kids.


Anne of Green Gables(Aladdin, $19.99) by L.M. Montgomery: An endearing, enduring classic! Anne Shirley, a dramatic, plucky redhead, is an orphan who comes to Prince Edward Island to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Matthew and Marilla learn as much from Anne as she does from them. Ask your kids how Anne changes and grows during the story and what her adoptive parents learn from her. 

bookThe Hobbit(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99) by J.R.R. Tolkien: Hobbits, dwarves, trolls and dragons imagined in a world created by the literary genius J.R.R. Tolkien. Perfect for a quiet afternoon. Ask your child how Bilbo changes from the beginning of the story to the end. Which virtues did he possess or develop because he made a decision to face his fears or at least to embark on his quest despite his fears? 

Where the Red Fern Grows (Yearling, $8.99) by Wilson Rawls: This book is always the favorite of the year when I teach it in my middle school literature class. Set in the Ozark Mountains during the Depression, “Where the Red Fern Grows” focuses on the relationship between Billy and his hunting dogs. It’s a story of perseverance, heartbreak and the love of family. My daughter Claire recommends this to any middle schooler, girls and boys alike, especially animal lovers. “The ending will make you cry. You won’t forget it. Ever.” Kid-approved!

Saint Thomas Aquinas(Sophia Institute Press, $12.95) by Raissa Maritain: A great read-aloud for the whole family, this unusual children’s biography about St. Thomas Aquinas was written by the wife of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. My son Dominic read this when he was 11, and he highly recommends it.

A View from Saturday(Aladdin, $11.99) by E.L. Konigsburg: “A View from Saturday” tells the story of four academic bowl team members and their teacher as they progress through an academic competition. The four team members all face personal challenges, but their unique strengths are sharpened and illuminated when they come together. What does each team member bring to the team? Who is the wisest person in the story? The book is marketed for young kids, but I use it in my middle school literature class because of the unusual narrative structure. 


The Hiding Place(Bantam, $8.99): This book is the autobiography of Corrie Ten Boom, whose family helped many Jews escape Nazi persecution during World War II. The Ten Booms were eventually caught and imprisoned. This book will stimulate conversations about doing the right thing in difficult circumstances, trusting in God and loving our enemies. 

The Joyful Beggar: St. Francis of Assisi(Ignatius, $19.95) by Louis de Wohl: This classic by master storyteller de Wohl is an engaging fictionalized account of the life of St. Francis. A story of action, intrigue, and transformation that will inspire teens and grown-ups alike.

The Lord of the Rings(Houghton Mifflin, $23) by J.R.R. Tolkien: A must on every good book list! A Christian myth populated with dwarves, elves, trolls, and other creatures (including humans), this classic high fantasy novel captivates readers of all ages. You’ll notice a Christ figure in Gandalf, the deadly traps of pride and avarice in the One Ring, and self-sacrificial virtue in Frodo. 

The Odysseyby Homer: The story of the Greek hero Odysseus struggling to reach home after the end of the Trojan War touches some primordial ache within us all, for we are all yearning for our perfect, eternal home in heaven. Some teens might grumble if you suggest this book to them, but they might be surprised. My oldest loved it; he took his copy with him to college. 

bookThe Screwtape Letters (Christian satirical apologetics) or “The Great Divorce” (Christian allegory) by C.S. Lewis: My son, who is now a seminarian, said both these books impacted him as a teenager, helping him see Christianity’s sensibility. He slightly prefers “The Great Divorce,” but you can’t go wrong with either. 

To Kill a Mockingbird (HarperOne, $26.99) by Harper Lee: I read this complex American novel for the first time when I was in ninth grade, and I’ve read it several times since. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the South and told from the perspective of Scout, whose father, Atticus Finch, defends a Black man unjustly accused of a crime. Talk to your teen about the outsiders in the novel: Boo Radley, Tom Robinson and even Atticus Finch. How are these characters misunderstood by others, including the narrator? 

Kim Cameron-Smith is the author of “Discipleship Parenting: Planting the Seeds of Faith” (OSV, $18.95). Find her at kimcameronsmith.com