I’ll say it right up: I’m cheating. The assignment was to recommend twenty Orthodox books that should be owned by all Orthodox tweens and teens. But I love to read, and I think it’s cruel and unusual punishment to keep it to only twenty! Have you any IDEA how many wonderful, great, and absolutely have-to-be-owned books are out there? Millions! And I want to make sure everybody owns them all!
Sadly, that’s not possible for most of us. I can attest to that firsthand since we own well over 20,000, have been collecting for over forty years, and have had to move once just to accommodate the books. But I can’t keep it to just twenty, so I’m recommending series and authors wholesale because they’re just that good and I can’t narrow it down to only one of their books.
I own many of these books and have read and reread them for most of my life. Many of them come recommended by parents of tweens and teens, and even more by teens themselves. This list is twenty books, authors, and series long, and it’s barely scratching the surface of challenging, enjoyable, and go-straight-to-your heart books that we can visit time and time again.
Some of these are published by Orthodox presses and are written by Orthodox authors. Some aren’t strictly Orthodox in that way, but express themes and values that are definitely in line with our beliefs and ways of life. At least one collection here is written by an atheist humanist, whose purpose was humor and social commentary, and who, on the surface, made fun of organized religion and the concept of a God, but whose series nevertheless expressed some profound Christian and Orthodox themes and values. Many books on the list are fiction because sometimes the truth is better expressed and absorbed in a fictional way than by laying it out on the page in plain view. (That’s a fancy way of saying that sometimes we have to lie in order to tell the truth.)
Holy Bible. I think everybody should own their own copy of the Bible, so they can read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. And I do mean mark – underline, highlight, and scribble in the margins. I recommend against buying any Bible that is specifically for kids. If they’re going to own it, they should be able to grow into it, not out of it. My favorite is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), but the English Standard Version (ESV), the King James or the New King James (NKJV), or the Orthodox Study Bible all come highly recommended.
Orthodox Prayer Book. Again, this is one kids should have for themselves alone, so they can leave their hearts in it without worrying about someone else stumbling across their most naked selves. Hear Me, compiled by Annalisa Boyd, comes highly recommended by teens, but as they mature, their needs change and a more conventional prayerbook might do. So, I’m recommending Hear Me, but also, for the older teens, think about a more conventional prayerbook for them to grow into.
A Psalter. The Psalms aren’t just poetry, as we know from our liturgy and services. They’re prayers as well, and they’re marvelous. When we can’t find the words, King David always can, and far better than we could ever express ourselves! Praying the psalms is a wonderful exercise, either for Lent or as part of a rule of prayer, or in times of turmoil and distress, or because you’re overflowing with love for God and want to sing it out. There is the Psalter according to the Seventy published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, or A Psalter for Prayer, published by Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville.
Welcome to the Orthodox Church by Frederica Matthewes Green. I know that the kids will probably know all of this, since they’ve been attending since day one, but it’s still a good book to own, if for no other reason than to lend out to non-Orthodox friends as a way to understand our faith. Just tie a cord to it so you can haul it back home if it doesn’t get returned. And, honestly, who can’t use a refresher from time to time? It’s less academic than Kallistos Ware’s equivalent, The Orthodox Church, and is a relaxed and easy way to learn about the basics of the faith.
The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware. It’s not an easy book, but it does lay out, in a fairly clear and logical way, some of the deeper issues in the faith. It’s a good stepping stone into a mature theology and one we can come back to again and again.
Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit. Things haven’t gotten any better since Ms. Shalit wrote this in the early 1990s, and it’s an excellent book for anyone who wants and needs to understand and defend the ideas of virtue, modesty, and chastity, regardless of how young or old they are. Worth owning because we all need refreshers, and to lend (with a cord attached so you can get it back again).
Bearing the Saint by Donna Farley. One of those books that has attractions for a whole range of ages – mid-grade, older kids, and adults. It’s historical fiction about the remarkable journey St. Cuthbert’s followers made with his relics, told from the point of view of a fisherman’s son whose greatest joy is running messages. His path is with the pilgrims, but is a deep one of struggle, faith, and maturity that we can all understand and relate to, whatever our age.
Letters to Saint Lydia by Melinda Johnson. This book is a great way to learn, and refresh, an understanding of the nature of saints and how, and why, we communicate with them, as well as with God. It deals with the struggle to understand religious belief and why we believe, as well as the problems and vicissitudes of life, and how those two come together, told from the point of view of a young college girl struggling with her possible belief and the issues of life. Something I think we all come back to again and again in our lives, regardless of our age.
Watership Down by Richard Adams. I’ve heard talks on this at conventions, and at least one person I know makes rereading this part of her Lenten discipline. It’s an amazing book that is not written for children, but is accessible to them. Get two copies, one for you and one for the kid. Read it and enjoy it, time and time again. It’s about rabbits, and their search for a new warren when their old one is destroyed by poison for a human housing development. But that’s just the plot – it gets deeper and deeper and richer and truer with every page.
Royal Monastic: Princess Ileana of Romania. It’s a biography of Princess Ileana/Mother Alexandra of Romania. Her life was anything but that of a stereotypical princess, and the struggles she went through would try the toughest. It was her faith that kept her going, in a life devoted to duty and selflessness. This one is by me.
Keeper of the Light: Saint Macrina the Elder. Historical fiction dealing with St. Macrina the Elder, a confessor of the faith, and the grandmother of five saints. She was a bridge of theology, and it was her teaching and influence that set St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa on the paths that led them to their brilliance. Also by me.
Many people think speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction) is “that one” in the family – the one we don’t talk about and don’t really want to see at holidays. The one whose conversation is off, somehow. A few degrees away from how everybody else sees the world. Who is vaguely (or outright over-the-top) embarrassing. That it’s somehow below regular fiction when it comes to faith and understanding our faith. Honestly – it’s not. Science fiction is, perhaps, even better at dealing with questions of faith, belief, doctrine, and dogma in ways that regular fiction can’t. Sometimes, fictional magic, either of science kind or the more old-fashioned sparkly smoke and mirrors variety, is a good (and sometimes the only) way to explain the miraculous ways God works in us and in the world, even today.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein. I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about these. Get ’em, give ’em, and enjoy the result.
C.S. Lewis: I’m not listing any one specific title or series. Both the Narnia series and the Perelandra (Space Triology) series are superb, and if the kids don’t quite get the Perelandra series now, they’ll grow into it. Also Screwtape Letters and really, any of his nonfiction.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Everybody I consulted recommended these books, and they’re good, there’s no doubt about that. I believe these books are going to end up like Charles Dickens’s – read, and reread, published and republished for hundreds of years. Regardless of what you think of magic, or witches and wizards, these books are profoundly Christian and are engaging and compelling, not just on one reading and be done with it, and not just for kids.
The Nightmare Tree and The Edge of Mysterion by Fr. Richard Rene. The first book is about a young boy in the Seychelles (islands off the coast of eastern Africa) whose father goes missing and who is driven to sail off to find him. Jonah discovers not only a world lying next to this one, but the power of love and selflessness, and a destiny he never expected. The second book is even better than the first, and I’m hoping for a third sometime.
The Dome Singer of Falenda by Katherine Bolger Hyde. Full disclosure: I edited this book. I’ve read it numerous times, and it’s marvelous. I fully expect to read it again and again. Danny is a singer in choir school in England. His mother has been missing for several years, and his father isn’t dealing well with it. The kids at school are not kind to Danny, to say the least. He is yanked from his unhappy situation and plopped down in another world, where he discovers that he has to risk himself, his newly found Falenda friend, and the world of Falenda itself in order to find his mother and return to England. And again, that’s just the plot – there’s lots more between the lines. Compelling, re-readable, and worth owning.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Actually, a lot of her books are worth owning and rereading, but this is the best, by far. It’s science fiction, but very, very Christian and Orthodox and solid. This one holds up for adult reading better than some of her others, although they’re all good. Meg’s dad, a scientist, disappears, and she has to go find him. Along the way, she discovers cherubim and seraphim, the power of love, the emptiness of totalitarian regimes, and again, the subtext is rich, necessary, and vital.
Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones. She was an amazing writer whose works hold up for kids and adults, but this one hit me like a ton of bricks, and it does it every time I read it. It’s about a star (the kind in the sky, not the ones in Hollywood) who commits a crime and is punished by being born into the body of a dog on earth, until he finds the object that was lost during the crime. It’s a story of love and loss, of healing and faith and selflessness. And it makes me cry at least once every time I read it.
To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether by Connie Willis. Any of her books are worth reading and rereading, but these two are just pure delight. These two are a great way to engage people who don’t normally like science fiction, because they don’t read or feel like speculative fiction. They read like an historical novel and a mainstream novel set in a research facility, respectively. Also highly recommended are Doomsday Book and her World War II duo, Blackout and All Clear. Connie specializes in misdirection, confusion among characters (but the reader is never confused), and wonderful humor, along with very untrendy, uncool, and rumpled-around-the-edges characters.
The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. These come highly recommended not just by parents, but by the kids themselves, and they’re books that some of the adults read as kids and come back to again and again.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Sir Terry was an atheist humanist, whom I hope I will meet when I repose, because I think, deep in his heart of hearts, Terry was an Orthodox Christian, although he never knew it. He was also a writer who had a deep love for people, and who poked gentle fun at our foibles, shortcomings, and silliness, including some of our less-than-exemplary behavior around religion. He poked fun at gods, and God, but underneath it, and in the subtext of the Discworld stories, he shows us, among other things, the virtues of humility, the dangers of pride, and the rewards of a selfless, dedicated faith. They’re not written for kids primarily, but are kid-friendly (little to no swearing, no sex, and little violence) and anything that is slightly off-color is probably going to be missed by kids (it’s usually double entendre).
Your Favorite Books?
That’s twenty-one entries, and to get that, I added, subtracted, cut, inserted, changed my mind, dithered, and fussed. It’s not the “top” twenty (except for the Bible, prayer book, and Psalter). It’s just the twenty entries I think kids would enjoy now and for years to come. Sharing these has been a delight – I’ve found new common ground among my on-line friends whom I consulted for this list, and take great joy in holding out my favorites to you. So, tell me, and all of us: what are your favorites that you read as a kid and that stuck with you? What ones are you reading now that you think you’ll come back to again and again?