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The Family Bookshelf: Secular Books Can Complement Catholic Catechesis

July 6, 2020


Ashley Canter of The Family Bookshelf blog is a Catholic convert, a farmer’s wife, and the mother of five children. Having earned a BA in European history from Ohio University in 2006 and married soon after, she has enjoyed reading and writing through years of discernment, change, and parenting. Now settled on an organic dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, she chats with Word on Fire’s Robert Mixa about her belief that Catholic family life is enhanced by living liturgically, playing outside, and reading great books.

During the pandemic shutdown, many parents have had to become the primary catechists of their children. From your experience teaching your children the faith, what has been especially effective?

Thank you, Bob. We observe all the liturgical seasons of the Church year, and encourage the children to help. They might take turns blowing out the candles on the Advent wreath, or help hide the bean in the King cake on Epiphany. Children naturally want to help, and that makes it easy to include them.

We have also been diligent about befriending the saints—reading a short biography of the appointed saint for each day and praying a regular litany. Among the many books that introduce children to the saints, there are some that we have found particularly helpful: Kimberly Fries has several excellent options available through her apostolate at My Little Nazareth, and the book Saintly Rhymes for Modern Times by Meghan Bausch is outstanding. My youngest can identify every one of the subjects in these thoroughly well-done books.

We also celebrate family patrons and name saints on their feast days, and these occasions are as much anticipated as birthdays.

Finally, I have been firm from the beginning that books, movies, games, and music should be in keeping with our values as Catholics. The content of reading material, music, and art should fill young minds with goodness. Having been enormously influenced by literature myself, I know how instrumental it can be in forming our manners and habits, to say nothing of our ideals and morals. I have very carefully curated the activities that take place in our home; they needn’t all be directly related to our faith, but they must be compatible with it. Reading, like prayer, is something we make time for every day; and that hour before bedtime cuddled up together with Farmer Boy or The Little Red Hen is a time that all of us treasure.

How have you used literature to complement  your family’s catechesis?

My children are learning the faith through very intentional catechesis, but I also want them to see how it is applied in the dilemmas of the books they read. I have selected our own library carefully to ensure that the stories my children read will help them to recognize that they were created with love and purpose. I want them to imagine and build; to be inspired to grow into the heroes they love. I want them to respect others and find strength in the humblest service—to recognize virtue in action, and choose to take it up; to seek the Truth and follow it.

There are a great many good things happening in Catholic writing and publishing, but my emphasis is primarily on secular literature that reflects the truths of our faith. There are certainly titles out there that our children have no business reading, but there are also gems both classic and new.

How did your wish to use literature as a complement to catechesis challenge you?

As I floundered to discover these books on my own over the years, I realized that sharing my findings might make it easier for other Catholic families who might be looking for children’s books that fit in with an active observance of the faith. And so, I started my blog, The Family Bookshelf, where I post my reviews of children’s books that I think support a Catholic worldview, even though for the most part they are not distinctly Catholic.

With my eldest child now nearly twelve years old, I can see the fruits of this supporting role that literature can play in catechesis. Having been read many stories featuring strong family relationships when she was very little, and then reading favorites like Caddie Woodlawn and All-of-a-Kind Family as she developed independent reading skills, she was well prepared to read Little Women at the age of ten. [When she] next asked to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, which figures largely into Alcott’s book, I consented, and was pleased when she caught the passages that are derogatory to the Roman Catholic Church. We discussed it satisfactorily, and she went on to enjoy a great book that very plainly models the Christian life. Now, when she plays the piano and cuddles the kittens like Beth, or devotedly looks after her younger siblings like Meg, I see the positive influences of what she has read, and I think her soul is better for it.

What children’s books or authors do you recommend for cultivating the imaginative faculty in children?

First, I turn to the stories that people have used to ask and answer questions for thousands of years. Mythology, folklore, and fairytales have as much a place today as they ever have. Be it the Greeks explaining the changing seasons by Persephone’s abduction, or the Iroquois describing why the bear has a short tail; they encourage children to observe the world and find answers. Sometimes such stories have a moral bent, and sometimes they do not; but they usually appeal to the sense of justice and wisdom that God has placed in each of us. I love these kinds of stories precisely because they do come from all around the world, and speak to the basic human desire to understand. They grant a growing mind permission to exercise that natural inclination to wonder, to seek, to discover. Unbothered by fantastic conclusions, youngsters will happily assume their place as the next generation of explorers.

Of course, there are many excellent choices within this huge genre of literature for children. A very young child might begin with Aesop’s Fables and the wonderful animal myths of the North American tribes. An elementary student will enjoy classical mythology, the Brothers Grimm, and the clever Anansi tales of West Africa. An older student might read Beowulf, King Arthur, and the Odyssey. There are so many stories, so many versions; in general, I look for a classic telling that does not seek to update the story with rude language or an alternate ending.

A child should be fascinated by what she reads, not merely diverted. If it’s illustrated, the pictures are also very important; they should accurately and respectfully reflect the culture from which the story is derived, with particular attention to portraying people and animals accurately. There is plenty of room for artistic style—we are talking about goddesses and talking frogs, after all—but children need to see more than a foolish caricature associated with these kinds of stories. They need to see a reflection of human dignity.

The second class of books I might suggest for developing imagination is related more to preserving that sweet childlike wonder, primarily through nature and family relationships. God himself created these mediums for the nurture of the young, and they are the best teachers.

I treasure stories set amid the seasons of the earth and the seasons of life; I like to see generations working together, relationships blooming, and friendliness to all living things. I want to see a touch of whimsy, but always kindness. Most of all, I appreciate comfortable depictions of hearth and home, so that young readers feel quite safe in going on an adventure and then returning to the simple comforts of family.

By reading such books, I hope that children will learn contentment and rootedness. I pray that they might learn patience, and always keep their innocence. Thus, they can take the time they need to develop a respectful awareness of their surroundings, and let their own imaginations grow like a carefully tended garden.

Perhaps these books are best explored, so you can see what I mean for yourself. Here are some of my favorites.

The Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

The “Brambly Hedge series by Jill Barklem

The Tales of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

Around the Year by Tasha Tudor

One Horse Farm by Dahlov Ipcar

The Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Rascal by Sterling North

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

Tomie dePaola is one of my very favorites; it would be impossible to find a book of his that doesn’t exude domestic warmth and gentle humor. Patricia Polacco’s wonderful voice recognizes the value of heritage, with richly illustrated favorites like The Blessing Cup and Thundercake. Jan Brett’s sweet stories and elaborate illustrations also evoke a folksy kind of wisdom that is thoroughly comfortable for young readers to explore.

Other authors I cherish entirely on the merits of their splendid prose. I love Rudyard Kipling’s riveting ability to tell a tale, and his characterization of the animals in The Jungle Book is a brilliant mirror image of the foundations of human society. Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett both capture the sweet blossoming of human nature as it responds to goodness and endures hardship. Little Women and The Secret Garden may be their most popular titles, but others like An Old-Fashioned Girl and A Little Princess are also quite magical.

Still others are dear to me because the depth of their writing crosses the traditional boundaries between youthful entertainment and wise introspection. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are obvious choices here, because of their uncanny ability to tell a fine story that is also deeply meaningful. I can reread The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia with my children many times, and the whole range of us never tires of exploring the wonderful layers of these brilliant books. I would further include James Herriot in this category; his beloved tales for children and adults have much more to do with the human spirit than they do with patching up livestock. We all return to favorite chapters regularly.

In order to encourage our children in a life of good reading, we must be good readers ourselves. My worldview was forever changed when, as an adult and a new Catholic, I first read the story of Jean Valjean’s redemption in Les Miserables. I take great comfort from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for Kitty and Levin’s relationship reminds me so much of my own marriage, with all of its little domestic falterings and the ultimate triumph of simply loving a spouse. Wendell Berry keeps me grounded as I strive to balance my work as a wife, mother, teacher, writer, and farmer.

On your website, it says “Sharing goodness, truth, and beauty through children’s literature.” Can you recommend a book for each transcendental?

For goodness, I would suggest the volumes edited by William Bennett: The Children’s Book of Virtues, The Children’s Book of Heroes and The Book of Virtues for Young People. If I could give these books to every family, I would. They are treasuries of poems, tales, and legends from around the world; all united by the virtues they exemplify. There are true stories (Mother Teresa, Cincinnatus), sort-of-true stories (King Alfred and the cakes, George Washington and the cherry tree), and not-true stories that still carry the point beautifully (Sir Roland, The Little Dutch Boy). The collection is well-written by a variety of authors and poets, and is, in my estimation, unmatched.

The search for truth makes me reach instantly for The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental tale is a breathtaking adventure, a great work of literature, and an image of this journey we call life. It is the penultimate example of how powerfully a work of fiction can reflect our faith; of how the arts can pay homage to the Truth.

Finally, for beauty, my choice could only be Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. This lovely, gentle story has a simple message: you must do something to make the world more beautiful. How Miss Rumphius does this is a tribute to a life well-lived, and she leaves a precious legacy behind her that passes on to her readers.

Ashely Canter’s reading recommendations and reflections on creating a Catholic home can be found at The Family Bookshelf. You can also follow her on Facebook at The Family Bookshelf and on Twitter.