Raymond Arroyo’s Catholic ‘Indiana Jones’ for Kids
Middle-Grade Read Combines Adventure and Faith Amid ‘Moral Universe’
READING FANS. Raymond Arroyo visits with students at St. Monica’s School in Whitefish Bay, Wis. Raymond Arroyo Facebook
It’s summertime, and school’s out — time to read for fun! But choosing what to read can be daunting, and not just because of the sheer number of books to choose from. As the curators of children’s education and experiences, Catholic parents want to make sure kids’ leisure reading is well-written, compelling, wholesome and in full harmony with the faith and morals they’re trying to instill.
Here’s a book you can confidently add to your family’s summer reading list: Raymond Arroyo’s Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls (Penguin Random House, 2016).
Adult readers of the Register are familiar with Raymond Arroyo as the host of the EWTN news magazine program The World Over and the author of the best-selling 2005 biography of Mother Angelica.
But as a dad with three young children, he, too, faces the challenges of raising kids: how to educate them, how to pass on the Catholic faith, how to prepare them for life as adults and how to keep the little ones occupied during that potentially arduous family routine known as “bath time.”
Arroyo turned to the time-honored tradition of telling them goofy stories, and it worked. Bath time went off without too many hitches, and, amid the shampoo, the soap and the waterproof bath toys, a whole fictional world was born. Will Wilder and his eccentric family became the cast of characters in an ongoing series of silly, improvised tales to amuse the Arroyo kids.
Soon, Arroyo realized that the characters he created had potential beyond the slapstick, improvised tales that entertained his children.
But for a long time, the “spine” of a coherent, developed story — something that would make a great book — eluded him.
A family trip to Ireland finally gave him the unifying idea he had been searching for. “There had been a recent spate of relic heists all over the world, from Brooklyn to California, all the way to Ireland,” Arroyo told the Register.
In 2012, the relic of St. Laurence O’Toole was stolen from Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, and, standing before that empty reliquary, Arroyo thought to himself, “Why would anyone want to steal a relic, especially when there are other antiquities present that are worth millions of dollars? And what kind of person would do such a thing?” This was the simple question that expanded into a vision for not just one book, but a whole series.
The first book of the series, The Relic of Perilous Falls, begins with a flashback to World War II. During a bombing raid on Ortona, Italy, a soldier sneaks into the Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle and rescues the saint’s relics from beneath the shattered altar. After a harrowing encounter with an evil presence intent on claiming the relics for its own nefarious purposes, the soldier escapes with the holy treasure. Then the story jumps forward to the present day and introduces the hero, Will Wilder, the 12-year-old great-grandson of the soldier. Will learns that the relic of St. Thomas has been safe in the local church since his great-grandfather’s return from the war, and it’s rumored to possess mysterious power.
At his brother’s birthday party, a reckless dare and a malfunctioning homemade catapult result in the birthday boy breaking an arm and Will getting into big trouble. In an attempt to undo the consequences of his disobedience, he decides to perpetrate a relic heist of his own: steal the relic of St. Thomas and heal his brother’s arm (although Will prefers the term “borrow”). He learns too late that the relic actually protects the town of Perilous Falls from all sorts of … well, perils, including dangerous floodwaters and demons in disguise. He learns that all of his choices — good and bad — have consequences that inevitably play out, no matter how hard he tries to avoid them.
Of Relics and Reading
Will also learns that he and his family have some unusual abilities. This trope — a child hero with supernatural gifts who must be trained to use them — is a story element that kids love, along with mythic beasts, demons in disguise, treasure maps full of riddles, perilous scavenger hunts and powerful ancient artifacts reminiscent of Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Arroyo has hit a publishing sweet spot: Fantasy action-adventure for children is huge right now.
Instead of playing with Greek mythology, popular folktales or the wonders of the ancient world, the mystical elements in Arroyo’s series are antiquities and relics.
But Arroyo takes pains to avoid causing a young reader to misunderstand what a sacred relic is: More than one adult character in the book reminds Will that a relic is not a good-luck charm or a magical talisman — and that a relic itself contains no power. A relic is more properly thought of as “a key to unlock our faith.” Internalizing this truth turns out to be crucial for Will to solve the mystery.
Just as a mishap with a backyard catapult launches Will into his first adventure, a cliffhanger ending catapults the reader toward the second book in the series.
Arroyo may have hit a publishing sweet spot, but how does the target audience (middle-grade readers aged 8 to 12) like the first installment in Will Wilder’s adventures?
They like it a lot. The book’s sales page on a large online bookseller contains 100 reviews (from adults and kids), with an average rating of more than 4.5 stars.
Anneke Taglia’s 11-year-old son Dominic “devoured” the book. “He said it was scary but incredibly engaging,” said Taglia, a home-schooling mother of five from Oak Park, Ill.
But demons in disguise? Mythic beasts? “Don’t worry,” quips Arroyo. “Children know that demons exist. Our job is to demonstrate that demons can be vanquished. Parents may find it scary, but kids love it.”
Kathleen March, children’s manager at Anderson’s Bookshop in Downers Grove, Ill., agrees. “Our kids are braver than we give them credit for.” March is excited about Arroyo’s contribution to middle-grade literature, because of the importance of providing great stories for this age group. “The middle grades are the most important ones, in terms of creating readers, because for the first time these kids are picking out their own books. You create lifelong readers more easily at this age than at any other.”
Arroyo agrees. “Children are the most important audience. Their imaginations are the most alive. It’s critical that we give them [stories with] a moral universe that is intact and that there are consequences for every action.”
But the purpose of fiction is not to deny reality. Will and his family are three-dimensional characters, with realistic flaws, who have to learn things the hard way.
Arroyo provides no easy answers. Yet it’s a positive story “about nurturing the gifts that each one of us is given,” as the author puts it.
“Each of us is entrusted with something, [and] fiction prepares a child for the journey he’s about to go on.”
Clare Walker writes from
- June 26-July 9, 2016