This year marks 100 years of ‘Children’s Book Week,’ an event that began in 1919. Known as the “longest running national literacy initiative in the country” the Register invites readers of all ages to take part by picking up some of the greatest Catholic children’s books. Here are the top 5:
Raymond Arroyo, most notably known as Mother Angelica’s confidante and personal biographer, is also a children’s book author. The third installment of Will Wilder was just released earlier this year. As the host of The World Over on EWTN, Raymond is very familiar with exploring all things ‘seen and unseen,’ and Will Wilder shares in that same curiosity. Raymond explains:
Will Wilder is a 12 year old boy with an extraordinary gift. He can see what no one else can--dark things others can only imagine. Soon Will discovers that the museum run by his family in the heart of his town of Perilous Falls contains some of the world's most treasured relics. The fate of Perilous Falls may well hinge on Will's gift and the hidden legacy of his family.”
It seemed natural for Raymond to begin writing a children’s series, but he never thought it would lead to online videos of families acting out chapters of the book. With an inquisitive mind and a background in theatre and professional acting, Raymond says his experience plays a pivotal role in his storytelling:
Without my theatre training and experience I could not have written the Will Wilder series. Actors are trained to watch people and to try to understand how external actions reveal the interior. Once I had my story, I wrote long character biographies and did a lot of internal work so I knew exactly who these people were before I sat down to start the first book. As anyone who has heard my audiobooks can attest, I play all these characters and love doing so. Over time, like any character you play, they will begin to reveal new things to you. That has certainly happened as the series has gone on. I'll be writing a scene and the character suddenly turns in a way I never expected and you have to let that happen as an author. Will was almost frightened in book one of his gift. He is now more confident — and even overconfident at times — but beneath the surface he is growing to understand the stakes and the magnitude of the Enemy he is facing. He is caught between childhood and adulthood with a terrific gift. Great fun and also a bit terrifying.
Although we are discussing Catholic books, the Will Wilder series is not written for just one audience. The series really speaks to the Church universal and touches all readers regardless of where they are on their faith journey:
The Will Wilder series is first and foremost a adventure series and an entertainment. My job is to keep adventurers of all ages flipping pages and engaged. While at the center of my work are relics--many of them discoverable in museums, Churches and libraries all over the world — it is not a work of apologetics or theology. Will Wilder is a rollicking adventure and a supernatural thriller for readers young and old. I had a parent write me the other day saying that the series awakened in her child a sense of the power of the supernatural in the world around her. Others just love Will as a character or his Great Aunt Lucille. Every reader receives the story differently. Ms. Rowling has witchcraft and wizardry at the heart of her series, Riordan has Greek Mythology. Will Wilder has relics, the remains of men and women who lived heroic and good lives, at the center of the series. As Madeleine L' Engle said, "when the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist." She means you have to be a slave to the particular story you are telling. I could not agree more.
The series began to take shape when Raymond was visiting the Emerald Isle:
Will Wilder was born among my children and I discovered the spine of the series when during a trip to Dublin, I saw that a very famous relic had been stolen. My first question was: who would steal a relic and why? That is the animating through line of the Will Wilder series — an answer that is still being formulated through these characters. Stories are not meant to convince the reader of anything. Only bad stories attempt that. A good story invites the reader into a world and allows him or her to come to their own conclusions. You have to trust the story.
In a recent op-ed for Fox News, Raymond stresses the importance of reading as literacy rates have fallen at an alarming rate within the United States. Seeing a surge of students reading the series voraciously, he encourages families to read the series together. Reading plays a vital role in developing listening comprehension:
Reading aloud, as Meagan Cox Gurdon recently reminded us in her Enchanted Hour book, it important for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, there are bonds of time and understanding that are only possible when you read aloud to someone else, particularly a child. You are sharing not only a fictional universe, but your understanding and values as you speak the tale. Inevitably, children have questions about the story--the characters motivation, the locale, a given object (in the case of my series probably a relic). All these are opportunities for engagement, and mind development. It's more than comprehension. Reading to your child gives you a chance to shape their future in a profound way that too many people miss out on.
Raymond continues to be struck by the impact the series is having on students who typically shy away from picking up a book:
Every time I go into a classroom and see kids who had been labelled "reluctant readers" or "non readers" devouring my book, I consider it a gift. I would argue that there is no such thing as a reluctant reader, just one who has not found their story yet. The Will Wilder books are deliberately written to keep readers on the hook. I know how short adult attention spans are-- so imagine the challenge of engaging young people who spend part of their day in the intensely addictive world of video games. To compete, I write in a lot of cliffhangers and keep the imaginative world expanding around Will. Remember, a lot of these video games use story devices and strong narratives to keep kids playing through. A writer has to use the same strategy to hold their attention. The intellectual and imaginative development found in reading is critical for young minds. So for me the most rewarding experience is whenever a young person comes up and demands, "When is the next book coming?"
Award-winning writer Paul McCusker has published the first book in The Adventures of Nick and Sam, following a pair of twins living in the fictional town of Hope Springs, Colorado. The two get into some hi-jinks as they’re preparing to celebrate a birthday. Paul explains the inspiration behind the series and who he had in mind when he wrote the story:
When I was received into the Catholic Church 12 years ago, my kids were at an age when I would have loved for them to have solid stories told through a Catholic “filter” of faith and worldview. At the time, I could find only stories about the saints, but no stories that reflected my kids’ lives at school or home. I had spent over 30 years writing for the Evangelical Protestant world – working on the “Adventures In Odyssey” series, writing plays and novels – and thought I may be able to use that experience to write for Catholics. So I began to develop the ideas that became Hope Springs. Working for the Augustine Institute has given me the means to bring those ideas to life.
With Paul’s experience writing Protestant literature, he sees a unique opportunity to encapsulate the faith in this new Catholic series:
Story itself can make ideas come alive in a way that straight proclamation/teaching often doesn’t. Jesus knew it, which is why He told parables. We can talk about Catholic tenets for hours, even employing clever teaching methods, but it may not stick in the minds of the kids if those tenets don’t have meaning for them. Stories give ideas meaning, they show what ideas look like in life, and meaning leads to inspiration. My desire for the Hope Springs series is that the stories will reflect what the readers are experiencing and thinking and feeling, and make Catholic teaching meaningful within that reflection. I’m sure the audience will let me know if I’ve succeeded or not.
Paul has been touched by the impact the book has had on readers, and especially on their Catholic faith. He finds writing the series to be very rewarding:
It’s rewarding to hear that kids have developed a love for reading and for the Catholic faith because of the stories. Few things are more gratifying than to think that the stories are drawing readers closer to God’s love and the truth of His Church.
Lisa Hendey has been an inspiration to mothers across the country with her work at CatholicMom.com. Her children’s book series, Chime Travelers, was borne from a simple conversation she had with a family member:
The Chime Travelers series was initially inspired by a conversation I had with one of my nephews, Patrick, who was preparing for his First Communion. We were sitting in his backyard one day, discussing his patron saint. We began to imagine what would happen if we could travel in time to meet Saint Patrick – what would we see, smell and hear? What was Ireland like during the time of his life? What could we learn from him about our faith? It was a compelling experience in imagination, but also a powerful albeit unplanned catechetical moment for both of us.
In the series, the main characters, Patrick and Katie, are part of a typical Catholic family attending a Catholic parish and school. In each book, they experience a problem or issue in their “real world” lives and take “Chime Travel” missions to encounter a Catholic saint in their time:
To return home, the twins must learn a lesson from the saint that can help them with the issue they are experiencing. The “chime travel” missions come from the sound of bells at their church which initiate the time travel.
Lisa has been busy visiting schools and teaching students of all ages that we are all ‘saints-in-the-making.” Her ‘Chime Travelers’ series has an important goal:
My goal for the series is to help the children who read them to know and love the Saints and our Catholic Church. We introduce Catholic words such as “narthex” and “monstrance” into the stories to make them a part of the learning experience, but the books are hopefully a fun way of learning. Additionally, I want to give my characters and the children who read the books “agency” – a sense of control, in cooperation with God’s desire for their lives, over solving problems that arise in today’s world such as bullying, body image, questions of faith, care for creation, and stewardship and generosity towards others.
Writing children's books can be daunting and Lisa says she found much to overcome throughout the entire process:
Children’s writing is, in a very real sense, far more challenging than writing non-fiction for adults. The author must strive for truth, beauty and goodness in a way that is approachable, but also fun and exciting.
With mythical character illustrations and splashes of vibrant color, Matt Mehan’s alliteratively-titled book, Mr. Mehan’s Mildy Amusing Mythical Mammals, is a great read for kids of all ages. Matt explains what the book is all about:
It’s a journey of two little creatures, the Dally and the Blug, who journey through an alphabet of beautiful poems and paintings, learning to deal with sadness through wonder and joy. That, and they meet a lot of fat, furry, and lovable mammals to help them laugh along the way.
In an ever increasing digital world with devices all around, Matt felt compelled to write the story, especially with children feeling more lonely and isolated in such a tech-driven culture:
Knowing that in the post-smart phone world more and more of us, especially the littles, suffer from anxiety, loneliness, and sadness inspired the theme of the book. My love of poetry and the liberal arts inspired me to write period. And the book is truly a *family* book, with something for all of us, littles, middles, and adults.
The book is written as a series of poems and although it doesn’t speak directly to the Catholic faith, Matt sees the book is a preamble to the Gospel:
Mehan’s Mammals is first and foremost what can be called a protoevangelium, that is, a preparation for the good news of the Gospel. Christ said that it is best if the seed of faith is cast upon good soil; well how do you prepare good soil in the humble hearts of humans, friendly little mammals that we are? I’ve asked that question, thought deeply about its answers, and Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals is part of that preparation. And that said, the work is shot through with the mystery of God, the way the great vault of our universe’s space is shot through with light we may not always see at first.
Perhaps Matt’s book could be considered a coffee-table classic: It’s a book not to be read once to then live on a shelf collecting dust. Every time a reader picks up the book, there’s an opportunity to see something in a new way:
The book is jam packed with Easter eggs, everything from cultural lampoons for the adults to fun alliterative games for the middle graders to sweet mammals for the little ones. Not everything is easily seen the first time through, and that’s on purpose, because rereading, training your wit to see reality, to see what’s really going on, is a big part of what good poetry and art are meant to do for us.
How appropriate to round out this list with Carrie Gress’ beautiful book during this Marian month of May! The author, philosopher, and homeschooling mother wrote Marian Consecration for Children: Bringing Mary to Life in Young Hearts and Minds out of necessity:
I wrote the book when I couldn’t find a book on Marian Consecration suitable for my young children. I asked a priest friend if he could recommend one and he said that he didn’t know of any but that I should write one. I thought it was a crazy suggestion and put the thought out of my head. After all my background is in philosophy not theology, and what business did I have writing children’s books? Yes, I was a homeschooling mom, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify one to write books for them. But then I wrote the book The Marian Option, which involved a tremendous amount of research into Mariology. When this priest brought the idea up again after The Marian Option was released, the idea of writing the children’s book myself didn’t seem so beyond reach.
Although Carrie says the book is intended for children between the ages of six through twelve, adults seem to pick it up as well:
I’ve had adults tell me that they have loved it. They get a tremendous amount out of it, particularly those who grew up during those lean years in the Church when catechetical teaching wasn’t very strong. Our family has done it together – and the book is set up for an individual or for a group — and it was really a delight to see Our Lady through their eyes. I think people of all ages are attracted to the simple language. St. Louis de Montfort’s original can be a bit daunting and tough to get through.
When Carrie began writing the book, she started by only focusing on tenets of the Catholic faith, but quickly realized she might have to rely more on the Catholic imagination:
Originally, when I first started working on the book, it was focused only on the tenets of Catholicism, but I was struggling with how to make these tenets – many of them which are deeply theological and even hard for adults to wrap their minds around - accessible to children. I took the problem to prayer and it was while praying the rosary that the idea came to mind to include details of children’s stories, things like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Fish Out of Water, Run Away Bunny, a whole array, into the text. After all, adults do this a lot, we link complex ideas with stories, myths, TV shows, to help convey an idea. Why not do this for children? And, of course, it has the added bonus of potentially inspiring them to read more of these wonderful children’s classics.
Carrie wanted the Blessed Mother to come alive for her readers:
There are so many fantastical details about Our Lady that I wanted to come alive for them, to spark the imagination, and to help them start seeing her in flowers, books, art, and how much of a role she has played in the development of culture.
The book, Marian Consecration for Children, is now being used in school and parishes across the country. Carrie sees a great hope in this for the Church and for future generations:
There are few things as rewarding as hearing about large groups of children, at church or in schools, doing this consecration. To think of those tiny souls entrusting themselves to Our Lady is so hopeful and so encouraging. They are the future of the Church, and if we can set them off on a course – the course St. Louis de Montfort calls the shortest route to heaven – there are few things that can compare to that. At this time when the Church faces so many challenges, it is a source of great hope to me.