Catholic Teen Fiction: Do Catholic Kids Need Catholic Heroes?

Catholic Teen Fiction: Do Catholic Kids Need Catholic Heroes?

I’ve been sitting on my review of Catholic, Reluctantly for a while now. Actually since before Sophia was born.

I’ve been pondering and mulling things over and can’t decide how to start, what is my entry point. Because really I’ve got several different topics that I want to write on that are all twisted up together and I can’t seem to untangle them into separate blog posts and yet they seem too massive to just lump together.

There’s the review of the book itself and then there’s this whole other discussion of what Regina Doman, the series editor, and the folks at Sophia Institute Press dub “Catholic genre fiction” and then a broader question about Catholic fiction, Catholic authors that I can’t even begin to pin down.

But it’s been haunting me at one in the morning and I’m losing sleep. So maybe I’ll just jump in with this caveat that it’s probably going to be a series of posts as I try to get my handle on a topic that I’m not even exactly sure how to define. (Sort of in the spirit of Jen’s Half-Baked Thought Thursday.) Ugh, I really hate this sort of thinking out loud, I like to have my ideas all neatly sorted before I begin to write, but in this case I’m hoping that the act of writing will help me sort out what I think.

Catholic Fiction for Teens

So to begin with the question of Catholic genre fiction, here’s the text of a promotional email Dom received from Sophia (roughly edited by me to remove a bunch of extra spacing and skipped a bit of text but no words added I apologize if it affects the meaning in any way):

The Lord of the Rings
Redwall Abbey
Little House on the Prairie
The Chronicles of Narnia.
My twelve kids have read all these books, and they’re eager for more . . . which is good because these books teach virtue while they entertain. . . but for Catholic kids, they’re not enough. Catholic kids also need to read novels with Catholics as heroes. Stories where the Faith is central and active, not buried in symbolism that only great efforts can penetrate.

Tales as gripping as those of Tolkien, as charming as those of Laura Ingalls Wilder . . . stories whose heroes are not moles or wizards, but Catholics just like them,—-struggling with issues that concern us all: not only goodness and honor and courage (which are themes in all good books) but God and suffering, prayer and forgiveness, the evil that lurks in our own hearts, and how to live as Christians in a world that mocks Christ.

For years I’ve wanted to give my kids novels like that, but I can’t find any.

Protestant publishers put hundreds of them out each year, and some are o.k.—- but they’re not Catholic; neither in their theology (which can be anti-Catholic) nor in the ways their characters act, think, and pray.

A Catholic equivalent to those books? There is none. So we parents here at Sophia Institute Press have just launched Imagio Catholic Fiction, a new imprint to provide the kind of overtly Catholic fiction that once was common, but is no more.


Students at John Paul 2 High School talk and act like real teens today—- and like real Catholics.

They struggle with the doubts, insecurities, relationship crises, and mood swings that afflict teens in Sweet Valley High stories and on prime-time dramas . . .

. . . but unlike those secular tales, marred as they are by nihilism and moral relativism, books in the John Paul 2 High series are Catholic to the core.

Kids in them face problems common to teens today, but (without becoming saccharine or wimpy)
they work through those problems as Catholics should, relying on prayer, forgiveness, and self-denial . . . even when cool kids mock them for it.

Which makes John Paul 2 High not just a Catholic alternative to modern teen books, but a Catholic antidote to them.

So the basic premise behind the idea of the new John Paul 2 High series of books is that Catholic kids need Catholic heroes. It’s a sort of Catholic Sweet Valley High, teen boys and girls attending a very small startup private high school dealing with real world problems.

I’m really of two minds about this premise and I can’t decide if I love it or hate it or something in between. And that makes it really hard to review the book.

C.S. Lewis says if you don’t even like a genre, you have no business reviewing books in that genre. So I think I need to sort through what I think about the idea of Catholic genre fiction before I try to sort through what I think about the novel.

Is it the Marketing or the Material Being Marketed?

Now I want to separate out my feelings about the promotional material from my feelings about the matter it’s promoting. The whole LOTR, Redwall, Little House, Narnia isn’t enough thing kind of got my back up. Those are my treasured childhood (except for Redwall) they’re poking at.

And yet in recent years as Dom and I have struggled to find books for his very bookish and rather pious (perhaps even a little scrupulous) nephew, who after reading LOTR declared there were no good books left; and as I’ve begun the long process of building a library for our family, acquiring new books, sorting through old books and deciding what to keep and what to toss; and as I’ve been growing into a new maturity in my faith and looking at the world now more and more through the eyes of a mother, well, now I’m getting to the point where I can see their point.

Catholic Heroes for Kids: A couple of cases in point from my recent reading.

What a surprise, a joyful eye-opening experience to read Hilda Van Stockum’s Canadian Summer, just your average family holiday adventure story, except the family is Catholic. It wasn’t really even an important part of the story, just a part of the fabric of the story much as the Canadian setting. But in one amusing episode the family goes to mass, there’s also a brief incidental discussion of Blessed Kateri. Not much but it did strike me how novel it was. When I was a child I don’t think I read anything like it, stories about children who were Catholic like myself.

Likewise with Calico Bush, the heroine is a French Catholic girl who becomes an indentured servant to a Protestant family in America after her relatives die. It has some of the pioneering spirit of the Little House books and yet there’s also a Catholic note that Laura Ingalls Wilder never strikes. In my favorite scene from the novel Marguerite goes out into the woods on Christmas Eve and is feeling quite blue because to the Protestant family Christmas is just another day. She meets an Indian in the woods who greets her in her own tongue, with “Noel”. She impulsively gives him a present and finds her spirits lifted at the encounter.

When I read each of these books (written in 1948 and 1931 respectively), I had a feeling of wistfulness, wishing I’d read them when I was a child. And I was glad I’d discovered them to hand on to my own daughters so that in addition to Sara Crewe and Laura Ingalls and all the rest of my dear childhood companions, they might also know some Catholic children.

Not Enough?

So while I might not go so far as to say my dear treasured friends were not enough, I am glad to find new friends to add to the company. And I do think there is a solid point to be made about the “nihilism and moral relativism” of so much of what one finds on the shelf in the “young adult” section of the local big box bookstore. I’ve certainly spilled plenty of ink on the topic about the problem of the “problem novel”.

But on the other hand, I’m wary of using Protestant fiction as a model. I think too often that model sacrifices art for ideology. The first goal should be simply good storytelling. Having an ulterior motive often warps and twists the art and creates something lesser, shriveled, unworthy. And should we strive to create a Catholic ghetto in which we have a Catholic version of everything in the popular culture?

I’m on the fence. I am alternately attracted and repelled, skeptical and yet also somewhat excited. 

I’ve got more thoughts, more questions. But I think this is a good place to stop for tonight. More tomorrow with links to other discussions about Catholic fiction and Catholic art. And eventually I’m going to get around to actually discussing the novel, Catholic Reluctantly.

Please, please, please, dear readers, jump in with your thoughts on the matter in the comment box. I’d love to have a good discussion on the topic to help me clarify my half-baked thoughts and I know you’ve got something to say.

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