You need a fun, thought-provoking read, and the finest literature in the English language is not the only place to find it. I mean nothing against the great writers and poets. I offer this list as way to relax while still meeting memorable characters whose struggles, successes, and defeats are mirrored in the lives of adults and children alike.
If the idea of “the finest literature in the English language” sounds like the last place you’d look for a way to spend time, take this list as a challenge. Finish a book. Read a book because it’s more rewarding than breezing through material online – even if it’s high quality writing (like, say, Catholic Beer Club’s blog!). Read a book because you’ll find something that informs and influences your day-to-day life; I guarantee it.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
In certain ways, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a classic school story – think Harry Potter. Uniquely talented students band together in friendship to defeat an evil power. The only difference is the evil power is the school, sort of.
The book opens as its four main characters: Reynie Muldoon, Sticky Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire are being tested for “gifted” abilities in response to an ad. After passing the tests, the four join Mr. Benedict in his effort to infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.), an organization Mr. Benedict believes is advancing to take over the world.
The Mysterious Benedict Society won me over with its four protagonists. Their unique abilities, though certainly out of the ordinary, aren’t science fiction worthy like X-Men’s mutants. Still, their strengths are specific enough that it’s entertaining to watch how they each overcome obstacles in different ways. These complementary skills also underscore the most compelling reason to read The Mysterious Benedict Society – the friendship between these four.
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
For everyone who remembers how Pa Ingalls built a log cabin in Kansas and how malicious grasshoppers are, there’s Caddie Woodlawn. And if that last sentence made no sense to you, don’t write off this read quite yet.
Caddie Woodlawn bears comparison to the Little House series, the story of the Ingalls family, for good reason. Both are American frontier stories that focus on one little girl who is a bit of a tomboy, and like Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn adores her father.
Caddie Woodlawn, however, has no detailed descriptions of how a cabin is built or how they butchered their pigs. This book is more about Caddie’s coming-of-age than how life was lived in 19th century America. Caddie’s antics with her brothers, her beautiful relationship with her father, and her own struggle as a tomboy in a strict society are the highlights of this book. Still, Caddie Woodlawn delivers as a work of historical fiction as well. It imparts more the feel of the era than specific facts, but that historical sense is no less memorable.
Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfield
This madcap mystery is one of my favorite books from childhood, and believe me, it lives up to a reread. Detectives in Togas has the similar strengths to The Mysterious Benedict Society: both are set in schools and driven by the friendship of the protagonists, in this case seven Ancient Roman boys and their ultimately beloved, curmudgeonly instructor.
Detectives in Togas is also a bona fide whodunit that kept me engaged until the end. The historical details are intriguing. Like Caddie, facts are sprinkled alongside the story and definitely second in importance, but unlike Caddie, this world is farther from the intended audience by many centuries. This fact makes reading and re-reading Detectives in Togas more about the history, at least for me.
This book is the first of two that follow the adventures of the boys from the Xanthos School. It’s a short read that moves even quicker thanks to humorous dialogue and the pull of the mystery. Ultimately, this book succeeds on the cleverness of the plot and the endearing nature of the mischievous “detectives in togas.”
Bone series by Jeff Smith
This really is a series about a bone – a walking, talking, seeing, and feeling bone, but a bone nonetheless. And I’ll be honest, I never really got over the weirdness of it. As an adult reading these comics, published in graphic novel form, I think Smith intended for this fact to remain humorous and odd throughout the series. What Veggie Tales does to biblical stories, Bone does to Lord of the Rings.
The story centers around the three Bone cousins, Phoney Bone, Smiley Bone, and Fone Bone, who stumble into a fantasy world far from the “real world” of Boneville (where everyone is a human-like bone). They quickly get caught up in the fate of a beautiful and mysterious girl, Thorn, and the struggle to defeat the evil Lord of the Locusts (I told you these creatures were bad news).
The several books that make up the series all work well together and the comic book format means that you’ll want to spend time appreciating Smith’s artwork as well. While I was initially skeptical about how much I could invest in a bone creature, the series has an impressive amount of heart, adventure, and relatability.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Fans of director Hayao Miyazaki will recognize this title from his adaptation. Much like the Japanese film, Howl’s Moving Castle is carried by its fresh, outspoken young heroine, Sophie Hatter. Nonetheless, the book and movie differ significantly, though, in my opinion, both stand in their own right.
Despite her youth, Sophie Hatter spends the majority of the book in the form of a much older woman, the result of a spell cast by the villain, the Witch of the Waste. Once under the spell, the now elderly Sophie leaves home and begins working in the fantastic mobile castle of the Wizard Howl, famed both for his talent and womanizing exploits.
My favorite part of this book is the development of Sophie. As a young woman she is bored by her fate and, in turn, rather boring. The spell that weakens her by taking away her youth and health ultimately pushes her personality to develop into an interesting, vital character.
The book follows Sophie and Howl’s growing affection as the two attempt to free themselves from their different curses. Jones’ magical world is often unconventional without ever being pretentious, and while the plot sustains several twists and turns, it ultimately wraps up nicely.
I hope these titles provide a place to start as you relax with a good story and (soon) enjoy the success of finishing a novel. As the quote at the beginning of this article attests, C.S. Lewis was a great advocate of reading so-called children’s books. For him, it was fairy stories, but I think the sentiment holds true for books across genres: