Shadow in the Dark

Author: Antony Barone Kolenc

Publisher: Loyola Press

Age Range: 11- 16

This a great book.  It contains all the features of a classic story for young teens – a mystery, a boy’s dorm, skulking around a castle in the middle of the night, shadowy figures walking in the woods, a lovely pretty girl who lives up the hill in the convent and some edgy fight scenes.  The characters are all recognizable too – there’s the villain, the bully kid and the scared kid, and the hero of course. And what could be better than the premise that drives the story – our hero has lost his memory!  Will he ever find his family, or his home?

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with all of these elements coming together in Antony Barone Kolenc’s entertaining Shadow in the Dark. We open the adventure with the thunderous sound of horses bearing down on a little village.  Within three paragraphs on Page One of this book, the impending peril is almost upon them.  Kolenc doesn’t waste any time plunging us into the action – readers will love it!

Kolenc stated during an interview that he consulted with Professor Jen Paxton of Catholic University in Washington about monastic life in 12th Century England.  Our young hero, Xan, is living in a monastery where monks are going about their daily prayers, preserving the scriptures, and taking care of orphans. While the traditional Catholic life is not a major aspect of the story, it provides the context of this story.

The story is well paced as it follows Xan and his slowly unfolding memories of home. Along the way readers learn about the humble lives of the peasants, the extravagant wealth of the masters, and the kindness of the monks and nuns.  The monks that we meet provide an array of personalities – I particularly liked how Brother Andrew reveals his amazing horse riding and Knightly fighting skills at the end (a bit like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird turns out to be a sharpshooting marksman).

Small criticisms I had were that I couldn’t remember who was who towards the end because there seems to be so many characters; younger readers might struggle with knowing what is happening, but there is enough there to get the gist of what is evolving as the story reaches its climax. There is also reference to a monk who is grumpy all the time because he self flagellates which was apparently an accepted practice at the time.  This form of self-harm might be considered a bit risky for some young readers, however it is written in such a way that many young readers will not really understand the references to self-flagellation.

By story’s end Xan has grown in character and maturity.  He has learnt about courage and fear, the pursuit of justice, and the power of forgiveness. Kolenc sets up the next book of this series in the final chapter when the villain escapes and we just know that this fight is not over yet. There are apparently three books written that follow Xan’s adventures with the fourth almost complete.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for young teens, especially boys, and only wish there were more Catholic books of this quality published to dress the shelves of Catholic school libraries and homeschools.

See and hear Antony Barone Kolenc interviewed by A.J. Cattapan HERE

See Antony Barone Kolenc read an exerpt from the book HERE

You can buy Shadow in the Dark HERE .

Homeschool and Teaching Ideas.

There is plenty here to explore.  This book could complement or inspire a study of medieval life, or the lives of monks and nuns in twelfth century England.  It would be great as an entry into a study on Feudal society.

There are so many great ways to teach from this book.

  • Ask older students to explore the themes from the book at the local library or online: knights (armour, weapons, duties), monks and monasteries (daily life of a monk, duties of a monk, lifestyle of a monk), life for peasants and lords in 12th Century England.
  • I recall teaching a class of 13- and 14-year-olds about the middle ages and they made short films in small groups – complete with costumes, setting, storyline etc.
  • Sewing: design and sew up a monk’s or nun’s habit from the middle ages
  • Art: paint/draw/sculpt something relevant to the story – the monastery, the various characters at work or prayer, the boys in the dorm, the fight scene, the lords and ladies, the peasants at work.
  • Design: draw a map-like layout of the peasant village with castle nearby; don’t forget to show which way is North, and a nearby supply of water and where the farming fields are; is there a place for people to gather together – a church?
  • Design the monastery complete with thick walls, bell tower, dorms, kitchen, stables, chapel, cells for the monks, landscaped grounds with lawns and fountains, secret tunnels and other interesting features
  • Visual design: create a graphic novel representation of a scene from the novel. This might be a group project. Create a different cover for the book: why have you used these colours, images, perspective, placement of elements etc.
  • For younger students you might have some fun with imagining yourself in the story – how do you describe to Xan where you come from (computers, mobile phones, cars, TV etc). Or imagine you are one of the boys trying to hide your true identity having come from the future – write a short story about it.  Imagine you could bring Xan into the future for a day.
  • Religion: describe/explore the different prayers that the monk’s say. How is being a monk different today from the past. (This would need some scaffolding from the teacher). Who was Saint Benedict?
  • Virtues: courage, faith, pursuit of justice and truth. I would be asking students to reflect on how they might act if the same thing happened to them – what if you lost your memory and woke up in a monastery/convent?  How could you show courage/faith/ the pursuit of truth (a great imaginative story here).  Try to recall a time you needed to show courage to stand up for what it right.

Finnian

Author: Philip Kosloski

Artist: Michael LaVoy

Published: Voyage

Age Range: Parental discretion: 10 +

 

I bought the first four books of Finnian bound together in one volume.  The premise of the story is based on a real-life, but strange natural phenomenon – seven mountains which form an almost perfect straight line across the globe from just off the coast of Ireland through to Israel.  On every mountain, a monastery has been built and devoted to St Michael the Archangel.  Each monastery was built independently without the knowledge of the other six monasteries that make up the Line of St Michael.  Legend has it that this line represents the strike of the sword of Archangel Saint Michael where he defeated Satan and sent him to Hell.

And so Finnian’s tale contains everything a lover of historical fantasy fiction could possibly want: ancient maps, a mystery to solve, a legendary sword to find, dark monasteries and abandoned castles, evil bandits, dragons and flying demons.  But it’s not all bad. Finnian also finds a small band of heroic friends and holy monks who help point the way forward. This series is a beautiful blend of Jungian archetypes, Tolstoy like quest and Hollywood blockbuster.  You’ll love it!

On Page one, a young, fresh faced Finnian embarks on a journey to seek out the legendary sword which has the power to defeat evil. His initial intentions are selfish ones: he wants to avenge the death of his family who were murdered by evil men. Within three pages, Finnian is plucked from the dangerous sea by a monk who becomes his right-hand man throughout his adventures. Archangel Michael makes a stunning appearance in the form of a vision, and half an ancient map is discovered.

In Book 2 the feisty, bow and arrow sharpshooter, Merewyn, joins them.  With everything she has ever known destroyed, she decides to help Finnian on his quest.  The baddies do bad things and hassle the poor old monks.  And Finnian has begun to sprout a beard!

The first four books follow Finnian on his quest to piece together the different sections of St Michael’s sword; and his character develops along the way.  With each adventure Finnian grows in courage and wisdom. The old monk sacrifices his own life for our heroes and facing imminent death utters, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”.  Such a great moment in the story!  (The old monk appears later as a spirit guide, so don’t despair!).

As I read, I was engrossed in the developing story and characters.  Although there was nothing particularly surprising in the way events unfold, it is still a pleasure to read and appreciate the efforts put into producing this wonderful series. What totally grabbed me were the graphics.  Each panel is meticulously designed, with attention given to perspective, placement and facial expression. All of the conventions of comic books are present – sound effects such as SCREE, or KRACK are plastered across the panel in creative fonts, perspective is used to emphasize greatness or vulnerability, dynamic colour brings the action to life.  I believe that many youngsters will love reading this series.

Each separate graphic novel within the volume is approximately 20 pages long.  The production of these graphic novels is stunning – from quality drawing and colouring to careful characterization and writing, these are extremely good examples of their genre.

Voyage is a relatively new venture founded by author, Philip Kosloski. He has gathered together a group of talented and experienced Catholic men who together create graphic novels that promote out faith.  In a recent interview these men – illustrators, colourists and writer – talked of how people will respond to the stories of our faith if they are not “banged over the head with the gospel”.  They intend to write and produce positive stories that real people can relate to. The mission statement on Voyage website is to

“…create exceptional entertainment, informed by Catholic values, that inspires people to live a heroic life. Through our products, we seek to advance the truth, beauty and goodness found in powerful stories.”

I would highly recommend this volume of four books, “Finnian”.  There are three more books in production at the time of writing.  These would be perfect for young teens, especially boys.  Actually, anyone would enjoy them simply because of their high quality and great story telling.  A warning that there is bloodshed, violence and scary creatures, so they may not be suitable for some younger readers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daTLWygByW8

Check out the Voyage website HERE.

You can purchase Finnian HERE.

Teacher and Homeschool Ideas.

Where do I begin?

The legend of St Michael’s Line would be a great place to start.

Write up your own short adventure story, and then make up your own graphic novel.  As a classroom activity this could be done in groups – sometimes students are painstaking with their drawings and art so this might end up being a term-long project.  Ask students to have their characters demonstrate virtues – courage, wisdom, loyalty and charity – have a discussion about these virtues.  (You might want to focus on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or the Catholic Catechism’s seven virtues – four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love).

  • Depending on the age group I might begin to link the “hero’s quest” to some classic literature – there are plenty around so choose those your children/class will know eg: Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Katniss, Jo from Little Women, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, Robin Hood, Spiderman, Hamlet…
  • Here’s a quick refresher for teachers/homeschool parents about the literary hero: https://literarydevices.net/hero/

Belt of Truth

Title: Belt of Truth

Author: Theresa Linden

Publisher: Silver Fire Publishing

Age Range: 7-11

This is the first book in a series of books that Theresa Linden has named The Armor of God series.  The inspiration for this series of books is a scriptural passage from Ephesians 6:13-17:

“Therefore, put on the armour of God that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground.  So, stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

The first book, Belt of Truth, introduces us to nine-year-old George and his little brother Erik who are both accepted into Knight’s School. Very quickly, George learns that his first challenge will be to tell the truth – the WHOLE truth – in order to earn the Belt of Truth, which is the first part of the Knight’s armour.

 Theresa Linden has cleverly created six stories to correlate with the Armour of God as described in Ephesians.  In each book we follow George as he earns each piece of the armour by demonstrating that he is worthy.  I found the first book to be engaging and fun to read.  The characters were recognizable, and children will relate to George’s antics – and his efforts to cover up his mistakes. By book’s end, George has told the truth and confessed his wrong doings.

The illustrative sketches in the book are also drawn by Theresa Linden and clearly help the reader to follow the story and the characters. This first book has set up the premise well and hinted at things to come.  The characters are relatable, and it is quite simply an easy and fun book to read.

Books one and two of the series are currently available.  I can’t wait to read the whole series and see how George graduates from Knight School!

You can buy this book from Amazon HERE

Or from Theresa Linden’s website: HERE

Theresa Linden

Teacher and Homeschool Ideas.

This is the sort of book I would have had so much fun with as a homeschool teacher.

  • For writing and fun you could ask children to write and perform a short play in their new soldier outfits. Ask them to make the theme: Telling the truth.
  • A family or class discussion is a good way to explore the notion of Truth, and the temptation to be untruthful. Here are some questions that could also be used as a short answer writing assignment:
  • Can you think of a time you were lied to? How did it make you feel?
  • Can you think of a time you weren’t truthful?
  • Why is George untruthful in the story?
  • What makes George tell the truth in the end of the story?
  • Do you think George was sorry that he had lied?
  • Do you think that George earned his Belt of Truth?