The Monks Make Amends

Author: Sylvia Dorham

Illustrator: Christopher Tupa

Publisher: Tan Books

Age Range: Ages 4 – 7.

This delightful and clever picture book is part of a series of books about a group of Carmelite Monks.  It is based on a real-life monastery in Cheyanne, Wyoming. In this story, there is tension and discord amongst the holy brothers and tempers begin to flair.  The very patient and pious Father Abbot notices that his monks are not happy, so he prays to the Blessed Virgin Mary:

“Father Abbot cries, ‘Hail Mary,

Help me lead this monastery.”

So Father Abbot goes about hearing the whole story of who did this and who did that to who. He then reminds the monks that we have to try as hard as we can to live together in peace. The monks grumble a little but then go to confession and take time to kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament. They all pledge to try to be nicer to each other. The final page is a quote from scripture:

“If it is possible,

as far as it depends on you,

live at peace with everyone.”

Romans 12:18

The message is simple, the story is simple, and the prose is simple.  Using rhyme and rhythm, Sylvia Dorham has cleverly created a story for young children that will engage and hold their interest while teaching them a simple but important lesson about forgiveness and getting along with others. In an interview, Sylvia Dorham spoke of how rhyme is a great way to help children learn.  Having homeschooled her ten children, Sylvia Dorham has learnt what works with children. And this picture book is proof of that.  The rhymes do not strain to work, but flow seamlessly and are really quite clever.

Another great aspect of this picture book is the full page, vibrant illustrations.  Apparently Christopher Tupa spent time at the monastery, observing the monks as they went about their daily business.  He has carefully recreated their clothing and captured the stark interior of the monastery very well.

I have not read the full series of books but I highly recommend that teachers, librarians and homeschoolers purchase this series of Catholic story books to sit on your bookshelves.  They are clever, high quality, entertaining and wonderfully Catholic in their orientation.

You can purchase your copy of The Monks Make Amends HERE.

Homeschool and Teaching Ideas

 

This would be a great book for either:

  • Lessons on vocations
  • Lessons about forgiveness and getting along.

The age range for this story is quite young but I’m sure there would be lots of questions about monks, monasteries and vocations in general.

I’d start with these beautiful images of the Monastery in Wyoming:

http://carmelitemonks.org/

And then this wonderful resource that describes the monk’s habit:

http://www.carmelitemonks.org/HolyHabit.php

Watch the monks in their various jobs:

http://www.carmelitemonks.org/LayBrothers.php

Beautiful footage of the monks adoring the Blessed Sacrament:

http://www.carmelitemonks.org/ChoirMonks.php

In response to these rich and beautiful images, I’d then ask children to either draw or write what it might be like if they were a monk for a day.  What job would they do?  Why that job?  What would it be like to wear the monk’s habit every day?

List out the vocations: Marriage, blessed singleness, priesthood, religious.  You might need to explain what each one is: then have a conversation with children about which vocation they think they might be drawn to.

Have a look at Molly McBride’s picture book review HERE.  I’ve included more ideas for teaching children about vocations.

The Saintly Outlaw

Author: Paul McCusker

Publisher: Augustine Institute

Age Range: 9 – 14 depending on reading ability.

Paul McCusker is a seasoned writer having written for radio, plays and a movie.  He brings his experience to the well-known tale of Robin Hood in this enjoyable tween book that takes readers back to twelfth century England. There are many time travel books around, and this one builds on the familiar elements of the genre.  There’s an antique shop, a curious boy, some family mysteries, and there you have it – Andrew and his new young friend Eve Virtue are transported back in time.

The story is soon set up as we discover that the corrupt baddies have taken advantage of the vulnerable and innocent.  McCusker expertly portrays a world where chivalry and honour battle against dastardly deeds and the poison of vengeance.  The action takes us from grand castles to humble cottages and back into the dark woods where Robin Hood hides and trains his men.

After reading this entertaining book, I wondered if it was distinctly Catholic.  After some reflection and rereading I decided YES, it is a very Catholic book, but the Catholic elements are not immediately obvious because the characters and story drive this book. The characters all pray. They make the sign of the cross, they ask for Mary’s grace.  A priest anoints the dying in the final pages of the book.

Author Paul McCusker

This is the first book in a series called “The Virtue Chronicles” and we see first hand how our young character, Andrew, develops and grows in virtue throughout the story.  He becomes more courageous and learns about righteousness and justice.  He is tested but ultimately speaks up for fairness and truth.  Just as he becomes more physically nimble and learns to jump from tree to tree in the forest, he also becomes more attuned to the difference between right and wrong. Eve, his friend provides guidance and demonstrates strength and courage also.

I like that the adults and children work together and complement each other in this story.  Too many books for children and teens portray adults as useless fools that need to be dispensed with so the story can continue. In this story of Robin Hood, the children learn from the good example of the adults around them.  They are given the opportunity to play their part and they are acknowledged for their brave contributions.

If you like historical fantasy, then you’ll love this book.  There is a magic charm that is central to the story and it is described as a scientific anomaly.  This fact may be problematic to some people who might consider it too occult.  There is also violence, injury and death portrayed, but I did not personally find it disturbing in the context of the story.

This book would be great as a class set for 12- or 13-year-olds. There has already been a second book in the series released, “The Warrior Maiden” in which Andrew and Eve travel through time to meet a young Joan of Arc. Update: the third book in the Virtue Chronicles has been released: The Hidden Heroes!

You can buy The Saintly Outlaw HERE

Homeschool and Teacher Ideas:

My first thoughts are to take your readers back to 12th Century England:

  • Weaponry, dress, buildings, way of life, stories, fables etc:

Use this wonderful resource from the British Library and download the pdf:

https://www.bl.uk/teaching-resources/middle-ages-towns-and-villages

It has links to some great articles and pictures – if you follow the link to “the medieval diet” it describes how there were ‘courtesy books’ written which advised people not to scratch flea bites, pick your nose or fart at the table – kids will love it! It also includes links to women in medieval times or the role of peasants.  It really is a wonderful resource.

  • If students or homeschoolers are interested in learning more about the legend of Robin Hood, then start here:

https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/robin-hood

Building on from the idea of different portrayals of the legend of Robin Hood, you might ask students to discover as many different films made about Robin Hood that they can find – you might like to watch some of them together (include animated, and Kermit the Frog of course). Comparing and contrasting each representation would be an interesting exercise.

  • For a full immersive term’s worth of interesting learning, I would combine this book with “Shadow in the Dark” by which I have reviewed HERE:

Ages 11 – 14 are such an interesting and vibrant age group to work with – I would be encouraging these youngsters to take control of their own learning and design their own activities so that they can pursue what interests them.  Some may undertake an artistic response to these Catholic stories, or they might write an essay, play or screenplay.  Some may create authentic sets or costumes or props, – I would just encourage and facilitate learning as it happens.

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.

Brilliant! 25 Catholic Scientists, Mathmeticians and Supersmart People

Author: David Michael Warren

Illustrator: Jaclyn Warren

Published: Pauline Books and Word on Fire Institute

Age Range: 7-11

 

It’s always such a pleasure to hold a beautifully produced hardcover book in your hands. Brilliant! Is an important book that I wholeheartedly recommend that you buy for your students, children or grandchildren.  Dispelling myths that Catholicism is inherently anti-science, this book briefly describes how 25 Catholic men and women throughout history have contributed to our scientific understanding of the world and universe.

Among the 25 people chosen you will find Botanists, Geologists, Chemists, Physicists, Geneticists, medical doctors and more.  These men and women have all made outstanding and significant contributions to science.  AND they are all Catholic in their beliefs. Among the ranks of the “Supersmart” there are nuns and priests, lay men and women, and Catholics from all walks of life.

As I read through the stories, I was struck by what a positive and encouraging message the book gives to children and young people. New discoveries and ways of doing things are celebrated, for example Louis Braille developing a better method to help blind people to read and write. Then there’s the selfless and sacrificial love of Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, a medical doctor who devoted her life to helping sick children. There is nothing more uplifting than reading the stories of how individuals have made such positive and lasting impact.

A common theme throughout the book is how these very clever people had a desire to use their knowledge to more fully understand God’s creation.  Using the scientific method, more is learnt about how awesome God’s creation is.  Many of these scientists and technicians worked long and hard to achieve what they have – and most were humble about their achievements.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Jaclyn Warren, wife of author Michael Warren.  The black and white drawings playfully intertwine with the text.  Children will enjoy reading the different quotes and messages in different fonts that complement the story being read. Most chapters are approximately 650 – 700 words in length so they will be easily read by this age group. Each chapter begins with a little of the person’s history and then highlights their achievements and good works.  The chapters end with how and when that person died and the legacy of their work that endures.

One of my favourite chapters was about Pope Francis and his declaration that the Big Bang theory and evolution theory were compatible with Catholic teaching.  The Holy Father also stated that taking care of God’s creation is a new Catholic work of Mercy.  I was also impressed by Laura Bassi, the first female professor of Physics. This book presents so many possibilities for teaching and learning – an absolute must for teachers and homeshoolers!

 

Hear Bishop Robert Barron talking about the book:

You can buy the book from Amazon HERE

Pauline Books HERE:

 

Homeschool and Teacher Ideas:

 

Firstly some visual literacy that kids will enjoy: look at the playful fonts used in each chapter.  Why not ask children to identify how the font matches the story.  Here’s some examples:

  • Father Michael Mendel on page 55 – the foliage spells out the word “Growth”.
  • Why has the illustrator used the plants to spell out this word?
  • How does the word “growth” relate to the story?
  • Jerome Lejeune on pages 86-87 – the letters of the words appear to look like chromosomes.
  • Why has the illustrator used chromosomes to spell out the words?
  • How do chromosomes relate to the story?
  • Father Angelo Secchi on page 42 – the letters are written like constellations of stars.
  • Why has the illustrator used the stars to spell out these words?
  • How do the constellations of starts relate to this story?

Some children might like to imaginatively illustrate quotes from Saints or famous people – use something related to that person’s story to write the quote. (For example Saint Luke may have used a quill for writing.  Imagine using feather quills to write out the words.  Saint Joseph and carpenter tools.  Fiery flames for St Joan of Arc.)

 

  • Research some more about the topics for each person. For example, the history of computers for Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, or the ancient carvings and art that Father Henri Breuil studied.

 

More capable students might write out answers to these questions:

  • Why should Catholics study science?
  • Why would some people say that Catholics should not study science?
  • What is the theory of evolution? How is the theory of evolution compatible with Catholic belief? (page 92-93).

 

Our Lady’s Wardrobe

Author: Anthony DeStefano

Illustrator: Juliana Kolesova

Age Range: 3 – 8

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

This has to be the most beautiful children’s book I have ever had the pleasure to hold in my hands. Sophia Institute Press has produced a glorious hardback picture book which tells children how Our Lady used to be a poor girl on Earth but is now living in a white mansion in heaven.

Using the idea that Our Lady has carefully chosen her clothes whenever she has revealed herself on Earth, Anthony DeStefano recounts several of the well-known and Vatican approved apparitions of Our Lady.  The presentation of this book is stunning.  Illustrations span across both pages and depict the presence of Our Lady in various situations either on Earth or in her heavenly mansion. I find the cover of the book to be incredibly enticing as Our Lady gazes straight at us and beckons to us with her eyes.

I must say I was skeptical before I read the book – it sounded a little too silly to be focusing on Our Heavenly Mother’s wardrobe.  But I was wrong.  The book is delightful.  The opening words put my mind at ease:

“Our Lady leads us to the Lord;

That’s what she’s always done.”

DeStafano makes this very important point in the first line. From there, using simple rhyming couplets, DeStefano explains how Our Lady appeared to children at Fatima and Lourdes, to the people in Knock, Ireland, and then several other well-known places throughout time and place. It is a very simple book to read and young children will be reading it in no time.

Anthony DeStefano

The most wonderful aspect of this book has to be Juliana Kolesova’s luscious illustrations – expansive, lifelike, colourfully rich and enchanting. Children will gaze at these pages and be drawn in by their beauty.  What an absolute pleasure this special book is to hold and peruse. Yes, Our Lady has blue eyes and light brown hair with pale white skin – she does not look particularly Middle Eastern.  The book does not portray peoples from different cultural backgrounds, although the stories depicted do not necessarily lend themselves to diverse cultural backgrounds (with the exception of course of Our Lady of Guadalupe).

If I had unlimited resources, I would buy a copy of this book to place in the hands of every Catholic child in Australia. Alas! That’s not going to happen! Maybe you could organize some fundraising in your school or parish to buy this special book as a gift to your First Communicants or for those who receive the sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time.  It’s a book I recommend highly. Any child who receives this book will treasure it and learn its simple lessons well.

Final lines:

      “O Mary, Queen Immaculate,

       Please help us love your Son.

       Please help us love and serve Him,

       Till our life on Earth is done.”

You can buy Our Lady’s Wardrobe HERE

Teacher/Homeschool Resources

 

  • This book seems to lend itself well to art and craft activities – perhaps due to the inspiring artwork within. I would start by asking children to design their own outfits for Mary at each of these places of visitation – I know my daughter would have spent hours on the details of each design.

 

  • Geography/social science: I might even have made a lesson out of each of the visitations: read the story of Our Lady’s visit (plenty of resources online). Then show children the geographic location on a map or globe – then depending on the age of the child you could research together about that area.
  • Average temperature.
  • Terrain (dessert or cold and rainy urban setting)
  • Time period dress: what were people wearing at that time?
  • What language did they speak?
  • Depending on age of your children or class you could include favourite foods, sports or children’s games of the era.

That Easter Sunday

Author: Nadishka Aloysius

Illustrator: Iaz Abdul Cader

Publisher: Self Published

Ages 8 – 11. Parental or Teacher Guidance Recommended. 

This review is published on Easter Sunday, 2021, two years after the bombing of three Christian churches and two motels in Sri Lanka. Two hundred and ninety-five people lost their lives.  This story for children is an account of those events as told by a little church mouse who witnesses firsthand the destruction and mayhem that follows one of the church bombings.

The story is not graphic in the sense of retelling in detail the gory and deadly aftermath of the bombing.  The story explores the feelings of shock, fear and grief that little Vibhu experiences.  Vibhu and his friends tentatively search for their lost friend Seha amongst the rubble and destruction.  Vibhu eventually realizes he must accept the loss of his friend Seha, and he is supported and comforted by his friends and family.

The story opens with: “I love my home. On sunny days the light pours in through painted glass. It’s like living inside a rainbow. It feels like heaven.” Beautiful prose is used to describe the humans’ funeral as “a river of brown flowing in a land of white”, making reference to the Sri Lankan custom of carrying the coffins with everyone dressed in white.

This story is very much about death and grief.  There are not enough children’s stories that address the issue of death and the loss of someone close to you.  But this story does a very good job of giving hope in the event of a terrible tragedy. Be warned the story is sad – obviously given the subject matter.  Vibhu, his friends and family gather Sehu’s shiny, pretty possessions and put them in a box and bury them in the ground, copying what the humans have done.  Vibhu is comforted to know he can visit this place anytime he wants to and remember his very best friend.

There are Catholic references to the customs of Ash Wednesday, the statues around the Church and waving palms on Palm Sunday. The Church is described as having stained glass windows, flowers and candles.  Although the humans work hard to repair their Church and replace everything that was destroyed, they leave one statue of Jesus spattered in blood and embedded with stained glass just as it is.  The church mice wonder why the humans leave the damaged statue in place – it’s a great discussion point to have with children as you read this story together.

I bought the kindle version of this book so I’m unable to comment on how the actual book design works.  The front cover is coloured, but the inside sketches are black and white.  There are many full pages of text which will be a challenge for some younger readers.  The sketches work well to help children understand the story.  I would love to see a colourful, glossy version of this book as the story and prose lend themselves to beautiful illustrations and design. For the time being this version appears to be adequate.  I would suggest that given the subject matter, this story should be read aloud by a parent or teacher, with pauses and conversation along the way.

The story is an Easter story because it commences on Easter Sunday in a Catholic church. But there are other reasons that make this an appropriate story book for Easter.  The themes of shock, searching, waiting and finally regaining hope mirror the triduum experience.  From Holy Thursday through to new hope found on Easter Sunday, we experience the same human emotions as the main characters in this story.

Author: Nadishka Aloysius

I thoroughly recommend this book to use throughout the whole year, but it is particularly poignant to read during Holy Week. Finally, please purchase this book or kindle edition as proceeds from sales go to assist victims of the Sri Lankan tragedy on Easter Sunday 2019.  A review of the story on YouTube HERE. The book is available from Amazon HERE

Teacher and Homeschool Ideas

There are questions at the end of the book which will help children to talk about and process their responses to the story.  There are also many places in the book that I would pause and ask questions of children.  For example, Vibhu sits on top of a statue for days and watches the humans cleaning up – despite his friends and family encouraging him to come home, he stays there.  This could open a helpful discussion about the process of grief, how different people grieve differently, and what we can do to support people when they are mourning the loss of a loved one.

I would probably ask children to write and recite a prayer for the souls of those who died in the bombings.  It would be helpful to support children in this exercise by talking to them about:

  • What do you want to say to God about the souls of all of these people
  • What do you think their families would like you to say to God
  • What do you think the people who died would like you to say to God.

Making a small ‘altar’ with candles lit and flowers and holy pictures or statue when you recite the prayers will help children to appreciate ritual and the importance of Catholic symbols.  You could ask children to talk about what the symbols mean and why we use them (the cross and sacred symbols to help us think about God, the candles and flowers as decoration and to help us focus and appreciate the reverence of the moment etc.)

Funerals and rituals can be explored too – what colour do we wear when we go to a funeral.  Why do you think people in Sri Lanka wear white?  Some internet research could be helpful here.

Drawing or sketching any of the scenes from the story will help most children to process the story and themes.

I found myself wondering about the theme of ‘forgiveness’ which was not really emphasized in the story.  The mice help the injured cat who chased their friend towards the bomb when it exploded.  Although they don’t overtly ‘forgive’ the cat, they demonstrate courage and compassion by helping the cat. In human terms, it was probably too early to think about forgiveness as the story takes place over the course of about one week. People (and mice) are still shocked and mourning.  This might be a further conversation to have with children.

He’s Risen! He’s Alive and Jesus Washes Peter’s Feet

He’s Risen!  He’s Alive!

Author: Joanne E. Bader

Illustrator: Richard Heroldt

Publisher: Arch Books

Age Range: 5 – 9

 

And

 

Jesus Washes Peter’s Feet

Author: Glynes Balec

Illustrator: Unada Gliewe

Publisher: Arch Books

Age Range: 5-9

 

I eagerly anticipated these two little books from Arch Books.  They were really cheap for a start, which makes a difference here in Australia when compared to some of the exorbitant prices we pay for Catholic children’s books from overseas. So, when they arrived, I sat down to peruse them with a cheerfully hopeful heart.  Alas!  I was very disappointed.

Now people who have read these little reviews that I write will know that I very rarely say anything negative.  If I don’t particularly think a book is appropriate or good enough, I usually just don’t talk about it.  I decided to make an exception for these two little books.  I didn’t like them, and I want other people to be aware of what you are getting before you invest.

He’s Risen! He’s Alive! was published eighteen years ago.  The rhyming couplets are mediocre at best and positively terrible sometimes.  Like this:

“At break of dawn that Sunday morn,

The first day of the week,

Two women went to see the grave

To take another peek.”

To take another peek?  Seriously?

I honestly think that the story could have been more carefully crafted without rhyming couplets.  My sense of the writing is that children will have trouble understanding some of the story because the words are obviously straining to fit the rhyme. The illustrations are OK; but the overall feel of the book is simply – second rate.

 

Moving along to Jesus washes Peter’s Feet.  It was published twenty one years ago and It’s downright terrible.  I’ve never read words that strain so desperately hard to fit together and fail.  Oh my goodness!  Once again, this story could have been more simply conveyed without the attempts at rhyming.  When compared to the beauty and simplicity of Laura Alary’s words in the Easter book, “Make room: A child’s guide to Lent and Easter”… well there is no comparison.

 

The illustrations in “Jesus Washes Peterr’s Feet” were more consistent and endearing than the first book, but they don’t make up for the bad storytelling.

What these books indicate to me is that there is a desperate need for more Catholic children’s stories about Easter.  Rhyming couplets work for some stories, but I felt that the style of writing was actually detracting from the story rather than aiding in the storytelling. I don’t recommend them. At all.

Sisters of the Last Straw: The Case of the Haunted Chapel.

Author: Karen Kelly Boyce

Illustrator: Sue Anderson Gioulis

Publisher:  St Benedict Press

Age Range: 9 or 10+ (parental guidance for younger readers)

This is an entertaining and refreshing book filled with imperfect but likeable characters.  Some parents and teachers may not approve of some of the content.  One sister struggles with swearing, another with smoking cigarettes. There is no swearing in the book, “Holy… Sputtering Spooks!” is about as bad as the language gets. Another sister sneaks downstairs and smokes cigarettes in secret.  Each of the sisters in the story has had trouble finding an order of nuns who will accept them.  Each sister has a particular weakness and hopes that she will be able to stay with the Sisters of the Last Straw.

I would say the age range for readership could be 9 or 10 +.  In many ways the story is enjoyable and suitable for the whole family, and many parents will happily let their younger children read these books.  The problems the sisters deal with may be considered unsuitable by some parents, although it may also present an opportunity to discuss smoking and addiction with your children. That is why I would suggest parental discretion.

The vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the sisters are endearing and the reader will relate to their struggles to control their temper, or their swearing or they’re need for perfection. I cared about the characters almost immediately and recognized a little of myself in all of them. Who doesn’t vow never to do something again, only to find oneself doing that very thing over and over…?

The story is very short and entertaining.  There are nuns chasing goats in the mud, exploding jam jars and grumpy neighbours.  Oh, and there’s also a haunted chapel.  Slapstick humour can be found in every chapter with nuns slipping in mud puddles and on polished floors or getting jammed into doorways. The pacing is fast and the final resolution gratifying.

Catholic values are ever present in their daily lives,

“Each morning they would praise God and give honour to the Name of Jesus. They would ask protection for themselves, their home, and the people nearby.”

There is no shortage of direct Christian advice:

“Mother Mercy continued, ‘I want each of you to go to the chapel and pray. Spend some time with the only One who can help.  Spend some time with Jesus.’”

Ultimately the strongest theme is of homelessness and acceptance. Individually the nuns have struggled to find somewhere to call home.  It turns out that the chapel is being ‘haunted’ by a homeless family who ultimately find refuge with the nuns.  And finally, another hopeful nun arrives on the last pages,

“You are welcome here, … You are as welcome as Jesus.”

I found the ending to be moving; after so many funny trials and tribulations the Christian message was simple yet powerful – despite our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we are still welcome.

Every review I read wanted this little book to be longer. There are now FIVE other books to the series, and all have very positive reviews. In each of the books, there is a ‘mystery’ to be solved.  It occurred to me several times while I was reading the first book that the characters, setting and premise along with the visual humour lends this story to being made into a television series. Wouldn’t that be great?!

Karen Kelly Boyce

I’d encourage you to purchase this book if you have older or middle years children, or if you are a teacher of pre-teens. You can’t help but love it.  It is so very easy to read, and the Catholic message is simple and straightforward.

Sisters of the Last Straw books are available from Amazon.com, or Tan books.

Teacher/Homeschool Resources: 

The book would be suited to some general comprehension exercises for younger readers.

I found a “Teachers pay Teachers” product for this first book of Sisters of the Last Straw.  Unfortunately it can’t be linked so you need to go to the website and type in Sisters of the Last Straw into the search bar. The resource is suitable for younger children and includes comprehension questions after every chapter.

For older readers, twelve years and over, there is scope for discussion of the themes of the book and also some creative writing exercises:

Why not write a short play with children playing the characters from the book.  I know my daughter and her friends would have loved writing the comic parts, playing them out and generally enjoying themselves.

Class discussions could centre around getting along with everyone, nobody is perfect, accepting people for who they are, forgiveness.  Middle years learners could write an essay on one of these topics.

The characters of the different sisters are a joy to read in this book: you might ask students to create some new sisters for the book: what ‘problem’ would the sister have?  How does it impact on the other sisters and herself?  How might the other sisters help her?

A seventh book in the series is soon to be released:  What are some ideas for new ‘Mysteries’ that the sisters might need to solve?  (It might be helpful to read through the titles in the series to prompt thinking?).