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.

Secrets Visible & Invisible

Authors: Corinna Turner,  Cynthia T. Toney,  Theresa Linden,   Susan Peek,  T.M.Gaouette,  Carolyn Astfalk,  Leslea Wahl.

Publisher: Catholic Teen Books.

Age Range:  11+

I recall from my teaching days that finding short stories for teens was always a problem – there never seemed to be enough collections of short stories available that were good examples of the genre.

Well now we have here a great selection of short stories from Catholic Teen Books.  This group of Catholic authors have collaborated to promote Catholic teen books.  Their Facebook page is HERE.  Each author is published in her own right, but they have joined together in this collection for the purposes of providing a neat little anthology of short stories and for showcasing their work.  Luckily for us they now have three compilation books.  Today I’m reviewing Secrets: Visible and Invisible, which is their first compilation book, published in 2018.

This is a fabulous idea.  Each author offers a short story that showcases her work.  The characters and settings in the short stories sometimes come from the author’s published works – so you get to ‘taste test’ their writing and stories.  This volume brings together a range of teen characters in a range of settings – each story explores different themes such as making choices, consequences, courage under fire, friendship, family and loyalty and more. We move variously from a dystopian present/future to 16th Century Italy and back again to a kid’s vacation camp in the mountains.

Each of these stories is Catholic in its own way.  Corinna Turner’s story which opens the book portrays a world where Mass is said in secret and the Government controls people with guns and suspicion.  In the second story, Recreation, Cynthia T. Toney writes of a young man who is intrigued by an isolated, elderly neighbour. He begins to help her out around the house, and she encourages him to say the rosary with her. His growing friendship with this elderly women has surprising consequences.  Theresa Linden’s story of a Catholic teen group is an interesting exploration of our attitudes towards people with disability, while Susan Peek’s chapter is a confronting story of a young soldier’s final hours as he prepares to meet God. Sister Francesca by T.M. Gaouette is a sweetly sad love story about following your calling into a religious vocation, and Behind the Wheel by Carolyn Astfalk is a story teens will love and relate to that explores the difference between truth and lies, right and wrong. Finally, Leslea Wahl explores the inherent value in each individual, even those who are mean and objectionable, as her characters try to solve an old mystery.

The stories are all high quality and varied enough to keep teens interested and reading.  The theme of ‘secrets’ can be found in each story.  I think that would be a great springboard for teachers or homeschool parents to begin from: ask young readers to find the ‘secret’ in the story. Having such a diverse range of stories will also be helpful for teachers of a diverse classroom of students who each has different preferences and abilities. I really would recommend this volume of short Catholic stories for your children or your classroom.

Watch these seven fabulous, hard working, Holy Spirit inspired authors speak about Secrets Visible and Invisible HERE

Secrets Visible and Invisible has the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval.  You can purchase Secrets Visible and Invisible HERE

Teacher and Homeschool Ideas.

As I mentioned in the Review: I would start by asking young people to identify the secret or secrets in each story – sometimes there’s more than one!

Ask students to choose their favourite story:

  • More capable students/teens to write an alternative ending. Ask them to explain why they have chosen that ending.
  • Ask teens to explain why they like this story in particular. You might give them elements to explore – the characters, the story line, the ending, the excitement/tension/feelings the story evokes.

Here is a good summary of the 5 elements of short stories:

https://users.aber.ac.uk/jpm/ellsa/ellsa_elements.html

  • Using each of these elements in turn you could ask student to critique their favourite short story.
  • Ask students to write a blog review using these five elements for structure.

Finally, have students/teens write their own Catholic teen short story.  I would probably help them with an initial brainstorming session, helping put the elements together – many teens will love talking about their characters and storyline.  You might make up a worksheet that helps to order their thoughts eg:

  • Character – what is his/her name, what do they look like, dress like, what are their favourite activities, pastimes, what do they hate?
  • Setting – what time era, whereabouts, city or country, describe the town/place they live, what is their house/dwelling like?
  • Conflict – what will the conflict or problem be? What are the stakes – what happens if they lose or the problem becomes worse?
  • Resolution – How does the resolution happen? Who is responsible? What does the main character do/think/feel?  What about the other characters; what happens to them?
  • Theme/Lesson – what lessons have been learnt and by whom?
  • What makes this story Catholic?

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/

I Am Margaret

Title: I am Margaret

Author: Corinna Turner

Publisher: Unseen books; an imprint of Zephyr Publishing

Age range: 14 and up.

I’m a great fan of British born author Corinna Turner.  She writes extremely well and has provided us here with an astounding story.  I’ve had to process ‘I Am Margaret’ mentally and emotionally for a few months before I could even write about it – such is the impact of this story.

I don’t normally read dystopian teen novels, although I have read one or two throughout the years. I found that I easily entered into the premise of the book – a world where ordinary people are surveilled and controlled by the powerful presence of Governmental violence and fear. Religion is outlawed as it is seen as a threat to the state. And the value of persons is measured by their ‘ableness’, ie: people are valued if they are whole bodied, able bodied and able minded.  Hmmm… I was already seeing the parallels with our own world as I read the opening chapters of I Am Margaret.

Then Corinna Turner takes this premise one step (brilliantly) further.  At age 18, everyone is “Sorted”.  So high school finishes and those who are not considered ‘up to scratch’ are sent off into a detention centre.   Of course, by the time ‘Sorting’ comes around everyone knows who will pass and who will fail.  None the less, those who are happily sorted into the more valued category prance out of the school hall one by one to go off and celebrate their graduation and the rest of their lives.  Leaving the dismally inadequate few in an eerily near-empty hall to be discretely bussed off to the detention centre. This whole scenario had a dark Harry Potter ‘hat sorting’ feel to it – as a reader my insides were sinking as the inevitable ‘losers’ were left till last and forgotten – very quickly forgotten.

This is where the story takes a devastating turn.  We learn that those who are ‘out-sorted’ to the detention centre are well fed, exercised and medically cared for.  Ok, that sounds good.  But then the reality of the situation hits you with one hell-almighty wallop! The young people are being prepared for the harvesting of their organs – their skin, teeth, eyes, brains, tissue, nerves, bones, blood, heart, kidneys, liver.  You name it; there’s an able bodied and minded individual out there who can use it.

Oh my Lord!

Now you’all know I spend my days reading children’s books to review for you. I WASN’T PREPARED for this! But the brilliance of Corinna Turner’s writing just keeps you turning those pages – even though you don’t really want to.  The worst scene is where the inmates are forced to watch the dismemberment of a priest – so they know what is going to happen to them.  As a punishment, priests and other dangerous rebels are dismembered while conscious – they are given a drug to paralyse them while the harvesting takes place.

Oh my Lord!

Well I managed to get past that scene but my blood pressure was topping the scale by this point. The story settled down then as Margaret and her boyfriend-on-the-outside scheme to escape – and liberate everyone else trapped in detention. Through a series of thoughtfully considered and well-rehearsed plans, the inmates manage to get on out of that horrifying place – except for Margaret of course!  In a Christ-like gesture, Margaret sacrifices her own freedom to help the last young person escape.  I LOVED that part – it’s just what young people need to be reading about, putting yourself last, thinking of others, self-sacrifice etc.

But then Margaret is prepped for conscious dismemberment and AAAAH!  I couldn’t go on.  Well not until I’d made a nice hot cup of tea and gathered myself for the ending of this incredible book.  Will I spoil the end for you?  No, I’ll make you read it for yourselves!! Suffice to say there are a number of sequels to the book, so that should give you a clue as to how it ends.

The themes in this story are relevant and topical in today’s world – the intrinsic value of all human life, religious freedom, martyrdom, self-sacrifice and loyalty.  Reading this novel is like being forced to gaze into a mirror in which the dark and hidden aspects of our modern world are starkly reflected. As a person who struggled with Maths throughout my entire school years I was particularly dismayed when Margaret was ‘sorted out’ due to her deficit in mathematical understanding. Another of Turner’s swipes at our modern world obsession with all things STEM related and how we elevate the mathematical and scientific over anything literary, artistic or even (heaven forbid) spiritual.

So I’d recommend this book for mature young teens, or older teens who love a story with confronting material.  I wouldn’t recommend it for anxious teens – dystopian novels are not for everyone. There is heaps of material for reflection and discussion, particularly from a Catholic viewpoint.

I Am Margaret and all of the sequels are available on Amazon HERE or be directed from the UNSEEN BOOKS website that has all of Corinna Turner’s books, and you can read the first chapter of I Am Margaret online for free.

Trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2KqSLrD98M

You might also like to read my review for Corinna Turner’s book The Boy Who Knew, about Blessed Carlos Acutis HERE.

Homeschool and Teacher Ideas.

As I mentioned previously there is heaps to reflect on, write about and think about in this novel.  For older teens I would be encouraging discussion followed by some essay writing.

  • Firstly, a discussion about the themes of the novel: the value of persons who are intellectually or physically disabled; those whose talents are not considered valuable.
  • Next, I would explore the parallels with abortion, stem cell research and the use of embryonic cells for making and testing vaccines. A question you might ask is: what if the unborn had a voice?  What if we conducted these tests on eighteen-year-olds?  What if people were conceived in order to fulfill the needs of others for bodily parts?
  • Next: some discussion about standing up for your faith. There is a question in the trailer: Would you stand firm?  Ask students/teens if they would stand up for their Faith.  Would they stand up for the rights of others to practice their religious faith if it is different to your own.  How far would you go – would you undergo conscious dismemberment?

These would make great essays.  Some suggestions might be:

  • Do we truly value persons who are intellectually or physically disabled? Compare our own world with the world in I Am Margaret.
  • Would you stand firm? Discuss your personal response to Margaret’s choices in I Am Margaret.
  • “The testing of vaccines with embryonic cells is warranted given the good that vaccines bring to the world”. Discuss this statement. Do you think that sacrificing one person for the greater good is acceptable? Discuss with reference to I Am Margaret.

A scientific style paper that explores stem cell research and the use of embryonic cells in vaccine development would really appeal to some teens. Get them to tease out the pros and cons, then identify the Catholic stance (the Pope recently made an interesting statement about this: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55409693).

Younger teens might like to compose a range of imaginative responses to the book, eg:

  • Putting themselves in the lead role and writing about how they would arrange an escape.
  • Respond to the story with a poem/painting/drawing/art work.
  • Imagine being a journalist and writing a front page report on the escape: headline, opening statement, point of view etc. If you could interview Margaret for the newspaper article, what would you ask her?
  • Compose prayers that any of the characters might recite at key points of the story. For example, what might the priest pray as he is prepped for dismemberment. What might Margaret pray just before they put their plan into action. What might Bane pray?