Welcome to the weekend! I actually had a dozen or so stories saved to share with you, but in the intervening time I received a request from a friend who wanted me to pass along good reading recommendations for her teenagers. The question got me thinking, and typing, and I thought I might post my reply to her question here for your benefit as well (and for mine as I look back on these things from time to time).
I hope this is helpful and edifying to you – even if you don’t have teens or any children at all. Happy reading!
I think your question is so good and so important, that I’m going to write below all my thoughts and then publish them in the weekend reading as suggestions for others with the same question. Here are the books I’m having Chloe (my eldest) read, or going to have her and our kids read based on my own preferences, and many other recommendations. This isn’t exhaustive, but it ought to set you on the right path.
The Bible and Their Spiritual Life
I know this may go without saying, but a constant and steady study of Scripture is vital for all young (and indeed old) minds as they prepare to go into the world. My parents did two things in this area which I especially appreciate now. First, we memorized large chunks of Scripture as a family – Romans 6 was one of our big ones. And second, we spent my senior year (I believe) in the Proverbs. This study of Proverbs helped me see how the world worked – that there are certain principles that govern the world, and that all of these governing principles are set in motion, and indeed daily directed, by God. Let the words of Deuteronomy 6 be your watchwords: these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
When I in high school, my mom made me read an essay by Henry Drummond called ‘The Greatest Thing in the World’ (you can find it free online also) – its an exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, and I still go back and read it again from time to time. Drummond, by the way, was one of the men in the trenches fighting off the rising tide of Darwinism in Darwin’s day. He had a scientific mind, and some of this writings have deeply impacted me. Some have odd Latin titles like Pax Vobiscum, and they are often just brainstorms and thoughts of his own, so not all of them are theological or theologically stellar. But that essay on 1 Cor. 13 is very good indeed and one they ought to read.
This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years by Jaquelle Crowe. I have only lightly read this thus far, but it gets rave reviews from people I really respect, and I bought it for Chloe for when she’s a little older. I think its going to be fantastic because it helps them understand just how the gospel colors their world and their (current) priorities.
Similarly, to have spent some time in Rutherford is very helpful. I think I might have given you all his Loveliness of Christ. This is a book I wish I had discovered earlier in my life along with the prayers in Valley of Vision.
I did start my devotional life decently, spending a good deal of my teen years in Chambers’ famous My Utmost for His Highest. I also read excerpts from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which left an impression on me.
Lastly in this category, I would have them meditate upon and deeply explore Jonathan Edwards’ little essay/book The End for Which God Created the World. You can listen to this, read this, or even get John Piper’s book about it. But the reason why I like it for teens is that kids are always wondering from the earliest age “why.” And when they get to be of this age, they are starting to logically assimilate reasons and arguments that answer their “why” questions. Edwards makes sense of our purposes here on earth in a way that only he can do. This is a grounding, well written, mercifully short book that they should consider.
In the teen years, a child’s sense of history begins to take shape – both in terms of curiosity, and in terms of a deeper grasp of the progression of the human story as it begins to make more sense to them. There are a few books they ought to read and others that they could stretch to. As a Sophomore they could likely read The 5000 Year Leap. This outlines all that makes America great, and is subtitled “A Miracle that Changed the World” and details our constitution and the genius behind it. Very good one to have them read. There are several excellent books that run through the timeline of different periods of history (with Susan Wise Bauer’s books for kids and for adults ranking near the top), but I would actually focus on stand alone biographies of men and women like John Adams, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Elisabeth Eliot, Corrie Ten Boom, and George Washington. Some of the best works on these men are, unfortunately, very long. But they could be listened to. For shorter recommendations…Borris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor: How one man made history was very engaging. When they grown up they can stretch to the 3000 page The Last Lion! Chernow’s Washington is amazing (so is his Grant) and David McCullough’s Adams is also terrific (I read his 1776 as a young man) – all of these are long though and might be just as well listened to and followed along on the audio. Just about anything by McCullough, Chernow, Ellis and Paul Johnson will be very good. Joseph Ellis is also a master storyteller and writer – his writing though is very grand and you must have a serious vocabulary. His short book ‘Founding Brothers‘ was fantastic and might be a good stretch for a 17 or 18 year old. They’ll get lots of Lincoln and the rest along the way I’m sure. I grew to appreciate Lincoln through watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. If they go back further they should read about Elizabeth I and certainly Augstine. I think she’s covered in Paul Johnson’s Heroes book, which is an excellent little primer on a bunch of amazing people. I recently read Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world by Jack Weatherford and really enjoyed it. It’s crucial to get some understanding of the importance of the east, and how that empire came into being. I recently read a book on John Newton that reminded me of how crucial it is to read about great Christian men and women. The Hiding Place enthralled me when I was younger, and when I re-read it as an adult it captured my mind for totally different reasons, but was well worth reading.
From a literature perspective – particularly the greats – I will start with Austen. I know you can’t read all of these or may struggle with them as a teenager. But, to begin with, I would make sure they watched the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. In fact, I’d make sure they saw or listened to at least four of her six books. The ones I rate most highly are Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Like Shakespeare (which I will address momentarily), having a familiarity with these is really important. As an aside, to help grasp what’s going on here from a Christian perspective, I enjoyed Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals. Leithart has a bunch of good writing on different literary types and is worth exploring more. The same goes with Dickens. Dickens is one of my favorite authors to read now as an adult, but having some familiarity with his stories early on is important. Early teens can grasp Copperfield and Oliver Twist and The Christmas Carol, but when you get to senior year, you’ll want to make sure that A Tale of Two Cities is on the list. It almost goes without saying that both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien ought to be explored in-depth. Read The Hobbit together aloud as a family, and the same with the Narnian tales. These are stories which will last forever, and will light up the imagination – though you ought not to wait until they are teenagers to start on this project. As they get older, they’ll want/need to read Lord of the Rings. This can be intimidating, but is worth enjoying the ride. In a separate, and I must say lower class, are the Harry Potter books. Chloe loves them, and there are certainly some good things here story-wise, but they aren’t in the same class of literature as the Narnian stories and LOTR – yet I don’t condemn them, and if they enliven the imagination, that is the key! Another great piece of literature that they should read and read again and again in their lifetimes is The Pilgrim’s Progress. They should know the story early on as a kiddo, and should put more meat on the bones as an adult. I have particularly enjoyed this translation into modern English! One book I recently read and can’t believe I didn’t read earlier is Frank Herbert’s Dune. Now, I will admit this is just an odd book at times, and its set in another world with other spirituality and customs, but it is very well written, is a very interesting story, and thrills the imagination. I think if I had read it when I was 17 I would have loved it! There are many others that could be named – Watership Down is a favorite among many, Moby Dick some say is without equal (though I don’t agree) etc.
SIDE NOTE: I will also just say that to allow them to watch some of the great stories of literature in movie form is a good thing if its well done. Treasure Island can easily be read, but maybe you can’t read the entire Count of Monte Cristo or all of Kidnapped and The Swiss Family Robinson – they are wonderful stories, but you won’t be able to read them all. And if they can’t read them, then by golly at least get them to watch the movie – or even better, listen to the book. I haven’t read every single Austen, but I know from watching or listening to dramatic productions, all the stories.
Another Side Note…Let me talk a little about reading aloud. I can still remember my mom reading to us as teens. The Old Man and the Sea, and the Silver Chair, as well as The Hobbit all remain in my mind. We read At the Back of the North Wind (which I do not recommend because it is annoying), and many others together. We often think as parents that reading aloud to our kids is something we do when they are little, but this is only the beginning of the experience. Reading to them as they get older is even more important because of the intellectual stimulation they get from listening, and from taking part in the reading – not to mention the discussions that you can now have that you’d never have had when they were little. Recently we all sat and listened to an audiobook version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Chloe was absolutely enthralled. This is, admittedly, a battle. A battle with the TV, a battle with your energy levels, a battle with your kids to sit still and just listen in the living room for an hour. But it is a battle worth fighting and winning because it will shape them more than they know right now.
Back to literature…One of my biggest weak points educationally was Shakespeare and also some of the Greek stories. I do not blame my parents for this. My mom did a great job introducing us to these areas, but I just didn’t connect with them mentally as some smarter people do from an early age. So when I read them in College, they seemed wholly new to me, though they shouldn’t have. Therefore I’ve given some thought as to how to enjoy them now, and to get my kids to enjoy them as well. If you can help them enjoy these areas of literature – especially Shakespeare – from an early age, I think it would prove beneficial to them in the long run. One really fun way to get into Shakespearean language and the whole feel for what he’s doing, is to read or listen to Shakespeare Star Wars by Ian Doescher. I kid you not, these are amazing! They are hilarious and extremely well written by someone who loves Shakespeare and Star Wars. At the very least, I think that one of the key things that must be done in this realm is to be familiar with the stories and characters of Shakespeare. I know this will sound beneath your teens, and they might complain, but I just read this whole box set of children’s editions, following along in his real adult editions of Hamlet and King Lear and Othello and others. I know that is somewhat embarrassing to admit, but there it is.
Senior Year-type books:
When a child begins to mature in their thinking, and in their reading, I think it especially important to help them understand the consequences of worldview. Most of the crazy things we see happening in society today can be traced to a secularized worldview. When we fought the communists for 50 years, at the heart of the matter that was a fight of worldview. Here are some books I would recommend before setting off for college.
Everything Good Endeavor by Tim Keller – especially for boys and especially for their senior year. I say “especially” for boys because boys are somewhat obsessed with their own big plans at this point in time, and I think that bringing those ideas and objectives in line with what God sees as foundational to all manner of “work” is helpful. This frames what the purposes of work are, and how to go about it well. It’s one they will come back to again and again.
Defending your Faith by R.C. Sproul – This is going to give them some great grounding on how to answer some of what they’ll find at college. I didn’t read this until I was in my mid-20’s and wish I had known about it before. The same could be said for Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth.
They may not need to read all of Pearcey, but like her mentor Francis Schaeffer, she shows pretty decently how we came to be thinking in the way we do as a society. As Schaeffer says, there is a flow to the thought of history. Tracking that flow is helpful to understanding why people think and behave today the way they do. On a similar theme, I think everyone should read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It’s a classic, its easy to read, and its amazing. This is a worldview shaping, logical case for Christianity and for thinking logically in general – the same might be said for famous Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton’s little book Orthodoxy.
Finally, a few books about economics and politics from a worldview perspective. I think if there’s one book I wish I would have had before I went to college it would have been Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky. Johnson exposes these people and their thoughts to the light of logic and intellectual scrutiny that many of their professors in college will refuse to do. Something to note about this book though, is that because these “great thinkers” were so disgusting in their personal habits, that I would not have them read until they’re 17 or 18. On a positive note, my mother had me read Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, and I found it very helpful indeed. I know that not all of my friends agree with Hazlitt’s economics worldview, but I think it pretty essential reading for a young man trying to understand the world at large and how economics affects that world. Lastly, but not least, is Orwell. Now, I didn’t read his Animal Farm until later, and find it much more tame than what I read in high school (1984). This is a senior level book with mature themes of violence and sex. But it is crucial for understanding what happens when governments control our lives. Depending on the maturity level, you could explore Huxley’s Brave New World as well, but it is so focused on the perversion of sex that I found it hard to read even as an adult.
Well that is all I can think of for the moment. I know that I am leaving off some important things. I didn’t speak much here about poetry, though its important, and I didn’t even cover all the classics of literature etc. But this might be a good start/outline, and I hope it is helpful!