Death. Life. Revenge. Repentance. True love. No, it is not The Princess Bride of which I speak. Worthy as that movie is, its peril and adventure are only on screen (and in the pages of the book on which it’s based). There is another set of stories, though, often overlooked, that are filled with such dramatic moments. They detail the very real and deeply heroic lives of men and women known as saints. Catholics have a rich and beautiful history of these incredible individuals, but too often we relegate them to a high, unreachable pedestal. We see them depicted as lifeless statues, coldly pious and unmoved by our seemingly all-important worries, joys, and pursuits in the here and now. The creeping thought that “I certainly can’t become a saint — saints never sinned or had struggles like mine” is prevalent, but it is completely untrue. How do we know? Below, divided by age, are five categories of books that bring to life these holy people and are intended to inform, enlighten, and, ultimately, to inspire.
For the Little Ones
It’s Where’s Waldo but with Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and many others (rather than our usual striped friend)! This colorful book is charming, funny, and sincere. In Catholic art, many saints are often depicted with an identifying item or animal, and this book is faithful to this style of representation. Children will grow accustomed to seeing St. James with a sword, but you may want to wait to explain why he has it . . .
For the Beginning Readers
This book, and its accompanying sequels, More Once Upon a Time Saints and Around the Year Once Upon a Time Saints, are still favorites in the Schutte home thanks to the author’s witty way with words and the detailed illustrations. Stories of Moses the Black (a robber and murderer who repented and became a monk), Joan Delanoue (a stingy shopkeeper who had a miraculous change of heart), and Zita (the patroness of bakers) still come to mind even though it’s been years since I read the books.
Though I’m a firm believer that good picture books can (and should) be enjoyed by anyone, no matter their age, Tomie DePaola’s gorgeous books on different saints are perfect for beginning readers or as a read-aloud. In addition to his story of St. Francis of Assisi, dePaola gave us St. Patrick and St. Christopher, all illustrated in his colorful, powerful way.
Finally, for those young readers who want to strike out on their own, the Encounter the Saints series strikes the balance between faithful retellings and engaging stories. From Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa to Katharine Drexel, this series covers a wide variety of saints and blesseds (a beatified person who has not yet been officially recognized as a saint by the church) who will capture the imaginations and hearts of children.
For the Tweens
Ages nine to twelve are adventurous years, and the Vision Books series from Ignatius Press goes up a notch from the Encounter the Saints series, introducing more depth, giving more information, and expanding the scope of the stories even more. Eager readers can learn about the courage of the North American martyrs, the devotion and bravery of Edmund Campion, and the deep faith of Catherine Labouré.
For Teens, Young Adults, and Up
Louis de Wohl was a master storyteller. Weaving together historical accuracy with creative license, this author gave the world some profound and moving novels and illuminated not only various saints, but also the times in which they lived. Catherine of Siena was an illiterate girl in the turmoil of the 14th century called by God to pray unceasingly and persuade the pope, then living in Avignon against church teaching, to return to Rome. Or take Benedict of Nursia. If we find our world today riotous and evil, consider the Rome of Benedict’s era. And yet this man was called by God to stand against the tide of evil, not by angry words or the sword, but by prayer, fasting, and learning. De Wohl’s novels deserve a piece (or six) just about them, but suffice it to say, they are always an engrossing read that will fire the heart and the soul.
Perhaps most important is this final section. While all of these books contain short, information-packed stories on various saints that can and should be picked up and read by curious children, reading them aloud as a family is a vital component. Among other things, it encourages communication between parents and children about the faith, the purpose of our lives, and what it means to be holy.
Holiness is not a spectator sport. It is achievable by all, but only with the grace of God. We may still be running our race and fighting the good fight, but how incredible is it that those who have already run their race and fought the good fight are now cheering us on? So smile at the wit of Teresa of Avila, take heart in the teachings of Francis de Sales, and shout Vivo Christo Rey with Miguel Pro. For that is the goal, and this is their purpose: to point us still on earth to Christ in his kingdom.