The Sisters of the Last Straw books by Karen Kelly Boyce are effervescent little comic mysteries set in a convent full of ladies whose personal shortcomings have proved too much for other religious orders to handle. The five (and later six) misfit nuns have come together by necessity in order to live their dream of service to God in a community, but they have a way of getting themselves into trouble. In addition to frequent slapstick mishaps such as exploding jam and escaped goats, they encounter some conundrums which set them in a panic before reaching a sensible conclusion. The Case of the Haunted Chapel is a straightforward Scooby-Doovian ‘ghost’ story, while The Case of the Missing Novice involves the (rather more worrying, for adults) issue of a lost person. Along the way, the nuns have to deal with a grouchy neighbor, a messy puppy, and their own bad habits. Each enigma is brief, and the tone is more humorous than spooky, even if the Sisters themselves are worked into a tizzy. A brief red herring or two is not enough to render the riddles challenging, even at a second-grade level, but the solution is incidental to the prayer and pratfalls along the way.
At around 80 small pages per text, the Sisters series is fleet and fun. The rampant silliness will keep young readers turning the pages, and adults will appreciate how these stories portray consecrated life as the characters’ fondest desire. Kids may not have encountered many depictions of nuns who not only exuberantly enjoy their vocation, but are never boring. Too much of children’s media can unfortunately portray saints and Religious as ‘born holy’, implying that virtue comes easily to them and they just sit around all day looking peaceful. This can be alienating and make young readers feel like priests and nuns were never kids like them. These Sisters, in contrast, are funny, flawed works in progress. The characterization doesn’t run much deeper than their respective vices – Sister Shiny is a bit vain, Mother Mercy has a temper, and Sister Krumbles’s main problem seems to be incurable klutziness – but they’re just about right for the target audience.
The Sisters of the Last Straw books are nimble, if lightweight, stories which would benefit from being read aloud- especially by the child to the parents. Every chapter is accompanied by a small ink drawing, and the age range – for both reading level and enjoyment – is suitable for about ages 7 to 9. They provide pleasant lessons about personal perseverance, while making consecrated life seem like an attractive future option. Kids who are already avid devourers of mystery stories (as so many are) may not be particularly challenged to figure out the plot, but they will certainly get some laughs from the Sisters’ antics. The third installment, The Case of the Stolen Rosaries, was published this year, and promises similar delights.
Dear God, I Don’t Get It and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious by Patti Maguire Armstrong take a more issue-focused approach to storytelling. Each is the tale of a member of the Ajax family – twelve-year-old Aaron in the first book, his younger brother Luke in the next – who encounters a major change in his life and learns to rely on God and his family to help him through it. In I Don’t Get It, Aaron is upset to learn that his family will be moving from Montana to North Dakota, leaving behind his friends, home, and proud Montanan identity. His family is devoutly Catholic, so Aaron prays that the move won’t happen, only to discover that Luke was praying for the opposite, and seems to be getting his way. Aaron makes numerous missteps – antagonizing a school bully, being sent to the principal’s office, and lying in order to seem like a hero – before learning to trust that God knows best and becoming a hero for real. The sequel, You Can’t Be Serious, features 4th-grade-graduate Luke’s horror at learning he is about to switch to homeschooling. Bolder and more energetic than Aaron, Luke immediately begins acting out in an effort to dissuade his parents from taking him out of school, all efforts at which of course backfire. Following a few accidents such as drifting off in a boat and becoming stuck in a school supply closet, Luke not only learns that he can’t always be in control, but to tell his parents about his worries in a mature way – they may be more sympathetic than he thought.
Both books were clearly designed to help young readers deal with confusing emotions and life changes. Aaron is shy and earnest, and gets discouraged when it seems God isn’t answering his prayers. Rather than rely on a blunt insistence that ‘God’s ways are not our ways, so just go with it’, Armstrong manages to convey a sense that it’s okay to be frustrated with God at times – and that the best response to that feeling is, in fact, to talk about it with God. Aaron also hopes to become popular by being seen as a hero, but quickly finds that faking a good deed leaves him feeling worse than ever. It’s only in making amends for his lie that he encounters a situation where quick thinking and courage are truly necessary. Similarly, Luke’s story encourages kids to be open about their apprehensions, not simply get over them. He misbehaves at first, but quickly moves on to what he thinks is an appropriate compromise – go along with the homeschooling if he has to, but sneak over to the school for recess with his friends. His plan goes awry, and soon lands him in a heap of trouble. When Luke stops trying to jury-rig his own solutions and comes clean with his parents, they explain that he should have at least made an effort to enjoy what he couldn’t control. After a shift in attitude, homeschooling doesn’t turn out to be as bad as it sounded.
The Dear God series nicely imparts these messages while surrounding them with enough storytelling flavor to avoid being didactic. The books also feature quite a few incidental lessons apart from their main focus – the way a simple scheme can quickly go wrong (kids aren’t the best at anticipating consequences), that bullies are just as lonely as those they’re picking on, how to call 911, and of course to never fall asleep in an unmoored boat. The Ajax parents are also well-drawn; they aren’t dismissive of their sons’ fears, and listen well enough to see what their real worries are. They encourage Aaron to make an effort to stay in touch with his old friends and be open to new ones. They also show Luke that he can still find things to talk about with former classmates even when he’s no longer at school. This touch of breadth keeps the series from becoming too pedantic, a tone from which young readers instinctually recoil. The only shortcoming is in some of the details of the writing, particularly in the first volume. Aaron’s voice is not believable as a twelve-year-old; it comes across as distinctly ten or eleven, which is a monumental difference at that age. His dialogue at times rings a touch false as well, containing some Catholic “talking points” no genuine child would ever phrase the way he does. (It’s also not credible that he would “grow up” from liking superhero stories to liking saint stories, nor should that be presented as an either-or proposition.) Although it may be jarring that the narration switches from first- to third-person in You Can’t Be Serious, the second installment in the series is more engagingly written and Luke has a much more authentic voice. These books may not entirely enthrall kids already captivated by Maniac Magee or The Giver, but readers aged 9 to 11 will find them relatable and helpful in times of change.
The Sisters of the Last Straw books are written by Karen Kelly Boyce and illustrated by Sue Anderson Gioulis. They are available at Kaufer’s for $10 apiece.
The Dear God books are written by Patti Maguire Armstrong and illustrated by Shannon Wirrenga. They are both available at Kaufer’s for $7.99 each.