From a very young age, I have been an avid reader, and although my love of reading can be partially credited to encouragement from my parents, at some point I looked back on my childhood and realized that despite having thought that learning was encouraged in my home, that really was only true to a certain point. I read all the time, we had tons of books in our house, and we visited the library frequently- but I was only allowed to read material that met my mother’s strict approval, and as I grew older, it began to dawn on me that there was a whole world out there beyond what I had been allowed access to. It’s a little saddening (and also cringe-inducing!) to go through this list and remember just how sheltered I used to be, but I still find it interesting to reflect on my literary journey and watch my spirituality evolve over the years. Here are some of the Christian books I read as I was growing up:
The Three Cousins Detective Club series by Elspeth Campbell Murphy
I had zero memory of this series until I started Googling and unexpectedly recognized a few of the covers. Seeing the author’s name brought up the memory of writing some of her book titles on a reading list- possibly for a summer reading program, but just as likely one of the many personal lists I kept as a kid. I would have read these when I was about 5-6, so it’s no wonder that I can’t really remember anything about the books, but a description I found online tells me they include lessons about Proverbs, the Ten Commandments, and the Fruit of the Spirit- in other words, it’s not exactly a shocker that these were floating around in my house.
The Mandie series by Lois Gladys Leppard
Even just looking at pictures of the book covers from this series gave me an all-too-familiar headache, because apparently my mind still associates these books with the impatience I felt towards the boring main character. I read quite a few of the 40 books in the series (I was reading these in the mid to late 90s, so the last several were published well after I lost interest) and multiple times at that, yet I can’t really remember anything about the series other than the headache.
The Young Women of Faith: Lily series by Nancy Rue
This series from ZonderKidz (the children’s division of Christian publisher Zondervan) was aimed at pre-teen girls, in case it wasn’t obvious from the “funky” covers that definitely succeeded in catching my eye when I was that age. I didn’t read all of them because they were fairly new at the time, and my church library only had the first few. When I looked up the series to refresh my memory, I was surprised to learn that each book also has a non-fiction companion that explains the lesson the book was supposed to have taught you- but somehow I don’t think the extra reading would have told me anything I hadn’t learned already in a Sunday school lesson.
The Christian Heroes: Then & Now series by Janet Benge
I have always had an interest in history, and as a kid I enjoyed that aspect of this non-fiction series, although obviously, that’s not all I was supposed to be getting out of these books. For awhile, my mother used to give me a new biography from this series every Sunday, and I would usually be done with it by the end of the day (if not by the end of church). I envied the missionaries who were so certain in their faith that they devoted their entire lives to sharing it with others, and I used to wish I felt the same way. Some of my favorites: Gladys Aylward: The Adventure of a Lifetime, Amy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems (pictured above), and Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den.
The Trailblazers series by Dave and Neta Jackson
This was another series about Christian missionaries that we had on our bookshelf, and from what I remember it was a little more fictionalized than the biographical series listed above. I enjoyed these books too, partially because I could get away with reading them at church, and the adventures that played out on the page were always far more interesting than the droning sermon that was going on in the background. Interestingly, the series’ take on Amy Carmichael (The Hidden Jewel, pictured above) was one of my favorites, and looking back I have to wonder if my interest in this particular missionary was related not to her work, but instead a subconscious curiosity towards some of the beliefs of the people she was trying to convert.
The Brio Girls series created by Lissa Halls Johnson
I had to link to Amazon because apparently this series is so obscure that it doesn’t even have a complete Goodreads page- but I can’t be the only one who remembers these literary masterpieces from Focus on the Family! They were a companion to Brio magazine, which was basically the Christian, “good girl” version of Seventeen magazine, and if there was ever the slightest doubt as to the type of young woman who my parents expected me to be, I had the Brio gold standard to remind me. Interestingly, the creator of the series, Lissa Halls Johnson, only wrote 5 of its 12 books- I wonder if that’s because even she got bored by these sermons in chapter book form.
The Jennie McGrady Mysteries series by Patricia H. Rushford
Once upon a lifetime ago I had the whole series in a boxed set- if I remember correctly, it was three boxes with five books each. I really don’t remember the books being too preachy, and even though I’m sure there’s plenty that would make me roll my eyes these days (which can probably be said for a lot of young adult fiction), the overarching “is her father dead or alive?!” plot held my interest, and with a little suspension of disbelief the individual mysteries were highly entertaining for my not-allowed-to-watch-television younger self.
The Cooper Kids Adventures series by Frank Peretti
Out of all the Christian books I read growing up, the one pictured above, Escape from the Island of Aquarius, is among the top few that affected me the most. I did read a few of the other Cooper Kids books- my small church library didn’t have the entire series- but my memory of the first time I read this particular title is quite vivid, and was probably the most alert I had ever been in the middle of a church sermon. I was part horrified- in the context of what I was being taught around the same time about hell, the plot was terrifying- but also part fascinated. I’ll give him credit, Frank Peretti knows how to tell a good story, especially for a reader who shares the Christian perspective that provides the basis for his writing. Reading this book sparked my lifelong interest in the supernatural, and although it also contributed to my fear, ultimately my strong emotional response planted a lot of questions that would eventually help me see the world from a much grander perspective later on- even if that’s probably not what the author intended.
The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
I don’t think any list of Christian children’s fiction would be complete without mentioning this classic series. The picture above shows the same cover art from the boxed set I used to own, which brings the memories flooding back- along with images and emotions from my childhood nightmares about the White Witch, which feel important even though I don’t know why. In spite of these negative associations, and in spite of the fact that I felt a little bamboozled when I realized that the series was chock-full of religious symbolism, I still feel a little bit nostalgic towards this series because its most well-known installment, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was just as familiar to me as some Bible stories. My brothers and I watched this movie version of the book I don’t know how many times, which in retrospect is probably where some of my nightmares came from. My favorite book from the series, however, was The Magician’s Nephew, which gave my soul another tiny nudge with its description of “The Wood Between the Worlds.” Something about this concept resonated with me, and I always wished that Lewis hadn’t limited this part of the story to just one book.
The Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn
This series was another top influencer, and not necessarily in a good way. Christy was the godly girl I knew I should have been- sure, she had her “tough decision” teen moments that were clearly included to teach a certain lesson, but ultimately she was a good Christian girl who was eventually rewarded with a perfect, godly, surfer husband. Reading about Christy formed so many unrealistic expectations in my mind of what my life “should” look like, and often made me feel “less than” for not being as dedicated as her in my own attempt at faith. The series, not surprisingly, also sends some damaging messages about purity, and having read it at such a formative time, it directly contributed to the low sense of self-worth that I struggled with as an adolescent girl. Did I enjoy the books when I read them? Yes, maybe because their fairy tale quality gave me a sense of escapism from a not-so-fairy-tale life. But when I look back, I wish I had realized that I didn’t need a Todd, and that I would end up being glad that I wasn’t a Christy.
The Sierra Jensen series, also by Robin Jones Gunn
The “Sierra Jensen” series is a spinoff of Robin Jones Gunn’s Christy Miller series, and as far as entertainment value goes, as a teen I thought it was much better. Sierra was spunkier than Christy, she wore cooler clothes, and she worked at a bakery! Ever time I read one of these books I craved cinnamon rolls. But ultimately, the same underlying themes from “Christy Miller” were present in “Sierra Jensen,” and perhaps to an even greater degree. There was a whole book about sexual purity (“With This Ring“), and yes, it includes a full-blown explanation of the “wrapped present” metaphor. Gunn may have succeeded at creating a more relatable character this time around, but it’s just a prettier package for the same ugly message.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl series by Melody Carlson
I only read the “Caitlin” and “Chloe” installments of this series, but that was more than enough to make it clear that whether I was a straitlaced believer like Caitlin, or a “punk” with a a dark side like Chloe, the only way I would ever feel whole was to follow this “right” way to believe. I actually did strongly relate to Chloe because I read these books at a time when my own life felt pretty dark, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t duplicate her enthusiasm for worshipping a god whose presence I didn’t feel. As a teen, I was bummed that Chloe’s part of the series only included four books, because I really wanted to see how her story played out with her more free-spirited approach to faith (I could totally see her becoming “spiritual but not religious” later on down the road).
The Left Behind: The Kids series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
This was another church library find, and just like Frank Peretti’s Cooper Kids Adventures series, these books used fear to get readers hooked- and boy, did it work on me. I can’t remember if I had been introduced to the book of Revelation before then, but I definitely studied it in depth (as much as I could with the resources available to me) after beginning this series, which is the children’s version of the well-known Left Behind series for adults. I was TERRIFIED at the prospect of being “left behind,” and I was almost certain that I would be, because no matter how hard I tried over the years to make my faith “real,” I could never feel anything. I read probably the first half of the books with a sort of morbid fascination, but I never bothered to find out how the young characters’ stories ended before moving onto the adult version as a teen, which I did read in its entirety.
The Left Behind series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
I mostly said it above, but after reading this series, it’s no wonder that I continue to have apocalypse-themed nightmares over ten years since I finished the last book. Obviously the fictional plots weren’t exactly solid Biblical doctrine, but that didn’t stop me from worrying how I would hold up in the Tribulation, which I felt doomed to endure. I looked forward to the last installment because I knew it would end in heaven, but I was surprised to realize that I didn’t actually find this Biblical interpretation of the afterlife very appealing. It was the first time that it dawned on me that an eternity of worshipping the Christian version of god sounded more like my idea of hell.
Oh, Karen Kingsbury…I’m not going to list a specific series because I read so many of her books, and a good number of them took place in the same “world.” She’s the Danielle Steel of Christian publishing, and her heart-wrenchingly emotional plots always made for a good cry. I started off with the Redemption series, which I found copies of in the church library, and over the years I made my way throughout the entire collection of books related to the fictional Baxter family, in addition to reading many of Kingsbury’s stand-alone novels along the way. The Baxters, and also the later-introduced Flanigans, were the picture of loving Christian families, and everything my family pretended to be but wasn’t. Kingsbury’s books gave me a temporary escape from my home life, but whenever I turned the last page and returned to my reality, I realized that it wasn’t a perfect Christian family that I wanted, but a life free from the confines of religion altogether.
FUN FACT: The first series featuring the Baxter family is co-authored with Gary Smalley, who confronted Bill Gothard about his inappropriate behavior in the 1970s, and later refused to help Gothard remove a Wikipedia article that described an incident in which Gothard was witnessed having a nighttime visit with a young woman who was wearing a nightgown and sitting on his lap, because Smalley himself was the witness.
I discovered Ted Dekker as a freshman in high school (pictured above is Blessed Child, the first book of his that I read- interestingly the newer cover pictured on Goodreads lists Bill Bright’s name in much smaller letters) and I was immediately drawn to the supernatural elements in his stories. Nobody actually ever talked about things like that out loud, at least not at the various conservative churches my parents were members of (we moved a lot), and I tore through his books without realizing that my soul was looking for something beyond what I could find in writing that was confined to the Christian worldview. Some of Dekker’s books are kind of weird (The Circle series in particular) and his later books became too grim for my taste, but the books I did enjoy (Blink, the Martyr’s Song series, as well as A Man Called Blessed, the companion to Blessed Child) all stoked my curiosity in the supernatural, even though the significance of my interest didn’t become clear until much later on.
Sometime around the beginning of high school, I decided to give one of Frank Peretti’s adult books a try, since I had enjoyed his Cooper Kids Adventures series when I was younger. My first pick was his 1999 book The Visitation, which definitely delivered on the supernatural elements I had been hoping for- with a large dose of fear to go along with it. However, as I read several of his other novels over my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I began to experience a subtle shift in my perspective as a reader, although I didn’t fully realize that a change was happening. Somewhere along the way, even before I admitted it to myself, I just…stopped limiting my thoughts to the worldview that is centric to Christian fiction, and after that Peretti’s stories just weren’t as entertaining anymore.
I didn’t read any of Dee Henderson’s books until after I had already stopped regularly attending church (around age 15), but even though I managed to put my foot down when it came to waking up on Sundays, I still had to deal with my parents’ restrictions in other areas, including their strict standards for my reading material. By that point I had long since perfected the art of smuggling contraband books in and out, but if I wanted to read out in the open, it had to be something that would meet my parents’ approval. These books fit the bill and are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Christian fiction- even though Henderson does her best to keep it interesting by giving her main characters impressive careers designed to generate suspense (hostage negotiator, forensic pathologist, and U.S. Marshall just to name a few), a few books in and you begin to realize that the plot details are just an interchangeable vehicle to get to the character’s inevitable “come to Jesus” moment, which is the true climax of each story.
By the time I was 16, I had pretty much admitted at least to myself that I no longer wanted to be a Christian, but even though I didn’t go to church and spent most of my time doing other things (the academic rigor of junior year, a part-time job, and a new boyfriend kept me pretty busy), I still managed to keep the peace with my parents because I didn’t really have a desire to rock the boat while I was still living under their roof. So although I may not have been studying the Bible in my free time, I wasn’t against curling up with a mildly religious book every once in awhile to give the impression that I still had enough of an interest in Christianity to keep them from taking any drastic measures. Reading Beverly Lewis’ fictional take on Amish life gave my mind an occasional break from an otherwise stressful schedule, and getting a peek into an unfamiliar world that I had always found intriguing was enough to make up for the religious themes that are present in her books. Even though at that point I had no interest in a faith of my own, I appreciated the distinction that Lewis made between genuine and obedient faith, and I enjoyed her stories because they didn’t feel like preaching in disguise.
In case you’re wondering what Bibles I used growing up, the first one I distinctly remember owning was the NIV* Adventure Bible. Although the cover pictured above looks similar to what I remember, I couldn’t say for sure whether or not it’s the exact same one. My grandmother gave this Bible to me as a gift when I was about 6 or 7 years old. She had come for a visit from out of state, and brought me on a special trip to the Christian bookstore without my younger siblings. Her purchases for me that day included the Bible, a copy of the book Christy (which even as a precocious reader was a little over my head), and a sparkly “WWJD” bracelet.
The very next year, I was presented with this beauty in front of the entire congregation, at a special ceremony for rising third graders at the beginning of an otherwise unremarkable church service. It was a Big Deal to be receiving this fancy Bible with its holographic cover (the above photo doesn’t do it justice!), and the fact that it was a “study Bible” was supposed to encourage me and my Sunday school classmates to become personally committed to the religion that most of us had been born into, now that we were reaching the age of accountability.
Somewhere along the line I graduated to the teen version of the study Bible, which was pretty standard amongst my fellow church-going peers. Because I am super cool, I turned the cover into a collage of words that related to Christianity/faith. I must have spent hours on the project (it received tons of compliments at the all-girls Christian summer camp I attended!), which in retrospect was probably because I was sick of reading the actual book.
This isn’t an all-inclusive list- many titles have long since been forgotten- but I think it provides a pretty good picture of the “Christian bubble” that helped form my worldview when I was growing up. I was allowed to read books that didn’t belong to the Christian genre, which I will list in an upcoming post, but even with the influence of the limited selection of secular books that were permitted in my home, I was still incredibly sheltered. Even so, I consider myself lucky, because going back to the main theme of this blog, I have no doubt that at least a few of the books on this already tame list would NOT be allowed in the Duggar household.
Could you picture any of the Duggars reading some of the books from this list? Did you grow up in a Christian household and have your own memories of these titles or others? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
- The Mystery of the Zoo Camp by Elspeth Campbell Murphy
- Mandie and the Secret Tunnel by Lois Gladys Leppard
- Here’s Lily! by Nancy Rue
- Amy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems by Janet Benge
- Stuck in the Sky by Lissa Halls Johnson
- Too Many Secrets by Patricia H. Rushford
- Escape from the Island of Aquarius by Frank Peretti
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
- Summer Promise by Robin Jones Gunn
- Without a Doubt by Robin Jones Gunn
- Becoming Me by Melody Carlson
- The Vanishings by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
- Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
- Return by Karen Kingsbury and Gary Smalley
- Blessed Child by Bill Bright and Ted Dekker
- The Postcard by Beverly Lewis
- NIV Adventure Bible
- The New Adventure Bible
- Teen Study Bible
*NIV stands for “New International Version” and was created to be a more modern, easier to understand translation of the King James Version (KJV) Bible. I am pretty sure all of the Bibles in my home growing up were NIV translations.