I fear Jon Dykstra’s positive review of The Captive Maiden, a Cinderella-based love story put out by Zondervan, the Christian publishers, may lull vigilant parents into handing this book to their daughters. Given its subject matter and easy reading level, and given the other positive reviews, it is safe to assume that girls as young as nine and up are reading this book.

While Dykstra cautions that a steady diet of these stories would distort a girl’s view of true love, my concern is that Captive Maiden may be a ‘gateway’ book to just the sort of binge reading of romance novels he warns against.

This is likely for two reasons. First, The Captive Maiden is marketed by Zondervan as one of several in their Fairy Tale Romance Series with wholesome heroines, fast-moving plots, and light romance. Beautiful, gowned heroines grace the front covers and the series’ other intriguing titles are listed on the back.

Secondly, to put it baldly, sex sells. It’s what drives this book. But you’d never know that from the reviews.

“Expect high romance, melodrama, and Christian inspiration in a vivid medieval setting” says Booklist.

”Full of engaging, thoughtful characters” (School Library Journal).

“A heavy dose of romance’,,,a “slightly steamy–though modestly chaste— relationship” (Kirkus Reviews).

This last review touches on the problem.  “Slightly steamy—though modestly chaste”: how can the book be both?

On the positive side, the language is refreshingly clean. The handsome hero and the beautiful heroine are earnest and upright; they respect modesty and marriage, and when in physical danger, they pray. Even despite the compromising circumstances the author continually places them in, they manage to behave themselves.

The author makes a point of the modesty of her characters—but what about the purity of her readers? Purity is a beautiful virtue. It “lets us love with… undivided hearts”. Given our fallen nature, it is a delicate virtue that requires “discipline of feelings and imagination”. [1]

The problem with The Captive Maiden is that under the guise of ‘Christian fiction’ and despite the compliant behavior of the heroes, the story is really about the instant and growing physical attraction between them. Accompanying every stage of the plot is a steady, intensifying progression of sensual descriptions that heighten the sexual tension. The danger for the young reader is the awakening of unbridled desires and imagination that will make purity more difficult.

The sheer number of these descriptions is astonishing. In the early chapters, the references are brief and benign, but already they set a tone. In the first meeting of hero and heroine, when he admires her confidence and self-reliance, and she notices his kindness and trustworthiness, they also brush arms in the crowd, and shortly afterward she inadvertently bumps into his back, and blushes. Then:

She took note of his clean-shaven jawline, the small hollow above the middle of his top lip…Staring at his lips made her heart skip a beat, so she shifted her gaze to his eyes. His lashes and brows were thick and darker than his hair.   30

At their next meeting, during a tournament:

Her heart skipped a beat at his nearness.   66

Even sweaty, with the dust of his tussle… still clinging to his damp hair, he made her breathing shallow at being the object of his attention.   70

And so on:

His hard, masculine features softened even more. His eyelids lowered as he bent his head near hers. His lips were so close, his breath brushed her cheek when he spoke.   88

In the second half of the book, the pace intensifies in frequency and in sensuality. Among many passages, is this:

[In a dark cave, fleeing together]:

His warm fingers on her skin, together with the gruff compassion in his voice, seemed to melt something inside her that had long been hard and cold…. He was rubbing her cheek with his thumb and sending a tingling warmth all through her, a warmth that seemed to be melting all her anger and her pain…He leaned toward her. Her eyes wavered closed just as his lips touched her forehead. His lips were warm on her skin. His hand slipped behind her neck, and he turned slightly and kissed her temple.    212

It comes to a head with a detailed description of the first kiss(es): 

More deliberately this time, he rubbed his cheek against her, melting her insides at the strangely wonderful prickling sensation. Slowly, he moved his lips over her face, kissing her cheek, closer and closer to her lips. Gisela moved her head slightly. Valten’s breath caressed her lips, then he covered the corner of her mouth, gradually slanting his lips over hers until he was kissing her, and she was kissing him back.  246

What foolish things went through a man’s mind when he was contemplating marriage to the most beautiful girl in the world…he found himself kissing her lips again. She was so wonderfully eager, it made him groan.   249

This sensual stuff is what the author, publisher and reviewers misleadingly call ‘romance’. Not only is it addictive, which is serious cause for concern, but the book also sends a dangerous double message: it praises prayer and modesty and marriage while at the same time giving girls a good wallow in sensuality. The piousness legitimizes the sensuality. Which message do you think will capture a girl’s imagination? Perhaps both, but in matters of purity, nothing is small. What sinks into the imagination is very powerful, and it affects the mind and the will. Authors and publishers have a serious responsibility, and so also the reviewers. It’s time to say, “The emperor has no clothes.!”

We all love true romance, which, as every lover of Jane Austen knows, can be all the more passionate for being restrained and discreet. In addition to Austen’s novels, here are some healthy romance stories for girls, and also a few stories about some amazing families, since romance should lead to marriage and children:

Fiction that includes romance.

Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw; ages 11 and up

They Loved to Laugh by Kathryn Worth

Bright Island by Mabel L. Robinson

Sixteen, a short story by Maureen Daly (first paragraph seems out of date, but the rest is beautiful); 14+

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart; 15+

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly; 16+

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge

Non-fiction that includes romance

My Heart Lies South: The Story of My Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino; 13+

Maria by Maria Trapp; 16+

Interesting families:

Cheaper by the Dozen (& sequel) by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth; 12+

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Trapp

Room for One More by Anna Perrott Rose

The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss

My Family and Other Animals by Gerard Durrell

Our daughters need a broad range of heroines to emulate, both real and imaginary. The following very readable books are a few of many alternatives to “romantic” fiction. They tell of true, even heroic, virtue: love, generosity, perseverance, fortitude. They’re listed by age level and are so good that even adults will enjoy them.

Non-fiction heroines

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio  by Peg Kehret; age 9 and up

Little by Little: A Memoir by Jean Little, Canadian author for girls;

Little Britches (series of autobiographical books) by Ralph Moody

Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Ann Petry; age 10+

One of the Lucky Ones by Lucy Ching; age12 and up

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang; age 15+

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Paris Underground by Etta Shiber

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

Life and Death in Shanghai by Cheng Nien; age 16+

A Memory for Wonders by Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard

Fictional heroes

Lang’s Fairy Tale Books, age 9+l For more on these books, see: http://www.likemotherlikedaughter.org/2014/10/beauty-in-the-library-project/

From Anna; Mine for Keeps; Spring Begins in March; Home from Far by Jean Little

The Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John; age 11+

Katia by E.M. Almedingen

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, [2520]

Theresa Fagan lives in Maryland. She is the author of A Mother’s List of Books: tafagan@juno.com.