While browsing through children’s books at a local shop, I spotted one that looked promising. It was a picture book with interesting artwork on the cover and a theme that seemed perfect for young kids. But when I opened it up, instead of a few sentences per page there were a few paragraphs per page. Thinking that maybe I misjudged the target age of the book I read a few pages and then flipped to the back cover. Nope. It was a chapter book masquerading as a picture book.
Has that ever happened to you? I’ve been surprised at how many times I’ve run across this issue with theological kids lit. Maybe all the other young children in the world have a much longer attention span than mine does, but I’m guessing that most don’t have the patience for reading what are essentially chapter books.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for including advanced language in children’s books. I despise books that speak to children as if they only had half a brain. One of the reasons that reading is so wonderful for children is the exposure they get to new words and ideas. Reading books to your child that are above your his or her reading level is fantastic and everyone should do it. And yet, there’s a reason that we give Goodnight Moon and not The Brothers Karamazov as baby shower gifts. There is such a thing as developmental appropriateness when it comes to book length and word selection.
Interestingly, theological books that fall at the other end of the word count spectrum seem to be much less common. While wordless picture books are fairly common in the wider world of kids lit, they seem to be almost nonexistant in the realm of Christian kids lit. Why is that, when there are some truly excellent wordless books out there? It’s certainly not because they’re impossible to do well.
My hunch is that both of these trends are tied to the centrality of the Word in Christian belief. We place a strong emphasis on the Bible, and rightly so, but for some reason that good emphasis sometimes leads children’s book authors to over-explain a theological truth or over-describe a story. We love love Scripture as God’s words to us, but perhaps that makes us love words so much that we misunderstand how many should be in a books written for early childhood. Maybe it sounds crazy, but I think there might be a kernel of truth in it. I think that somehow, deep down, we are tempted to think that truth is more true when we use more words to explain it. But it’s not more true – and it’s usually not more beautiful, either.
Often, books that fall into the too-much-text category make me sad because I feel like even if the book itself really is wonderful it may not find a readership. A chapter book that looks like a picture book will likely fail to reach either the chapter book audience (because they want to read big kid books) or the picture book audience (because they have a hard time following the text). It is a wonderful thing when age appropriate text and themes are matched with age appropriate illustrations and formats: the authors win and the readers do, too.
[One note about this series: There are some authors that somehow make pitfalls work. Every downfall that we discuss over the next few weeks is really only a potential downfall, because there are books that have “too much text” or another “problem” that achieve excellence in spite of it. In fact, I can think of one too-much-text book right now that we’re planning to review later this fall! Our aim is not to suggest strict criteria for book selection but rather to discuss and seek to understand certain trends we’ve seen.]
“I think that somehow, deep down, we are tempted to think that truth is more true when we use more words to explain it. But it’s not more true – and it’s usually not more beautiful, either.”
Thank you. That is a wonderful insight.
I’ve also noticed the way a strong trend often has a kind of “countertrend” with exceptions that prove the rule, or where the reverse is also true. I’m looking forward to seeing your review of the word-heavy book, and hoping you discover some great word-light books too!
Hi Lisa! Fun to “see” you here. I think you’re absolutely right about countertrends. Sometimes books get everything technically perfect but there’s still something missing, and other times a book breaks all sorts of rules but is excellent nonetheless. It’s impossible to make hard and fast rules about what is essentially an art form!
I generally agree with your thoughts on word-heavy books, and I think we’ve all seen these at different times — authors trying to cram too much into a children’s book, in ways that are not age-appropriate. Too much explanation or too deep explanation for the recommended age is unhelpful and tends to be a big pitfall in Christian kids’ lit (and curricula!).
A thought on wordless books — I’d be interested in seeing a good wordless book containing theological truth for kids and if you have any recommendations, I’m curious. I think they are hard to do well if you want to retain the “truth” side of the truth and beauty equation. I’ve thought a lot about the use of symbols and art in Christian Sunday School curricula, and one of the things I’ve come to realize is that words have an advantage that pictures don’t: clarity of interpretation. (Now, some ways of explanation are more clear than others, and some wordings can be unclear, as a disclaimer.) That said: wordless books lack interpretation by the author (in other words, clear understanding of authorial intent, which is the bedstone of solid theological understanding, is lacking) — and interpretation is inserted by the reader. Which isn’t bad in every case, but it is “open” to more subjectivity and different theological understandings. Words interpret pictures, which (I believe) is why the Bible is given to us in words (granted, in a diversity of different genres such as poetry, logical argumentation, letters, narrative, etc.) Some words paint pictures, but they are still use words, and the pictures painted are usually analogies to unseen spiritual realities that can only be described with words (justification, etc). Since faith is unseen and the root, or basic truths, of spiritual life, are not visible before us, a continual challenge lies before the Christian kids’ lit author — how do you translate abstract principles to young minds that aren’t capable in dealing with abstracts, yet? I guess I’m wondering whether or not something can express what is true without using words?? Maybe it is possible…? But I haven’t come across anything like that so far other than the five-color wordless book used on the mission field — but again, words are necessary as context for a solid understanding of the gospel. Anyways, if you have other thoughts, let me know — email or whatever — I’m interested in hearing more on this topic.
(As a side note…I’ve been on a crusade for years at my workplace trying to get images that aren’t over-spiritualized, boring, poor quality — i.e., beautiful and fresh — for youth into my organization’s curricula for a long time! So my focus has more been in trying to get our organization to consider beauty in addition to truth. But in doing so I’ve come to realize how important words are in giving context for images, as well.)
Sorry for the long post! This should be a coffee and hang out conversation sometime!
Mmm, good thoughts. I do see what you mean, although I’d be curious to talk to an artist to see what they say about the issue of authorial intent and interpretation in art. In any case, it probably is easier to insert one’s own theological ideas onto a picture than onto a paragraph of text.
I think that Love Is is a great example of a book that is done with very few words and truthful, clear illustrations. You’re right that books like that probably leave more room for reader interpretation, and while there may be risk in that, I’d still love to see more attempts at them because I think there’s huge potential for ones that are well done.
On another note, I just noticed that Justin Taylor is blogging about the relationship between Christianity and words this week: part 1 (http://bit.ly/agnZEB), part 2 (http://bit.ly/cD1s4e), part 3 (http://bit.ly/aAvxjc). The posts are taken from the introduction of The Power of Words and the Wonder of God (http://amzn.to/9OerMl).
I found you on the Femina blog and will am excited about your site here. Books. Sound theology. This is going to be good… 🙂
Thanks for visiting us! We’re glad to have you here.