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.]