“Ever since there have been such things as novels,” observed Flannery O’Connor, “the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible.” She goes on: “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality.” In other words, a poorly written religious book assumes that form of a message somehow matters less than its truth – that you can disconnect the art of storytelling from the content of the story.
Sadly, this observation often holds true for Christian kids lit too. Wander into any major chain bookstore, leaf through their selection of “religious” books, and you’ll find trite presentations of morality, sorry rhymes, unrealistic characters, and indifference to literary excellence. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had the experience of holding a book in your hand, feeling as though you ought to buy it for your daughter because, well, it gets its theology right. But it’s so poorly written! The story isn’t even interesting – it’s just a vehicle for theological propositions! And it’s so corny! Sigh; put it back. (Or worse: buy it out of guilt, take it home, realize that you’ll throw it out the window if you have to read it aloud one more time, and discreetly let it slip out of the bedtime rotation, hoping no small person ever asks where it went. Not that I’ve ever done that. Ahem.)
To be fair, there’s plenty of really rotten secular kids lit out there. Religious writers aren’t the worst culprits when it comes to cheesiness, cliché, and talking down to children. But the assumption that literary excellence is less important than theological truth is at the root of much poor writing on Christian kids lit shelves. While that is understandable, it’s fundamentally mistaken – and we do our children a disservice when we choose books that are theologically sound but poorly written.
Why is that? Well, in the first place, we’re implicitly suggesting that words don’t matter. At least, not as much as some disembodied truth that the words convey. Any old words will do, as long as they get the right point. But everything in orthodox Christianity suggests that the exact opposite is the case. Words matter, literally. Matter was created by words. They gave it form and meaning. Words are the medium we use to communicate with God, and which God has chosen to communicate with us. God’s Word to all of creation became matter, became material, and physically expressed everything God wants to say to us. At the very least we should ask that books we share with our children honor this reality.
Words are sacred; they should be chosen with care. They give shape and substance to truth! The witness to God’s saving Word was written down in Scripture, and we believe those words were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Every word that’s in the Bible is there for a reason; those of us who confess that Scripture is inspired wouldn’t say that we could rewrite Romans to get the point across a little more efficiently. So why would we be so cavalier about how kids’ books are written?
It’s easy, and tempting, to privilege “truth” in our childrens’ books above the way truth is told. But here’s the thing: when God chose to reveal the fullness of divinity to the world, he didn’t pour a bunch of propositions into our collective minds, as though it didn’t matter how we got the point, as long as we got it. Nope. He showed up in person, and told us that this Person is the truth. In other words: truth has a body, it looks like something. Like Someone. So when we’re trying to tell our kids the truth in our own little creations, we should pay attention to that! The words we choose matter. Do they reflect the craftmanship of the true Creator? Do they honor his own elevation of words and the Word? Or are we dismissing as unimportant what is supremely important to God?
Quality writing matters. Although this may seem terribly abstract when we’re settling in to read with a little one, we teach them something by the very books we select. Careful attention to words teaches our children to take words seriously: the words they speak, the words they read in Scripture, and the words they hear proclaimed when they’re gathered with God’s people. There is some wonderful, beautiful writing in the world of theological kids lit. Why would we settle for less?