Poor Writing (or, “How Hard Can it Really Be to Write a Christian Book for Kids?”)

“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?

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8 thoughts on “Poor Writing (or, “How Hard Can it Really Be to Write a Christian Book for Kids?”)

  1. As an aspiring author, I couldn’t agree more. It seems to me that the most important thing is to write the story itself and let the characterization develop. As a writing exercise, I am writing a WW2 historical fiction novel for kids. At first I made the mistake of trying to write the facts and put the characters around them. That was a mistake. You have to write the story and let the historical events work around your story.

  2. I lost my triain of thought in my previous post. I ment to say, as a writing excercise, I wrote a WW2 era Superman story following the adventures of an Asian American teenager. The story is on my link if you would like to read it.

  3. And that, my friend, is why I love blogging with you. Well said.

    It’s sort of ironic that valuing words and not valuing words can both lead to poorly written kids books, don’t you think? It just proves that in writing children’s books you need more than good theology and good perspective on kids books – you need giftedness, too!

    • It is ironic. I wonder if both attitudes come from a failure to really take the Incarnation of the Word seriously? If concrete, solid reality is where truth shows up, then what matters is choosing just the right words or images to portray reality.

      And amen to the giftedness. I have become thoroughly convinced that I could never write a children’s book – especially after reading some poor ones and cringing, thinking, “that sounds like something I might write if I tried.” Ouch.

  4. Yes! Talent is a requirement! Nicely put and very polite.

    Why don’t the editors at the large Christian publishing houses realize this too?

    The choice for our children (secular books too) at big US bookstores is so discouraging and often insulting — who is buying that stuff to keep such a market growing? And who are these book buyers?

  5. Also — You are so right about words feeding our imaginations. So many children’s books are so fast paced and/or too cartoonish and one-dimensional. As you said this also includes ‘Christian’ books. If these are the books we are using to grow our children’s imaginations and their power of ideas…what kind of theology will they end up having, as they grow older?

    Or worse, when they become adults the Bible may seem too boring to read, or they may not have the attention span to allow it to absorb themselves.

    There are a lot of products offered at healthy grocery stores that masquerade as healthy foods, but they aren’t at all. They are still junk foods: agave syrup vs. corn syrup. Organic pasteurized juice vs. pasteurized juice. So it is with many Christian children’s books. They are still junk foods for the soul and mind, but packaged with a different label.

    • Thanks for your comments, Loree. The organic/conventional food parallel is a great one. The tricky part for me about books is sifting through the junk and not feeling as if I should somehow be more lenient on it because it’s “true.”

      It’s helpful to me to think of poorly written books as non-nutritional, rather than poisonous (an easy temptation for someone who is a perfectionist by nature anyway). And I love Flannery O’Connor’s observation that even poor things can be used by God, although that doesn’t excuse their poorness nor recommend them for our consumption:

      “Poorly written novels–no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters–are not good in themselves are are therefore not really edifying. Now a statement like this causes problems. An individual may be highly edified by a sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better. We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

  6. Good point — it is better to think of such books as non-nutrional vs poisonous 🙂 ! I tend to the extreme too often.

    I would love to read more of Flannery O’Conner and have put her down for my winter reading list. Thank you for your reponse and suggestions! Best, lg

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