I was a philosophy major in college, a voracious reader of hefty novels, and I have a half-finished masters degree in systematic theology. Needless to say, my taste in books trends nerdy. I like books – for me and for my kids – that deal with complexity, that aren’t sentimental, and that make me think. There is a mystery at the heart of things, and I like books that take that into account. Books that aren’t an easy read, but are about the Big Things in human existence. Books that make me feel both vaguely pretentious and totally uncool when I am spotted with them in a public place – for instance, reading the Inferno with foils on my head at the salon. (I conjure up this image whenever I’m tempted to take myself too seriously.)
Now, complexity and honesty in children’s literature are good things. Speaking down to children or sentimentalizing never are. But. As I’ve shopped for books for my daughter, I’ve had a funny experience. Over and over again I’m drawn to books that look fantastic, only to discover they are clearly written for an adult, though they’re on the children’s shelves.
There are two particular ways this pitfall shows up. The first is in books that satisfy some adult requirement – they’re doctrinally thorough, they address some tough topic – but they wind up being clunky. And frequently over a child’s head. These books are just so obviously written to address grownup worries For instance, I was reading a simple Bible verse memorization book to my (3 year old!) daughter one day when we came across the phrase “absolute truth.” To borrow an image from one of my teachers: it went over like a pregnant pole vaulter. The passage was so clearly geared towards a very specific philosophical fear of relativism, and so clearly out of place in a picture book. I’m all for teaching kids that truth is absolutely located in One Man, and that it is in no way relative to our human whims. But let’s do it in a way that makes sense to them, that is beautiful, and that is convincing. Not as some sort of philosophical rear guard action that just flies over their heads.
There are also books out there that look, on first blush, like a fantastic idea. An illustrated version of the Athanasian Creed! A collection of famous icons! A picture book edition of well-known hymns! Add to cart! (I’m making these up, to avoid picking on specific books – but you get the idea.) And frequently, they are wonderful books – at least, for the adults who buy them as gifts. But they are total snoozers for the kids who receive them. A book may have a wonderful subject and lavish illustration, but absolutely nothing in it to interpret the subject for children or make it engaging. Honestly, they’re coffee table books, not kids’ books. Give them to adults being baptized for the first time or to your pastor for Christmas; give them a pass for the little ones in your life.
I don’t want to be unduly harsh. To be fair, I understand the urge to write children’s books that are aimed at adults. In the first place, most of us have an idea of what we want our children to believe when they are adults. So we gear our book choices in that direction. The truth we want our children to give their lives to is complex. It is mysterious. And if presented sloppily, we do run the risk of straying into that unfashionable term, heresy. It’s important to write precisely and not shy away from difficulty. But it can be done in a way that merely satisfies adult concerns for theological propriety and “substance,” or it can be done in a way that invites children in. I could never write a really excellent theological kids’ book, because I know this is the one pitfall I’d leap into headfirst.
I don’t think it’s stretching too much to say that Jesus’ injunction to “suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not” is a word to writers as well as teachers. We forbid them when we choose books that satisfy us, the adult reader, but that fall cold and dead on their ears. Praise God for talented writers who can hear and see like little children, and share their vision with the rest of us!