One thing the old Puritans weren’t: sentimental. Most of our kids now learn their ABCs in brightly illustrated books with apples and cats. The New England Primer (first published at the end of the 17th century), on the other hand, goes right to the heart of the matter. The letter A? “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” That’s right. The first thing you need to know is that you, child, are a bearer of the curse called original sin. Those Puritans didn’t mess around. And why should they, when so much more than their children’s literacy was at stake? It is good to know that A is the first letter of the alphabet, but it’s needful to know that you are marked as an unregenerate sinner before God.
(Other fun entries from the Primer: “Job feels the rod and blesses God,” accompanied in some editions by a soothing engraving of Job covered in boils. “Xerxes did die, and so must I.” In my extensive reading of ABC books, that wins for the ever-difficult “X” entry, with the possible exception of Dr Seuss – “X is very useful if your name is Nixie Knox. It also comes in handy spelling ax and extra fox.” But I digress.)
In my theological neighborhood – evangelical Protestant – we like to make a big deal of the Puritans. As I remember, they were even the topic of the commencement speech when I graduated from college. We like to think of ourselves as their theological heirs, without some of their unfortunate missteps like the whole witch-burning thing. But while we think we see ourselves in the Puritans, I doubt they’d see much of themselves in us, especially if they looked at our children’s bookshelves. Sentimentality seeps from a great deal of Christian kids lit. Even if you don’t particularly like it yourself, chances are you’ve been given a sappy book or two by a well-meaning friend or relative.
So what? Why is sentimentality a problem? Sure, books that are too cheesy might make us roll our eyes, but shouldn’t we be on the lookout for worse things?
To start, let’s be clear about our terms. “Sentimental” is different from emotional or moving. The OED adds the helpful qualifier “exaggeratedly or superficially sensitive or emotional, excessively prone to sentiment.” A book can be properly emotional, perhaps even moving us to tears in its account of something true, beautiful and good. We are confirmed in our love of what is good, and given renewed resolve to incarnate it. Or it can be mawkish and sentimental, appealing to us on a superficial level and making us believe we’ve had some deep experience when in fact all we’ve done is have our feelings stroked. We dry our tears and walk away essentially unchanged – or, possibly changed for the worse. (A prime example: a romantic film that encourages sympathy for adultery.)
The problem with sentimentality in art, including our kids’ books, is that it offers us the enjoyment of some emotional good without requiring anything of us. We live in a fallen world. Grace is beautiful because of our immense need for it. Love makes us good because we have to renounce something to give it. A sentimental portrayal of God’s love, of the Christian life, or of family relationships pretends we are innocent enough to enjoy them without conversion, death to self, and regeneration. “We lost our innocence in the Fall,” writes Flannery O’Connor, “and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite.”
“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” The best kids lit – Christian and secular – knows this deep down, and speaks to children as fallen human beings who are on a pilgrimage. It avoids cliché and sentimentalized resolutions. It doesn’t skip over difficult truth or offer (another O’Connor phrase) “Instant Uplift.” It is not concerned with making readers feel good; it helps them to know good and love it.