Reading Over Their Heads

Last week, in the midst of a nasty bout with strep throat, my five-year-old daughter and I snuggled up on the couch with E. Nesbit’s classic, Five Children and It. Typically, we read one chapter book at a time, making our way slowly through at bedtimes and while her brother naps. We had just finished Pippi Longstocking, which had been fairly accessible to her and easy to follow along – as have most of our recent reads.

If you haven’t read Five Children and It, trust me when I say it is funny, smart, delightfully imagined, and wonderfully written. It reminds me just how perfectly calibrated a narrator’s voice can be. It’s the sort of book that would have sent me running, over and over again, to the dictionary as a child – and that I would have loved because of all the erudite references that seem so run-of-the-mill in the British children’s novel of the past. (I used to love looking up the references to Shakespeare, and then feeling like I was in on some great intelligent British joke.) In short: Five Children and It is largely over my five-year-old’s head.

But she loves it.

I thought briefly about setting it aside and waiting until she could “properly” appreciate it. But then she kept begging for it at bedtime every night. And I realized that she is connecting with this book in a real way, limited though it may be. She seems to really enjoy reading slowly, asking lots of questions, and getting sidetracked when we start talking about definitions.

(Example: last night, we only managed about 3 1/2 pages because we ran across the word “vice.” And I am incapable of defining anything so philosophically freighted in 5 words or less. Vice led to virtue, then to their connection to habit, and by a very roundabout path back to the story.)

In general, I’m a big fan of helping kids find a “just right book,” especially for independent reading. But I’ve been enjoying this foray into reading over her head, since she is too. It’s not the same as getting lost together in a story, but we do plenty of that too. We’ve had a chance to look more closely and carefully at the story. Since it’s been a bit harder for her to follow, we’ve done quite a bit of recapping and narration – something that’s harder to elicit when she feels she already understands.

And she’s fascinated by the fact that the children “don’t speak English like we do!” This observation delighted me: one of my great regrets is that I have the vocabulary, accent, and speech patterns of a child raised in 20th century California. If only I spoke the Queen’s English, with a proper Oxford accent. Alas. At least I can pretend when I read to my daughter!

How about you? Have you had any experience reading over your child’s head? How has it gone? Any books that worked well in your family, and at what ages?

Food for Thought

As bloggers we alternate between book reviews of theological literature for kids and what we call food-for-thought posts, which is our format for thinking well about and discussing the intersection of faith, books, and children.  We touch on everything from celebrating the church year to spiritual formation to reading with children in general.  Below is an index of some of our favorite posts!

Aside from the topic of theological books for kids, we love to write about celebrating the church year at home.  Below are links to posts in that ongoing series.

Advent – Christmas – Epiphany

Lent – Easter – Pentecost

Ordinary Time

The Atmosphere of Books

CM and Atmosphere

For close to a year I’ve been meeting monthly with a group of moms to talk about Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas.  I don’t know why I haven’t written more about it here, because after each discussion my mind is overflowing with things to talk about!  The group has been so helpful as my family heads towards homeschooling, but lately I’ve also been mulling over how Charlotte’s ideas apply to the Aslan’s Library project.  That is, what would she have to say about theological literature for children?  I’ve written a little about that topic in the past, but I’d like to get into a regular habit of doing so now that she’s on my mind nearly all the time.

Charlotte Mason had a lot to say about beauty and about truth, the two main factors that Sarah and I take into consideration when we’re reviewing books for the blog.  She wanted children to be exposed to and surrounded by things that are truly beautiful.  Instead of plastering our classrooms and homes with visual twaddle, she would have us fill them with literature and art that capture the best of what the world has to offer.  She also wanted children to engage with ideas – the meaty, substantive ideas that are behind those great books and works of art.  In fact, education for her was all about helping children build relationships with knowledge and learning to feed their minds on true ideas.

In her books, Charlotte prescribes three “instruments” that educators should use.  The first is what she calls atmosphere, and as I was recently reading in Towards a Philosophy of Education I was struck by how widely this particular concept could be applied.  At first blush, atmosphere sounds like it’s all about ambiance, the intangibles of home or school environments.  I think it’s actually much more than that, as indicated by the following excerpts from chapter 6:

No artificial element should be introduced, no sprinkling with rose-water, softening with cushions.  Children must face life as it is… We may not keep them in glass cases; if we do, they develop in succulence and softness and will not become plants of renown… Teaching may be so watered down and sweetened, teachers may be so suave and condescending, as to bring about a condition of intellectual feebleness and moral softness.

As my daughter grows I find myself, with increasing frequency, coming up against the question of what kind of books I want to read with her.  With babies it’s so easy: there aren’t many inappropriate board books out there!  But as we move up, age-wise, in the world of children’s literature, at times I find myself tempted to shelter her more than I should.  As we read through piles of library books each week, there are some that I find myself disliking because they aren’t written well or artfully illustrated, but others I find challenging simply because they introduce ideas that I would rather not explore quite yet.

Many times, of course, that feeling of hesitancy is to be trusted.  There are things like developmental appropriateness to be considered.  We obviously need to be sensitive to our children’s particular fears and sensitivities.  We must keep in mind that books and ideas have real consequences.  And yet…  I think that Charlotte Mason would say that we don’t do our children any favors by giving them books – particularly theological books – that are dripping with syrup.  God’s world is full of intensely hard things and intensely incredible things – to everything there is a season.  What’s more, this reality doesn’t just exist somewhere beyond our front doors, because every human being is both made in God’s image and fallen.  If we think our kids don’t know that already, we’re probably kidding ourselves.

Now, just because we’re committed to telling our children the truth about God and the world doesn’t mean that we need to tell our preschoolers all about whatever the latest horrific news story is this week.  Neither do we need to feel compelled to explain to them that, for some, the problem of evil is a stumbling block to faith in a loving God.  We can tell our children the truth without giving them all of the scary details or confusing them needlessly.  But you know what?  Even though I want my children to pay attention to the books we read, I don’t need to cringe when a book character says something that I really hope my daughter never says or to verbally edit when we come across an uncomfortable theological concept.  There’s no need to avoid reading them books that portray God and the world just as they are.  As Charlotte Mason implores us, let’s allow our children to live in the actual atmosphere of the world instead of trying to conjure up a rose-colored alternate reality for them to inhabit.

Walking Through Lent With Children

Lent with Kids

Today is Ash Wednesday, and here at Aslan’s Library, we’ve been stocking our bookshelves with books that will accompany our families as we walk together through the season of Lent.  During the next six weeks, we’ll be reviewing books and music that encourage worship, repentance, devotion, and meditation on God’s great work for us in Jesus. As always, if you have resources your family has loved, please do pass them along!

For those of you not familiar with Lent, it is the season when the church prepares for the death and resurrection of Jesus. For 40 days, we symbolically walk with Jesus through his time in the desert: fasting, praying, examining ourselves, repenting, and meditating on how God’s perfect righteousness in Jesus makes us holy as well. Contrary to popular perception, this isn’t merely a season of self-denial. Self-denial, or fasting, is just the shock most of our systems need to break us out of the everyday and thrust us back onto greater dependence upon God. And what joy that is!

And the purpose of the fasting, the meditating, the repenting? To focus us afresh on the reality of our shared human condition: we are forgiven sinners, nothing more and nothing less. Lent is actually one of my favorite seasons of the year, because it brushes aside all of my inflated notions of myself and reminds me of the blessed simplicity of my state. I am a sinner, but I am forgiven, thanks to the cross and the unfathomable mercy of God. We’re all in the same predicament: kings, presidents, housewives, pastors, the wise, the foolish, moms and dads and kids.

Each year, at the Ash Wednesday service at our church (we do the imposition of ashes – marking our foreheads to acknowledge that we are dust), I’m always a little shocked to see young children with ashes on their foreheads. Last year, when my daughter went to the service for the first time, I nearly wept to hear and see that truth pronounced over her – that she, too, lives under the penalty of sin apart from God’s grace. I can shield her from much, but not from the wages of sin. And so my husband and I decided to practice Lent as a family, to fast and pray and repent together.

Like Advent (a lesser fast, at the beginning of the church year), there are many ways to go about walking through Lent with children. Our church has been a wonderful help: the kids are encouraged to “Give it up, pray, and give it away.” We want them to see that Lent isn’t about shrinking (giving things up or self-debasement); it’s about making room for God so that he can increase in us. In our family, that means giving up sweets together – because, with a 4 year old, that’s a big deal. As she grows, I’m sure we’ll give up other things, like television or meat some other small daily luxury.

But since the point is to make room for more of Christ’s life in us, we want to practice fasting in the way God desires. I was deeply struck while reading Isaiah 58 last week:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

So this year, as a family, in addition to giving up sweets, we are going to make a concerted effort to eat more simply and spend less money on groceries. We won’t be eating out. My husband and I won’t be spending money on ourselves, and the kids won’t be getting any new toys, books, or little treats until Easter. And over dinner, we’re going to read about different opportunities to give the money we save away to the poor. We’ll pray and discuss as a family, and invite our 4-year-old into the joyful process of giving up so we can give away. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Lastly, I plan to cycle some new books into our daily reading times. We’ll be looking at books about Jonah, and the Exodus, and some lives of the saints. We’ll get back into the habit of reading The Divine Hours. And we’re going to work on Scripture memory, which is more fun than you’d think with a 4-year old. When my kids are a little older, I plan to read a missionary or martyr biography with them every Lent.

So let me encourage you to embrace Lent as a family! (For further reading, check out Kristen Stewart’s post on Lent, over at This Classical Life.) Let us know what you choose to do, and we hope that some of our reviews and suggestions will be a blessing to your family as well.

Is This Book Beautiful? part 2

In my last post, I offered this thesis: the question we need to ask of any theological book we offer our kids is, ultimately, “is this book beautiful?” But what about truth? What’s the standard for measuring beauty? What about “true” books that aren’t beautiful? Is that an oxymoron? After a lovely dinner with Haley, our husbands, and the kiddos – at which all of those questions were tossed around – I’ve been thinking hard about why beauty is so important in children’s literature. Here’s my go at an explanation.

First, some definition. When I think of real, genuine beauty – the kind that wins us to itself, that is pure and good and true – the best biblical term I can come up with is “glory.” As in, the glory of the Lord. Sinners that we are, we can often find this beauty challenging or terrifying. We can rarely encounter it and remain unchanged. It draws us out of the prison of ourselves. It is a moment of the great, uncreated reality breaking through. We find that we are part of something much larger, much more lovely than we ever could have guessed – and we learn to see ourselves in the light of God’s glory, rather than the other way around. In this way, beauty is often the vehicle of truth.

In other words, beauty is something that confronts us. It stands whole in itself and makes us reckon with it. It is not easy. The Old Testament reading last week was about Jacob wrestling with the angel: he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. And because he is wrestling with God, of course the blessing is forthcoming. Beauty, I think, is much the same.

But what does this have to do with literature for our kids? Why not primarily evaluate our books by their doctrinal content or faithfulness to Scripture? Isn’t beauty too subjective? Or, if we hail from certain Protestant traditions, even dangerous? How can asking “Is this book beautiful?” be an essential – maybe even the essential – question?

A couple of things. First, I’m definitely not advocating ignoring doctrinal content or faithfulness to Scripture. If a book is going to give a truly beautiful account of the truth, its horizon has to be subject to and shaped by the revealed glory of God, as seen in Jesus and attested by the Bible. Unfortunately, though, when many of us ask the question, “is this book true?” we’re operating with an impoverished category of truth. We’re so used to thinking of it as doctrinal proposition, or confessional summary: some static, complete body of knowledge that is either affirmed or denied. “Does this book affirm the virgin birth, or not? Does it portray Scripture as inspired? Does it treat the Bible stories like they actually happened? Does it acknowledge that all have sinned?” If the answer to these is a bare yes, then I know I’ve been tempted to give it a pass, as long as it’s not too cheesy in the presentation of that “truth.”

But a list of “true” statements, shorn of the living glory that makes them true, is an incomplete witness to the True Word that took on flesh. Something untrue cannot be fully beautiful, and something stripped of beauty is less than true. Ironically, many of us who want to give the best theological books to our children are so focused on the question of truth that we let beauty slide – and so give our children less than the full truth. Not only is God true – not only does he exist – but he is Good, and stands before us as a decision. Will we love and obey the God who is known in Christ, or not? That’s why we try to tell our children the truth about God.

Forgive me a brief foray into academic theology, but I find Hans Urs Von Balthasar‘s observation (in volume 1 of The Glory of the Lord) helpful here:

In a world without beauty–even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it–in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. (my emphasis)

In other words: if we cannot see the beauty in truth, it won’t compel us. That is, we may acknowledge something as true without loving it as good or wanting to submit our lives to it: “even the demons believe–and shudder” (Jas 2:19). But if we look for beauty- rigorous, real beauty, not easy sentimentality or prettiness – we may be won over to the truth more fully than if we simply see words we agree with. And when we are won over to the glory of truth, we can know it as good and bow before it – and that’s what I desire for my kids. I do want them to have heads full of true statements about God, but only if those truths also woo their hearts and lives by their beauty.

Children’s Books for a Grownup Audience (or, “I Like This Book So Much More than My Three-Year-Old Does…”)

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!