Writing to God

Writing to God: Kids’Edition
Rachel G. Hackenberg
Paraclete, 2012

You know what I find really hard? Teaching my kids to pray. What if I’m giving the message there’s some technique they have to master? I back off and don’t push them. But then, oh no: maybe I’m not giving them enough guidance? I find myself making suggestions for “improving” their table grace or bedtime prayers. Then I feel like I’m trying to orchestrate their encounters with God, so I give up and do the praying myself – hoping that somehow the modeling will wear off.

As with the rest of my life, so in this: I commend it all to the grace of God and try to get out of the way. (That’s pretty much any parenting book I would write. It’s a short book.)

This summer, though, once school is out and I have my daughter mostly to myself again, we are going to begin daily spending time with a little book called Writing to God: Kids’ Edition. Written by Rachel Hackenberg, it’s the children’s companion to her book for adults called (wait for it) Writing to God. I don’t think it will solve my anxiety around prayer instruction, but it will provide another avenue to actually practice it with my daughter – or better yet, to help her start her own daily conversations with God.

The structure of the book is pretty straightforward: seven different ideas for writing to God, each with a set of prompts to help kids compose written prayers. So, for example, idea #5 is “writing to God about ordinary events in your life.” Some of the prompts are “tell God about a time when you fell down,” “tell God something about waking up,”  and “tell God about school.” Each prompt is introduced with a short, chatty paragraph, and the author gives examples of her own prayers or those of other children.

There are other, more imaginative, invitations to prayer as well. Some of my favorites were under idea #6, “try new words or pictures for God.” Kids are invited to imagine how God is like their favorite color, that he is as close to them as breath, and to describe what that’s like.

I’m planning on providing my daughter with her own prayer journal, and setting aside a little bit of time each day when we will both use one of the prompts to write to God. (I like these journals, because they have space at the top for illustrating: perfect for a 6-year old. We’ll spend an afternoon making it special – and less academic looking! – with washi tape. Older children may prefer a nicer leather-bound book.)

You could start from the beginning and work straight through, or dip in and out. She won’t have to show me what she writes, if she doesn’t want to, and best-guess spelling and illustrations are just fine. I’m hoping this exercise will be an introduction to prayer beyond the list of intercessions we recite each night.

To be clear: this book is not a theological treatise on prayer, which is kind of why I like it. In fact, there are sample prayers that are kind of cheesy, or silly: but honestly, so are a lot of my own prayers, too. This is a book that invites children to come before God, with their own words, without trying to come up with something that will please an adult. To invite God into the workings of their imaginations, and to share their thoughts and lives with him. To start what will hopefully be a lifelong conversation.

The Bible Story Handbook

The Bible Story Handbook
John & Kim Walton
Crossway, 2010

Sarah and I have written repeatedly about the importance of beauty in theological books for kids, but our blog tagline is “beautiful and true theological books for children.”  We are, to be sure, equally as concerned with the issue of truth.  If we believe the Bible to be God’s special revelation to us (and we do), children’s theological books that don’t accurately reflect Scripture are a big problem.

Today’s review isn’t of a theological book for kids but rather a book that will help us grown-ups do a better job in selecting and thinking critically about theological books for kids.  And who wouldn’t want that?  The Bible Story Handbook is an excellent resource that I think all families and churches, or anyone who reads or tells Bible stories to children, should have on their shelves.

Think of The Bible Story Handbook as a mini Bible commentary that’s written specifically for parents and children’s ministers.  John Walton is a Bible professor at Wheaton College and he and his wife bring academic expertise and practical church experience to this project – it’s a winning combination.  Most of the book is divided into 2-3 page long entries; the authors cover 175 of the most commonly told Bible stories from both Testaments.  For each Bible story, the Waltons follow the same outline: Lesson Focus, Lesson Application, Biblical Context, Interpretational Issues, Background Information, and (my personal favorite) Mistakes to Avoid.

There are a number of ways this book would be useful, but here’s one scenario.  Say your child was recently given a Bible storybook about Daniel and something about it strikes you as not exactly right, but you can’t quite put your finger on the exact problem even after reading the original biblical account.  Flip to the corresponding chapter in this book and you’ll find a brief, highly accessible discussion on how to tell the story faithfully and common pitfalls to avoid.  Most of the content is not altogether different from what you’d find in a commentary written for adults, but it offers some distinct advantages: namely, that it’s written with great awareness for how Bible stories are typically presented (for better or worse) in children’s storybooks and in contemporary children’s ministries.

As much as I love the reference sections of this book, the best part may actually be the introductory chapter, only 15 pages in length.  There the Waltons lay out their heart for children being told Bible stories in a way that preserves Scriptural authority, encourages belief response, avoids educational of behavioral agendas, and doesn’t extrapolate with details or themes that simply aren’t found in the original text.  It alone is worth the price of the entire book!  Here’s a sample of the wisdom they offer us:

Is there a “wrong way” to teach a Bible story?  Indeed there is.  If we set our own agenda above that of the text, we are teaching the story wrongly… It is not important to the author of John 6 (the feeding of five thousand) that the boy shared his lunch.  If we teach these things, we are telling the story wrongly because we are substituting what we want to teach at the expense of the biblical author’s message. A story is told rightly when we can confidently claim that it represents the intention of the author and the authority of the text… If we present something as God’s Word when it is not, we are misusing God’s name.

Sobering, but I couldn’t agree more.  You can be sure that this book is going to be used in my evaluation of books we’re considering reviewing here on the blog, and I commend it to you as well.

Remembering Gladys Hunt

Some of you may have already heard that Gladys Hunt peacefully passed away at age 83 on July 4th.  Her wonderful guide to children’s literature, Honey for a Child’s Heart, has been treasured by book-loving families ever since it was first published in 1969.  Sarah and I both love the book; it is also one of the major influences on Aslan’s Library.

Honey for a Child’s Heart is a booklist book, yes, but it’s also much more than that. In the first half of the book Gladys wrote about the importance of books not just in the life of an individual child but also in the corporate life of the family.  But even if you’re already a bookish parent of bookish kids, there’s still much that Honey has to offer.  It’s a book worth re-reading every once in a while to remind yourself exactly why you take your kids to the library, read aloud after dinner, and buy books as birthday presents.   Not only did Gladys encourage parents to find books that introduce a child to “the pleasure of words well chosen,” she also wrote that way, which makes reading her essays as enjoyable the fourth time as they were the first.

The second half contains book lists in a variety of genres.  From board books to middle grade novels and everything in between, Gladys highlights the best of the best.  After reading the first half of the book I found myself more than willing to embrace her book suggestions, and I’m confident that most of her readers feel the same.

Gladys wrote from a Christian perspective, but the scope of Honey for a Child’s Heart is much wider than Aslan’s Library.  Although she does have a very good chapter on books to nourish children’s spiritual life, most of her recommendations are not theological – it truly is a fantastic guide to the entire world of kids lit. (In fact, Aslan’s Library began as a sort of extension of Gladys’ project: we were so inspired by what she had created in Honey that we wanted to emulate it in exclusively theological kids lit — both by compiling a reliable reference source and thinking well about the use of theological kids lit in family life.)

If you don’t already own Honey for a Child’s Heart, now is the perfect time to add it to your family’s library.  It is certain to be one of Gladys Hunt’s most lasting contributions and I, for one, am very thankful for it.