Children’s books reflect quite accurately what’s going on in American life, what adults consider to be important; what values they see as desirable. Although books certainly aren’t the primary influence on many children, they help to shape children’s values and attitudes in subtle ways. And the books our children read are more likely to reinforce the largely secular influence of the general culture than to open up alternatives.
This is not to say that most children’s books are bad for children. North American publishers have produced many excellent ones, many that give children flashes of insight into human life in language that is a delight to experience.
But there is hardly any Christian presence in this field. Most books for children are not controversial but simply secular. Perhaps that is part of the reason why few Christians involve themselves in assessing children’s books and in producing books that reflect a Christian perspective for young readers.
The vision of life children find in their books is largely the same vision that inspires the thousands of adult titles that pour out each year. In 1966, for instance, Zena Sutherland suggested in her column in Saturday Review that American children needed more books about minority races. Within a year, the climate of opinion had moved in that direction and she had stacks of such books on her desk, waiting for her evaluation. Books about minority children became books for minority children as adults shifted their goals from full and immediate assimilation to preserving cultural differences. To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, has a character that is very dated today, a strong white lawyer who tries to use his professional skills to rescue a defenseless black man. Today’s book about minorities is more likely to be in the vein of Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins, the Great, winner of numerous awards, including the 1975 Newbery Award. Ms. Hamilton’s excellent and very modern novel reflects the more progressive minority view that whatever strength minorities develop must be built by their own efforts and on the basis of their own roots and traditions rather than on mere acceptance into the white American mainstream.
Between 1973 and 1975, a large number of books considered the World War II experience of Jewish people; on the whole they reflected the new widespread conviction that anti-Semitism in any form is wrong, an attitude one couldn’t take for granted a few decades ago.
The depression is another inspiration for numerous recent children’s books. In Naomi Karp’s Nothing Rhymes With April, for instance, the young heroine reflects on the fate of the suffering poor, on the uncle who jumped from a window, on the disrupted families, and rages in her way at the faceless rich who, she believes, caused the whole depression. Such an approach reflects a considerable change in the view of economics and the history of the depression from what was current during the forties and fifties.
Changes in adult living patterns also influence children’s books in subtle ways. One of the most significant cultural developments in recent decades has been the shift in adult patterns of work and leisure. During the fifties and sixties, continuing education became increasingly important to many people. They felt the need to upgrade their job skills during their leisure hours and so leisure activities gradually became an extension of work for a good number of people.
According to publishers, librarians, and teachers, this work-leisure pattern has had a profound effect on children’s books and reading patterns. When a representative of a leading trade publisher for children remarked that the market for children’s fiction was rapidly dwindling, teachers and librarians present explained that their students considered themselves too sophisticated to waste their time on made-up stories that would do them little good on the job. In earlier decades when most people could get jobs with a minimum of specialized training, gaining competitive skills wasn’t quite as urgent as it is for some today; in that period fiction dominated children’s reading, particularly for those whose families considered the leisurely reading of novels to be a sign of high social status. Today, the old-style leisure pursuits have fallen to those who make them their profession, those who don’t care about vocational achievement, and those who are financially secure. This change strikes another blow at the aesthetic side of life in God’s creation. The imagination is gradually pressed into the services of pragmatic geniuses who can make it earn its keep, or it will find itself left to the “nonproductive” members of society—the very young and the very old, women of “leisure,” and dilettantes on university campuses. Little or no room remains for the expansive vision of the novelist, the dramatist, or the poet who pulls the specialists’ fragmented views of reality into a compressed and comprehensive whole, freighted with symbolic meaning that expresses elements of the truth in a way that grips the whole person rather than primarily the intellect. Where fiction is considered irrelevant and impractical, the novelist becomes at best a purveyor of diversions, more likely a spinner of society’s lies, as positivists and followers of Nietzsche have said all along.
In that kind of climate, it is small wonder that a Christian vision of life is conspicuously absent from children’s books. Of course, the inclination toward nonfiction is neither total nor irreversible, as the recent interest in fantasy and science fiction suggests. Nevertheless, the place for a Christian vision of life that rejects positivistic notions of truth and the meaning of life is considerably restricted.
Similarly, the role that religion itself plays in people’s lives is restricted in children’s books. In fact, very few books for children suggest that any kind of religion—exotic or traditional—plays a role in the lives of contemporary North Americans. Religious people appear primarily in three very specialized places in children’s literature: the ethnic ghetto, the past, and never-never land.
The book about the religious ethnic group may treat the Jewish people, for instance, or certain black communities where the store-front preacher is a central figure. A variation on that theme is the book about the Amish or some groups of Mennonites, who function as an ethnic group because of their distinctive ways. Thy Friend, Obadiah, a story of a charming Quaker child who lived in colonial times, is a well-known example. So are the very successful and deeply moving novels of Robert Newton Peck (A Day No Pigs Would Die and Soup). Peck looks back on the religious faith operating in his family as one of a whole series of elements that shaped his childhood. As far as the reader knows, it differs little from the other childish things that fell away as the narrator grew to the sophisticated, nostalgic person he is today.
People may also take faith seriously in books set in the past, particularly during the periods of obvious religious conflict. Faith seldom plays a significant role in people’s lives in realistic juvenile novels set in the twentieth century, certainly not those after the Second World War. Authors sometimes examine crises in the lives of “professional religious people” like ministers and priests, but ordinary people are unlikely to have any sense of the divine.
The other category in which faith can be taken seriously is fantasy, with its relative, science fiction. In this kind of literature the speculative character of the plot seems to make faith and religious practices as plausible as anything else.
One might expect to turn to religious publishers of children’s books for greater vision; unfortunately, it is hardly worth the effort. Evangelical authors of great insight and writing ability have seldom written for children, C. S. Lewis being the outstanding exception out of a rapidly receding past. Our reluctance to write for children about the matters that concern us implies that childhood is an adjunct to the more important periods of life. Although there are many fine religious books for university students, younger people have little more than a few novels and books related to saving individual souls in the narrow sense and to handling personal problems.
At one time I thought the painfully contrived “novels” about witnessing, controlling one’s sex drives, surviving in school, and so on were the result of a lack of writing talent among Christians. However, conversations with some of the better known authors of these convinced me that this kind of book was produced quite intentionally in the belief that fiction has no place in the creation unless it carries a moral. As one author put it, the story was intended only to make the moral more pleasant to take. The result has been a large number of books with predictable plots set in exotic lands, where every ten-year-old child is a potential evangelist or at least a hero who can deter a political coup, stop a hijacking, and witness with one hand tied to a stake. In small doses, these books are not harmful, but they are a far cry from the “Christ is Lord of all life” vision that we evangelicals have espoused for so long.
There are, however, very hopeful signs that Christian publishers are beginning to sense the great need for better books for children. A few years ago, for instance, Eerdmans published Gordon Oosterman’s People, a book about three Indian tribes of the southwest United States. It is by no means the most scintillating book on Indian culture, but it approaches the culture, the problems, and the needs of the Indian tribes with the kind of Christian anthropology that children need to encounter at least occasionally if they are to be convinced that adults believe God is concerned about human life.
A good children’s book meets the same standards that a good adult book meets. The text assumes that the readers love the sound of language, the variety of new words and new ideas, the logical relations implicit in our sentence patterns, and so on. If the book is fiction, the story ought to meet the usual standards for fiction, such as well-motivated tension, a plot in which meaning inheres rather than one on which a moralistic meaning has been imposed, characters who are distinguishable and credible, and so one. The illustrations should fit the text, interpreting it and symbolically expanding its meaning. They should be accurate, imaginative, properly placed, and skillfully done. The total effect ought to be coherence, rather than a memory of a plot outline through which a moral has marched. The entire book ought to “work” so that the child experiences the logical, the aesthetic, the linguistic, the psychological, and other elements as one. Nonfiction books ought also to be lucid, clearly organized, free of unsupported generalizations, and so on.
Finding good books for children is difficult in many areas. Two sources of help are Adventuring With Books by Shelton L. Root (Citation, 1973) and Children’s Literature: A Guide to Reference Sources edited by Virginia Haviland (Library of Congress, 1966, supplement 1972). Root’s book, the most valuable tool for the lay person, is a comprehensive and well-annotated handbook for selecting books. Titles are arranged by subject area and level of difficulty. The Haviland volume is a basic bibliography of books, articles, bibliographies, and other resources about children’s books. The annotations are unusually thorough.
It is helpful to watch for publishers with a reputation for quality, such as Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Seabury, Harper & Row, and Harlin Quist. The worst places to buy children’s books are supermarkets, department stores, many church-supply stores, and general-interest adult bookstores. The books available in these outlets are likely to be “merchandise books,” which sell by the hundreds of thousands, usually at a price under $1.95. The essential ingredient is the book’s ability to sell as an impulse item; that may mean a flashy cover to make it stand out, a gimmick, or a place in a long series with a perpetuating market. Any adult who tries to read such books to a child more than three or four times will be driven back to the store for replacements because the plots are boring and the language pedestrian.
The better-bred cousin of the merchandise book frequents some of the same outlets, but seldom the supermarket, the drugstore, or the airport. These are books whose mediocrity is strongly influenced by subtle forces because they must be distributed as widely as possible. There’s nothing particularly wrong with mediocre books; they provide children with considerable information, and they are certainly better constructed than the merchandise book. However, their very innocuousness is part of the difficulty, for the problems they pose are inevitably trivial or at least easily resolved. People seldom suffer in such books, sin (never given that name) is easily dealt with, and the evil-doers of the world can be quickly sorted out into a class of THEM—bullies, kids who cheat, girls who sleep around, mothers who alienate their children, or fathers who are too busy. These are the books that make up the mainstream, that convey in quiet ways a contemporary and secular vision of life.
Children’s books of high quality are usually sold through the better bookstores, sometimes at universities. Otherwise, they can be located through media reviews and annotated lists from various agencies concerned with children’s books. The high-quality book doesn’t need a special seal or a literary/philosophical analysis to prove its worth. Its character stands out almost immediately and generally survives numerous readings, even by adults.
In these books authors refuse to condescend to children, choosing instead to tell their stories simply as they see them. They share their insights into human behaviour and the meaning of life—however small and however limited. They tell children of the needs they see around them, about the kinds of people they admire, about the things that make a person’s life worthwhile. They also face them with a real world, one that is terribly distorted and for which there are no simple solutions to be found in techniques alone. A good author gives children insight into a world where sin has real consequences—marriages break down and children suffer and strike out; some live sumptuously in this world while others barely stay alive; self-centered, corrupt people distort their social structures to exploit others and eventually destroy themselves. The best authors also offer them hope that goes beyond conventional platitudes.
However delightful high-quality books may be, they always lead the reader more deeply into life until he or she instinctively responds, “Yes, that is really the way it is,” or “I wonder how the author knew that about me.” Not every book will have that effect. However, every child deserves at least the opportunity to encounter books that were written by authors who believe that children’s needs, interests, and tastes are as important as those of adults. They need to see books whose authors are honestly trying to share with them, not dominate them or propagandize them, no matter how noble a cause. They need to see books whose illustrators believe children can appreciate beauty as much as adults can. And they need to see books that lift the cover just enough to reveal both the mystery and the put-togetherness of life in the creation, where God himself has set his footprints.
Some Noteworthy Titles
Adams, Richard: Watership Down; Aiken, Joan: Midnight Is a Place; Benchley, Nathaniel: Bright Candles; Bodecker, N. M.: Let’s Marry, Said the Cherry; da Paola, Tomie: Watch Out For the Chicken Feet in Your Soup and Strega Nona; Flory, Jane: We’ll Have a Friend For Lunch; Hickman, Janet: The Valley of the Shadow; Hughes, Richard: Gertrude’s Child and The Kidnapping of the Coffepot; Kerr, M. E.: Is That You, Miss Blue?; Jarrell, Randall, and Burkett, Nancy Eckholm: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; Meltzer, Milton, and Cole, Richard: The Eye of Conscience; Moskin, Marietta: Waiting for Mama; Murphey, Shirley Rousseau: Poor Jenny, Bright as a Penny; Murray, Michele: The Crystal Nights; Preussler, Otto: The Satanic Mill; Rheiss, Joanna: The Upstairs Room; Richler, Mordecai: Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang; Shulevitz, Uri: The Magician; Singer, Isaac Bashevis: The Wicked City; Smith, Gene: The Hayburners; Starkey, Marion L.: The Visionary Girls; Tripp, Wallace: A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me; Walsh, Jill Paton: The Emperor’s Winding Sheet; Wolberg, Barbara: Zooming In.
Some Noteworthy Authors
For younger children—
Tomie da Paola
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Dorothy Van Woerkom
For the middle years—
Bill and Vera Cleaver
Meindert De Jong
Louise M. Fitzhugh
Robert Newton Peck
For Older years—
Sylvia Louise Engdahl
Elizabeth George Speare
Jill Paton Walsh
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