When InterVarsity Press released Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, The Celebration Place, and The O in Hope this fall, it became the latest Christian publisher to launch a children’s line.

New offerings from IVP Kids and Good & True Media in 2021, and Lexham Press in 2022, join the movement to introduce children to hefty theological concepts and the depths of Christian history—even in board book format.

Christian children’s books are moving beyond teaching Bible basics and morality to introducing children to theological concepts from the purpose of church to the power of the Holy Spirit. And some of these new releases come from authors who might already be on Mom and Dad’s bookshelves.

“Children’s books are new to us, but talking about issues of biblical justice, spiritual formation, discipleship—that’s not,” said Elissa Schauer, acquiring editor for IVP Kids, whose first titles come from illustrator Ned Bustard, poet Luci Shaw, and children’s authors Ruth Goring and Dorena Williamson.

Faith-based children’s books are on the rise. Kid-oriented Christian titles sold 6.8 million copies in 2019, up from 4 million five years before, according to NPD BookScan. In the past decade, more board books and Bible storybooks have made their way onto the religious bestseller lists. In response, major publishers like David C. Cook, Westminster John Knox, Tyndale, and Harvest House have either started or added to their children’s lines.

Bible stories and morality tales are consistently popular. But Christian publishing houses are expanding the kinds of resources they create for young readers. A new generation of editors and publishers has moved away from stories that tell children to imitate Bible characters and toward a fuller vision of the Bible as God’s story of his work in the world.

“We’re seeing language of redemption of the cosmos—God’s involvement in history and the wonder of it—in a way you didn’t see a couple years ago,” said Byron Borger, of Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania. “This makes [children’s books] better than they’ve ever been.”

Lexham Press’s new line for children, FatCat books, focuses on Christian doctrine. The “cat” in FatCat refers to the catechism, a method of learning theology that is both rich and comprehensive (hence the “fat”).

“There are lots of things we could go after, but we are tightly focused on this idea of family discipleship,” said Lexham Press editor Todd Hains.

The first book, The Apostles’ Creed: For All God’s Children, is written by theologian Ben Myers, who adapted the text for his children from the grownup book he wrote on the topic. Illustrator Natasha Kennedy put a gray tabby cat on each page who learns along with readers.

After The Apostles’ Creed, FatCat books will cover baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Supper, and forgiveness of sins.

Hains said that for centuries, Christians have believed these doctrines are important to teach the Christian faith to children. But as the Christian faith declines in the US and churches place less emphasis on doctrine, parents are less likely than previous generations to know the concepts themselves and might be more reluctant to try passing on what previous generations of Christians considered essentials.

At Hearts & Minds, Borger sees customers from mainline Protestant traditions looking for children’s books about liturgy and the significance of church.

Evangelical customers, he says, are more curious about practical books for teaching the essentials of the Christian faith—topics like the Trinity, imago Dei, heaven, worship, and the nature of Jesus—in board book format.

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Some of the new children’s books also address topics that are common in contemporary children’s literature, such as bodies, ethnic differences, and child safety. The Christian books do it in a way that brings God into the narrative.

According to Janie B. Cheaney, who reads three picture books a week as a reviewer for Redeemed Reader and World magazine, there’s a big push for biblical views of diversity. Trillia Newbell’s children’s book with Moody Publishers, Creative God, Colorful Us, is one example.

“Mostly what I see is an effort to answer secular trends that are damaging,” Cheaney said, “encouraging children to be happy in who they are as God made them.”

One factor contributing to the broader scope and theological heft of today’s kids’ books is the wider array of “grownup” authors trying their hands at books for the younger set. Publishers increasingly rely on established names to draw an audience, especially as more Christian bookstores that helped prospective readers find new and unknown gems are closing across the country.

Schauer said IVP leadership saw the growth in the children’s market for years, but it wasn’t until Ruth Goring showed IVP associate editor Cindy Bunch her manuscript for Isaiah and the Worry Pack that IVP began to connect with authors to fill out the line.

Esau McCaulley, whose Reading While Black was Christianity Today’s 2021 Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year, has a kids book with IVP coming next year. Tish Harrison Warren, who earned the same award in 2018 for Liturgy of the Ordinary, is working on a prayer book for kids in the IVP line with two songwriters in Rain for Roots, a collective group of musicians who write singable Scripture songs.

Parents, it seems, trust the Christian teachers they learn from to teach their children as well. Publishers also know that those names will attract the attention of adult book buyers.

Of the 25 titles on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s juvenile bestseller list for 2020, nine were penned by authors who first gained an adult audience: pastors Louie Giglio and Max Lucado, musicians Andrew Peterson and Ellie Holcomb, fiction author Karen Kingsbury, and, topping the list, Fixer Upper’s Joanna Gaines. On Amazon’s list of best-selling Christian books for children is What is God Like? by Matthew Paul Turner and the late Rachel Held Evans.

The authors say they aren’t just dumbing theology down for children, though. They’re attempting to convey deep truths in a way that connects.

“The challenge is to give them something even remotely worthy of their own imaginative power,” Ben Myers said. “I just had to explain Christian belief in a way that was clear and faithful while also holding open a sense of mystery and imagination.”

Megan Fowler is a contributing writer for Christianity Today.

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