If you haven’t visited the children’s section of a bookstore recently, you may be surprised at the sheer floor space taken up by books for young readers. Tens of thousands of children’s book titles are published each year, joining the countless volumes already on the shelves. As of 2022, children’s literature accounted for nearly one third of all book sales in America.

But the reasons to pay attention to this category far exceed any financial impact. These texts have tremendous influence on each new generation. “Because children’s tales perform a variety of cultural functions, they are crammed with clues to changes, attitudes, and behavior,” notes Mitzi Myers, a leading authority on children’s literature. “Above all, these key agents of socialization diagram what cultures want of their young and expect of those who tend them.”

Unfortunately, as anyone perusing the stacks quickly discovers, quantity does not necessarily translate to quality in these lofty aims. In fact, the sheer volume of books only complicates the search for greatness. The bigger the haystack, the harder it is to find the proverbial needle.

One segment of children’s books in particularly high demand is classified as middle grade (or MG) literature. Kids between ages 9 and 13 are considered by many to be in the “golden age” of readers, voraciously consuming books as they first experience the joy of being transported to other worlds through the written word. My own memories of the impact books had on my life in fourth and fifth grade are what drew me to write The Inkwell Chronicles for that audience.

And there’s much to celebrate in the contemporary MG genre, especially as diverse voices become more readily available, making it easier for young readers of varied backgrounds to find characters with whom they can readily identify. The new crop of literature is also unafraid to tackle tough topics, offering children resources for navigating difficult situations.

These books serve as both mirrors and windows, as Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, has aptly put it. Children see themselves in what they read, and they also need reading material that gives a view into other, larger worlds than their own.

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Yet the zeal to offer those “larger worlds” through culturally relevant plot lines and characters can put publishers at odds with the gatekeepers who are buying books for children. Parents may be taken aback when they crack open recent titles. This is a vastly different marketplace than we saw even a decade ago. From vulgarity to violence, sexualization to spiritual darkness, themes once deemed inappropriate or too mature for younger readers are now ubiquitous in MG books.

Alarmed parents’ reactions to these unpleasant surprises have filled the news with stories of book bans and challenges—and those reactions are often met with equal alarm over censorship and freedom of speech. MG stories now face routine scrutiny from both conservative and liberal critics, either for what they include or what they omit.

Manuscripts are often subjected to sensitivity reads before going to print, screening for any language or material that might be seen as problematic for one group or another. A recent article in Publisher’s Weekly included this rather telling quote from independent publisher Tony Lyons: “The bigger publishers used to look at the content of a book; now they look at what an author might be accused of.”

That’s a weighty burden for storybooks—works that previously were judged on their ability to capture a child’s imagination and tell a good tale. And it’s a weighty consideration for parents trying to decide what books to permit or encourage their children to read.

Some parents respond by seeking out books from their own childhood, known commodities with no surprises. But is it realistic to expect that the stories that delighted a previous generation will resonate the same way with the next?

“It’s tougher to keep a child interested because a child doesn’t have the concentration of an adult,” said Roald Dahl years ago. “The child knows the television is in the next room.” Mobile devices have only shortened that attention span even further, and even the most attentive child will ask about reading their friends’ contemporary favorites.

For Christian parents, this all raises serious philosophical questions about the place and purpose of stories in the development of a child’s belief system. Should we choose only books that portray or align with Christian values? Is our goal to reflect the realities of the world or to provide a respite from them? When are we rightly safeguarding young minds, and when are we being overly protective?

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It raises questions for Christian authors writing for this audience too. Do we have a responsibility to incorporate a measure of theology into our stories? Or should we studiously avoid anything that smacks of indoctrination in the context of a fictional adventure?

I spoke with a panel of authors and industry insiders to provide their perspective on the complex state of contemporary children’s literature and its relationship to faith.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Let’s start with the basics. How would you describe the current landscape for what we’ll call MG Christian literature?

Stephanie Cardel, founder of Lighthouse Literary agency:Very limited. I'm not seeing a lot of new acquisitions [by Christian publishers] in MG at all. Some have even halted MG acquisitions and are focused on picture books. If you look at their websites, the MG book list doesn’t have a lot from 2022 and 2023.

That’s a little counterintuitive. My assumption would have been that it would grow with the general market. Sounds like that’s not necessarily accurate.

Donna Baker, owner of Dightman’s Bible Book Center: On my end it seems like there’s less. There are not nearly the number of [Christian publisher] sales reps that there used to be.

Melinda Rathjen, senior editor at WorthyKids, Hachette Book Group: I think Christian children’s literature is a pretty broad umbrella, and the various faith-centric publishers vary in how much of that spectrum they publish: from very overt, message-driven books to stories with subtle references to a life of faith, to books whose authors are writing from a Christian worldview but for a very broad audience.

In other words, the channel defies a single description.

Rathjen: I think there are markets and readers for every flavor of Christian literature, and each publisher has its own approach to that mix.

Bunmi Ishola, editor, Random House Christian Children’s: When I’m acquiring, I’m ultimately looking for an underlying Christian message that encourages kids in their faith or models how they can live out their faith in the real world. Not all the stories have to have overt faith content, but I want the character choices, themes, and the overall messaging to align with tenets of our faith. I want the story to help spark dialogue for kids around what it means to be a Christian and how they can practice their faith.

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Cardel: I would add that I’ve seen an uptick in MG non-fiction across the board—secular and Christian publishers.

How do you write about faith in a fantasy or fiction context in a way that doesn’t lead readers to lump belief in God with the other “made up” elements of a book?

S. D. Smith, best-selling author of The Green Ember series: I haven’t seen this as an obstacle with my kids. Maybe it’s because fiction and faith are a native tongue for us, parts of an ongoing conversation in our home. As an author, I just try to be clear and honest inside and outside my books.

Amanda Cleary Eastep, senior developmental editor at Moody Publishers and children’s author of the Tree Street Kids series: I write realistic fiction for children and integrate faith elements into the stories the same way I do any other elements. Faith must be as authentic to the individual characters as their physical features, strengths, and weaknesses. Fiction can still be true even if it is made up.

That makes me think of Stephen King saying that “fiction is the truth inside the lie.” What do you see as the role of fiction in forming faith?

Smith: I believe it is to delight and to help us see what we cannot otherwise see. That we cannot see what a gift from God life is—and that we already live in a fantasy world—is down to a delusional spell we are under. The best, most faithful fiction breaks the spell and lets us see.

Cleary Eastep: When I talk with writers and readers about how fiction can play an important role in forming the moral imagination of children, I usually point to Jesus’ use of parables. Similarly, fiction invites readers to imagine themselves in a story and then ask at pivotal moments in a character’s journey, What would I do in this situation? A good story doesn’t simply teach a lesson our minds can grasp; a good story engages readers on an emotional level and provides the opportunity to respond.

Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona Quimby books (and no relation to you), once said in an interview that when she was a child, she didn’t like reading books in which the characters learned to be “better” children. How do you avoid moralizing or oversimplifying faith when portraying it in fiction?

Cleary Eastep: Many of my readers are from homeschooling families or families who actively practice their faith and want their children to read books that don’t shy away from God, religion, and the Bible. However, most kids and their parents also don’t want catechizing. My two guidelines for integrating faith into my books are (1) tell a good story, period; (2) make faith authentic to the characters.

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Is it freeing to write for a Christian audience that welcomes more overt references to your faith, or is it more restrictive because of the expectations of what is acceptable?

Smith: My audience is incredible. I receive tens of thousands of letters from kids all over the world and many say, “I am praying for you.” The best! It is pretty easy to write for them. Since I’m independent and have operated outside the New York and Christian book industries, I’ve never had an intermediary in that relationship with my audience. It’s always been direct and genuine. The original audience for my stories was my kids, so I felt total freedom to write exactly whatever I felt was best for them.

You’re in good company. C. S. Lewis once described J. R. R. Tolkien’s way of writing as growing directly out of stories he created with his own children in mind.

Smith: I’ve never changed that approach and I find it has been the most generous and authentic.

Cleary Eastep: Writing for a primarily Christian audience is freeing in that I enjoy writing about Jesus and his creation. I also enjoy exploring what faith formation can look like in the life of a child—both in my young characters and my readers. Overt references to my faith depend on the type of story or article I’m writing. But even when I don’t write directly about Christianity, it’s what I live and, at the core, my faith can’t be separated from how I see the world and how I write.

Do Christian writers have any responsibility to imbed theological truth into their work, or is it best to just let a good story be a good story and not make it teach as it entertains?

Cleary Eastep: A good story and biblical truth shouldn’t be separate for the writer who is a Christian … who sees the whole world—and the worlds they create—through the lens of faith. How overtly a writer integrates Scripture into a story line or faith into the development of the characters can depend on their audience and the desires of their publisher.

That’s a good distinction between what is inherent in the writing and what is explicit in the text.

Smith: Is the best way to be a faithful Christian as a basketball player—after you make a basket—to drop down on your knees and praise God? It is not. It’s to get back on defense. Because God made the world and Jesus is King, all things are his. So, I don’t have to bend things to fit my secondary purpose.

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Education scholar Karen McGavock wrote something very similar about the purpose of children’s literature. She asked, “Does it point to a solution? Does it rally for a cause? Does it provide a moral lesson? Does it prove a theory?” And then she concluded, “Though it may by chance do any of these, it should not be bent to these purposes.”

Smith: I don’t have to write “Jesus saves!” on the sandwich I make for my kid; I can just serve them food. Likewise, storytellers can best honor God and serve people by telling excellent stories. Of course we must tell the truth and be faithful in our calling. And I don’t say a person may not have a point or be concerned with a central proposition. I only say that God is God, so we can love and serve our audience without trying to trick or dominate them. We are free to be generous and honest, as well as faithful.

Parents often seek out Christian books when they’re looking for what they consider “safe” content. Does that lower the bar on literary quality?

Ishola: Parents and other adults love seeing their kids enjoy reading but are also looking for content that helps share and uphold their values and beliefs. We share the same goal of nurturing a love of reading while also transmitting messages of hope, love, and other components of the gospel.

Cardel: I’m frustrated when I see Christian publishers pulling back from real-life, tough issues in young people’s lives like divorce, bullying, racism, or even abuse in the name of “clean” content and not being “preachy.”

There’s something disingenuous about attempting to shield young readers from subjects they’re already confronting in their day-to-day lives.

Cardel: Secular publishers have an abundance of these topics without a Christian perspective to point the reader to trust God in difficult circumstances. I think that example is desperately needed.

Smith: I understand and validate the concerns of parents who, like me, are concerned about the toxicity of many stories. I share those concerns. I don’t, however, think the best reaction is to make our books safe. Like Aslan, we need good, not safe. I’d rather write books that are dangerous for dangerous kids. I’d rather tell the truth in a hospitable way so that kids are prepared for the darkness they will face and they are inspired to go ahead bravely, armed with the light. I want kids who read my books to become more dangerous to the darkness.

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I like that thought. It’s very empowering to flip the script and instill a sense of courage in the face of darkness rather than the need to shrink away from it to stay safe.

Smith: I think much of what we call “safe for the whole family” is dishonest drivel that pats us on the head and tells us comforting lies. I am not saying I would embrace the dominant culture’s propaganda stories. No. I’d look for excellence, truth, integrity, honesty, and faithfulness to Scripture (which isn’t safe).

Amanda, when you’re trying to exhibit that faithfulness in realistic fiction, how do you do that?

Cleary Estep: The Tree Street Kids characters include two “churched” characters, one from a Catholic background, and one who doesn’t attend church but is learning what God means to his friends through their everyday interactions.

You’ve all been around long enough to observe trends come and go. What changes have you seen in children’s publishing?

Cardel: More BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) representation is prevalent across the board, and definitely a good thing.

That’s true of the general market. Are you seeing that carry through in faith-based publishing as well?

Ishola: There’s room for improvement within the Christian market. As I’m acquiring new titles, I’m always keeping my eye out for authors who can bring diversity to the space. It’s something our entire children’s team is passionate about.

Baker: The market is very different today than 20 years ago! Parents and kids would be coming to the store looking for “chapter books.” Kids used to be required to do book reports for school and page count was important. Now, very few come looking for those types of books. The internet has severely hurt sales in brick-and-mortar stores. Kids aren’t coming in to look for books. We do sell graphic novels.

Smith: I try very hard not to study the market. Ignorance is bliss. But I have seen something I find disturbing: I see the dominant culture making inhospitable, propagandistic stories about adult-themed arguments and aiming them at kids. That’s horrible.

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Many Christians react to this by making inhospitable, propagandistic stories that take up the other side of the argument and offer that to our kids.

So you’re noticing a reactive brand of literature that ends up being just as egregious as what it’s resisting.

Smith: And because parents are (understandably) disturbed by the evil they see aimed at their kids, they embrace what they see as the opposite and fight back. But I don’t think these dueling propaganda stories are generous or excellent. They are an imposition on kids, not an invitation to truth, beauty, and goodness.

Cleary Eastep: The biggest change I’ve observed in children’s publishing is the inclusion of sexuality and gender identity in books for even the youngest readers, 0–4.

Cardel: I thought the shift in the secular market would create a boon for the Christian publishers because of parents seeking content that didn’t push sexual identity representation. But that wasn’t the case.

I’d like to circle back to the topic of diversity for a moment. Given the culture-transcending, equalizing message of the Cross, I would think Christian authors could bring something uniquely hopeful to the conversation. How do we demonstrate the inclusivity of the gospel without becoming performative?

Ishola: I believe that how we worship and how we connect with God is generally filtered through our individual cultural lenses. Demonstrating the inclusivity of the gospel means we can’t try to hide or ignore the ways we’ve been created or experience life differently. It’s also hard to “love your neighbor,” if you don’t actually know, understand, or connect with your neighbor. By celebrating diversity in our literature, we show the world how we are all invited into God’s great story.

That feels like writing in a way that honors the imago Dei in everyone.

Ishola: Whether you’re a reader or a writer, it’s important to actively seek out and listen to stories that are different from your own and choose to make space for them. Committing to being inclusive and putting in the work shows that you not only care about getting it right but that you also truly care about the real-life people represented within each story. It’s a way we can live out God’s call for us to love one another.

In general, it sounds like finding a good book these days takes a lot of discernment, given the plethora of titles and worldviews on the shelves. To that end, what word would you have for Christian parents seeking great reading material for their kids?

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Cardel: In today’s world, parents are wise to vet their children’s books. If you can’t find it in Goodreads or a blog review, Amazon reviews are a good source.

Cleary Eastep: As a children’s author, I’d ask that families share, share, share the books they feel are well written and align with their beliefs and values. Christian children’s authors struggle to compete with the huge general market. Many fiction writers don’t have large platforms and must work daily to reach new readers.

Baker: They should always shop at their local Christian bookstore! We can find books that are sometimes out of print, and we will go the extra mile and order from somewhere else when we can’t get it from our own distributors. And we order almost every day, so we get it fast.

Rathjen: Children’s librarians and booksellers are amazing. They are the original algorithm, dedicated book matchmakers—endlessly connecting readers with books. Teachers, of course, especially those that already know your children well, are a great source of recommendations. They’ve seen which books have lit up their students’ faces over the years. For those fortunate enough to have a children’s ministry program at church, those leaders may also have recommendations.

Smith: My hope is that parents and grandparents will go deeper than the (yes, important) battles of the moment and look for timeless, generous, fantastic stories to delight and shape their precious children.

Cleary Eastep: Families should demand great literature, not just “safe” content. I encourage parents and guardians to think about how they choose books for their children—and help their children choose books—as an opportunity to curate a home library.

I like the idea of curating a collection rather than just making an isolated book purchase.

Cleary Eastep: Parents can begin to build a family bookshelf with the books they read as kids and are familiar with. They can then add well-loved classics. To expand their library, families should consider books by diverse authors and seek recommendations for both Christian and general market titles from trusted friends and family, faith-based websites, and authors and publishers who align with the family’s beliefs and values.

When children have the opportunity to choose books on their own, for instance at a public library or bookstore, they will more likely measure books against the high standards of their family bookshelf.

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Ishola:There are lots of communities—both online and in-person—where families can connect with others who share this goal. The Rabbit Room is one that immediately comes to mind. But I’d also encourage parents to look up specific publishers and see what books they are publishing.

A lot of times, I think we can be a bit stuck in the past and default to buying books that we’re already familiar with or the ones we read as kids ourselves, but there is a lot of great literature being put out every year in the middle grade space. Be intentional about seeking out new authors and new stories. Be intentional about diversifying your child’s bookshelf. Go to bookstores and explore the stacks.

And maybe kids will end up introducing their parents to a few good reads.

Ishola: Middle grade books have incredible storytelling and tackle a lot of complex ideas about life. And choosing to read the genre also gives adults the opportunity to have honest and organic conversations with kids about the many issues raised in the books they love.

Rathjen: I may be biased, but I’d recommend middle grade books to any grownup. It’s not only a wonderful way to help discover books for the kids in your life, but you’re likely to find a new favorite yourself!

J. D. Peabody is the pastor of New Day Church in Federal Way, Washington. He is the author of Perfectly Suited: The Armor of God for the Anxious Mind as well as the children's fantasy series, The Inkwell Chronicles.