A number of years ago I took part in a discussion called “Our Favorite Childhood Books” with a group of church educators in Russia. Most had been raised in typical Soviet families — unchurched and nominally atheist — and had read the standard children’s books that were carefully censored by communist party ideologues. Yet when asked whether they saw any connection between their Christian faith as adults and the books they had read in childhood, many with tears told how their love for the good, for the beautiful, for nature, as well as their desire to live honestly, had been kindled by those supposedly atheist children’s books. They discovered a close connection between those books and their adult faith.
As a child, due to a lazy eye that caused double vision and an astigmatism, I was a poor reader. Kick the can and capture the flag suited me best. But my grandmother and my mother read books aloud to me. My grandmother loved Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” In sixth grade when I stayed home from school with measles my mom read me “The Wind In the Willows.” The creatures delighted me, especially Mr. Toad whose braggadocio songs made me laugh so hard I memorized them.
I acquired a love for reading after awakening to the reality of God at age 18. Later, as a young father and a pastor, desiring to bring up my children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” I read my young daughters Bible stories and recited psalms with them at bedtime. They took part gladly, but I sensed something was missing. I read the book “Children’s Literature for All God’s Children” by Betty Miller and Virginia Thomas (WJKP 1986). I became convinced that children’s fiction helps construct bridges between three rather disconnected worlds: the world of children, the world of adults and the world of biblical faith.
As I result, seemingly for the first time at age 33, I entered the amazing world of children’s stories. That’s how kings and queens, princes and princesses, dragons and goblins, unicorns and dwarves, hobbits, beavers and fawns joined into our family dialogue with Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Elizabeth, Mary, Paul, John and Jesus. The dialogue of faith grew richer for us all.
Many great children’s books preach the Gospel between the lines. They bear witness to Christ through art and culture in a language accessible to kids. They teach children “how to refuse the evil and choose the good,” in ways that delight and inspire.
Many people intuitively grasp the connection between a child’s emerging faith and the hearing of good children’s stories.
Reading stories helps ground our children deeply in their native language. It allows them to become intelligent readers of God’s written word. Reading fiction stories suited to their age along with the Scriptures makes the pilgrimage of faith delighting and exhilarating. Wasn’t it a child’s voice St. Augustine heard calling him, “Take and read!”
Donald Marsden is an associate director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. From 1997-2008 he served as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Russia, where he founded Narnia Center, a center for publishing children’s books and training leaders in ministry with children and youth.