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Tuesday, February 16, 2010
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light. - Plato
As a father who loves to read to my five-year-old daughter and can't wait to do so with my nearly two-year-old son (once he figures out the whole sitting-still-for-more-than-6.8-seconds thing), one obvious question that I need to answer on occasion (both for myself and for curious friends) is "what type of literature can they handle?" And I not just referring to literary vocabulary. Clearly, one can't read Crime and Punishment to a three-year-old because the words alone would lose him like Hansel and Gretel in the forest. But what about the content of that same Dostoevsky book? Even if a child can understand the words, are the "thematic elements" (as the movie rating industry might call them) too "adult" for him? I know plenty of parents who would answer with a resounding "yes."

But is the answer that clear-cut? Recently, I've been reading to my daughter the first in the 100 Cupboards trilogy by N.D. Wilson (Pastor Doug Wilson's son). We're not far enough into it yet to get an idea of where exactly the story is going to take us (my guess is some Narnia-like land), but I am willing to bet that, like the books of Aslan, this trilogy will have some dark moments in it. Isn't it interesting that the classic "children's" literature is ripe with dark plot lines (Dickens, anyone?), while much of today's kid lit is bereft of anything remotely bordering on truly sinister or foreboding?

For my part, I can't wait to read The Lord of the Rings to my kids and, when the time comes, watch the Peter Jackson film versions of the Tolkien trilogy with them (movies are a slightly different animal, as they can overwhelm a child's imaginative capacities). Kids need to know that the world is dark at an early age rather than pretend everything is just Santa Clauses and Popsicles til junior high. N.D. Wilson expands on this point here, saying that the difference between children's and adult literature should be that the truth is just deeper, that adult lit just adds "more dragonflies."
Sure, there are many authors out there who see a children’s book as an opportunity to wise some kids up to the heady ways of the adult world (issues, after all, are important, and future important people should grapple with them at a young age). These adult types want kids to face the Truth, and the Truth is hard. The world is hard and not necessarily interesting... Kid, you’ve seen the world now; I’ve shown it to you in this fine piece of award-winning fiction. Now you know that insurance companies are out to get you, and your sick grandmother and only you can save the wetlands. Or not. Have fun in high school.

On the other hand, the bestseller lists are crowded with kids’ books featuring dragons and vampires and dwarves and many, many comic variations on Tolkien’s creatures and characters. (To say nothing of all the happy, happy endings.) And if you push against this type of fiction for children, you’ll get some very grandmotherly defenses.

A few examples from my own pushings:

It’s important to preserve this time of innocence.

We need to water young imaginations.

What’s wrong with dreaming?

Some kids need to escape (especially when they’re getting beat up at school).

(And variations . . .)

I agree with all of this, but there’s an undercurrent to it that I dislike. The assumption is that kids don’t need/can’t handle the truth. They need some time to be happy before they discover how much the world sucks and/or how boring it really is. Lie to the kids now, and they will look back on it fondly later. (Santa anyone?)

I don’t want to lie to kids. Ever. I don’t want to lull them to sleep before the real world wakes them up with a head slap and a wet-willy in the ear sometime during adolescence. I like the hard-nosed commitment to Truth and The Real that I see in some of my issues-driven colleagues. And I like the joy and the happiness and the thrill that is woven into the work of many others.

The two belong together.

I write kids’ books because I can tell the Truth, and the Truth is that The Real is throbbingly fantastic... I want them to get a world vision that can grow and mature and age with them until, like all exoskeletons, it must be cast aside—not as false, but as a shallow introduction to things even deeper and stranger and more wonderful (and involving more dragonflies).

It is because I try to write this way that I use so much darkness. Evil is more than a prop. True sacrifice is not a sleight of hand. Laughter in the face of adversity is the first step to profound joy in triumph.
C.S. Lewis wrote truth for the young, and he wrote truth for the old. The weave is finer in That Hideous Strength than in Narnia, but the truth and the ingredients are the same in both. That apple pie hasn’t lost its savor, and it continues to feed me even when I’m not reading, when I’m walking beneath a row of maples or climbing a hill or slaving on a project . . . when I’m writing.
The Bible routinely is the victim of people deciding to "kidify" it. Rather than tell the whole story of David and Bathsheba (leaving aside details they wouldn't understand), many children's Bible storybooks settle for "David was bad, God was mad" or don't tell the story at all rather than spend the time explaining why a just God would kill a child because of the sin of his father. Avoid those messy stories, and you may get a son or daughter who grows to find Brian McLaren quite appealing. Avoid the Truth of life, and your child will get one big "wet-willy" sooner than later. Be willing to tackle the dragon of life straight on and slay it with honesty rather than escapism.

Read hard children's books to your kids, and read them to yourself as well. As C.S. Lewis once said,
No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty... The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.


Chris A said...

Yeah, I know what you mean by the tendency for publishers to "kidify" the Bible for children. The few Christian children's books my kid has are worthless, and she doesn't like them.

My daughter is 5 also, and while my reading to her usually consists of random children's books of any sort, we do discuss God and Jesus quite a bit. Early on when I started telling (not reading) her stories, I would alternate between stuff like the Three Little Bears and stories about Jesus and other Bible characters. But I am always clear to say that the biblical story is a true one. She understands about heaven, but I have not taught her much about hell yet. I think she's ready for it, though, and I have always told her about evil people so she has a basic understanding of the concept. Its difficult to know exactly how far to go, and I think every kid is different.

My wife wants to shield my daughter from things I simply will not. My wife didn't like my doing this, but I told my kid that Santa Clause is a lie that adults tell kids, and lying is wrong. I told her that if kids at school talk about Santa, she can tell them that its a lie that their parents are telling them. And I also told her that my own parents and grandparents lied to me about it.

I think teaching kids about lying is much more effective if lies are identified as such. You can't tell a kid not to lie and fail to point out lies if you want them to understand the seriousness of it. When I see Obama lying on TV, I say, "He's telling lies." I don't shield her from that. I don't speak toward him in a hateful manner, but I let it be known that a lie is a lie is a lie no matter who tells it, and no matter how harmless it may appear to some.

Okay, I think I got on the edge of one of my tangents again...but its true anyway.

Darius said...

Yeah, I have struggled with what to do with Santa since it was something that I enjoyed as a kid even though it was understood that he wasn't real. I think parents should do Santa stuff with a wink and a nod... the kids know that it's really the parents putting out the gifts, but at the same time play along.

If you want a good couple Bible storybooks, check out the Jesus Storybook Bible and the Big Picture Story Bible. The Jesus Storybook one is particularly good at pointing everything back to Christ, which is what the Bible is all about anyway.

Chris A said...

I'm going to have to [strongly] and respectively disagree with you on that Santa thing. Santa is a lie from the devil based on pagan legend! It detracts from the real meaning of Christmas. I'm not a holiday person per se, and it wouldn't bother me not to celebrate Xmas at all, but I'm not going to share Jesus' birthday with a lie.

And I know first hand that all kids don't believe that the parents are putting out the gifts. When I was a kid I literally convinced myself that Santa was really Jesus because, I reasoned, who else would be able to go all over the world and give presents to every kid?

Teaching kids to believe lies about preternatural characters is a surefire way to prepare them for abandoning the spiritual principles you teach them. Once they find out that some of what you teach is a lie, they'll wonder what else you lied to them about.

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Darius' book montage

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables

Darius Teichroew's favorite books »