When Choosing Books for Children, Be Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

“You know,” a young student remarked thoughtfully to me one day, “a good movie is better than a bad book.”

Long after the child left, I was still pondering this comment. The knee-jerk reaction of our present culture would likely be to protest this child’s point. Literacy beats screen time hands-down…right?

On a level playing field, it does. Like many, I am wary of screens and fond of books. We do a grave disservice to children when we placate them with massive amounts of digital entertainment. Yet, is reading a book always better than watching a screen? The answer, I believe, depends not on the medium, but on the content.

Contemporary culture readily admits that children’s movies and TV shows vary in their moral content, and so we have a rating system (however flawed) in place to warn parents of the potential for offensive or mature material in a given movie or show. Most people would agree that parents have the right to make sure that their children are viewing movies that adhere to the value system of their families.

When it comes to books, however, our culture seems to turn a blind eye to quality and especially to content. After I recently wrote an article  about the common (misguided) mantra, “Whatever gets kids to read,” I was surprised to learn that many discerning parents have been scorned for exercising caution about what their children read.

The scorners adhere to a line of thinking that goes something like this: “Reading is essential for academic success and is the best possible thing a child can do with his time. We must promote literacy in every possible way. The child should be permitted to go to the library and choose any book that makes him want to read. It doesn’t matter what children read, as long as they’re reading.”

It sounds correct in the ears of a culture that sees reading as the pinnacle of education. But examined more closely, this argument is problematic. Reading, in essence, is the communication of words and ideas. Words and ideas are as capable of being either helpful or harmful on a printed page as they are in a movie, a song, a political speech, or anywhere else in life. Poor examples and moral dangers are communicable in the written word, and tragically, they inhabit the realm of children’s books.

Ten Minutes in the Library

In preparation for this article, I conducted a small experiment. I imagined that I was a child who was sent to the library for ten minutes and instructed to choose any books I wanted to check out. First, I went to the children’s section and pulled a few books; then, I went to the young adults’ section and did the same. (In order to demonstrate a point, I chose books I would normally stay away from. I suspected, but did not know for certain, what I would find inside. If I had wished to show the good in children’s literature—of which there is much—I would have chosen different books, but my intention was to convey the risks. These were easily accessible books, some prominently displayed, from a wide variety of popular series and authors.)

A cursory glance into several books for younger children revealed the following contents:

  • characters regularly using vulgar insults, and embracing sarcastic and disrespectful attitudes (without reprimand, correction, or remorse from which young readers can draw lessons)
  • books modeling incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation, without correcting the mistakes for emergent readers who learn proper (or, in this case, improper) language conventions from the books they read
  • an illustration showing a large group of children simultaneously wetting their pants to accompany a story line in which a villainous “drop of pee” steals their toilets
  • teachers and other adults in authority routinely depicted as dimwitted idiots compared with the children who enjoy making fools of them
  • imagery that normalizes violence and desensitizes young readers to its horrors
  • an episode in which a small boy attacks another character by striking him in the head with “a solid gold crucifix” that causes a bloody head gash
  • books in which occult practices are portrayed as positive forces used to defeat evil (Note: the objection here is not to the mere portrayal of the occult in books, but specifically to its portrayal as morally neutral or even a means to good ends—a dangerous lesson that blurs the line between good and evil and risks giving readers a positive and alluring view of the occult.)

A short glance through two books from the “New Releases” display aimed at high schoolers divulged, among other issues:

  • heavy use of profanity
  • frequent blasphemy
  • a detailed account of a sexual encounter between teenagers
  • a teenager fantasizing about graphic violence and watching pornography
  • a character using the worst of obscenities to describe a Catholic priest

These and other dangers can strike anywhere, from trendy pop-culture thrillers to critically acclaimed and award-winning books. Even when the warning signs are not immediately obvious upon leafing through a book, problems might emerge on a deeper reading.

Let me be clear: This article is not meant to criticize the library. I love the library. Countless wonderful books line library shelves. Those shelves, with their good and not-so-good choices, are merely a reflection of our world.

And I am not a book burner by any means; I recognize the right of authors to write what they wish to write. But I also recognize the God-given right (and responsibility) of parents, teachers, and authority figures to protect the innocence of children, to feed their minds with food that will help them to grow in intelligence and virtue.

Writers have the right to pen their books, and adults have the right to refuse to give poor literary and/or moral guides to children.

The Principle of Presumed Innocence

A rating system for movies and television shows helps many parents to screen content for their children. Why is there no rating system for books? Why does the culture seem to automatically assume that because a book is a book, it is wholesome and educational?

As author Michael D. O’Brien explains in his book, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, (attributing this idea to French writer Mona Mikaël), we have a “cultural norm of presuming children’s books are always innocent, and the principle of innocence is beyond suspicion.”

Yet, as O’Brien quotes Mikaël, “in the last forty years the Western mass culture has seen a crescendo of unrelenting horror stories, including children’s material that has long lost its innocence.”

The holy innocence of a small child is the joy of heaven. So it makes sense that the enemy of heaven would enter every possible door in order to corrupt this innocence. Parents who stand guard at the door of digital media might not realize that the enemy is entering through the back door of children’s books—an arena that the general public lauds as being above reproach.

“Just read a book. Any book,” the culture says to a child. And I understand the thought behind it all too well.

When I was a classroom teacher (years ago, before I had children of my own), I operated in this mindset. I required children to read books of their own choosing, and the only books I refused to approve were books that were too far below the child’s level. Otherwise, as long as it was challenging enough, I didn’t weigh the content. Perhaps I figured their parents would be monitoring that end. (Perhaps their parents thought I would be.) Reading level mattered; moral code didn’t. After all, they were children’s books, and the children had either checked them out of the library or received them from their parents, so how could they be anything other than educational?

One day, a student came to me. He had borrowed one of the books from the bookshelf in my classroom.

“Miss Roan,” he said sheepishly, “this book has bad words in it.” I took the book from him and was aghast to confirm his claim. The book had been in the classroom library since before I had worked there, and I had never thought about checking the books on the shelf. I’d just assumed that because they were children’s books in an educational environment, they were safe. I still cringe at the memory. Sometimes, vigilance is hard learned.

Sheep in the Midst of Wolves

So, can we rightly say that a child who reads a book is always doing something better than a child who watches a movie? No, as that wise child once said to me—not if it’s a good movie versus a bad book. Will limiting screen time help children to choose reading? Yes, absolutely. But an honorable movie is better than a poisonous book.

Although it might seem like these threats are unique to our day and age, Scripture reminds us that the world has not been without the danger of evil since the Garden of Eden. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus warns his disciples to be vigilant.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves;” He tells them, “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” There are wolves everywhere, and the world of children’s books is no exception.

At first, Jesus’ warning to be wise as serpents might seem puzzling. Ever since Eden, the serpent has been a symbol of evil, of the enemy who tempts us against God. Why would God want us to be wise as the enemy? But if we think about it in another way, it makes more sense: The serpent is wise in the ways of evil. To be wise as a serpent, then, is not to be like the enemy, but to know the enemy’s tactics, to be aware of his tricks, to not allow ourselves to be fooled into complacency.

At the same time, Jesus says to be innocent as doves. Parents and educators who wish to guard children’s innocence must be wise as serpents about the dangers that abound in children’s books, and innocent as doves in surrounding children with better books.

We must be wise as serpents in a culture that says literacy is more important than morality. Literacy is a precious gift; our children’s souls are even more precious. There is no reason that children cannot have the best of both worlds: Good morality coexists with good literature in myriad books.

We must be innocent as doves when we confront the misguided notion that strong literacy means nothing but the ability to read books. If a child can read a line strung with obscenities, does it contribute toward the goal of literacy? If he can read a line filled with poor grammar, a bathroom joke, a graphic account of violence, or a derogatory insult, is this the literacy for which we strive? The remedy for this plight is a renewed devotion to innocence.

It is important to remember that the motivation behind this vigilance is love. We are not compelled by any personal animosity toward the author. As O’Brien says, “Despite everything we might find objectionable…we cannot presume to judge an author’s motives.” Only God can do that. We are, however, compelled by a loving desire to give our children what is best for them, and this includes giving them literature that nourishes the mind and spirit.

Doing the Best We Can

Just because I write about these goals does not mean I am perfect in implementing them. If an inappropriate book slips under the radar, all is not lost. We can only do our best and pray for grace, recognizing that although perfection is impossible, God will bless our efforts.

And while discernment is essential, not every book with problematic content needs to be abandoned. Some types of problems can become teachable moments if we read the book aloud together, keeping in mind that children must not be left to navigate murky waters alone, without the guidance of truth.

I’m not saying that every book we give children must be intellectually rigorous (though I do think we should never underestimate the ability of a child’s capable mind to understand challenging books, and regularly read aloud from the classics); there is a time and place for light, fun reading as entertainment.

Nor am I saying that we must all read overtly Christian books; many worthy books do not contain overt references to Christianity but still impart truth and virtue. And I do not mean that every book must be happy and peaceful, either; conflict in books can help children understand the spiritual battle we are in, when the moral sphere is represented accurately.

At the very least, any book we offer children should model decent writing that doesn’t mislead or degrade children with careless errors, immature jokes, derogatory references, or spiritually dangerous lessons.

I am also not suggesting that children should have no choice in what they read. Rather, they should have plenty of choices within the parameters set by a discerning adult. Instead of giving children unrestricted reign of the library, parents can provide a selection of worthy books (there is no shortage!) from which the children can then be free to choose.

A World of Literary Hope

Thanks be to God, we live in a world with great literary hope. Many wonderful authors the world over have contributed to a huge treasury of beautiful children’s books. When we sit together in our homes each day and read aloud wonderful books that honor the dignity of our children, literacy becomes a lesson in love.

And these books are not hard to find. Those ten minutes that we might have given children to find books in the library can become ten minutes of exploring good book lists and ordering titles from inter-library loan. (For those wondering where to begin: Michael D. O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons is an excellent resource that contains a good, long book list. If you’re looking for online lists, many that espouse Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of “living books” will be helpful, such as this one—with the caveat that I cannot 100% guarantee every title.)

As the serpent is the symbol of the enemy we are fighting, the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, our protector and guide on this journey. May the Holy Spirit pour out His wisdom upon us, so that all children will be given the chance to read books that nurture their minds, hearts, and souls.

Children are made in the image of God. They will feel most at home, safe, comfortable, understood, and loved when they read books that echo the innocence, purity, and truth of the Creator in whose image they were made.

“A child whose innocence has been preserved through good instruction is a treasure more precious in God’s eyes than all the kingdoms of this world.”
–St. Anthony Mary Claret

Maura Roan McKeegan

By

Maura Roan McKeegan lives in Steubenville, Ohio, with her husband, Shaun, and their four children. She is the author of the children’s picture books Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016), and The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2014), which are the first two books in a series introducing children to biblical typology. Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, Crisis, Guideposts, Franciscan Way, Lay Witness, and My Daily Visitor.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Jane Ellen Hautanen

    What about books about feces, flatulence etc? I know these are normal functions and kids (and sometimes adults) find them funny but gee, do we need to encourage it?

MENU