The Weeds and the Wheat in Children’s Literature

“These are weird, but…whatever gets kids to pick up a book,” a librarian in the children’s section said while she pulled books from a shelf and handed them to a woman in the aisle next to me. The mother had asked for recommendations for her son, and I could not help overhearing the conversation.

The librarian pointed to one trendy series after another (not the harmless variety of trendy, but the achingly deficient variety designed to push the limits on decency), passing by hundreds of literary goldmines in favor of fool’s gold. The unsuspecting mother expressed her sincere gratitude, while her child’s world was about to be filled with inane and condescending books. I pressed my hands on my forehead and expended no small amount of energy restraining myself from blurting out, “No! Stop! Not those books!”

It was none of my business, and I did not want to judge anyone—goodness knows, my own reading history is far from perfect—but I could not help feeling overwhelmingly sad for the child whose mind was made for so much more.

A prevalent modern mindset regarding children’s literature is summed up in a mantra I’ve heard many times over: “As long as they’re reading.” Or, its companion phrase, “Whatever gets them to read.”

Instead of assigning value to what is morally upright and is written with strong literary sense and style, our current culture seems to assign value to the act of reading itself, bending over backwards to make children want to read, because children choosing to read on their own is The Ultimate Goal. So publishers produce books that are immature, morally dubious, and literarily mediocre, in an attempt to lure children into reading—and then well-meaning adults offer children prizes and accolades for reading them, because “reading is good for their minds.”

We know that it is misguided to think that food, any food, no matter what it is, will promote a child’s healthy growth. Why is it a common belief that reading books, any books, no matter what they are, will be healthy for a child’s mind?

The world has been blessed with a wealth of literature that will challenge a child’s mind and steep his soul in virtue and purity. Why offer inferior books to children when so many treasures abound?

When Educators Don’t Know Better
To be honest, deep down, I know the answer—or part of it, at least. When I was younger and taught school, I wasn’t always so discerning about the books I recommended for students to read. I meant well, but I didn’t know where to look for the best children’s books. So I depended upon the publishing culture to help me select books. I went to the (apparently) obvious source: award-winners and publisher’s picks. The ones on display, front and center, with those shiny gold award emblems, must be the best ones for children to read, right?

Eventually, after I became a mother, my understanding of children’s literature improved, first by the grace of God, and then simply from reading aloud wonderful books with my own children every day. I learned more each year as the children grew. I do not claim to have perfected the art of discernment, and I am not immune to accidentally bringing home inferior books now and then. The more worthy books we read together, however, the more they lead us to other worthy books, and the easier it becomes to find them.

One of the things our family has learned is that the award-winning and popular books I once relied on so heavily are sometimes good, and sometimes not. Last month, I pulled a book from the shelf that a college professor had introduced me to long ago, a (post-1970) famous book that won a prestigious children’s book award and is commonly read in many classrooms across the country. In my teaching career more than a decade ago, it had been one of the books I assigned my students to read, though I had since forgotten much of its content. Mostly, I remembered that I had loved it, so I dusted it off and suggested reading it with my children, who agreed.

As we read this famous book aloud together, I quickly saw it in a new light. We trudged through its lackluster prose, and I had to skip a few parts that were improper. About halfway through, we quit. No one was enjoying it. It was nowhere near the quality of the books we usually read.

I shook my head at my former self and pitied the students on whom I had inflicted this book. What was I thinking back then? Truth be told, I thought it was a good book, and that the children would benefit from it. I meant well, but I was steeped in the culture, and had not been exposed to enough superior books with which to make fruitful comparisons.

I am sure that many of the parents and educators who are stuck in the cycle of sub-par books do mean well, as I did, but just are not aware of how many better options exist.

“Poison in the Sugar Plum”
Certainly, some excellent books are still being published. Still, I can’t help but wonder why books of high caliber seem to harder to find these days. Why can I count on high-quality writing so much more often when I open up a story from a century-old St. Nicholas magazine than when I open a children’s magazine from last month?

Then again, if I look into the past, I see that this problem is not an entirely new one. The temptation to produce sub-par literature for young people is one to which the character Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women fell prey in a bygone era—an era that I would have deemed to represent worthy literature far more respectful of children’s minds. (Readers familiar with my other articles will, I hope, abide my frequent references to this novel which, to me, is one of those dear old friends well worth visiting time and again.)

In order to make money, Jo falls into writing “sensation stories” for the newspaper—full of high drama, romance, calamity, mystery, and murder. “You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money,” her father tells her after reading her first published story.

Jo, however, taken with the prize money, continues to write sensation stories until she receives a wake-up call from a man she later marries, Mr. Bhaer, a wise and caring German tutor. On seeing one of the sensation stories in the newspaper—not Jo’s, but another author’s—with illustrations of “a lunatic, a corpse, a villain, and a viper,” Mr. Bhaer is disgusted.

“I wish these papers did not come into the house; they are not for children to see, nor young people to read. It is not well, and I haf no patience with those who make this harm…I would rather give my boys gun-powder to play with than this bad trash.”

“All may not be bad, only silly, you know;” Jo answers nervously, not wanting him to know she writes the same drivel, “and if there is a demand for it, I don’t see any harm in supplying it. Many very respectable people make an honest living out of what are called sensation stories.”

“If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel that the living was honest,” Mr. Bhaer replies. “They haf no right to put poison in the sugar plum, and let the small ones eat it. No; they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing.”

His words convict Jo, who later burns her stories and stops writing in that genre.

If the respectable people knew what harm they did, as Mr. Bhaer said, they might do otherwise. Once Jo realized what harm she was doing, she resolved to do better. There is harm in poisonous books, and we must not look the other way; our vigilance might help respectable people who truly do want to help children gain the courage to change their course.

Weeds and Wheat
Recognizing the disparity in children’s literature is important, but complaining does not help. When I feel indignant about children being given bad books, what am I called to do in response?

I believe one answer lies in the parable of the weeds and the wheat in Matthew 13. Jesus tells the crowds about a man who sowed good seeds in his field, but the enemy came and sowed weeds all throughout the wheat while everyone was asleep. The sower’s slaves ask whether the master wants them to pull the weeds, and he answers, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven is like this field, where the weeds and wheat grow together. Since books reflect the hearts and minds of mankind, it follows that there will remain weeds and wheat in the world of literature, just as in life. It is tempting to want to pull the weeds—to take those books off the shelves and create a library of the finest wheat—but that would not reflect our world as it is.

We cannot go back into the past, and even if we could, we would find problems in the way children were educated there, too. No copyright date represents a perfect era. Yet we can preserve the best things from the past. We cannot get a subscription to St. Nicholas magazine, but we can still read its stories with our children, thanks to publishers who keep them alive. We can hand down what is most beautiful from one generation to the next. This is the wonderful thing about the written word: When the world changes with time, the pages of a worthy book stay the same. A valuable book imparts the same goodness to readers hundreds of years and cultural eons apart.

Although I dream of a library in which only the best books line the shelves, and no inferior ones threaten children’s minds and hearts, I know that place can only exist in heaven. Perfection is not of earth. For now, the weeds can serve the purpose of showing us, by comparison, just how fine the wheat really is. The years I spent reading Sweet Valley High as a teenager helped me to more fully appreciate Little Women when I read it for the first time as an adult. The Lord has a plan for each reader, and it is never too late to mine the gems we missed in our own childhood.

I don’t mean that we should just ignore the weeds; Mr. Bhaer wasn’t silent about them, and neither were the sower’s slaves. When confronted directly with them, it is good to speak up in charity, for even though we know the weeds are not going to disappear entirely, we can still try to plant good seeds. A friend to whom I related the story about the librarian in my introduction said that in such a situation, she would wait until the librarian left, and gently recommend a good “book-list” book to the mother. The conversation between the librarian and the mother was none of my business, but maybe the Lord allowed me to overhear because it was His business, and He wanted me to help in some way. Next time, I can be more prepared.

In the end, I believe what I am called to do is to imitate the Divine Sower by sowing seeds. When we sow good seeds in the soil of our families, of our children, (and even, possibly, of strangers in the library), we plant hope for the future of the fields.

“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live,” Saint John Paul II said. Likewise, as the family’s treasured books go, so go the treasured books of the nation and so go the treasured books of the whole world in which we live.

To cultivate the wheat, we can keep reading aloud the best books with our children. Perhaps these children are future librarians or teachers. Perhaps they are future parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, who will share the favorite authors of their childhood with the generations that follow.

To keep the weeds at bay, we can also pray that the Holy Spirit grants a spirit of right discernment to all those who give books to children.

In this way, with prayer and hope, the pages of our most beloved books can be the wheat that feeds the hearts and minds of children, and sustains the beauty of the past within the wonder of the present.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Three Reading Girls,” was painted by Walther Firle (1859-1929).

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
Maura Roan McKeegan

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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.

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  • Joyfully

    Nicely done.

  • JMC

    I’ve run into those who wonder why on earth anyone would want their children to read old literature which has no bearing on their day-to-day lives and with which they cannot hope to identify. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what they need: A look at a different way. Personally, I think such peeks at the past, in some cases at least, could even be enough to start a kid looking for a better way. With the grace of God and the right parental guidance, that kid might even find it.

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