Children’s Literature: Wisdom for the Ages

Often after a child innocently utters a poignant truth folks will say, “Out of the mouths of babes…” and their eyes glow under the warmth of truth. Recently while washing a pot caked with last night’s rice, I overheard my mother reading an old timey book to my kids.  Lois Lenski’s The Little Fire Engine, written almost 60 years ago, was one I’d neither read nor heard of before that morning. Yet it contained prophetic truth. Therefore, I began recalling the many children’s books that teach simply and directly while enchanting an audience of small children and evesdropping moms.

My mother kept reading about a “too small fire engine” and I thought about Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa said to do small things with great love. Yet most of us, driven by pride, would rather hit a game winning grand slam than bunt a team mate around 2nd base. St. Therese of the Child Jesus taught her “Little Way” of perfection and became a great saint by living a hidden life of prayer and small, unseen acts of service to her sisters. Yet, some mornings I resent the endless rhythm of spreading peanut butter over seven sandwiches. I grumble as I wipe the same patch of countertop again and again throughout the day. I whine when loading and unloading small children into the “activity shuttle”, my 15 passenger Chevy Express, repeatedly during an afternoon.

As I continued scrubbing stubborn rice kernels from the pot, I listened to the story about a too small fire engine who wanted to extinguish huge flames. Puffed with pride, he refused to listen to his mentor. Because he was little he got burned, through hubris, when he tried to extinguish a big blaze. Finally he understood his calling. “I’m a little engine. I’ll fight sparks!” And so he did. And successful he became. My heart softened to those recalcitrant rice kernels. They soaked and softened while I listened and scrubbed. Only now I scrubbed in peace.

During that entire day I pondered the truths and morals found in children’s books. A children’s classic I enjoy is Corduroy by Don Freeman. In this story young readers meet a little girl, Lisa, who saves her money until she finds something worthwhile to purchase. She settles on a stuffed bear, Corduroy. Despite his worn appearance, she tells him, “I like you just the way you are.” Lisa settles him into a home that is not a palace like the department store, but rather a home prepared just for him. 

Our heavenly father is like Lisa. He planned our salvation for generations. Finally, He sent His only son, Jesus, who bought us for the price of His life.  Jesus tells us “in my father’s house there are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.” I’ve read Corduroy to my kids over the course of almost 20 years. Yet, only today, as I continue to ponder the wisdom written for young hearts, have I made this connection with Corduroy and Lisa. God continues to help parents grow in grace even as they remain childlike.

I love all of Virginia Lee Burton’s stories. In fact, I read The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Katy simply to inspire me. In The Little House I remember to accept God’s will for me each day. He has a plan for my life. Perhaps I’ll face the exile of a grimy city before he relocates me to paradise on Earth. Mike Mulligan reminds me to be a loyal team player. Katy inspires me to work hard against the odds. Proverbs speaks to all these virtues. I’m sure Mrs. Burton knew them well. She created lighthearted stories to warm the hearts of young and old alike.

Classic children’s literature continues to inspire the child in parents each night as a pair of readers snuggles under a blanket. Also, the books we loved as children may reveal something about our adult personality. For instance, early in our relationship I discovered that The Little Engine that Could was my husband’s favorite children’s classic. My husband is a positive, optimistic man. I barely remembered that story. Tootle (written by Gertrude Crampton), a story about an independent locomotive who frolics off the rails, was my favorite childhood book. Even at Parris Island (USMC boot camp) my DI would scream, “We don’t need no individuals in my Marine Corps, Pvt. Bettis!!” I now wonder if Tootle shaped my character. That said, Tootle does learn to “stay on the rails no matter what” if he wants to become a Flyer, an elite engine.

Many excellent children’s books have been written over the years. My home library contains hundreds of titles. Classic children’s literature, with its simple story lines, nurtures a child’s soul while entertaining. A child’s innocence incubates Truth. Golden Books simply turn up the heat. 

Indeed, “out of the mouths of babes” becomes  “off the pages of children’s books… poignant truths”. I’m feeling cozy already.

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  • Cooky642

    As a child (shortly after the invention of the printing press), I nearly wore the hard-backed cover off of “Clara Barton: Nurse”. Guess what I grew up to be? (Well, almost: a certified Medical Assistant.) My oldest daughter loved “The Pokey Little Puppy”: she’s my “team player”. The youngest wouldn’t put down “Make Way for Ducklings”: she’s my independent, go-your-own-way kid. Books DO impact our lives in ways we can’t foresee. It’s too bad that my grandchildren are too busy with their Game Boys to enjoy a good story.

  • CherylDickow

    Two summers ago, at the age of 48, I picked up my beautiful hardbound copy of “Anne of Green Gables” and was transported to a place that I loved. It is so true that excellent children’s books can actually help us as we raise our children. Today, more than ever, we need to get great books into the hands of our children so that we can counteract anti-Catholic messages and non-stop violence in the media unlike anything we ever experienced. After having read this article I have to go get Corduroy to add to my shelves because at 50 I am now collecting books that, God willing, my future grandchildren will enjoy.

    And I can’t resist to suggest the “All Things Girl” series to every parent or grandparent wanting the young girls in their family to embrace the Truths of being a daughter of the King. The books are all available on the CE bookstore page and are a beautiful way to help support CE while also giving a great gift for Christmas!

    Advent blessings.

    The titles are:

    Friends, Boys, and Getting Along
    Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…What is Beauty, After All?
    Girls Rock!
    Modern and Modest
    ATG Journal for Prayers, Thoughts, and Other Important Things

  • Warren Jewell

    One is never too old to be his or her own child of God. He did not make us to be any kind of ‘stuffy’, busy adult, but a child-like and ‘uncluttered’ adult – really, a growing child never adult until heaven.

    My late wife, Sharon, specialized in being but God’s child, and it is one of those things that I miss most about her. And, realizing my deprived upbringing, Sharon had me read aloud from childrens’ books to our daughter, Heléna, every night from about six months old to eight years old. A number of nights found the two of my ladies on either side of me, hugging me as I stumbled, voice breaking with tears, touched by the spirit, beauty and wonder of the actions of the persons of the stories.

    And, did you realize that the Prophets wrote childrens’ literature? I remember first encountering as a lector, not just a private reader, this from Isaiah:
    “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
    and the government will be upon his shoulder,
    and his name will be called
    “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
    (Isaiah 9:6)
    And, all I could hear in my head was Handel’s Christmas chorale of the Messiah and – I broke at the lectern. Isaiah tells a child’s story of the triumph of God in His Son, our Prince of Peace, and I went on in gratified tears. In His Spirit, His beauty, His wonder, I was touched to the bottom of my heart.

    In spite of it all, I am still too much stuffy-adult and not enough God’s-little-princeling. It is as such a child of His that He comes near molding the masterpiece He would make of me. I am grateful that the Lord Creator never gives up on His most and best-beloved creatures; grateful, for Sharon and Heléna; grateful for the writers of children’s literature.

    In them, these books reflect just how much God loves the child He has in each one of us, and just how we must be so His child to enter His Kingdom.

  • How about “Marco and the Tiger” (written by James Foster, a Catholic); “Follow My Leader,” with its messages of courage and forgiveness; “The Yearling”; “Tuck Everlasting”; and of course the “Wrinkle in Time” trilogy and the Narnia series? I maintain that many children’s books (and I would include many children’s movies too) are some of the finest pieces of work produced by our culture.

    I like to reflect on the fact that Mary, according to some Biblical scholars, was about 15 when the Annunciation occurred; and of course Jesus started out as a little baby. The Gospel begins with two children. “Blessed are you, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, for the things you have hidden from the wise and the learned you have revealed to the merest children.”

  • elkabrikir

    PrairieHawk: Amazing that you mention “Follow My Leader”. My 5th grade teacher read that to us in 1974. I finally found a copy for my own children several years ago. It made a huge impact on my life for the reasons you stated.

    I’ll look for “Marco and the Tiger”.

    Oh! I stumbled on a Catholic Children’s detective series this fall written by John Bellairs. My own 10 year old Johnny loves the Johnny Dixon Mysteries. A real find!