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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