“What are you looking for, when you go through the library shelves?” a young mother asked me one day, seeing me on my knees browsing titles in the children’s section.
She wanted to know how I decide which books to pick, and I was surprised by how hard it was to find a good answer. Beautiful illustrations? A century-old copyright? A trusted, classic author? Yes to all of these, but we have also enjoyed certain books with mediocre pictures, recent publication dates, or obscure authors.
What, then, are the deeper qualities that draw me to certain books more than others? What do I look for?
Not long after that conversation in the library, I read a quote from Saint Paul and found it particularly insightful for this topic: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12).
Let No One Despise Your Youth
Saint Paul tells us to focus on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (cf. Phil 4:8). I believe it is a grave injustice to offer children books that do the opposite. To give children reading material that insults their intelligence and inhibits their moral development is to “despise their youth.”
Conversely, we act justly when we give children books that trust their intelligence, challenge them to think, form their moral character, and honor their dignity. To demonstrate how a book can fulfill these categories, I am going to use one of my favorites, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Of course, myriad other wonderful books fit the bill, too!
Set the Believers an Example in Speech
Children’s minds absorb language at a faster rate than they will ever absorb it later in life. They gain language proficiency from every word they hear and see. Yet unfortunately, many children’s books model poor language skills.
“I didn’t sleep good,” is one line in a book for first-graders; “It was the funnest morning,” reads another. “Sombody” and “anouncement” are purposely misspelled in a book for middle grades. For children who are actively learning linguistic conventions, what will be the consequences if they regularly hear and see mistakes in books without anyone correcting them?
In Little Women, the youngest sister Amy likes to use fancy words and often mispronounces them. However, the words she wrongly attempts are put in italics (“statirical,” “vocabilary”), and her mistakes are corrected by the other characters (“If you mean libel, I’d say so, and not talk about labels”), so that the young reader does not mistake them for proper words. The remainder of the book models language beautifully.
Of course, many excellent books contain dialogue that technically reflects poor language skills, because the dialogue is written in the dialect of the character (think of Huckleberry Finn). In these books, the dialect is obvious and serves a distinct and important literary purpose. On the other hand, the examples cited above demonstrate an attempt to “get down to the child’s level” with the text, attempting to draw the readers in by employing conventional language errors. The errors are so commonplace that many young readers could easily be misled by seeing them in print. Children do not need adults to reproduce and reinforce mistakes. In trying to reach children by going down to their level—a level in which emergent speaking and writing skills need strong examples and good instruction—are these books doing more harm than good?
This notion of getting down to the child’s level also fuels the philosophy that children’s books should be written with limited vocabulary and short sentences, and in such books the result is a rather stunted, dry text.
In such a book, this line from Little Women:
Jo stood aloof, meanwhile, trying to harden her heart against him, and succeeding only in primming up her face in an expression of entire disapprobation.
might instead read,
Jo stood by herself. She tried to stay angry with him, and made a face to show she did not approve of him.
Children will surprise us with the level of text they can comprehend when, rather than “reading down” to them with diluted material, we “read up” to them instead. (One note: This does not mean I expect children to read independently above their level. Giving a child a book that’s too hard and expecting him to navigate it alone runs the risk of frustrating and discouraging him. Rather, we read aloud together books that would be considered above their independent reading level. This equips them to choose more challenging books to read by themselves when they feel ready.)
When choosing children’s books, I seek ones that stimulate children’s minds with lovely language and trust them to assimilate challenging text and vocabulary. That’s not to say that we don’t sometimes read fun stories written in simple words—we do! There is a difference between simplicity and condescension in children’s books. The former is childlike; whereas the latter prevents children from growing more proficient in speech and literacy.
In the name of humor or realism, the characters in some popular books for young children use derogatory terms and exhibit attitudes I would not want children to emulate.
We do not need to resort to crude humor, vulgarity, gore, and other gimmicks in order to get children to like reading. (Authors like A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse prove that books can be brilliant and hilarious without being crude.) When they experience books that honor their God-given intelligence and natural inclination toward the good, children will feel the respect that those authors have for their capable minds.
It is, though, entirely possible for a story to include bickering and name-calling in a tasteful way. In Little Women, Amy burns Jo’s precious book, and Jo, deeply angry, calls her a “wicked, wicked girl” and says she will never forgive her. Afterward, though, Jo is consumed with remorse, and her mother tells her that she, too, struggled with anger.
“I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips;” Marmee tells her daughter, “and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked.”
And “in that sad, yet happy hour, [Jo] had learned not only the bitterness of remorse and despair, but the sweetness of self-denial and self-control; and led by her mother’s hand, she had drawn near to the Friend who welcomes every child.”
When choosing children’s books, I look for ones that set examples of right conduct and show children how to handle their own mistakes and shortcomings.
It breaks my heart to look at the typical display shelf for modern teen fiction in libraries and bookstores. Even the covers give evidence of a cultural affliction that exploits the readers’ desires for real love and exalts hollow “teen romance” in its place.
One of the many things I love about Little Women is its portrayal of authentic love in so many aspects: sisterly love, neighborly love, motherly and fatherly love, and spousal love. The story has romance, but the romance is pure and is woven into the greater fabric of family life, in its proper place. Friendly and familial loves are equally as important as romantic love, and, rather than being mutually exclusive, all strengthen one another.
After Amy married Laurie, when the two visited the March family together, “Mrs. March and her husband smiled and nodded at each other with happy faces, for they saw that their youngest had done well, not only in worldly things, but the better wealth of love, confidence, and happiness.”
“‘Love has done much for our little girl,’ said her mother softly.”
“‘She has had a good example before her all her life, my dear,’ Mr. March whispered back, with a loving look at the worn face and gray head beside him.”
When choosing books, I hope to find ones that portray an authentic vision of love and family life, shared among generations.
Not every book we read has an element of overt Christian faith. In fact, many do not. Just as the beauty of creation points to God without a specific word, so can a beautiful book point to God without explicit references to faith. We would miss out on many great books if we limited ourselves only to those that directly mention Christianity. However, in keeping with Saint Paul, I look for books that do not endanger the faith of our children. And when faith is woven into a story lovingly, without sounding forced or preachy, it is a great blessing.
On Christmas morning, the March sisters reach under their pillows to find that Marmee has left them each a copy of “that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived.” The older two treasure their books, put their cheeks together and begin to read, and the younger two follow the example of their sisters.
“I’ll help you with the hard words,” Beth tells Amy.
After they come downstairs, Marmee asks her daughters if they will give up their Christmas breakfast for their cold and hungry neighbors. The girls joyfully agree, pack the meal, and bring it to the family.
“I think,” the narrator says, “there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.”
That December 25 in the March home could have been an occasion for self-pity: Father was away at war, and in the hard winter the family didn’t even fill stockings. Yet they found contentment and joy in reading Scripture and doing a corporal work of mercy together.
When I look for books, I am grateful to find ones in which the characters’ faith is strong and inspiring, and readers can’t help but feel the peace of that faith in their own hearts.
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,” says Matthew 5:8.
A child can grow in purity through books if he encounters characters—“book friends”—who are pure of heart. This does not mean that all the books we choose are light, happy, and without conflict. What it does mean is that the lines should be clear: Virtue is good, and sin is evil. Too many children’s books blur the lines, portraying disrespectfulness as humor; selfishness as courage; foolish pride as valor. Add a funny joke to any sin, and it becomes excusable, even commendable. A pure book, on the other hand, will uphold virtue and despise vice.
“I am a selfish girl! but I’ll truly try to be better,” Amy sobs.
“I think too much of my looks, and I hate to work, but won’t any more, if I can help it,” cries Meg.
The March girls are faced with the same temptations to vanity, selfishness, laziness, and other vices as everyone else. Yet nowhere in the book do they make excuses for these vices or try to pass them off to the reader as charming quirks, as I have seen other books do. The readers receive a clear message of right and wrong; and when the characters act wrongly, both the readers and the characters know and learn from it.
When I choose books, I want to find those that present an honest picture of the battle between good and evil, and inspire children to choose the path of purity.
Why Does it Matter?
“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,” said Saint Anthony Mary Claret.
This is why choosing the right books matters so much. The best children’s books will bring life to children: Life to their minds, their hearts, and their souls. They will honor the dignity of each precious child who reads them. And they will reflect the Author who created those children and calls us to guide them, so that, like the books they read, they too may “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Mother and daughter” was painted by George Goodwin Kilburne (1829-1924).
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.