I spend a lot of time reading books to my three little ones. Some days my throat grows hoarse from reading lengthy Beatrix Potter books to them, only to find my children waving yet another hardcover book in front of my face with pleading eyes. Eventually, supper must be cooked, and I gather up the books back onto the shelves for another day.
After reading a book like Potter’s, I can’t help but marvel at the wonder and imagination hardwired into her. She must have looked at nature with eyes wide open and a mind twirling with questions and what-ifs. What if a dog and a cat operated a dollhouse store? What if a poor and sickly tailor discovered mice had finished the sewing project he had begun? What if there was a mouse who was tidy and particular about her little burrow?
I remember thinking that way as a child. I watched a mallard and his mate swim in the pond and believed they not only mated for life but also worked together each year to plan and raise their young. I imagined my horses forming friendships with one another. I saw birds fight for a spot in the bird feeder and made up conversations for them.
As I grew, that kind of wonder and imagination faded from view. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be: the turn to adult things? There’s a real world out there, and you can’t be preoccupied looking for love stories between toads. Get good grades in every class and start thinking about what you want to be when you grow up—and it better not be an author with her head in the clouds.
As a little girl, I faced my nightmares and trials through imagined stories, but as I grew up, I became weary and cold-hearted as I distanced myself from those stories—both the ones in my head and the ones in books. I traded in my fiction for commentaries, theology textbooks, and Bible studies. And while those are good things, I lost something in that trade-off: wonder and child-likeness.
What started to bring me back? Kidlit, like Beatrix Potter’s books. But not just any kidlit—good, true, and beautiful children’s books. How do we know the difference? First, we must understand childlikeness and childishness.
Childlikeness Versus Childishness
When reading kidlit, we may wonder: Am I moving towards childlikeness or childishness? I learned the difference between these two categories from a pair of homeschoolers.
Two years ago, I had a two-year-old son and newborn twin boys, so my in-laws hired two homeschooled sisters to help me throughout the workweek with feeding babies, changing diapers, and staying on top of housework.
One was a storyteller like me. She wrote entire novels, short stories, and poetry, and she wanted to try her hand at nonfiction as I had done for the past several years. As I helped her learn to write for Christian nonfiction publications, she reminded me of the beauty of stories again. As I read her stories and listened to her talk about them, I felt the wonder I had pushed aside for so long begin to swell again. She had a dream to write novels, and she hadn’t allowed “reality” to crush it.
The younger sister, despite the suffering she had seen as well, still carried an untameable joy. I loved listening to her as she talked about climbing trees and watched her make imaginative games with my toddler. I saw something in them that I didn’t see in other teens their ages; they had remained childlike without being childish.
What is childlikeness? The childlike person stands firm in who they are, , not pretending to be someone else to impress others. Those who are childlike play with little kids, even if it means looking silly. They can laugh at themselves when the twins puke down the back of their shirts. They trust in God’s goodness even when everyone else shakes their heads cynically. They find beauty even in the most aesthetically displeasing places.
I’m still learning this from them, and I’m also learning it through children’s authors like Potter. I’m trying to look at the world with the eyes of a child to see the stories, the beauty, and the jungle gym before me. Most children have yet to be jaded by this world, and good fiction written for children helps us regain that innocence.
Choosing the Right Kind of Kidlit
Good fiction truly captures the real child experience. On the Worthy podcast, young adult and middle-grade author K. B. Hoyle laments the state of YA books in recent years, and how many of them have become about adults in teenage bodies. These kinds of books fail to capture the wonder that should be found in those books. Again, they embody that childishness that’s trying to fill out adult clothing too soon rather than a childlike quality that’s working toward maturity.
As adults, we need the former because we’ve grown jaded and weary of this world. We need to be reminded again of what it’s like to hope and dream, to look up at the sky with innocence instead of cynicism. When they tried to wave the little children away, Jesus told his disciples to let them come to him because “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14–15). This is a call to receive Jesus’ gift of salvation with unhindered joy and faith. When suffering makes us bitter and cold-hearted, we must find ways to renew our hearts and minds. When we’re becoming more downtrodden, maybe kidlit can help spark that light for us again.
Kidlit also harnesses the power of humor and levity. As cynical, weary adults, we take on a solemnity and seriousness that can make us feel heavy and dead. But children’s authors, especially those writing for children and middle-grade readers, must approach their writing with some levity. Their prose must have a lightness to it, and it thrives even more with witty or even silly humor. Some of our beloved and tattered books are both beautiful and hilarious—like The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter.
As we get older and more hardened by life, this part of childlikeness becomes less natural. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy:
Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man “falls” into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky … It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do … For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
With such a natural disposition towards solemnity, we need to make room for books that cultivate this gaiety in us as they draw light into our lives. To move from cynicism and bitterness, we all need not just a bit of wonder and an eye for beauty, but a heart that can laugh. This is the life God created for us: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart” (Ps. 97:11). As believers, we have much to be joyful about, and we know laughter is a gift from God. Do we want others to see a dreary or joyful faith? I wonder if kidlit can help lighten our heavy hearts so we can better embody the joy God has given us.
Kidlit for All Ages
Some of you may not have grown up with a love for reading. Maybe you weren’t exposed to many books—whether good or bad. Perhaps all you remember of reading is being forced to consume dreadful books in school for assignments. You might feel like you’ve missed out.
When it comes to choosing literature for children, Leslie Bustard writes in Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, “A steady diet of dumbed-down stories, illustrations, and conversations will not prepare them for all the glorious ways words can be used in times of joy and delight and in times of sorrow and suffering” (p. 9). She goes on, “These young image-bearers of God will be formed by many, many things. Therefore, we must provide the children in our lives with words, conversations, and stories that will plant the seeds of abundance in their hearts and minds … And with these seeds growing in their lives, our children will have deeper roots to draw from in how they love, think and speak” (p. 11). We need to do the same for ourselves; we can change the relationship we had with books and find wonder and formation in the kidlit we missed out on.
As you’re rounding out your book list for the new year, don’t feel ashamed for sticking some middle- grade or young-adult books on your list. If you’re a mom or daycare worker reading countless books to little ones, keep your eyes open to the pages. Don’t zone out through the familiar and simple words, but engage your own mind and heart with these pieces of literature. All good kidlit offers something timeless, true, and beautiful to all ages.