Today, I present to you a children’s book by Corinna Luyken. As is so often the case with me, it was a picture book that succinctly and delicately spoke the simple truth I needed to hear and moved me to tears.
When I saw the whimsical dust jacket with fractured text that read The Book of Mistakes propped up near our record player, my husband Chris said, “I brought you a book from the library. I thought you’d like it.” It sat there for a day or two as I hurried about with my eternal to-do list. Late one night, I remembered the lonely book and carried it to the couch. I grabbed a blanket, tucked my feet under Chris’s legs and opened the cover.
I started reading aloud, chuckling at the opening sentence and illustrations. “It started…with one mistake.” A pencil drawing of a little round face begins on the first page, and on the next, it gains a left eye that is far bigger than the right eye. The artist tries to remedy the mistake by “making the other eye even bigger, [which] was another mistake.” I laughed as I remembered many times that I’ve done the same thing, trying to “even things out” on a hand-lettering or drawing attempt and making it worse.
We turned the page and read, “But the glasses—they were a good idea.” We saw the lopsided face newly adorned with round, green glasses. With the innovation, the off-kilter eyes look like they belong to the girl on the page. They bob within the lenses, giving the impression of magnification.
The book continues. It acknowledges each mistake the artist makes. Things are drawn out of proportion. Ink splatters. Stray pencil marks skid across blank space. But the unseen artist never throws the drawing away or starts over. She comes up with new ideas and tries alternate approaches. Color blooms into the pencil drawings bit by bit—spring greens and buttercup yellows and blush pinks. The mistakes are hidden or transformed into new elements of the wardrobe or scenery, and they invite details that make the character more memorable, a tree more fantastic, the setting more magical.
On the last several pages, Luyken delivers her message in gentle groups of no more than four words coupled with a twist in the illustrations. I can’t bear to spoil the power in its brevity and beauty for you here. You must find it and read it. Or perhaps, if you’re feeling especially down on yourself, ask a trusted soul to read it to you. When Chris took over and read me the ending, tears would not stop leaking out and spilling down my face. It is not a sad end. It is a hopeful, true end. One I clearly needed to hear.
I had to stop writing this post partway through, and I picked it up again at a friend’s house. She and I have different personalities on many counts, but we have enough in common that I decided to read the book to her. She laughed at first, saying, “I love that you’re going to read me a story.” By the last few pages, she joined me in crying, looking up at me and saying, “What just happened?!” She told me a week or so later that she had purchased the book and read it with a few of her teenage counseling clients. She said they both shed tears as well and yet intriguingly took such different things from the story to apply to their lives. Good art and writing invite that.
The mistakes are hidden or transformed into new elements of the wardrobe or scenery, and they invite details that make the character more memorable, a tree more fantastic, the setting more magical. Jenna Badeker
Perfectionistic tendencies can manifest themselves differently. Some people toil at a task until it is perfect, perhaps losing perspective of what matters and the joy of the work along the way. Some withdraw from dreams and activities at which they know they aren’t perfect, or even “good enough.” Sometimes that looks like avoiding sports at all costs, and sometimes it appears as finding an excuse to once again not pick up the phone to resolve a messy conflict. Some people replay the scene of a mistake over and over in their minds until it becomes distorted and loud and inescapable. Sometimes it’s all of the above, in both big and tiny ways. At least, it can be for me.
The relentless self-critic in my head is often hard to silence. This is something I’m working on, or rather, something God is working on in me. The fear of making mistakes is certainly not from him. He invites us to create, to risk, to try again, to learn. When we shy away from potential mistakes or punish ourselves for making them, we reject God’s invitation and his story of who we are. We trade it for a poorly constructed narrative of who we were supposed to be and self-imposed expectations that were never based in truth.
I recently purchased a copy of the book for our honorary “framily” nieces and read it to each of them. In their teenage years, I am so hopeful that God will free them from the bonds of unattainable perfection that I see cropping up in their unfolding talents and endeavors. It’s funny how, when talking about the book with them, I could so easily tell them what is true. God made them fearfully and wonderfully. Only he is perfect—if they were perfect, they would not need him. It grieves him when they listen to the voice of shame in their heads that tells them how much they mess up and that they are not enough and never will be. They have freedom in Christ to live and learn and try and fail and create and innovate and get up again. At the end of all of it, they are still perfectly loved—it’s not a sliding scale based on their mistakes and successes.
It’s taking a lot of practice to tell myself what I know is true as easily as I can say it to the people I love. I’m daily working on rewiring my thoughts to repeat what God says about me instead of the sum of my mistakes.
And that’s precisely where God can use the simplicity of a children’s book to remind me.