Take Your Family to the House of Mourning: Children’s Books that Move Us

My son was hiding under the art easel so I couldn’t see him.

“Simon, come here. What are you doing?”

He shook his head, fighting back tears.

“Simon, please come here.”

He slowly crawled out of his hiding spot and walked over to me.

I brought him in close and said, “If you feel like crying, you should cry. What you’re doing is good, Simon. It’s good to be sad about death. Death is wrong.”

“It is?” he asked.

I said yes, we cried a little bit and held each other, then kept reading.

No one in our family has died recently, I’ve just been reading out loud to my six year old son from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It’s been a mixture of tears and laughter and some healthy discussions about hard topics. I’ve found the element of story to be a great way to talk about hard things with my son. Great children’s literature is wrought with deep universal topics and questions that have been shared throughout history.

Even from a young age, we can ask our children good questions to build healthy discussions about hard topics. When I’ve not avoided difficult topics, like death, loss, and racism, my son and I have bonded more. It’s crucial to listen to Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:2:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

It’s good to be reminded of our own mortality, because it humbles us to our rightful place as feeble humans, teaches us wisdom in order to number our days rightly, and helps us learn empathy for our fellow image bearers.

We don’t have to always scout out non-fiction by solely Christian authors in order to teach our children. We must not underestimate our children’s capability to absorb a story rich in ideas. Even if they don’t understand all of the concepts in the story on the first read aloud, it will become a treasure buried in their hearts and minds that can be re-discovered in various ways and connections later on. The point is to continually expose our children to these types of inspirational stories over the years of their childhood and even teenage years.

Here are a few literary stories that enable discussions over death, loss, and racism. And don’t forget that even if the discussions don’t “take off” in the ways we imagined, the main point is the exposure to the ideas in the text.

Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie

On our walk to church one morning my sons were observing and delighting in all the freshly blossomed flowers. Then we stumbled upon a dead bird. Right in the middle of new spring life was a dark death. We must all be confronted with death at some point in our lives. My sons can’t even escape this reality on an innocent walk to church.

In Peter Pan,  J.M. Barrie helps children confront death and loss through a magical and imaginative place called Neverland. A place where children never grow up and are always on an adventure. Though I’ve had to talk to my oldest son about the inappropriate names and portrayal of Native Americans in the book, we’ve laughed and cried together too.

We marveled at Peter’s Christ like sacrifice when he let Wendy have the balloon to escape from drowning. Then we cried when the rising waters of mermaid lagoon threatened to take Peter’s life, and after a bout of fear his courage returned as he cried, “To die would be an awfully great adventure!” The ticking clock of the crocodile, in constant pursuit of Captain Hook, clues us into the sure fate of us all. As J.M. Barrie says, “Time is chasing after all of us.” Hook only has so much allotted time until he is swallowed up in death. So, how should we spend the time we are given?

My son and I were able to talk about orphans when we realized Peter Pan and the lost boys had no parents and desperately desired a mother. We felt empathy for Peter as he gazed through the barred windows at the joyful family reunion of the Darling family. Especially, when we remembered his own personal loss: coming back to his nursery window from Neverland to find it closed, as he peered inside to see his parents with a new baby boy. My son and I shed our own tears at this loss of family. We felt for Peter. Entering into another’s loss, learning about time and death, and courage and sacrifice are life lessons we want to share with our children. Peter Pan can help us do this.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Wilbur the pig comes into this world with a natural human desire: he doesn’t want to die. He’s saved from eight year old Fern who wants to keep him as her pet, until he grows too big and is sold to another farm. He finds himself on death row again, but this time he’s saved from a spider named Charlotte who can weave words into her web. Her plan to rescue Wilbur works and even makes him famous in the process. Charlotte and Wilbur show us that death is a part of living, and that death teaches us how to live. As Charlotte tells Wilbur:

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.

Charlotte sacrificed her short life for Wilbur so he himself could live. A spider can show us, and our children, that life is short and we must spend it for others. And as we deal with the loss of a loved one, Wilbur teaches us that they can never be forgotten or replaced:

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry Box Brown by Sally Walker

This title is different from the first two books. It’s not an old book, like the other two, and might not neatly fit into the idea of a true “literary” read, but it still helps convey the idea of slavery to young children. It’s a picture book and tells a true story from the perspective of a slave. I’ve explained slavery to my oldest son before, but reading this book helped him see it as something more concrete and human. He felt the injustice.

Music also plays an important part in this story as Henry longs for freedom and creates his own songs in the midst of hope and despair. He is separated from his family when he is sold to another master.  But we find happiness with him as he marries and starts his own family, only to feel his loss as his family is ripped away from him and sold. He hatches a plan to hide away in a box to the north, and the desire for him to be free is born in us. There is another similar picture book about Henry Box Brown by Ellen Levine called, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad.

The right story can be a powerful tool to display truth and beauty to our children. Along the way, story teaches us to feel and to know. To know about slavery and to feel the pain of bondage and separation. To know about death and feel that we must learn to live our lives rightly. To know about loss and feel the right way to respond. In our day and time it’s more important than ever to raise up children who feel moved on another’s behalf and who desire to tabernacle among the suffering.

This originally appeared at Morning by Morning >>

The Art of Social Commentary

Why Charles Dickens should be our social commentary muse.

“Where Dickens wielded a pen, today we wield a smartphone.”

“Please, sir, I want some more.” These are the famous words of the hungry orphan, Oliver Twist. The novel, so named after the main character, is one of Dickens most popular, and if you don’t know anything about the novel, you have probably still heard those words.

But beyond simply writing and creating a great story around Oliver Twist, Dickens created him for a purpose beyond the page of a book. Twist became a form of social commentary.

Read the rest at Fathom Mag >>


Literature: What’s a Christian to do?

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Do we as Christians really need to read non-Christian literature? Can’t we just stick to the Bible and maybe a few Christian books? Wouldn’t it be better for us? Rather than to pollute ourselves with stories about adultery, witchcraft, and treachery?

Well if you say yes to that last question then you might as well burn the Bible along with all those filthy worldly fictional stories. The Bible is littered with some of the grimiest stories; stories that would have Stephen King beat. A pulp fiction novel would have to compete against the types of gritty stories found in the Old Testament.

What’s the Point?

So, we can see the logic of a Christian sheltering himself from non-Christian fiction doesn’t add up. But what’s the point anyway? Well, we as Christians believe we have meaning in life. Guess what? Much of classical and modern literature explores meaning and purpose in life. So, we have common ground in this arena. In Literature Through the Eyes of Faith: Christian College Coalition Series, by Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, they purport this concept:

“As a result, although some things are obviously of greater importance than others, everything in our experience has significance, and our attempt to discern that significance — as well as we can — is part of our calling as God’s servants.”

Literature can proclaim truth. Yes, God’s Word is the ultimate truth that we use to evaluate everything in this world. But if we have a good understanding of His Word it’ll be easier for us to discern what is truth and what is not in works of literature. How can literature show truth? Through characters, actions, dialogue, and story. We can also see truth in the beauty of well-written verse and craftsmanship, which points to the beauty of the creator craftsman and wordsmith. We can better understand ourselves, others, and our world when we read literature.

“The fact is that we never get away from stories. In and out of literature, stories tell us who are and what we might become.”Gallagher and Lundin

Why Read Literature?

This is why we read literature; even when the work is not written by a Christian author or doesn’t contain a direct Christian message. Sometimes it’s good to not try to look for a Christian message in a text and to just enjoy it for what it is. According to Gallagher and Lundin, “The ability to write and read literature is a gift from God.”  So, delight in it!

Gallagher and Lundin continue by saying, “Although as a result of sin our capacity for enjoyment is much diminished and often wrongly directed, delight is still an important part of God’s plan for us.”  In fact, Jesus came in part, to recapture that ability to feel true joy. So, we as Christians should enjoy literature and other works of art and culture as much as, if not more, than non-Christians.

We should be experts at developing art and culture as well; it’s part of being a steward. This was one of the jobs God entrusted to Adam and Eve, but they ruined it. Let us, as Christians, work hard towards redeeming art and culture on Earth now, until the day Christ fully redeems everything back to perfection. The Lord stopped and enjoyed his creation on the seventh day; he declared it was good. So, can’t we do the same?

“In acknowledging the skill of an author or the beauty of a work of literature, we praise the great Creator of the heavens and the earth. Delight in a well-crafted work of literature is a response to God.”Gallagher and Lundin

How Should We Read?

Gallagher and Lundin don’t stop at these points in their book, but go on to examine how we should read and evaluate works of literature, as Christians. They ask, ‘What happens when we read?’ and discuss the conflict of interpretations. Topics such as: the literary canon and classics are addressed, as well as modern literature, works that are for thinking and works for sheer entertainment, the question of morality, literary forms, and genres.

By reading Literature Through the Eyes of Faith you will not only grow in your understanding of literature, but grow in your understanding of God.

“The profusion of literary texts in our world represent the variety of ways, both good and flawed, that human beings have attempted to develop God’s creation and to participate in his world, whether conscious of his hand or ignorant of the true King.”Gallagher and Lundin

Classic Summer Reading: In with the Old, Out with the New

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Forget about The New York Times Bestsellers list this summer; invest your hours into some classics. There’s nothing wrong with reading popular literature, but it’s good to offer your reading palette some variety. It’s also good to be challenged.

Maybe you think the classics should stay buried in the past and aren’t relevant today. But behind the dated time periods and language are unchangeable universal themes. There are questions presented in classic literature that are still being asked today. The characters are still relatable, because they have the same inward struggles and feelings of present day people.

Many titles from the bestsellers list are inspired knowingly or unknowingly from classic authors. Today’s literature is built off of the pen of classic literature. What else can I say? They are called classics for an obvious reason: quality and timelessness, just to name a few.

Here are lightning reviews of some (emphasize some) of my favorite classic pieces of literature:

To Kill a Mockingbird

Written by Harper Lee in 1960, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is set in 1930s Alabama. A small town steeped in racism is seen through the eyes of two small children, Jem and Scout Finch. Their father, Atticus, represents in court a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Along with a host of other interesting characters, Lee explores the towns hatred and kindness and their blind irrational thoughts and behavior. Lee begins her novel portraying innocence, but progressively leads us to the climactic court scene where innocence is undone.

Fahrenheit 451: A Novel

Written in 1953 by Ray Bradbury (one of my all time favorite authors), this short novel is set in an imagined future. A future where firemen don’t put out fires, but start them. What are they burning? Books. Why? Because in Bradbury’s future world censorship is taken to the extreme.

This future world slightly resembles our present world and sends off an alarm of warning to readers. The protagonist is fireman Guy Montag who meets a 17 year old girl telling him of a past when people were not afraid. Montag then meets a professor who tells him of a future where people can think for themselves, which is exactly what Montag begins to do.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Written by Oscar Wilde in 1890, this book tells the tale of a beautiful and wealthy young man named Dorian Gray. Wilde gives us a complex look at art, morals, and beauty through his three main characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry.

The book starts off with Basil painting a portrait of Dorian. As we continue to read we find out the painting is not ordinary. In fact, it appears the painting is bound to Dorian in a supernatural way. An exchange occurred through the painting; an exchange of soul for youth and beauty. Dorian remains young and beautiful, while his inward corruptions are transferred  to the painting. The question is… how does it end in this dark and seedy tale?

Great Expectations

Written by Charles Dickens in 1861, this classic stars an orphan boy named Pip. The tale opens with Pip in the marshy mists of a village churchyard where he encounters a convict on the run. Pip then meets Estella, a snobby rich little girl who captivates Pip with her beauty. Estella belongs to the richest lady in town, Miss Havisham. A decrepit old lady who appears to be frozen in time on her wedding day and living in a run down mansion.

Estella is an unrequited love and represents all Pip can’t have, so he becomes disenchanted with his poor lifestyle and his future as a blacksmith. He longs for the life of a rich gentleman, so he can be closer to Estella. What ensues is Miss Havisham becoming the marionette puppeteer for Pip and Estella as they grow up. Pip finally does achieve the lifestyle he wants, but is haunted by his true self represented in the ghostly convict from the opening scene.