(Note: Betsy and I are indebted to Ethan Pettit, librarian and Children’s Literature professor from Covenant College, who enlightened us so much in seeing Christ in literature and taught us to discern Truth and Story.)
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…”
Psalm 24:1 (ESV)
This verse applies to books and readers, too. This is the foundation of why we read to the glory of God, because we have Him to thank for excellent literature.
What are we at Redeemed Reader looking for when we read? Above all, TRUTH and STORY.
God is a God of words.
God uses words to reveal Himself. The Word was made flesh. He spoke and created all things, including language and narrative and meaning. When Solomon was a young ruler in I Kings 3, God offered him anything he asked for. Instead of riches or long life, Solomon sought an understanding heart and the ability to discern between good and evil.
Is this not what we would have for our children, that they would clearly see the world without compromising right and wrong, that they would be attracted to characters worthy of admiration and imitation?
At Redeemed Reader, we like to emphasize TRUTH compared with “truth” and STORY compared with “story” to distinguish superior examples of literature from the mediocre. How do we define these terms?
There are two ways of looking at Truth in literature. TRUTH in bold letters refers to God’s Truth, what the Bible calls wisdom, manifested in creation as God has ordained it. Any time we find beauty, goodness, order, hope, light, loving one’s neighbor, good triumphing over evil, forgiveness and redemption, we see TRUTH. Our hearts rejoice because we were made to love what God loves.
We find examples of TRUTH in picture books like Last Stop on Market Street, Heckedy Peg, Horton Hears a Who!, and Yellow and Pink as well as in novels like Strawberry Girl, The Miraculous Season of Edward Tulane, The Season of Styx Malone, and The Wednesday Wars. TRUTH is also evident in Charlotte’s Web because the themes of friendship, loyalty, and sacrificial love are so powerful, in spite of unrealistic talking animals.
Books with “truth” in quotation marks includes concept books, seek-and-find type books like I Spy and traditional or series nonfiction like The Magic Treehouse. These books are still valuable to young readers and are harmless, they just don’t nourish the soul.
Many trite books consisting of “truth” are found on seasonal and celebrity displays at local bookstores. Still harmless, but not especially valuable. Although they’re heavily promoted by marketing departments, they aren’t requested by children as read-alouds because they contain nothing of a child’s real experience or character growth.
Half-truths and falsehood can be masked as “truth” in books claiming that there is no real goodness in the world and there are no trustworthy allies among adults. Recently there has been an explosion of picture books promoting political agendas such as feminism and gender issues which are contrary to what God’s reveals in Scripture, so they are WAY down on the “truth” end of the axis.
That’s how we compare TRUTH and “truth.” Now let’s talk about STORY and “story.”
STORY is a classic narrative that has the power to represent either TRUTH or “truth” to people of all times and any places or cultures with unity, persuasiveness, conviction and memorability. These are the stories that really have power. They linger with you, and you just have to share them with others in order to enhance your own delight. These timeless themes are often found in folklore because they are worthy of being inherited from one generation to the next. What is the greatest story ever told on earth? The incarnation of Christ!
If you are a teacher who must address social issues such as bullying and kindness, would you rather read an informative brochure titled “How to deal with bullying,” or The Three Billy Goats Gruff? If the kids misbehave, you could remind them of the class rules listed on the wall (which is certainly appropriate), but you could also read them Miss Nelson is Missing! in an ominous tone and maybe plant a dramatic mask for someone to find.
How about a lesson on “Be nice to the kid who’s different and sitting next to you?” Well, you could plan that, or you could read Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, Adrian Simcox does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, The Watcher by Nikki Grimes, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, or Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan. These books show possible outcomes to ones’ actions through either the repentance or remorse of the main character.
Recent trends in nonfiction have turned bland narratives into engaging literature such as The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Fallout by Steve Sheinken, or The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman.
“story” fails to achieve classic value or status. It doesn’t hold together. It isn’t persuasive. The author lacked conviction, and the writing just isn’t memorable. Where a story fails to realize its potential, the fault is likely to be in some aspect of the narrative, its meaning, or its truth. Even if the story is READ with care and skill, even if it contains essential TRUTH, “story” still falls short in some way. Although such stories are too readily available in bookstores, libraries and dollar stores, sadly this is also true of many inspirational picture books and novels. In trying too hard to communicate TRUTH, the author’s care in storytelling falls short of richness, beauty and depth.
Some books are cheated of greatness when something beautiful is simplified, rendering it mediocre. This is common in fairy tales and franchised “new adventures of” popular characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Clifford, Curious George, Little Bear, etc.
In the Thomas the Tank Engine original stories the characters are more engaging and well-rounded. Trains who misbehave are corrected, and train-lovers can pick up a lot of interesting information about historic rail lines in England. Modern picture book and easy reader versions sacrifice rich language for controlled vocabulary which is no delight to read and loses a STORY worth listening to.
Unfortunately, well-meaning adults forget that beautiful words are powerful and that children love to hear them, regardless of age. Books that contain “story” in quotation marks are found in series that keep churning out titles because they’re based on a popular character such as Clifford, Thomas the Tank Engine, or Humphrey the Hamster. While these are designed to help beginning readers practice their skills and gain confidence (so they are certainly suitable for a classroom!), there’s not much depth in them.
The Ultimate STORYteller
Jesus knew how to tell STORIES. He is our greatest example of teaching TRUTH to the people using parables such as The Good Samaritan because the STORY draws you in with delight and lingers longer than a straight lesson.
ILLUSTRATIONS and “illustrations”
More than just images on a page, ILLUSTRATIONS are artwork that you and your children linger over because it is beautiful, meaningful, and enhance the story. The illustrator uses well-thought out techniques such as palette, line, proportion, and artistic media (watercolor, collage, oil, pencil, photography, etc.) to communicate greater emotion than is revealed by the text alone. ILLUSTRATIONS may be detailed and complex, like Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky, or as simple as Mo Willems’s expressive Elephant and Piggie series, provided that they enrich the reader’s experience of the book. Neither the text nor the illustrations are complete independent of one another.
Mere “illustrations” refer to uninspiring pictures that accompany the text, but add nothing to it.
READING and “reading”
Any active, skilled, memorable engagement with words or images that conveys worthy meaning to the reader or listener who absorbs them. The result of READING should include ideas or responses of one’s own; i.e., something original to the reader occurs by means of the activity and the text or images which occasion the READING. Real READING is a kind of cooperative creation between one human and another, having some of the life of each.
“reading” is a more or less passive and forgettable encounter with words or images that fails to bring one into any real contact with meaning or truth and resulting in no significant or lasting change in the reader, and nothing original to the story.
How does all this work together and become worship?
Discerning appreciation of literature, from picture books to lengthy classics, comes from learning to recognize these elements and how they resonate. There may be TRUTH told in “story,” or a STORY may only contain “truth.” TRUTH with STORY may suffer from mediocre illustrations, or truth conveyed in STORY may be greatly improved with ILLUSTRATIONS. All of these variations are greatly affected by the act of READING or “reading,” which is an act of redemption by those who seek to wonder and to worship God by offering up all our activities with our families in every area of life.
What books richly abound with TRUTH and STORY?
Here are some top favorites to begin with.
Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard
The Three Billy Goats Gruff retold by Paul Galdone OR other skilled authors and illustrators
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss
Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood
Yellow and Pink by William Steig
The Golden Plate by Bernadette Watts
The Watcher by Nikki Grimes
The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbeau
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell
The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett
The Lion’s Share by Matthew McElligott
Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss
Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems
Mr. Squirrel and the Moon by Sebastian Meschenmoser
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon
The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers
Classic fairy tale collections
The Light Princess and The Golden Key by George MacDonald
The Mistmantle Chronicles by M. I. McAllister
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Newbery winner)
Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates (Newbery winner)
Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (Newbery winner)
The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
The Giver by Lois Lowry (worthy of discussion)
Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (Also benefits from discussion)
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Carry on, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (or Dangerous Journey or Little Pilgrim’s Progress)
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
Fallout by Steve Sheinken
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman
See also this post for a list of Truth and Story picture books that are ideal for a church nursery.
What books abounding with Truth and Story would you suggest?
This post has been updated from its original publication date on November 6, 2013.
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