Wednesday, August 17, 2016

More than just a bedtime story: great literature for children

I have always loved books. The way they smell, the whisper of a page turned in the early morning, settling in with a book in the quiet moments before bed. There is nothing better to me than a good book. When I traveled with just a backpack I always made room for a novel. Those stories read on the road are now magically connected to the countries where they were read: Moby Dick reminds me of aggressive monkeys and spiced tea in India; The Brothers Karamazov recalls the stifling heat and juicy mangoes in Guatemala.

Growing up, my mother read to us before bed, everything from children’s books to The Call of the Wild and Anne of Green Gables. Every day ended this way, and we always begged for one more chapter. Now that I’m reading to my children, I’m delighted to see that they love The Pokey Little Puppy, just like I did. And surprised to find that Gideon placing his wool on the ground and asking God for a sign resonates with my three-year-old.

Tolstoy said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The Bible is great literature. It is the story of God become man one night in Bethlehem, and of his dying and rising and promising to come once again. And it is also about all of us, about the journey each man makes toward an eternal home.

I have probably read the story of Moses to my daughter hundreds of times, and she doesn’t tire of it. It doesn’t rhyme. There are no furry animals, chocolate chip cookies, or flaps revealing cute pictures. But there is a princess, a baby, a journey. It is a phenomenal story.

It is remarkable that any book intrigues and satisfies scholars and toddlers alike. That these little bodies with so much energy will sit perfectly still to hear Bible stories. But sit they do—asking to read about Benjamin and the silver cup one more time. Wanting to hear about the Annunciation again and again. Wondering why mean people are mean, and understanding perfectly why the Egyptian princess adopted the baby. 

Painting: The Bedtime Story (1910) Felix Schlesinger
These words and stories have captured my toddler’s imagination. She plays “Mary Time,” during which she journeys with Joseph to Bethlehem atop a stuffed animal and gives birth to Jesus. She begs her father to be Zachariah during “Elizabeth Time,” and rejoices when John (depicted by her lion beanie baby) is born into the world. She wears the fitted sheet from the bed to look like the Blessed Virgin and wants to change her brother’s name to “John-Baby” in honor of John the Baptist.

Seeing her reenact these stories and connect them to her life reminds me of a project I did in high school called “Literature to Life.” For a whole year we filled a binder with things encountered outside the classroom that related to, reminded us of, or mentioned, literature we read in class. That year I painted my bedroom a shade called “Walden Pond.” I still find myself drawing parallels between great books and real life.

My hope is that my children will do the same with the Bible stories we read morning, noon, and night. That their journey through childhood will bring back memories of the parting of the Red Sea and the visit from the Magi. That they will maintain their delight in new life, and remember that God works all things for His good. Because the book they are obsessed with is literally the literature of life—a lamp for their feet, a light on their path—to help them navigate this world and the next.

It has the power to transform their lives.

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