Friday 8 August 2008

Christian writing for children - Part 1

Last Saturday New College hosted the 2008 Faithful Writer Conference. In all, 120 people came to discuss and learn about writing. The event was jointly sponsored by Matthias Media and CASE (which is part of New College). The plenary speaker for the day was Mark Tredinnick a well-known writer, poet, editor and teaching or writing. As well, seminars were run on essay writing, writing for sceptics, editing other people’s work, poetry writing and writing for children. I ran the latter seminar and thought I’d share some of the things I discussed.

Writing for children

The starting point for my seminar was the central proposition that the gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship – certainly in the Western cultural tradition and literature. The central focus of the Bible is Salvation History; with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for his creation to be restored to a relationship with him.

Drawing on the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien I suggested that the central Bible narrative account of God’s redemptive plan and work is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. In every story there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative.

J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative.

Drawing on this central proposition I suggested in my seminar that for Christians there is much fruitful writing that can point children towards Jesus. I suggested that there are a number of very direct forms of narrative writing for children that are worthy of our time, energy and creativity (I’ve add an extra one in this post that I didn’t share at the seminar):

Type 1 – Stories that directly present the Christian gospel explicitly, often in the form or the retelling of Bible stories suitable for children. Children’s Bibles and collections of Bible stories fall into this category.
Type 2 – Stories that allegorically present the gospel (e.g. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).
Type 3 – Stories that present or address essential biblical understandings and teaching; where the key elements of the Biblical plan of salvation are woven within the story, or can be seen as explicitly reflecting the key elements of the divine narrative (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis). While some would see the latter as allegory, Lewis denied this and instead claimed that the narrative came first and the biblical parallels followed.
Type 4 – Moral tales that have direct biblical parallels or that reflect moral principles consistent with the Bible’s teaching (e.g. evil will be punished; sin has consequences; honesty is better than falsehood). Nursery rhymes and many fairy tales fall into this category as do many cautionary tales (of course not all such tales reflect biblical moral insights, but many do).
Type 5 – This is really a variation or extension of the above. Here the links or parallels are at the thematic level rather than in the form of moral teaching. Stories of this kind demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). These narratives parallel the gospel narrative without explicit commentary. Such stories can be read at one level as simply a nice tale, but at another level the key themes parallel biblical themes that can be discussed. The following examples demonstrate what I mean.

Example 1 – “Charlotte’s Web”, by E.B. White

This is a well known book written for 6-10 year olds. It is a beautifully written tale about a group of talking farmyard animals, a spider, a rat and a little girl named Fern. While it makes no attempt to teach the gospel narrative, or even disguise it within an allegorical telling, it has themes that parallel key themes within the biblical gospel narrative. At one level, it is the celebration of loyalty, love and friendship. But it is also a salvation narrative. The story of a runt pig rejected by the farmer, sentenced to death but then rescued first by a small girl and later by the work of an intelligent and literate spider. At this thematic level, the narrative points to the power of faith, hope, love, charity, sacrifice and new life.

Example 2 – “Why do you love me?” by Martin Baynton

This is a beautiful little picture book written for 3-6 year olds. It is essentially a dialogue between a dad and his little boy, prompted by the boy’s question, “Do you love me?” This is one of those conversations that only a parent could full appreciate. The little boy asks, “Why do you love me?” “Do you love me because I’m kind?” “..brave?” “..funny”? “…clever”? “…good”? “…naughty?” To each question the Dad says “Yes”. “So why do I try to be good” says the boy. “You tell me,” says his dad. “Because I love you too”, replies the boy. The echoes to the biblical account of God’s grace are evident. Like God whose love towards us is an unconditional act of grace not linked to who we are and what we do, the father loves the boy in spite of who he is and what he does unconditionally. He loves him through the good and the bad. And the boy, in response to the love of the father, loves his father as well and seeks to please him.

Example 3 – “Cowardly Clyde”, by Bill Peet

This is a picture book written for children aged 4-7 years that tells of a brave (foolish?) knight and his trusty (cowardly stead) who set out to solve the problem of an ogre who is devastating the countryside. Clyde is terrified but the knight (Sir Galavant) heads into a dark forest to kill the ogre. They follow the trail of horse bones and find him. Clyde turns and runs, reaching the edge of the forest only to turn and discover that Sir Galavant has gone; the victim of a low branch. He goes back, and in an act of bravery bites the tale of the ogre to divert its attention from Sir Galavant. The ogre pursues him to the edge of the forest only to explode just as he grabs Clyde’s tale and disappear in a puff of smoke as the sun’s rays strike him, “An owl-eyed monster who thrives on darkness and gloom can’t last ten seconds in the bright sunlight, and he knew it….” The parallels are not as strong as the above examples but they are there – good conquers evil; and evil belongs to the darkness and cannot survive the light.

The qualities of good Christian writing for children

My conclusion to this seminar was that there is great merit in Christians seeking to write literature in its many forms for children. I suggested that such writing needs to first meet the basic criteria for good writing – good tales well told; language used well; narratives that work at multiple levels; rich authentic characters; interesting ‘page-turner’ plots. But beyond this they should:
  • offer knowledge that is a celebration of God’s world and his purposes;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc);
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Related Links

'Between Two Worlds' link to this post (here)

'Christian writing for children' - Part 2 (here)


Jean said...

Thanks for a great summary of a wonderful seminar! I really enjoyed it - just the tip of the iceburg of knowledge and insight you obviously have at your fingertips. I'd love to hear more.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Jean, I enjoyed chatting with you at the Seminar; I look forward to more discussions in the future. Thanks also Erin for the comment you left on my Literacy, Families and Learning blog.