Thursday 13 November 2008

The Redemption of Children's Literature

1. The importance of children's literature

Some readers of this blog know that I also write a blog called "Literacy, families and learning". This blog aims to "to provide practical, timely and sound support and advice for parents, teachers and teachers in training". It isn't written with a specifically Christian audience in mind, but if you read it I hope that you will see the influence of my Christian worldview. This has been perhaps most evident in some posts that I've been doing on Key themes in children's literature.
These posts intersect with two posts I wrote on this CASE blog in August about Christian Writing for Children (here and here). I suggested in my posts on writing that in the Western cultural tradition the gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship. 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.

In my first post on Christian writing for children, I suggested that while there are many legitimate forms of writing for children (I suggested at least five types), I urged Christians to consider writing good fiction for the secular marketplace. In a sense, I was arguing for the redemption of children's literature for the sake of the gospel by having more Christians writing good narratives for children.

2. The place of God's redemptive plan for creation in literature

In this post I want to go further and suggest that much literature is already suitable for parents to use as an extension of the biblical education of their children. While I'm not suggesting that literature can be a replacement for the Bible as the key text for life, what I am suggesting is that the gospel inhabits literature in stories that echo the central redemption narrative of the Bible. I've written three posts in my Key themes series:

The environment
Being different

3. Making better use of literature

I wrote in one of my books written for academics and university students (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:
  • a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • a source of knowledge
  • a source of ideological challenge
  • a means to peer into the past, and the future
  • a vehicle to other places
  • a means to reflect on inner struggles
  • an introduction to the realities of life and death
  • a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
I'm pushing the above claims one step further. My point is simple. For many books, there are links or parallels at the thematic level with the biblical redemption narrative. Many stories demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of salvation and redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). Others simply distort these biblical themes and require comment and critique. Such stories can be read at one level simply as nice tales, but at another level the key themes that parallel biblical themes can be discussed with children. In many cases, the authors are not Christians, but Christian teaching has indirectly influenced their writing. Many children's stories:
  • offer knowledge that for the Christian affirms that God is in control of his world and is unfolding his purposes for it;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future in the light of biblical teaching;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc) that once again relate to biblical wisdom and teaching;
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Alternatively, literature can offer perspectives that are at odds with biblical teaching and require comment. This type of critical reading of literature against the grain is a vital skill for children to learn, so that as independent readers they will be better able to read books, view movies, listen to songs and read texts of all kinds with a biblical lens. This type of biblical engagement with literature can begin very early (albeit in modest ways!).

4. An example - Teaching our children about death, human frailty and judgement

The topic of death is not a very popular one for some parents. Many parents make the mistake of trying to hide the reality of death from their children with the result that when their children do encounter it they may have difficulty coping. At this point I should confess to telling my eldest daughter when she was about 3 years old that our pet yellow budgerigar ("Mr Hooper") had got out of the cage and flown away, when in fact he had died. As non-Christian parents at the time, we weren't ready to deal with the topic so we simply lied about the bird's death (sorry Nicole!).

While there is little point in deliberately raising death prematurely for the child before they have the emotional maturity to deal with it, it's hard to artificially put a time frame on when it's a good time to speak of death.
While thankfully few children will have to deal with death and dying at too young an age, some will, and of course we have no way of knowing when and if this might be the case. Furthermore, from an early age they will be on the 'edges' of conversations and discussions that will give them their first hints that this life is not permanent for any living creature. An awareness of death may emerge very early with the death of a family member, or more commonly, through the death of an animal (typically a pet like Mr Hooper). However, more often the child's first awareness that all living things will one day might be through a book or a film, DVD or television program. As the child grows older the chances of some first-hand experience of death will increase. By the teenage years a close experience with the death of a friend or loved one will be more common, and might well come in tragic circumstances.

That's where literature (and film of course) can help parents, in particular, to discuss the reality of death with their children. Books that address death can be read with children and by children themselves as a source of insight, comfort and emotional growth. Once again, I stress that this isn't a replacement for the Bible's discussion of death, but is a complement to our discussion of the Bible's teaching about death. At this point, I should stress that I am not deliberately ignoring classic works of Christian fiction that are more allegorical in their approach such as Bunyan's "The Pilgrims Progress", The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis and even new works like R.C. Sproul's children's book, The Prince's Poison Cup. This genre has a different place in our literary traditions that I won't address in this already long post.

Let me offer a few examples of how some books raise the theme of death and dying.

5. Some books that deal with death

a) Traditional fantasy and fairy tales

Fantasy has always been a common introduction to human frailty and death. Fairy tales from many different cultural traditions have not been afraid of death as a theme. Traditional versions of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'The Three Pigs', 'Jack and Beanstalk', 'The Gingerbread Man', 'The Little Match Girl' and many other tales, all dealt with death in graphic detail. However, today it is common for such tales to be sanitised and death expunged or pushed into the background of the narrative. But traditional fairy tales, myths and legends still offer a rich array of stories that deal with death. In contemporary literature there are also many good examples of books that deal with this important theme.

b) Some books for younger readers (0-6 years of age)

I’ll always love you
, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie and the impact of the death on him. This would be appropriate for children aged 3-7 years. There is so much to talk about in this story of devotion and loss. Be warned, children ask the most challenging questions about stories, e.g. "Do dogs go to heaven?"

Granpa, by John Burningham - This moving book provides an insight through simple words and pictures of the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather and the impact of his death on her. Some struggle with the staccato nature of the text (that mirrors the disconnected nature of adult/child conversations) but I believe that this is a wonderful book. The story shows how the Grandfather who holds the child's hand, teaches and protects eventually faces his own frailties and death; and yet life for the child goes on. But what about Granpa (something on which the book is silent)?

Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munsch -- this book tells of the cycle of life as a child grows to be a man and a mother grows to be an old lady; and of course of the relationship between a boy and his mother as they both grow old. Some find it a little unusual but it is an intriguing treatment of the topic from a great children's author.

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie de Paola - Four-year-old Tommy enjoys his relationship with both his grandmother and great-grandmother, but eventually learns to face up to their inevitable death.

c) Primary Readers (7-12 years of age)

Charlotte’s Web
, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it has been seen first on DVD it is worth reading with your children. In his masterly tale E.B. White shows through Wilbur (the pig), Fern (the little girl) and Charlotte (the spider) how death is part of life; and yet, how death is not the end. Life goes on.

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. It is a novel that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
by Eleanor Coerr - this book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The author does not hide the horrors of death providing vivid descriptions of her pain, weakness, sadness, and loneliness. The book also shows the impact on a family of the tragic death of a child. For the Christian parent there is also the opportunity to talk about pain, suffering and judgement.

The machine gunners
, Robert Westall – This one is for the boys! Guaranteed to interest any boy. The tale of a group of boys living in Britain through the Blitz, their war souvenir collecting, their brushes with death and of lots of moral choices along the way.

d) Teenagers

Death of a Princess, by Susan Geason - When the Pharaoh's beautiful eleven-year-old daughter, Isis, dies under suspicious circumstances, the beautician becomes the prime suspect! This mystery is set in Ancient Egypt during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II. For the older reader there is a lot to get your teeth into here, particularly the contrast of the stories treatment of death and the Bible's

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson - This brilliant book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. It is the story of two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from the death of a friend of her son, who was struck by lightning at a beach. It is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbour Leslie Burke after losing a race to her at school. The touching story ends in tragedy.

6. Some final comments

The purpose of this post wasn't to encourage Christian parents to put the Bible to one side and present the gospel according to literature. Rather, the purpose was to highlight how literature has much to offer in terms of the discussion of biblical themes as part of narrative encounters in books and even film. As well, I'm not suggesting that parents and teachers ruin the reading of literature by dissecting books to such an extent that children are not given the opportunity to simply enjoy the narrative themselves. And I'm not suggesting that we become bibliotherapists, although some psychologists use some of the books I've mentioned as part of their clinical work. You can read a little about Bibliotherapy here and here.

But I do want to stress that literature offers many possibilities for rich discussions with our children that have significance for their developing faith in Christ.

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