Our Children Want to Read, Have to Read - but What?

Our teachers tell us our children have to read. It is good for their speech, language, imagination, development, understanding, vocabulary, and the like. These teachers will try everything to get their students interested in books.

Mothers start reading books to their little ones, and Professor Bus, from the University of Leiden, has proven that such reading can diminish or even avoid dyslexia. This university also has an extensive research program on promoting reading in students who have little or no interest in books.

Devoted librarians have told me how they try to find out where certain students' interests lie, and how they try to lure them into reading with simple books on that topic.

A little history

There is so much to read. There is not, and never will be, a book like the Bible. It should always have the central place in our life. However, many more books are available, and even in a digital age when pictures seem to take the place of the written word, people still read.

It is important to develop a discerning way of reading. Only when we also study the Bible and are convinced of the truth can we assess things and place them in the right perspective, also in literature. Just before the time of the Reformation, the first printing press was developed. It was a big invention, and it helped spread the writings of Luther and Calvin. However, Luther said this invention would be either a step to hell or a step to heaven. How true this has been! Millions of Bibles and good books are printed, but also millions of books with pornography.

In medieval times there were no books for children, but in the seventeenth century the so-called Pietists wrote the first little booklets meant especially for children. In the eighteenth century, the age of the Enlightenment, many books for children were printed; most had a heavy emphasis on being good and pious. The children in those stories are very unnatural; they look like little angels, and the writers expected much from those examples. They totally denied that also our children are by nature born in sin.

In the nineteenth century we find in certain circles a totally different kind of book for children, stories about the conversion of young children and about their last days on earth. In the beginning of the twentieth century many more books became available, with a focus on children's understanding and development, and written at their level.

From 1880-1980 we see two developments in children's books: educational, coming from the Enlightenment movement; and aesthetic, with roots in the Romantic movement. The first movement wanted to use children's books as a means of education, for passing along ideas about religion or society. This can be good in itself, but it also can do much harm, especially when liberal authors are involved. The second movement saw the book as a piece of art, successful or not. These books are very child-centered.

Why do we read stories?

Children love stories. Even if they do not like to read themselves, in general they like to be read to! We can find the first stories in the Bible, in the Old Testament. In 2 Samuel 12 the prophet Nathan tells David about the rich man who killed his neighbor's only lamb. In 2 Samuel 14 Joab sends a woman to David with an imaginary story about her family.

The Lord Jesus Himself told parables to the Israelites to teach them lessons. He sketched imaginary people and placed them in imaginary situations. Think of the parable, "A father had two sons…" Consider the parable of the house built on the sand, or the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. These are just a few examples, and it is noteworthy that the Lord Jesus used those parables to instruct men. So we can see that stories can be an effective way to teach lessons to children, though fiction written by man never can be equated to the parables taught by Jesus.

In a Reformed daily newspaper, Enny de Bruyn writes,

Why should we weary our brains with stories that, in general, have not even really happened?

If you have read The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, you have experienced something of the power of fiction. In this story Bunyan shows the way of a Christian to eternity more clearly than many sermons or meditations do. This is the power of stories. They give a deeper insight to the reader about life, the world, and people.

Here is another quotation, from Rev. W. Vroegindewey.

Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.

This command also concerns us when we try to write a book. If this is the purpose of our work, we also will try to attain that purpose in writing the book. That goal has to shine through the whole story, not too obviously, not as a last addition as a kind of application to make it a Christian story, but be woven throughout the text.

What do we expect from a good book for our children?

Social skills. Good books teach children how to deal with one another, including respect for adults. It is fashionable today to write stories about children who become real heroes while the adults in the background are devaluated as helpless creatures who do not know very much. Liberal writers often show a modem way of life, contrary to God's commandments, as if this is normal.

Ethical values. Here we think especially about blasphemy. It is alarming how many curses one can find in children's books. Be aware of it.

Another point of concern is the portrayal of the non-traditional family. One or two generations back we did not see books about a child with two fathers or two mothers, or about a family with three kinds of children because both the father and the mother had had previous marriages. Especially younger children need to experience in their reading the same closeness and biblical family situation as they have in their families. That will give them the security they need. We do not have to expose our younger children to all the deviations from normal.

For older children we may write about hurtful situations in family or society. These older children will be confronted with problems in life. However, it is currently very popular to put into a fiction story all the problems that can happen in world and family. Modem writers like to shock people with all these realities, without telling how it could be. What a sad and empty life! It can be useful to write about certain problems, but it should be done in a way that makes it clear that the situations are not according to God's Word, and that points to the only solution. However, there is also the danger of adding a sermon; that is not the right way to do it. It is the art of writing to put things in the right perspective. How the author views a certain problem is very important. That viewpoint will show in his work and will have an influence.

Reference to what is most important in life. Religion should be a part of our daily life. It should also have a part in the books that our children read. This does not mean writing a story with only here and there a prayer after the meal or going to church on Sunday. Let us be honest: for a child, entertainment is the most important factor in a book. That has been proven. It is an art for an author to weave the spiritual part throughout the story in the right way. This also can be shown in daily happenings.

Conclusion: Our children have to read, they want to read, but what?

As parents and teachers we have to try to give our children good books to read. It is important that we try to build libraries in our own schools, that we read and know what is in them. We all realize that there is a great need for good, Christian, children's books. There are still many books available with good morals and a nice plot, but at a certain moment everybody becomes born-again Christians who decide to accept Jesus. There are not so many books with which we can completely agree.

We have to be very careful which books we give to our children. If you do not know the author, read the book first yourself! In this time the occult, for instance, is creeping in very fast, and sometimes very subtly. I have only to mention the name of Harry Potter.

Hopefully there are some people in our circles who also see that need, who have a gift for writing, and who would like to try it. We especially need good books for our teenagers. That is even harder.

By Alie Vogelaar
This article is condensed from a topic presented at a Ladies Circle meeting in 2002 and was printed in the Winter 2006 edition of the Learning and Living magazine, a publication fo the Netherlands Reformed Christian Educators Association.