Adult lessons from children’s books


I read a lot of children’s books these days. It’s one of the many benefits of parenthood. Some of the books I know from my own childhood, such as Richard Scarry’s, “Busy Busy Town,” with its excitable, anthropomorphic citizens. Some of the books are discoveries, such as Linda Zuckerman’s beautiful and sad, “I Will Hold You ‘Til You Sleep.” The reading is as at least as delightful for me as it is for our children. It is also edifying. For the children’s book is as simple and direct a comment on how we think the world ought to be as one may find. Consider the manner in which the people (or the animal icons for them) in children’s literature live their lives:

• People regularly sit down for meals together.
• Walking is a major means of transportation.
• Businesses are small and owned by people who live in the neighborhood.
• Farms feature a diversity of crops and free-range livestock.
• People are defined by their desire to do good and to be helpful.
• The imagination is one of the central elements of life.

The list could keep going — I bet you could think of your own additions. And I bet many of your examples, like mine, would stand in contrast to the way in which we have structured our grown-up lives. The realities of modern-day agriculture, for instance, have little to do with the world in which Ferdinand the pacifistic bull spent his days. The family farmers whom I know are struggling. The agribusinesses with which they compete have figured out how to make cheap food by reinventing their plants and animals as commodities; the notion that they might be stewards of God’s creatures lies abandoned, like an archaic tractor, to rust in a corner field.

And yet, as far as I know, there has never been a children’s book about a factory farm. I suspect that this omission is not merely a product of sentimentality. Rather, I suspect that it is a product of conscience. The choice between what is right and what is wrong (or, to use the explicitly theological language, that which turns us toward God and that which does not) is sometimes less complex than we make it out to be. Indeed, it is sometimes as simple as it is in a children’s book. Our struggle with these choices is not so much to discern the voice of the spirit as it is to decide whether or not we will listen to or whether will choose, instead, the seductive voices which seek to drown it out.

Children have not yet learned the sophistry that defending the wrong choice requires. Their language is simple and direct and, by necessity, so is their reasoning. As such, it is not possible to tell a child of “collateral damage,” only of killing families by accident. It is not possible to speak of “plausible deniability,” only of lying. It is not possible to speak of “multitasking,” only of preferring your iPhone to your family at the dinner table. This is one of the great moral tests that our children, and the books that they love, offer to us: can we explain our actions in their forthright language and remain at peace with our decisions?

At the conclusion of David MacPhail’s “Mole Music“, Mole stands alone in his subterranean home and plays the violin. He imagines that his playing has been heard by others and that they have found it beautiful and, even, transformative. Little does he know that others have, indeed, heard him play as they gather on the ground above. Little does he know that his music has brought them peace.

That which is true and beautiful is often also simple. Our children and their stories have a lot to teach us. Let’s stop and, like Mole’s audience, see if we can hear their lessons.

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