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How to Choose Books for Children

Gone are the days of nursery rhymes and picture books. My children now gravitate toward young adult fiction. They aren’t content with predictable plot lines or childlike themes. They want complex, intriguing plot lines with older, and therefore, more interesting characters. And while I’m glad their tastes are maturing, it felt like we were stepping out of the splash pool of preschool literacy into a vast ocean of divergent worldviews.

Some books are an obvious “no” and others are certified place-keepers on Christian bookshelves everywhere. But the vast majority of books fall somewhere in between. After some research, soul-searching and advice-seeking from smarter and better parents than me, I’ve found a way forward. If you are struggling to pick out good books for your children, here are 8 questions you may want to consider.

Is It a Good, Well-written Story?

As a parent, it’s tempting to choose a “safe” story over an excellent one, but children instinctively reject books that come across as preachy and condescending (not unlike adults!). By contrast a really good book immerses the child into the story. They feel the exhilaration of adventure and experience the camaraderie of overcoming with unexpected heroes. New combinations of words begin to form in their mind and they learn to express themselves in new and articulate ways.

Does This Book Help My Child to Empathize with Someone They Would Have Otherwise Felt no Affinity with?

In Canada, many cities are diverse and multicultural. Toronto is said to have half of its population born outside of Canada, and yet stories of ostracism, racism and bullying still abound. Story can be a powerful means of helping children understand and value other cultures.

God’s kingdom is not limited by nationality, class or gender (Gal. 3:28). It transcends all boundaries and so should our love and compassion. A good book allows children to identify with others through shared experience.

Does This Book Spark My Child’s Interest in History, Culture Or Science?

Famous children’s educator, Charlotte Mason, wrote, “The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care?”

Quality literature can teach in a way that a dry textbook never can. Facts memorized for a test tend to be forgotten, but the things we learn from story come alive and stay with us long after the last page is read.

Will My Child Learn about Moral Courage?

We must explicitly “train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22:6), but like so many things, integrity is often caught, not taught.

Children learn quickly that doing the the right thing will cost them something–whether it be social status, comfort, or other privileges. Good stories allow children to experience these moral crisis points vicariously through the characters in their story. It’s almost like practice for real life or learning moral courage by osmosis. A compelling protagonist inspires children in ways that simple explanations sometimes fail to do.

Will They Learn through Story That Sin Has Consequences?

It’s no secret that certain stories glamourize sin. The cool kids are slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, etc. (Rom. 1:30), but the bible clearly teaches that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Stories that propagate a superficial understanding of sin do not serve our children, but a story that exposes sin’s consequences may do a world of good, especially if it is followed by themes of redemption and forgiveness that mirror God’s grace in the gospel (1 John 1:9).

Does This Book Teach My Child That Authority Is Valuable in Its Proper Context?

Many children’s books teach children to be suspicious of authority. Teachers, parents and other authority figures are evil, egomaniacs or just plain dumb. While we don’t want our children to blindly follow authority, especially when it is corrupt, we do want them to understand that authority is God’s idea and therefore good (Romans 13:1-7). For example, obedience to parents will (in principle) result in a better quality of life (Ephes. 6:1-4). Government and police will restrain the depravity, disorder and injustice that happens when everyone does “what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) And for the sake of their eternal soul they must understand the importance of submitting to God’s authority and humbling themselves under His mighty hand (1 Pet. 5:6).

Will This Book Cause This Particular Child to Stumble?

On questionable “grey issue” books, wiser parents have advised me to know my child’s propensities. Will this book encourage my particular child to sin in areas where they are weak, or is this an issue of low concern when it comes to temptation? While a book may be appropriate for one child to read at 10, another child may need to wait until they are 12.

Does This Expand My Child’s Ability to Comprehend the Incomprehensible?

Myth and fairy-tales can be helpful here. C.S. Lewis writes that when a child reads about a “fairy land” it “arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.”

When we consider the supernatural nature of God’s world, fairytales begin to look more realistic. That is to say, they expand our imagination so that we can begin to grasp the wonder of a God who supernaturally breaks into our world to save those who are lost.

Story is powerful, and while we must be cautious of the destructive nature of some literature, mining the depths of a good story is worth every effort. While books have no power in and of themselves to save our children, they have great potential to enrich the soul, build character, inspire, expand the imagination and most importantly, provide fertile soil for gospel seeds grow.