Every Sunday I read the announcement - the one about the book drive to stock the kids’ library at my church with classic children’s books. Every Sunday, I think, I’ve got so many books. I have to go through them and donate. And then every Sunday I come back from church, look at the stacks and rows of books on our bookshelves and wonder which books I should donate. So far, every Sunday I’ve walked away from my shelves without pulling any books out. Without giving a one.
The problem is not my greed. It’s not any hoarding compulsion. The problem is: one day one of these authors will die. And my kids will read the story and gasp or sigh and their minds will wander back to the huge influence, the wonderful impact the author had on their lives and they will call me up and ask if I still have that book. And I’d hate to say I didn’t.
I realize this sounds extreme. But yesterday, when I read the news that Maurice Sendak had died, after I gasped and sighed, my mind went to the books, the ones my mother had saved for me. The ones I had read to my own kids a million times. I ran up the stairs, knelt in front of the white book shelf outside the kids’ rooms and ran my fingers along the spines, looking for Sendak.
As I did, my brain went further back - to the times I’d searched the spines for Sendak as a child. The times I’d longed to return to Where the Wild Things Are, when I wanted to imagine Alligators All Around or to learn more about that Rosie - who’d sung on TV about being a “great big deal.” Words I desperately want to believe about myself. In fact, each of the books I returned to (of Sendak’s and others) either said something about or fed something in me. They were key elements in my growing up, in my forming.
I suppose this is why - even though I’ve yet to donate a one - I’m thrilled to belong to a church willing to gather and display and offer these classic and wonderful stories for our children. That I worship in a place that believes un-officially inspired-by-God books can inspire nevertheless. That these books deserve a hallowed place on our shelves - right next to the children’s Bibles and Bible stories.
Because these books can and do help us train up children. They trained me up when I struggled to make sense of myself, my circumstances, my very life. The great books made me feel less alone or misfit; they offered glimpses of a bigger picture and a bigger story and just where I might fit in it.
They do this for my kids too, which is why I’m nervous to give any away. Because I’m not exactly sure which books, which words, which writers my own kids are holding near and dear, which lyrics or turns of phrase they’ve tucked deep into their hearts, which stories they know themselves better because of.
And I’m not exactly sure which stories have stirred up their imaginations so much that they begin to see God at work in the stories, the illustrations, in the humor and in the sad bits. But I know some do. And I know they help kids imagine their own place in God’s story. Because it’s in these great books that - if we look and imagine - that we see stories of disobedience and consequence, of bravado and loneliness and longing for home, of redemption and grace. When our faith is indeed childlike, we see the Gospel played out where wild things are.
What Do You Think?
- Does Sendak's work have a special meaning for you?
- Can classic children's books, despite being irreligious, aid in spiritual formation?