Why do adults stop reading kids’ books, especially when they bring so much joy? Why are these stories perceived by some to be a lesser literary genre? Critics say they are too simplistic (especially the endings) and too moralistic.
Singling out the Chronicles of Narnia, Pulitzer-winning novelist Alison Lurie, raises morality concerns in her 2006 article, “The Passion of C. S. Lewis” for The New York Review of Books.
Perhaps the most important, though least obvious way in which the Narnia books differ from most classics of juvenile literature is that they do not free children from the authority of adults.
In the Narnia books ... children merely seem to be on their own. Behind everything that happens is the power and wisdom and intention of Aslan…. With his aid, battles are won, souls saved, and enemies defeated. Even when he doesn’t seem to be there, he is....
It is no surprise that conservative Christians admire these books. They teach us to accept authority.... They also suggest that without the help of Aslan (that is, of such powerful figures or their representatives on earth) we are bound to fail. Alone we are weak and ignorant and helpless. Individual initiative is limited — almost everything has already been planned out for us in advance, and we cannot know anything or achieve anything without the help of God.
Lurie’s concern is fundamentally about the attenuation of human agency to explain the mysteries of God. Not only are Lewis’ fictional children subject to the aid of responsible adults, but they’re also bound to the will of a divine sovereign, who, Lurie wrongly assumes, pulls every string mechanically like a domineering puppeteer.
Responsibility to someone else, Lurie seems to argue, makes a person less heroic and a good story less compelling. In fact, as Scripture teaches, our culture-making is guided by the precepts of another. Working, creating, preserving, and partnering with God is what we — his image-bearers — are invited to do (see Gen 1:28, 2:15; 2 Cor 5:20).
Maturing into faithful kingdom stewards takes a lifetime, but these lessons of calling and service are learned at an early age through the telling and retelling of stories. Children’s books play an important role in this process — igniting imagination for the role that work serves in transforming lives and caring for the world. And yes, they’re good for adults to revisit, too.
With my five-year-old daughter ready to explore some new books with me, and only a couple of titles coming to mind, I crowdsourced ideas on social media. And together, we read. Below are seven picture books for young readers (or any reader curious enough) that do a good job of shaping a biblical understanding of work.
1. Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day explores work teams, processes, and entire industries in Busytown — from constructing homes to homemaking, delivering a letter to transporting people and goods, policing to putting out fires, farming to building roads.
We all live in Busytown and we are all workers.... Many children are helper workers. Are you a helper?
Busytown highlights the value of work to a young reader, who even at a young age can make contributions. In a culture that fervently distrusts institutions and has difficulty seeing them as “durable forms of common life” and “frameworks and structures of what we do together,” Scarry offers a countercultural message: “Think of all the things we can do when we all work together.” Without teams, organizations, and the shared labor of others, nothing much gets done.
2. Karen Hesse’s Night Job explores the dignity of working in a service-oriented job. In this story, a son accompanies his father on Friday nights as he labors as a school janitor.
Our radio travels with us from room to room. We scrub the cafeteria, then sweep the stage....
We tack back and forth down the hallway, sweeping the school from stem to stem.
At ten Dad leads us to the courtyard, where we unwrap our egg salad sandwiches.... We take big bites that fill our mouths and chew and chew and chew until there are only crumbs left. And then we chew those, too.
Too often, knowledge work is pitched as superior to service work. God does not make this distinction, and neither should we. Hesse’s book honors manual labor as well as father-son relationships.
Connecting Passions to the Needs of the World
3. Jordan Raynor’s The Creator in You might be the best book among the group for a holistic understanding of faith and work. His story explores God’s identity as a worker and our image-bearer role as his coworkers.
Because while in six days God created a lot, there are so many things that He simply did not — like bridges and baseballs, sandcastles, and s’mores. God asked us to create and fill the planet with more.
Because when you work or you make something new, you are doing what God has made you to do. You are showing the world what your Father is like — a God who creates to bring people delight.
4. Max Lucado’s A Hat for Ivan is a story about Ivan — the son of a hatmaker — who lives in Hatville, where everyone dons a cap that reflects what they love to do. At ten, every child receives their own hat. On the precipice of this landmark birthday, Ivan wanders through the town, where adults give him versions of their own hats: a baker’s cap, a music teacher’s hat, a fire helmet, and a farmer’s cap. Confused and weary from trying to wear so many hats, Ivan returns to his dad’s shop, where he is greeted with the following words:
I’m the hatmaker, Ivan. I have seen what happens when people wear hats they weren’t intended to wear. They feel silly. They fall down. And they get tired....
Listen, son, just because someone gives you a hat, that doesn’t mean you are supposed to wear it. They mean well, but they don’t know you.
Limitations and barriers inevitably come, but preschoolers and adults alike need to be encouraged to dream. Lucado’s book opens up vistas to consider vocation, described so wisely as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
5. Ellie Holcomb explores God as the first Creator in Who Sang the First Song?. After considering possibilities for who first sang — the wind, stars, sun, waves, flowers, thunder, and birds — Ellie turns her attention to a different source.
God’s song says, “You’re good! You are wonderfully made, and I’ll never stop loving you all of your days. So I want you to sing with your life and your voice, for I created the earth to make a joyful noise!”
Holcomb’s lesson mirrors Lucado’s: Children can find their unique voice, or calling, alongside God’s.
Exercising Creativity and Agency
6. Peter H. Reynolds’ Ish is a story about Ramon, a boy who loves drawing. One day Ramon’s older brother mocks his rendering of a vase of flowers. Humiliated, Ramon tries and tries to perfect his art. After months of crumpled papers, he gives up. He later sees a gallery of his discarded artwork adorning his sister Marisol’s bedroom walls.
“This is one of my favorites,” Marisol said, pointing.
“That was supposed to be a vase of flowers,” Ramon said, “but it doesn’t look like one.”
“Well, it looks vase-ISH!” she exclaimed.
“Vase-ISH?” Ramon looked closer. Then he studied all the drawings on Marisol’s walls and began to see them in a whole new way. “They do look ... ish,” he said.
Marisol’s words release something deep within. Rather than feeling knotted and shamed, Ramon becomes energized: “Thinking ish-ly allowed his ideas to flow freely.”
Reynolds reminds us that inviting childlike hope is kingdom work. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Luke 18:16).
7. Brad Montague’s The Circles All around Us is a story about our growing responsibility. When we’re young, our circle is small, but as we grow and gain experience, we draw larger circles around us that make room for family, friends, and community members.
In the circles all around us everywhere that we will go, there’s a difference we can make and a love we can all show....
So let us create bigger circles all around us for the rest of our days. Let our caring ripple out in a million little ways.
Starting in childhood and continuing thereafter, many of us wish for larger circles. We long for expanding influence before we’ve learned to serve faithfully where we are. Vocation starts with accountability and stewardship. Montague’s story reinforces Jesus’ vital message, “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).
What story will your children tell?
Indeed, stories shape the narratives by which we live. Contrary to Alison Lurie’s belief, we’re not entirely our own. And yet, in another sense, we are — responsible for our actions, commitments, and loves as we interact with the world.
The best stories hold this tension. Stories of work and vocation are no exception, whether make-believe or real-life. Read them to your children and grandchildren, and use them to speak about your own work and sense of calling — the ways you are learning to bring your best to a world in need of creativity, encouragement, and repair. Imagine together the stories your children might “write” with their lives.