On a rare day away from the kids several years ago, I hurried to a major bookstore. My career as a children’s book author was just beginning, and I felt I could reasonably justify a long, quiet afternoon knee-deep in picture books as “market research.”
Grabbing 20 or 30 books off the shelves, I eagerly settled in. I didn’t choose them for any particular reason — some I had heard of, many I hadn’t — but all had claimed coveted spots on endcaps or display tables. In other words, these were the most anticipated, critically acclaimed, and best-selling picture books the store had to offer. So even though I wrote for the Christian market and these were general market books, these were the ones I wanted to learn from.
And learn I did. What I found that day would shape the way I write, read, and choose books for my kids forever. And it wasn’t necessarily good news.
Not even our children’s books are safe
To my astonishment, roughly 20% of the picture books I had randomly selected off the shelves ended up containing cleverly disguised jabs or outright antagonism toward God, religion in general, or Christianity specifically. While that may not seem overly shocking on the surface (especially considering our current culture) remember this: their target audience was 4 to 8-year-olds.
From the outside, none of the titles gave any indication that they would be addressing matters of faith in any way. The covers were adorable, the titles clever, the themes silly, the writing excellent. They were doing their job well: enticing children to want to read them and parents, grandparents, and picture book lovers to buy them. Yet tucked within their pages were subtle, but insidious messages: God is a joke. God is a jerk.
This story is fun. God is not.
What should this tell us? What we already know. There is a war for our children’s souls, and our enemy does not play fair. Not even our children’s books are safe.
What would Jesus do?
What should we do? Why, fight fire with fantastic stories, of course. That’s what Jesus did, after all. Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus telling stories. Stories of farmers and wayward sons and lost coins and found treasures. Jesus loved to teach truth through tales.
And because Jesus truly knew his audience — “For he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25b) — storytelling allowed Jesus to package his message in a way that would reach their specific situations, concerns, and heart-deep motivations.
When it came to ministering to children, it seems doubtful that Jesus would have switched ministry tactics. Children gravitate to good storytellers, after all. Especially ones that make them laugh.
Because it’s built into their nature and not explicitly stated in Scripture, we tend not to give it much thought. But as miniature image-bearers of God, a child’s play-seeking, fun-loving default mode must also represent an element of God’s character. If children love fun, then so must God, right?
Not so sure? Look around. Since God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20), what are we to deduce about God’s character through, for example, his creation of ticklish armpits? Or oh-so-fun-to-chase and easy-to-catch lightening bugs? Or maple seeds that helicopter to the ground? Or (forgive me) the uncouth, but giggle-inducing noises made by excess air leaving the body?
What should these creations tell us about God? Among other things, he’s no dour-faced, destroyer of fun, that’s for sure. From infancy, God designed us to laugh, just as he also designed things for us to laugh at.
It’s not surprising then that Satan would take what children love — stories, fun, laughter — and use them for his purposes in children’s books. He’s not overly creative in his tactics, after all. He relies on starting with something God created and twisting it. God is a jerk or a joke. Anti-fun or anti-real. Following him is pointless, boring. Joyless.
Beating the enemy with stories
And this where we beat the enemy at his own game. It begins in our homes and on our bookshelves.
1. Start with the ultimate story
God’s redemptive plan from Genesis to Revelation is the most important story we can give our kids. We are ambassadors for Christ, the first ones our children will meet. And what we value, they will value. When God’s Word is regularly quoted in our homes, frequently read from, and naturally applied to everyday situations, our children benefit eternally.
Though we may wonder sometimes if it’s doing any good, we are promised that God’s Word will do its work. “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose it, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
Giving our children stories of truth from the Bible, spilling over with God’s love and the salvation offered to us through Christ, are the greatest, most important stories we can tell them. Definitely, absolutely we start there.
2. Follow up with grace-filled, faith-based books
In our desire to reach our children’s hearts with truth, we often supplement Bible stories with faith-based children’s books. This is a good thing. (For me as a Christian children’s book author, this is a very good thing.)
Sometimes though, in our determination to point our kids to Christ, we act like we don’t know our audience at all. We woefully package our message in didactic tales of warning: Don’t do this. Always do this. Be good. Be good. Be good. We forget that children are all-natural joy-chasers, and that Jesus went to the cross for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2)! The pursuit of joy is biblical, good, and God-glorifying.
Therefore, vigilantly avoid books that propagate legalistic moralism. Yes, teach your children to love righteousness and hate wickedness, but give them the why behind it. For joy (Psa. 45:7)! Surround them with stories of grace. Lean heavily on messages of hope. Remind them that it’s through Christ’s righteousness alone that they’ll find forgiveness, purpose, and lasting joy.
Grace-filled, faith-based books are harder to find in bookstores and libraries, but they’re there. Dig through the shelves. Read the whole book before you buy or check out. Do your homework on that popular book before you “buy it now,” and don’t purchase just because you recognize a celebrity author, Christian publisher, or a famous series. Often times, the best books are not the best-selling books.
3. And, seriously, make them laugh
Setting those outwardly antagonistic-to-the-faith books aside (which are, thankfully, still in the minority), most general market children’s books do their job well. A lot of giggles can be shared reading The Book with No Pictures or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But why should they have all the fun?
Several years ago, after a particularly silly moment at a concert of one of my favorite Christian bands, Rend Collective, the lead singer memorably reminded us in the audience, “Seriousness is not a fruit of the Spirit.”
We worship the Creator of truth and of joy. Of salvation and silliness. Of fun and freedom. God isn’t a jerk or a joke; he’s the God of hope. Christian children’s books should be the most hopeful and hilarious books on our shelves.
As a children’s book author, this is my goal. As Christian parents, this should be our goal too. Give them stories of grace, saturated with unchanging truth. That’s what Jesus would have done. And make them funny, for goodness’ sake. I believe that’s what he would have done too.
Fight the enemy’s fire with fantastic stories. And have fun doing it. Your children certainly will.