Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Ian Leslie’s Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Basic, 2014) plays a false note at first by saying, “Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that ‘God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.’”
Hmm. That’s supposedly from Augustine’s Confessions, but here’s the passage in question: “I answer him that asketh, ‘What did God do before He made heaven and earth?’ I answer not as one is said to have done merrily (eluding the pressure of the question), ‘He was preparing hell (saith he) for pryers into mysteries.’ It is one thing to answer enquiries, another to make sport of enquirers. So I answer not; for rather had I answer, ‘I know not,’ what I know not, than so as to raise a laugh at him who asketh deep things.”
Augustine, in short, was saying he would not give a “God fashioned hell” answer as someone else had done. He was commending the person who was curious about the “deep things.” Leslie had it backward.
After that false start, though, Leslie introduces lots of important distinctions, such as the difference between diversive curiosity (internet surfing where we divert ourselves by learning about trivia) and epistemic curiosity, where we seek knowledge and understanding: “Epistemic curiosity is hard work; it involves sustained cognitive effort. That makes it tougher, but ultimately more rewarding.”
Leslie also distinguishes between puzzles, which are solvable, and mysteries, which are not. Detective stories that are police procedurals typically involve solving a puzzle, but the TV series The Wire (see “Goodnight, hoppers,” July 26, 2008) is great because it delved into the mystery of why Baltimore is such a mess: “Mysteries have a longer half-life than puzzles.”
He notes that facts do not kill creativity, since true creativity requires a knowledge base: “The single most important contributor to future success, even for children aged six and younger, isn’t a child’s intelligence, but what she knows. … The more knowledge children acquire early on, the better they are at learning, and the more they will enjoy learning.” Sociologists call this the Matthew effect: Whoever has shall receive more.
Leslie explains that “pointing is crucial to childhood development; the frequency with which a child points correlates to the speed with which she acquires language.” If parents or childcare workers just give small children the object they’re pointing to, they learn that pointing helps them get stuff, but if adults tell them the name of the object, then they learn to think of it as a way of getting information—and if they receive no response, they stop pointing.
Other observations: Empathy is more important than sympathy, because empathy means being consciously curious about another’s perspective. When we learn something rapidly, we often forget it rapidly. We learn better when the learning is hard: Call such lessons “desirable difficulties.”
Finally, Leslie points out that visionaries are often detail persons as well. Leslie writes, “The people responsible for our biggest ideas are usually detail freaks, too,” and gives Steve Jobs and Charles Darwin as examples: “If you read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, you find, before any mention of the invisible hand of the market, a closely observed account of the operations of a pin factory.” That’s what makes for good journalism as well.
Hip-hop artist Trip Lee’s Rise (Nelson, 2015) is a good book to give to young Christians fighting impulses toward pornography and other lures. The Problem of Good, edited by D. Marion Clark (P&R, 2014) is a great complement to all the books about the problem of evil that don’t examine the mystery of common grace. Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy (Simon and Schuster, 2011) is now four years old but still relevant in light of the vaccination debate. The Romantic Rationalist, edited by John Piper and David Mathis (Crossway, 2014), includes essays on C.S. Lewis by Piper, Philip Ryken, Randy Alcorn, and others. —M.O.