Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
One of my children’s favorite things to do is to listen to their grandpa read. On rainy nights or seaside vacations, we have sat by the crackling wood stove captivated by his commanding Gandalf, his hissing Gollum, his witty and Southern-drawled Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
I can hardly replicate Grandpa’s story-telling. Still, for years now I have read aloud to my three children while they eat sandwiches and slurp smoothies or as the afternoon sun beams onto our living room couch. Minutes fly by as great tales transport us. It’s cruel to stop reading in the middle of an Alamo standoff, a Sherwood Forest ambush, or as the White Witch lures Edmond. But I love the grumbling that ensues when I fold the tip of the page and call us back to the day’s tasks.
Of course, I hope in these endeavors my children gain a love for reading, learning, imagining, and believing. In the process, though, I’ve discovered my own love for stories needed rekindling. It’s good to get on my children’s level to retell how God used Joseph’s seemingly unjust suffering to save a nation, how He used David’s pebble to defeat a towering giant, or how He led Jonah to repentance in the belly of a whale. I forgot about Lord of the Rings’ Sam Gamgee. At key times I’ve needed to remember Scrooge’s pinched heart, the Little Women sisters’ resourceful affection, the Wilder family’s blizzard-filled winter with little food or heat.
I once devoured books as a girl. In the shelves lining the tall ceilings of our farmhouse hallway, I searched for heroes, villains, adventures, landscapes, and romance. Soon, I began creating my own characters, settings, and obstacles. This eventually led me to pursue writing.
In my early 20s I learned the components of a journalistic story as a reporter in a fast-paced newsroom. On city streets, I looked for a story’s sights, smells, and sounds. I faced my fears of approaching strangers and getting lost in a big city. Subtly, though, under deadline pressure I sometimes viewed people and their stories as quotes, anecdotal leads, or another byline. I read too much news and analysis and too little of the Bible and other heroic tales. I often missed the vital connection between my own story, those I write, and God’s grandiose and unfolding narrative.
C.S. Lewis said a story can revive the rich significance of what we know, often hidden in the “veil of familiarity”: “The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story … by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.”
The greatest story ever began with “In the beginning, God. …” Jesus, the Word made flesh, spoke of mysteries, paradoxes, and stumbling blocks in His parables—stories about a rich fool, a dishonest steward, two debtors, talents, fig trees, and laborers in the vineyard.
I have needed these years away from busy newsrooms to hear, read, and tell great stories from the Bible and literature to my children—to see God’s grace anew. Rich and riddled characters revive my gratitude for the perseverance, creativity, courageous suffering, and sacrificial love I can find in everyday life and people. My story and others’ stories are significant because God wants to show a part of His redemptive work and nature through them.