Here is my thesis for this post: The Boy and the Ocean is beautiful. I loved it. The writing is rhythmic, the illustrations uncommonly gorgeous, the story endearing, and the whole thing describes the love of God in a way that appeals to my daughters—and to me.
The Boy and the Ocean follows an unnamed boy as he vacations near the sea with his parents. The story appears in three parts, as he explores the ocean, the mountains, and then studies the night sky with his parents, and reflects on how the ocean, mountains, and sky, like God’s love, are endless and unchanging.
This book is a little like Does God Know How to Tie Shoes?, a little like Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” And the illustrations are . . . oh, how to describe them? Like the sort of thing I think about before falling asleep—but that doesn’t exactly help you, does it? Suffice it to say, they are stunning, absolutely stunning:
The color blue that T. Lively Fluharty uses throughout the book is one of my very favorites (a small detail, but one worth noting).
The Boy and the Ocean was well received by both our six-year-old and our (newly) four-year-old—it was her birthday gift, and it is a story that draws our eyes up past the beautiful illustrations, the lovely writing, to the maker of oceans and mountains and authors and artists.
Twice in one week, I found myself deep in conversations with friends about one question: Why is it so difficult to write about Christian characters?
The question surfaced after I narrowly resisted the urge to throw a certain children’s book across the room when the heroine—a Christian girl who held fast to her faith during adversity and yet to whom I remained thoroughly unsympathetic— “sobbed violently” one too many times. This offended both the reader and the editor in me, but also flummoxed the Christian in me, because shouldn’t a character’s relationship with the Lord form a compelling thread within a story? It’s something so beautiful, so rich. Shouldn’t authors be able to capture that well?
Some do. John Bunyan comes to mind, and so does C. S. Lewis. And Marilynne Robinson. But when the work is intended for children, somehow the Christian element emerges either in an understated theme or in allegory—both of which are fine—or else the Christian threads become so overt that they seem superimposed upon the story’s plot, lending the book an unwelcome awkwardness. A preachiness. And I wonder if anybody likes preachiness.
I have read a few children’s books that not only weave threads of Christian belief into a plot gracefully but also make them a key point of the story, and here they are:
So, why is it so difficult to write believably Christian characters and to capture their walk with Christ in a way that is both genuine and appealing?
Here is my theory: Writing about something as intimate as a person’s relationship with an unseen God must fall into the same territory as writing about one’s own marriage without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. To succeed in communicating something so intimate about a subject to which you are so close, you must strike all the notes just right or the chord fails and turns from pure music to dissonance, and the reader finds herself (for example) tempted to chuck a book across a room in frustration, because the thing the writer attempted to do should have been beautiful but wasn’t.
For a writer to capture something as personal as a character’s spiritual growth, they have to be willing to allow the character’s doubt onto the page at times, and to accept the fact that faith is complex—it is neither simple or moralistic. They have to be willing to step back from their own relationship with the Lord a little and observe how it works, and to lend their characters just enough of their own experience that the characters successfully cross that gap from stereotype to genuine, likeable person.
I say this as a reader, mind you. I haven’t even dared tackle this subject in my own writing. But I have seen novels make the ambitious attempt to scale the twin peaks of faith and fiction only to tumble into a crevasse somewhere between the two and land in my “used bookstore” pile. Which brings me back to that book that I did not finish.
That story should have been at least interesting, if not absorbing. But it wasn’t. And after I abandoned that particular ship, I found my desire for good, Christian literature hardening into a resolve to find good, Christian literature for our daughters, as well as for the kids at school. I took to roaming the e-aisles of Amazon, looking for potential gems.
And that is how I found The Tinker’s Daughter. More to the point, I suppose, is the fact that I found Wendy Lawton, an author capable of writing a compelling story that neither cheapens her characters’ Christian faith nor makes them unpleasantly trite. The Tinker’s Daughter is a well-crafted, fictional account of Mary Bunyan, John Bunyan’s eldest daughter, during the time when her father was newly imprisoned for “unsanctioned” preaching. His faith throughout the story is abundant and beautiful to behold. Mary’s faith is that of a fledgling, taking off timidly by the end of the book.
Another point in Lawton’s favor: Mary is blind, and for an author who can make me feel and smell and listen to the world of a girl without sight, I have nothing but admiration.
I have read a handful of books in this series so far, and I must warn you that Lawton does not tackle easy material: Shadow of His Handrelates Anita Dittman’s experience in the concentration camps of Germany; Freedom’s Pen tells the story of Phillis Wheatley, who was captured in Africa as a young girl and endured the horror of the slave ships before being sold to a wealthy New England family.
Lawton handles this material well, including just enough detail for the reader to grasp how truly terrible these historical events were without making the stories too heavy to bear. She allows her characters to ask hard questions through it all, and includes answers that satisfy the reader without oversimplifying the truth. So, I like the fact that these books tackle content like the Holocaust and slavery. But I don’t recommend handing them over to your children without reading through them for yourself.
That said, some of them I did allow Lydia to read on her own (after reading them myself)—The Tinker’s Daughter was one of those. We’ll wait on Shadow of His Hand and Freedom’s Pen for now. I believe there are nine books in the series, so I have more to read, but for now I’m savoring each new volume and rejoicing in the existence of an author like Wendy Lawton. These books allow me to hope that there are other authors out there like her.
And it occurs to me that you might know about them: Do you know of any chapter books that center around characters whose Christian faith is a central part of the story? Please let me know in the comments!
This post originally appeared in February 2015. I loved reading back through it and realizing that I have found so many more books that portray Christian characters beautifully and believably since writing this post’s lament. But I am always searching for more! Please, tell me if you know of any I might have missed.
I thought this was momentous because it was her last single digit year, but no: a friend mentioned yesterday that she was halfway there, and the park around us got suddenly swimmy. It took me a minute to realize what my tear ducts understood instantly: “halfway there” meant halfway to adulthood, and the park looked swimmy because I was crying.
But this birthday called for a little something different, as birthday books go, and so I explored the “devotional Christian girl” shelves of Amazon. I found a cheap book, one that looked promising, and ordered it.
Brave Girls: Beautiful You was (whew!) not a theological mess in pink and floral print. It is a collection of devotions that encourage girls with a growing awareness of their appearance and identity to measure these things by God’s metric and to weigh their beauty on his scales. As I flipped through it, I was impressed by the depth of the devotions and the simple way they illustrated, through the imagery of “putting off” our old selves and “putting on” Christ, how a young girl can best glorify God in whatever situation comes her way.
There are quizzes in here, too, which initially made me nervous, but again and again I saw that they were intended as an expedition through a girl’s heart and not as a measurement of her value or success.
So, this is a new sort of book for this blog, because we are in a new sort of season. Brave Girls: Beautiful You is sweet, yes. But it is also rich, and, I hope, it is the sort of fuel my young daughter needs as she begins to set her sights on becoming a young woman.
I was not able to read this book from cover-to-cover before I needed to wrap it up, so though I recommend it, I can’t promise that there isn’t some murky spot in there somewhere. But every page I landed on was good and true.
When a friend asked for advice about raising daughters (he and his wife were expecting their first), all I came up with was, “Expect to find baby dolls in strange places. And there will be glitter all over your house, but you won’t know where it came from.” In retrospect, I’d like to add: “People will buy you princess things—so many princess things. Even when they know that you don’t want princess things in your house.”
Also, I’d probably say something about daughters being a gift from the Lord, and it being such a joy to raise them. And so on.
I’ve written before about our family’s approach to princesses, and have meant, for a good long time, to revisit that topic with a list of the books that our girls have fallen in love with—books that do a little, at least, to combat the pull of the Disney franchise by portraying princesses and queens in a courageous, wise, and truly beautiful (not weirdly-animated beautiful) light.
Some of these leading ladies aren’t technically princesses, but you’ll find queens in the mix and ladies and little girls who display beautifully what true princess-ness means. Here are some unusual books about princesses.
Every good book list ought to open with these books, I think. And any list of books about strong leading ladies who are loving, empathetic and brave ought to open with Lucy Pevensie. (Read the full review.)
This book is old and wonderful: the story of Princess Irene, the miner Curdie, and Irene’s great-great-grandmother gives a great illustration of what it looks like to be a princess during the good times and the bad, in safety and in danger. (Read the full review.)
When a cantankerous fairy bestows not the gift of grace, beauty or charm on the infant princess Amethyst, but instead gives her the gift of ordinariness, the story of Princess Amy, thoroughly ordinary in every way, begins. This book takes a good look at what makes us truly beautiful and how to recognize those that appreciate those qualities. (Read the full review.)
What better picture of royal courage can we pull from Scripture than that of Esther? Though married to King Artaxerxes against her will, Queen Esther serves the Lord where she is placed and through her obedience, saves his people. She’s beautiful, faithful, and brave! (Read the full review.)
This sweet picture book follows the conversation between a father and a daughter as she imagines what it would be like if he was a king and she was a princess. Her father ties her vision gently back to Scripture and encourages his daughter to cultivate the qualities that Scripture emphasizes. (Read the full review.)
Though not a literal princess, Sara Crewe lives like one: pampered by her beloved papa and treated as royalty by the headmistress of her boarding school, she enjoys life’s luxuries—until a plot twist takes them all (every last one) away. But she determines to go on living like a princess in all the right ways all the same. (Read the full review.)
Jennie Bishop’s fable about a princess who is given a gift at birth meant only for the man she marries gives a lovely picture for young girls of marriage and purity—even answering gently, at one point, the question, “What if he isn’t out there for me?” This is a book that I appreciate for the way it helps shape our daughters’ views on marriage and sexuality while telling a story about a royal family who knows what to truly value.
Okay, Maid Marian isn’t technically a princess, but she does rub elbows with royalty, wear lovely gowns (sometimes, at least), and marry her true love at the (almost) end of the story. But she’s also fearless and loyal, willing to stand her ground against injustice and to fight for good alongside her fiance. There are many retellings of Robin Hood’s adventures, but Maid Marian’s character in this one makes it my favorite. (Read the full review.)
Katherine Paterson, author of The Bridge to Terebithia and many, many other books, puts a beautiful twist on those stories that marry off princesses as prizes for killing dragons and so on. When the king dies, he leaves his kingdom to his proud and quite unlikeable son on the stipulation that he finds a wife that is truly his equal. The search for such a woman leads to lovely and unexpected results—and no one is more surprised by them than the prince. (Read the full review.)
In that last month of pregnancy, strangers asked me the same questions on repeat: When was I due? How was I feeling? Did I know what I was having? I didn’t mind this. What I did mind was the track that conversation sometimes veered onto after I answered that last question with, “A girl!” Some people gave answers that warmed my overworked heart: “Oh, four girls! How sweet!” or “I’m one of four sisters! It is so much fun.” But sometimes the answers were less heart-warming:
“Just wait until they’re teenagers.”
“Oh well—keep trying for that boy!”
“Your poor husband!”
A much smaller, fully rested me would laugh those comments off. But at nine months pregnant, there were hormones involved; I couldn’t even pretend that the comments were funny. I knew we were excited about life with four daughters and that we weren’t “trying for a boy,” but I was too tired to explain that again and again to strangers in the bulk food aisle.
So I came up with a parry that redirected that conversation into safer, more joyful, more literary waters. Here’s how it worked:
Well-meaning stranger in the check-out line: “Do you know what you’re having?”
Me: “A girl!”
Stranger peers over my shoulder, obviously counting the daughters trailing behind me like ducklings, and raises her eyebrows. But before she can comment, I finish, ” . . . and we’re reading Little Women to celebrate!”
Her eyebrows drop and the stranger smiles. “I loved that book when I was a little girl!” And just like that, we’ve left off discussing monthly cycles and man caves, and started discussing, instead, our favorite March sisters.
Set during the Civil War, the story of the March family recounts the adventures of four sisters—sweet Meg, unconventional Jo, gentle Beth, and precocious Amy—as they help their mother hold down the fort while their father is away fighting in the Union army. The Marches are one of the literary families who seem to belong to the reader: their home began to feel like home as we read, their struggles began to feel like our struggles. This book is filled with so many memorable scenes that it was a joy to watch them weave into the shared memories of our own family.
I wasn’t sure if Little Women was too far about the heads of my 5 and 7-year-old, but they were warmly wrapped up in the story after the first few chapters. They each called out their favorite sisters and laughed aloud over the antics of Jo or Beth’s kittens. We read only the first part of the book (we’ll save the second, with its weddings—and funerals—for when they’re older), but already Little Women is a favorite in our home—not least because we now have our very own Josephine:
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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