When I first read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in second grade, the ornery Eustace Scrubb’s encounter with Aslan made me catch my breath. I wasn’t raised in the church and so had no language for what C. S. Lewis so exquisitely portrayed, but as I read of Aslan’s rescue of the miserable, cantankerous Eustace from his fate as a dragon, my heart leaped.
When I arrived at this same passage as a follower of Christ 30 years later, I burst into tears. My kids sat on either side of me on the couch and gawked as I struggled to compose myself. “Guys,” I gushed, slapping down the book, “Does this scene remind you of anything?”
My son, who had weathered many such interruptions during our reading of The Chronicles of Narnia, drew a breath and mustered his patience. “Yep, Mom. It’s like Jesus taking away our sins. Now, can we please keep reading?” He popped a piece of granola bar into his mouth as my cue to journey onward. We carried on, but the moment—and the fresh reminder of the gospel it afforded, like a spring breeze through a window—lingered with me for weeks afterward.
Riches of Children’s Literature
The vast riches of children’s stories aren’t for kids alone.
Ample research highlights how read-alouds nourish children’s minds. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised its members to recommend daily reading aloud to parents, citing well-established benefits in child brain development and parent-child relationships. In her book The Enchanted Hour, Wall Street Journal children’s book critic Meghan Cox Gurdon summarizes the far-reaching effects of stories on language development, literacy, and social-emotional skills, and calls reading aloud a “magic elixir.” “If reading aloud were a pill,” she writes, “every child in the country would get a prescription.”
And yet, the vast riches of children’s stories aren’t for kids alone. Great children’s literature offers glimpses of redemption that may stir our hearts as kids, but which silence us with awe when we’re adults well-versed in Scripture.
As kids, we may have delighted in the magic of Narnia, but that amusement deepens to wonder as adults when we marvel at the threads of Christian allegory woven throughout. Tolkien’s Ring of Power in The Lord of the Rings, with its ability to both entice and corrupt, affects us more powerfully when we’ve borne the weight of sin ourselves over the long decades. And the redemption of the protagonist’s grandfather in Heidi, which may have delighted us as kids, strikes us as deeply poignant when we fully grasp the theme of the Prodigal Son throbbing at the center of the novel.
As children, great stories point our young, flourishing minds to the gospel. As adults, such stories steep us in gospel hope when we need it most.
Hope Grown-Ups Need
Despite the treasures of good stories, too often the harried pace of adult life steers us away from them. Taxes, deadlines, health crises, and the daily urgency of getting kids out the door and dinner on the table crowd out the books that shaped us as children. Life is too frenetic, and our work too important, to busy ourselves with childish things.
And yet, C. S. Lewis flatly rejected the notion that we can outgrow great stories. “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so,” he wrote on the subject. “Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Indeed, as we age, great stories can offer us glimpses of hope to sustain us through the hardest of days. “Don’t you miss the peace that a good story left behind in your soul?” writes children’s author Mitali Perkins, who credits children’s literature with opening her mind to the gospel. “Children’s books can still do that good work for adults. . . . Good stories for children, after taking us through a hero’s journey fraught with danger and loss, leave us with hope.”
When headlines mercilessly confront us with the wages of our sin, great stories remind us that sin has been swallowed up in victory.
Such hope can prove as vital as air when the narratives of the world threaten to crush us. When headlines mercilessly confront us with the wages of our sin (Rom. 6:23), great stories remind us that sin has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54), that our Savior will return, and that good will overcome. When we read happy endings in children’s literature, our minds turn to the greatest happy ending of all, an ending that no power on earth can wrench from us (Rom. 8:38–39): our adoption as God’s children in Christ.
Glimpses of the True Story
Scripture reveals that stories shape and guide us. Jesus instructs us through parables because for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, stories linger in the mind far longer than any monologue. The entire Bible is one great, breathtaking story of God’s faithfulness over the millennia.
We may decide that when we hang up our baseball mitts and tuck our dolls onto the shelf, the stories that once rippled through our days also recede forever into the past. Yet with their emphasis on hope in the darkness, the best children’s stories can point us back to the greatest story, the true story of our salvation and redemption through Christ. And such stories, no matter how childish they seem, can offer us a welcome cup of water on arid days and a flicker of light on the darkest of nights.