If a pastor spends an afternoon reading a middle-grade fiction book by Kate DiCamillo or Gary Schmidt or Kwame Alexander, does that count as work time for the church? Or is that an avocational pursuit that cannot be included in the pastor’s wider ministry? If you queried members of an average congregation on such questions, you would get mixed responses, but quite possibly there would be a number of churchgoers who would wish their pastor did not “waste” time reading books written for kids.
Anyone who knows me or is familiar with the seminar “Imaginative Reading for Creative Preaching” that I have co-led alongside Neal Plantinga for nearly twenty years knows how I would answer these questions. Yes, reading children’s literature and middle-grade fiction should count as ministry time, and if a pastor is not reading such works, it’s time to start! Sermons can be enriched when preachers engage regularly with well-written books for the young.
But what specifically might one gain by such reading? First, a reminder from C. S. Lewis, who might have been riffing on G. K. Chesterton: a children’s book that is interesting only to children is not a good book. Well-crafted stories for the young will be as interesting and intriguing to an adult as they are to a child. Many of us have experienced this truth through Lewis’s own Narnia novels and other books we have read to or with our children and enjoyed at least as much as they did.
When the art of storytelling is done well, the precise audience for which a book was intended becomes irrelevant. I can attest that on more than one occasion after finishing a middle-grade novel—or in the course of reading one—I have been reduced to tears. The final lines of Katherine Paterson’s classic Bridge to Terabithia at once broke my heart and made it soar. When I first started Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover—written entirely in verse—I was not sure about it. But then I sat stock-still in a hotel room chair reading for two and a half hours, and when I finished the book, I wept. (That, by the way, is a nice advantage of reading middle-grade fiction: an adult can finish an entire novel in an afternoon.)
If a preacher ever hopes to move another human’s heart, Neal Plantinga likes to say, then his or her own heart has to be capable of being moved first. And preachers need to recognize what it is about a story that sets their hearts racing. Stories written for the young can do that.
Another advantage of reading such books ties in with the preacher’s foremost tool: language. Good middle-grade fiction features sentences that are not too long, word choices that are not too fancy, and descriptions that paint pictures in one’s mind. That is not to say the texts are simple. Rather, they possess a noble simplicity. They present example after example of how much can be accomplished when ordinary and everyday words are wielded well. Because in sermons we ought to shoot for what C. S. Lewis called “the elevated vernacular,” apprenticing oneself to masters of writing for the young makes good sense. And as Neal Plantinga always says in the “Imaginative Reading” seminar, if a preacher can craft sermons that speak to a twelve-year-old’s heart, you can be assured those same sermons will also touch the hearts of that child’s parents and grandparents and everyone else who listens.
For pastors, a bonus of reading middle-grade fiction is a heightened awareness that the children and young people in the congregation are not empty containers waiting to be filled up with knowledge. Children have rich interior lives. They have fears. They have secrets. They can figure things out on their own. They don’t need to be talked down to (or preached down to); instead, they should be treated as the thoughtful individuals they are. When accomplished authors are asked how they write so well about children and adolescents, most give some version of: “I remember what it was like to be a child myself.” That is something every pastor ought to strive for.
This is also why surprisingly terrible and sad things can happen in good novels for the young. Characters get hurt and sometimes die. Anyone who thinks that such books should avoid sorrow and death fail to realize that children and adolescents have to figure out how to deal with such realities, whether they encounter them in the books they read or not. Even so, authors of middle-grade fiction sometimes get pushback from parents or teachers about the sad or tragic elements of their stories.
Such pushback was addressed by acclaimed author Katherine Paterson on December 25, 1988, when she published a lyric essay in The New York Times Book Review titled “Hope Is More Than Happiness.” In the essay, Paterson admits that her books—like many other middle-grade fiction books—do not often feature conventional, “happily ever after” endings. But that is because the real world in which children grow up does not regularly lead to such fairy-tale conclusions either.
If we want our children to grow up with hope, Paterson writes, then we need to know that true hope “cannot simply be wishful thinking, nor can it be only the desire to grow up and take control over our own lives. Hope is a yearning, rooted in reality, that pulls us toward the radical biblical vision of a world where truth and justice and peace do prevail, a time in which the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, a scene which finds humanity living in harmony with nature, all nations beating their swords into plowshares and walking together by the light of God’s glory. Now there’s a happy ending for you. The only purely happy ending I know of.”
Hope nestled amidst the weeds and thorns of a fallen world: that is biblical hope. And it is precisely the kind of hope we preachers should desire to foster in people of all ages. Perhaps seeing how such hope kindles in the young can remind us how it must be kindled and nurtured in all our hearts.
A vivid example of an adolescent novel that contains an unexpected tragedy is the aforementioned classic Bridge to Terabithia. At the conclusion of Paterson’s 1988 article, she quotes a letter she received from a parent whose child had read the book: “I really respected this book. . . . You stuck to reality, and you also stuck to a dream.” Paterson then uses this quote to sum up her literary vision: “That is what hope is in my books. And, come to think of it, isn’t it, as well, what we’re celebrating when we sing of the babe ‘all meanly wrapped in swathing bands, and in a manger laid’? Aren’t we saying that in this lowly birth the One who is and will be, the author of our creation, stuck to reality and also to a dream?”
Sounds like the gospel to me.