Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Gospel According to Newbery

When my son was younger, I used to bemoan the dearth of picture books that I could use to teach him Bible stories and, more importantly, theological and biblical concepts. Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful and thoughtful books out there for young children, to help them imagine what God is like, who Jesus was, and how we connect together as community. There just aren’t that many.

Even so, now that he is eight years old I realize that I should have relished those days of picture books - because there is even less available for him now. Yes, one could argue that now that he has become a reader himself he is finally at the stage when he can start reading the actual Bible for himself, or at least that we could be doing that together. On good days, we do.

A couple of years ago I wrote An Open Letter to Rick Riorden, mostly in jest. But the more I see how captivated my son is becoming with fiction geared toward older elementary school children, the more I wish there were novels just as compelling that would lead to conversations about God and faith and our relationships with one another.

Part of my thinking about what he and I could read together has focused on the books that I read at his age. These are often books that I revisited as a young adult and am revisiting again now that I have a child of my own. It has become clear to me that quite often the books that seem to have the most potential when it come to having a theological conversation with my son are books which were awarded the Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature. If you don’t know much about this award, here is a link to its history. 

Just a few days ago I was reading the 2013 Newbery winner The One and Only Ivan. I looked up from the book and said to my husband, “This book is really sad.” His response: “It’s a Newbery winner. What did you expect?” 

There is a grain of truth to that, since most books designated with this honor deal with some of the deepest of human emotions and the most difficult of human circumstances. What that also means is that the characters (especially children) often wrestle with larger theological issues like death and resurrection, evil and good, compassion and community. That makes these books a great starting point for some deeper conversations with our own children. 

So here is my plan:

Over the next year, I am going to select twelve Newbery winners (one for each month). I will read (or reread) each book myself first. Then I will either ask my son to read it, or we will read it together. After our conversations, I will focus on ONE theological or biblical theme within the book that he and I were able to talk about.

I will share my impressions of the book from this perspective and based on our combined reading and conversations. Hopefully, in the process I will be able to develop some talking points or discussion questions that might help others if they choose to read and talk together about these books with their children. 

I have already selected the first three:

August - The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1994 winner)

September - The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate (2013 Winner)

October - Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson (1978 Winner)

I don’t plan to do a full-on book report for each one. Plenty of others have written on these books and their authors. For me the most important part of the exercise is to find helpful ways through fiction and literature to have good conversations with our children. 

I am interested in your suggestions for my list from among your favorite Newbery winners. I am excited to learn from others the treasures that I know are within this esteemed collection of books. Here is a link to the full list, just in case you need to jog your own memory. 

(I am also be interested in suggestions of books that are not on the Newbery list; certainly there must be more than one book published each year that holds fertile ground for this type of work.)

I just finished my re-reading of The Giver this is a little of what we have ahead of us:
With his new, heightened feelings, he was overwhelmed by sadness at the way the others had laughed and shouted, playing at war. But he knew they could not understands why, without the memories. He felt such love for Asher and for Fiona. But they could not feel it back, without the memories. And he could not give them those. Jonas knew with certainty that he could change nothing.
 - The Giver 


  1. Well, "The Giver" was going to be my recommendation, but you've got it covered! So, my second recommendation is "Maniac Magee" by Jerry Spinelli. Aside from "Fox in Socks" by Dr. Seuss, it is my favorite work of fiction and it happens to be a Newberry winner!

  2. A book I love that may not immediately jump to mind... A Single Shard from 2002... a beautiful reflection on friendship, loyalty, perseverance and virtue. Theology lived in action - and its lasting effect on the world. Also, it is set in centuries-past Korea (don't remember the exact date). Enjoy your journey.

  3. I love The Summer My Father was Ten by Pat Brisson. It's a simple tale about responsibility, honest, peer pressure and an unexpected friendship. I have used it in Sunday school to underscore honesty and responsibility.

  4. we just finished a wrinkle in time. oof!

  5. Are you familiar with It's a site that seeks to connect children's and young adult literature with our faith story. You might like it...

  6. Definitely A Wrinkle in Time. I go back and reread all four in that series every few years - and come to think of it, I'm due...
    And I remember reading Jacob Have I Loved back in the day - another good one, if I recall correctly, though perhaps more appealing to girls than boys.