Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Five Steps to Choosing and Using a Child’s Study Bible

This fall as my son entered the third grade, we started to transition him from a children’s picture Bible to a children’s study Bible. 

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some reflections on the characteristics of a typical picture Bible and its limitations as children get older. This is a transitional phase for us, because there are some moments when it is helpful to have on hand a paraphrased child friendly version of a particular story and some other moments when it is still nice to have illustrations to help illuminate the story for my son.

But now he knows that when I ask him to go and get his Bible to either read together or to get ready to take to church, that I am asking him to get what I would call his children’s study Bible. 

A children’s study Bible is essentially a modern translation of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) that also includes study guides, in text notes, child friendly maps, and even some limited illustrations throughout. Often a church will give children this style of Bible when they enter a certain grade, but there is no reason why you as a parent can’t take the initiative and make this same transition together as a family. 

Maybe there is one reason - choosing which particular Bible is right for your child can be a little overwhelming. So here are five pointers for choosing the right Bible and how each of these elements figures into how you and your child will use this Bible together and how they can use it on their own. 

For my son, we purchased the CEB: Deep Blue Kids Bible. I will be using it as an example for what to look for in a children’s study Bible. In the past I have also purchased both NRSV and NIV children’s Bibles, which takes us to the first decision you have to make when buying a Bible for a child.

1. Translation
Deciding what translation you want to buy for your child has to be the first step, because that will then determine what other options are available to you. There may be different study versions of one translation, but there will never be the same “study notes” published along side a variety of translations.  

I honestly chose the Common English Bible because I was interested in trying it out, since it is relatively new (2011). I personally prefer using the New Revised Standard Version myself as both a study Bible and a devotional Bible, because it doesn’t smooth over the quirkiness of Hebrew or Greek turns of phrase or idioms AND because it keeps some of the traditional language of the King James Version which makes it feel more familiar to me.

The problem with the NRSV is that it is typically considered to be at a 11th/12th grade reading level. This means that children can read it but not fully understand what they are reading. So I went with the CEB because it is classified as being at a 7th grade reading level. The New International Version is also often suggested for children, based on this same reasoning. The CEB is more recent and uses the same standards for gender neutral pronouns for human beings as the NRSV does, which I appreciate. 

I could go on and on about choosing between what works for me as an adult and what would work for my son, but instead here is a short video that we made to compare the NRSV and the CEB versions of Psalm 23. This was completely spontaneous but totally makes the point of why it is worth starting a child with an easier translation. (You can see here as well how he jumps right on the “study notes” that are included for the psalm. See step 3 below.)

2. The Introductory Study Guides at the Front
A good children’s study Bible will have multiple tools and guides at the front that should encourage children (and their parents) to use this particular Bible in the most helpful ways. It should explain to children how to look up a passage in the Bible using traditional chapter and verse notations and how to use the particular study notes that are included throughout. 

My favorite part of my son’s new Bible is the Table of Contents (see the picture to the right). Not only does it obviously show the order of the books of the Bible, which with greater use will become second nature, but it also gives a wonderful visual guide for the different types of biblical literature the Bible contains bracketing out: instruction (the particular way the CEB has chosen to translate the Hebrew word Torah), history, wisdom, prophets, gospels, and letters. 

These front notes should help a child get excited about using their new Bible. The Deep Blue Kids Bible, does a nice job explaining in very simple terms the history of the Bible, where it came from, and how to use it. There is even a short explanation for each of the different kinds of biblical literature. A good children’s study Bible will also include a preface particular to the translation (see step 1 above) which if you are still debating which translation to buy is a helpful resource to read while you are standing in the bookstore trying to choose.

3. The In Text Study/Devotional Notes
There are a few different categories of study aids that you will find throughout the actual meat of a children’s study Bible. Be sure to flip through and get a taste for all of them...or see if all of them are even included. 

First, you will absolutely want to make sure there is a child friendly introduction to each book of the Bible (see the photo above of the introduction to the Gospel of Matthew). This will help a child (and their parent) understand more about what they will find in this book - what kind of biblical literature it is, what themes are in the book, what are its major characters, and even sometimes some information about the author or author motivation. 

Authorship is a tricky thing when it comes to the Bible, and I appreciate the way that the Deep Blue Kids Bible is able to talk about the author without trying to explain who that author was, since most of the attributions we have for books were attached much later than the actual text. For the book of Psalms they write, “King David is named as the speaker for many of these lyrics...” which both moves away from a misconception that David himself actually wrote the Psalms, and helps children to think about what it means that so many of them are called “Psalms of David.”

Second, a children’s study Bible will also have notes throughout the text to help engage a child on each page. Sometimes these notes will help explain a culturally unique part of the biblical text. Sometimes they will help a child relate a particular passage to their own life. Sometimes they will offer an interpretation of a particular passage. These notes are where the children’s study Bible lives and dies, and you will want to read through as many of these as you can to get a feel of both the language they are using for children and how they are describing God and God’s relationship with human beings. This really needs to be language that you are comfortable with, since you want your child to be able to read the notes on their own without you being there to explain away the explanations.

For the Deep Blue Kids Bible, I feel good about what I continue to read in the study and devotional notes. Obviously the book has a water theme to it. The only thing that made me pause was their description of the notes that they call Umbrellas - “notes that give us help for difficult times by explaining how unhappy emotions and traits aren’t good for us.”  Hmmm. I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant, and so I looked to the back of the Bible (see step 4) to the section where they list all of the Umbrella notes found throughout. Here are some of the unhappy emotions that aren’t good for us: grief, depression, hopelessness, anger. I don’t really agree with a characterization of these being “not good for us,” since they are inevitable parts of the human experience and so well represented in scripture. So I spent some time reading through these specific notes and found that I was comfortable with the language that was used and the way these emotions are described and dealt with. This is an example of a publisher’s description not appropriately representing what the authors have done within the text. It worked out okay for me, since the notes turned out to be helpful. But it could be just as easy for a lovely description of what’s inside the Bible to turn out to be a misrepresentation of unhelpful notes and theological commentary. So be sure to read through as much as possible yourself before setting your child loose with the Bible.

4. The Indices and Study Guides at the Back
There are two final things that are essential for me when it comes to picking out a children’s study Bible - a kid friendly Bible dictionary and maps. 

Sometimes maps will be in the middle or scattered throughout the Bible, but most frequently they are placed at the back. Children should be encouraged to use them as they are reading, taking time to stop and look up a place name or journey to help them have a fuller understanding of whatever story they are reading. This will also mean reviewing the maps to help them know which maps they should use for which parts of the Bible - no need to consult a map of the Exodus when trying to locate the town of Bethlehem. 

A children’s Bible dictionary should include a variety of different entries: words that a child will already know but which have a specific meaning in a biblical context (e.g. “offering”), words that they may not have encountered before (e.g.“exile”), and specific cultural words or groups unique to the Bible (e.g.“Sadducees”). At the risk of coming off as a total nerd, I would recommend sitting down and reading through this dictionary- literally from A to Z - with your child so that they have a sense of what kinds of words it includes. You can also have a conversation about where they might go beyond their study Bible to find more definitions since this is bound to be a limited resource. 

I should note that the second word in the dictionary in the Deep Blue Kids Bible is “adultery.” I can totally understand its inclusion, because I am sure that my nine year old would need someone to define this word for him if he encountered it in the text. The problem is that the dictionary provides a modern definition for adultery rather than a biblical definition, which are two different things (especially from the perspective of women). This is not a big enough deal for me to nix this Bible. What it does illustrate is that while this study Bible is a huge step up for him from a picture Bible, he will still have more steps to take in the future as he develops his relationship with and understanding of scripture and the world.

Finally a children’s study Bible will also have a variety of indices at the back that list the in text notes, suggested readings, and other reference tools. One of the things that I appreciate in the Deep Blue Kids Bible are the variety of reading encouragements that even come with checklists that can help us be a little bit more motivated in our regular Bible reading together. 

5. The Cover
This is the final decision that you often have to make when picking out a children’s study Bible. All of the steps above need to take precedence over this step, even though the cover will be the first thing you might encounter or that might attract you or your child to a particular Bible. 

The Deep Blue Kids Bible comes in a variety of bindings in an attempt to appeal to different age levels and different kids. Despite all of the exciting choices, I went with the burgundy imitation leather binding. For me this really had more to do with how long I would like my son to use this Bible rather than whether or not I thought it would appeal to him. At a price tag of $25+, I would really like this Bible to work for my son until he is ready for his next Bible, which means 7th or 8th grade. So a cool cartoon cover that might work for him at 9 will probably seem a little lame by the time he is 14. 

This again is a personal decision that is really more about your own child and what it will take to help them be excited about using their new Bible. 

When my son got a glimpse this week of these different bindings he seemed a little disappointed in the one I had chosen. I asked him if he would have preferred a different one. Trying to be positive, he said, “No, because this one makes it look like a real Bible. I like that.” That really is the best endorsement that he could have given, because for the first time he is using a real Bible all on his own. I am glad that this cover helps him to realize and appreciate that.


What Bible have you found that works with your children and your family? What is the most important tool you have found to help when reading the Bible together with your child?


  1. My daughter has the white one with blue water on it. This seemed like a good choice. I would like to transition out "Bible to 3rd Graders" to the deep blue kids' bible, but we are giving basic NRSV Gift Bibles which have the advantage of being the same as the pew Bible. Still. I am surprised at how many parents leave it to the church to provide the Bible.

  2. I like the Discoverer's Bible by Zondervan. It's written in the NirV (New International Readers Version) which has the full Biblical text but in large print and with more readable language when appropriate. This was a great gift for each of our children when they learned to read. Just as you'd buy your children new clothes and shoes as they grow, so should we as parents provide them with scripture that fits their Spiritual "size" and needs.