Children’s Literature for Young Cultivators is a column devoted to good books for children. We’ll look at picture books, easy readers, children’s novels, and just plain good books for children of all ages, focusing primarily on stories and poetry. My goal is to provide good books for you to read with (or give to) the children you love, books that will shape their hearts, minds, and imaginations in Godward ways.
As a mother and a lover of children’s literature, I am always on the look-out for children’s books that embody the gospel in some way, that bring God’s story of redemption into the language of ordinary life. I want my children—and all children—to have gospel-shaped stories filling their minds and imaginations, shaping their minds and imaginations Godward.
The best of such stories, for readers of any age, do not make explicit the connection between the gospel and the story. Rather, the story stands on its own, rooted in the soil of gospel truth but embodying that truth in its own particular way.
Since stories are meant to be read and experienced, we can only understand the way a story embodies the gospel by entering into the story. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Don Freeman’s classic, Corduroy, one of my all-time favorite picture books.
Corduroy is a stuffed bear who lives in the toy department of a department store. One day a little girl named Lisa comes to the store and wants to buy Corduroy. Her mother says no; she’s spent too much money and besides, Corduroy doesn’t look new: he’s missing one of the buttons on his overalls.
Until that moment, Corduroy did not know he was missing a button, and he decides to go find it. That night, he begins searching through the store, goes up an escalator, which he thinks is a mountain, and finds himself in the furniture department, which he thinks is a palace. On a mattress, he spies a button and tries to pull it off—only to crash into a floor lamp and make a mess. The night watchman hears the crash of the lamp, finds Corduroy, and takes him back down to the toy department.
Here we see Corduroy’s attempt to save himself, to fix what is wrong by his own strength and intelligence. It’s night—an important detail; he is searching in darkness—and he goes, so he thinks, up a mountain to a palace, imagery that recalls Eden and Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem. But it’s a false paradise he’s found, a false palace, for no king rules here, and a false home, for no one lives here at all. The button he finds isn’t the button he needs, and when he tries to take it, he damages the mattress and breaks a lamp.
Corduroy cannot fix what is wrong with himself. In trying to, he only makes a mess and winds up right back where he started, still missing his button.
Back on his shelf in the toy department, he falls asleep. In stories sleep is frequently a symbol for death, and so it is here. When he wakes, it is morning. We ought to read this dawn of a new day symbolically as well as literally, for Lisa is standing before him, a smile on her face. She’s brought her own money so she can buy him and bring him home. Refusing to have him put in a box (a sort of tomb), Lisa carries him out of the store and all the way to her apartment building and then up the stairs to her parents’ apartment. Once again, Corduroy is going up, but this time he is carried to his new home, his true home.
In my favorite picture in the book, Lisa smiles a wide, happy smile as she runs up the stairs to her parents’ apartment, Corduroy in her arms. Every time I see this picture, I think of Hebrews 12:2: “Jesus…for the joy set before him endured the cross.” Lisa’s face is a picture of such joy. She is not mourning the loss of all the money in her piggy bank. She is rejoicing that she had the money to redeem Corduroy from the department store and bring him home.
When Lisa reaches her bedroom, Corduroy sees a bed just for him, set up beside Lisa’s—a picture of Jesus’s words to his disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2, ESV). Lisa sits down with Corduroy in her lap and sews a button onto his overalls. “I like you the way you are,” she tells him, “but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened.” Her love is unconditional—she bought him and brought him home when he was still missing his button. And she also loves him too much to let him remain in that state of lack and brokenness, so she supplies the thing he needs, the thing he tried and failed to procure for himself.
Corduroy is home. He is whole and healed. And none of it was his doing—all of it was given by Lisa. All of it was grace.
This is a story that I believe should be read again and again to children for as long as they’ll listen to it, for it is a story of the good news of the gospel, and layering it deep into our children’s hearts and minds nurtures a gospel-shaped imagination. Children will see themselves in Corduroy, needing help and healing, but they will also see themselves in Lisa, able to offer help and healing. For our children, like us, are both sinners and saints: they are lost, and when they have been found, they can offer help and hope to others.
Having said all this and talked about the ways in which Corduroy embodies the gospel, I want to add two caveats.
First, Corduroy is not an allegory. Lisa is not Jesus, though she is a Christ figure. Corduroy is not the human soul, though he needs something that he cannot supply for himself. Rather, these are characters in their own right. To reduce them to simple stand-ins for Christ and the soul is to fail to honor the story as a story; it is to make it something less than what it is.
And that brings me to my second caveat: Children need to hear this story as a story first, to enjoy it as the tale of a bear who needs a button and of the little girl who brings him home. It is important—no, it is imperative—that we allow children access to the story on its own terms, mind to mind, without our interference. Only thus will the truth embodied in the story become their own possession. When you read this (or any) story to a child, do not point out the gospel connections. Let them make these connections—or not. Let them enjoy the story as it stands. The deeper significance, the gospel shape, is part of the story and will work its way into their hearts and minds, shaping their imaginations.
I understand that it is hard to trust in this way, especially in a culture like ours where “message” books are the norm, where we believe we must spell everything out, where we are collectively afraid that children will not take away what we want them to take away. But even if our children never consciously notice that Corduroy is a story of redemption by grace, a story of finding our true home with our True Friend, the truth embedded in the story is nonetheless planted in them and will grow in them, especially if you read this story to them again and again and again.
Here are four more picture books that embody the gospel in some way, books that every child ought to hear and read over and over again:
1. Autumn Story by Jill Barklem
This is one of eight books about the mice of Brambly Hedge. The whole series features delightfully detailed illustrations of mid-19th century English country life, all at a diminutive scale, and follows this cozy community of mice through the course of a year and many adventures. In Autumn Story we meet the busy mice as they prepare for the coming winter. Young Primrose wanders off, and as night falls, she is alone and afraid. But a search party has gone out looking for her, and she is brought safely home. This tale of getting lost and being found has strong undertones of the parable of the lost sheep and the Good Shepherd.
2. The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. Clement Hurd
This is the story of a mother bunny’s relentless love for her little bunny—and the lengths to which she would go to bring her runaway bunny home. The boundless mother-love portrayed in this book is reason enough to read it to a child. But the story is also an allegory of the soul (this one really is an allegory), showing the lengths to which God will go to find His wayward children and bring us Home, and embodying what Sally Lloyd Jones calls “God’s never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love.”
3. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Little Alice lives with her grandmother and grandfather beside the sea. She tells her grandfather that, when she grows up, she will travel to far-away lands and then come back to live by the sea. Her grandfather tells her that is all well and good, but she must do one thing more: she must make the world a more beautiful place. This is the story of how Alice does just that. Miss Rumphius celebrates the goodness and beauty of God’s world and the goodness of our work as co-laborers with God and sub-creators of beauty—and it embodies the goodness and beauty it proclaims.
4. The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack, illus. Kurt Wiese
Ping is a duck on the Yangtze River, whose attempts to avoid a spanking end in his being captured for a family’s dinner. Unable to save himself, he only escapes death by the intervention of a boat-boy. Like Corduroy, this picture book follows the structure of fall/redemption by grace found in the Scriptures, embodying the truth that we cannot rescue ourselves—and that our striving to do so will ultimately get us into worse trouble than we were in to begin with. It shows us that left to ourselves, we are lost. But it doesn’t stop there. It also shows us that we are not left to ourselves: by rescuing Ping, the boat-boy reflects the reality of a higher and better Rescuer.
Again, please don’t mention to your children any of these deeper meanings. Trust that the truth embodied in the story will work on their hearts and minds—because it will—and that whatever connections they make on their own will be far more meaningful, far more theirs than anything we might point out to them.
The truth is in the story, and the children will find it. But more importantly, it will find them.
The featured image, “River Birch,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
K.C. Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. An avid reader, she is especially fond of old books and home-schools her four children so that she can spend her days reading and learning all sorts of interesting things. K.C. is pleased as punch to be writing for The Cultivating Project!
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