The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Spirituality in Children's Literature [Chalice]

Presented May 7, 2006, by Dr. Susan Morrison Hebble

This spring, I am teaching a course in Children's Literature at the College of DuPage in suburban Chicago. I have 35 students, most of whom are working adults and many of whom have children of their own. Nearly all are planning to pursue a career in education. I was intrigued on the first evening of class when several students insisted that a key purpose of children's literature is to teach "morals". I bristled, a bit, at their use of that word. For me, as for many in this church, the term "morals" has become loaded, much like a legalized machine gun. Some in our society seem to want to impose "morals" on us, on our work places, in our schools, on our TVs. And I cringed at the prospect of turning out 35 students at the end of the term who might choose books for prospective students of their own based on endorsement by, say, Pat Robertson. The idea that books for children should "teach morals" seemed somehow subversive to me.

As that discussion has progressed throughout the term, I have had the chance to consider more deeply how even the most benign literature for children - and I mean literature for very young children - does indeed offer lessons of life. And while I might continue to bristle at the connotation of the term "morality" as it relates to children's literature, I find the idea of "spirituality" more palatable.

Let's think, then, for a few minutes about the difference between the two words. My discomfort with the term "morality" is, frankly, its association with the religious right. This word is a close cousin of "values," invoked for political purposes masquerading as religious righteousness. Still, I assume everyone in this space does indeed live a moral life - you do good works, you are kind to people, you have integrity. But I propose that morality - the good old fashioned kind that has nothing to do with polls and politics - is possible only in those with a clearly defined spirituality, a sense of inner worth and value for oneself and the world and beyond. Morality takes form in our actions, then, while Spirituality may be our essence.

Yet, when I presented this idea to my class - I asked if children's books should be spiritual if they are to teach morals - this time most of my students bristled at me. "Spirituality is not taught, it just is", one of them said. But most insisted that kids were too young, too inexperienced to understand spirituality. These are the same students who insisted that children's books teach morality.

These questions have nagged at me all term: What is spirituality? Is it something learned? Something innate? Is it present in children's literature? Is it appropriate sub-text in children's literature? And while I don't pretend to have answered these questions to even my own satisfaction, I can say I am moving toward some enlightenment on the issue. Indeed, I have moved toward a few conclusions:

  1. First, that spirituality is something like a life - indeed, perhaps one can argue that it IS life . For spirituality cannot grow without nurturing, cannot develop into something useful, something beautiful, something substantial without care, without awareness, without connection. Sandy Sasso, a well-respected Rabbi and children's author, has defined spirituality as "a mode of living in the awareness of the divine presence, the sacred. It is the recognition of the transcendent, a sense of life's interconnectedness. The spiritual life is rooted in experience, encounters with the self, others and the world." Educators Barabara Kimes Meyers and Michal Elaine Myers echo this idea when they argue that "'spirit' refers to a quality of being fully human that ignites our potential to transcend the conditions of our experience. . . . . to move beyond what is known to what we do not yet understand."

  2. Secondly we tend to underestimate children. Children are more than capable of exploring and developing their spiritual selves. Indeed, children may be more capable of engaging in such an adventure than adults, who are often so overwhelmed with the minutiae of daily life that they don't nurture their own spirits. Children have the beautiful and enviable capacity to take in the most extraordinary things - their imaginations are fresh, their fears not yet submerged, their curiosity pronounced. As Sasso says, "Children aren't afraid of questions without answers until we make them afraid."

    In our own religious tradition, we find a consistent celebration of the child's capacity for spirituality. The 19th Century transcendentalists, Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller and their contemporaries called for a restoration of one's "childlike sense of wonder" in order to rediscover the spirit.

  3. Thirdly, we tend to underestimate children's literature. How many times have we looked at children's books - perhaps when we're looking for a gift for a new baby or for something to occupy a fidgety 5-year-old - and thought them "cute" or "funny." Not to disrespect "cute" and "funny" - these are important characteristics of kids' books - where would we be without the adorable Winnie the Pooh and his amusing friends? Or Max in his Wolf Suit hanging with the Wild Things? But to relegate children's literature to "cute" is to undermine its potential impact on its readers. Good children's literature can serve more than one purpose - it can certainly entertain a child waiting way too long at the dentist's office, but it can also help the child do two important things: pose Big Questions and ponder Big Answers. "Like all adults, children [certainly] are spiritual seekers; they come to us with an innate spirituality. What they don't have is the language to express it. [Good literature along with good religious education may ] give them the language, the tools they need to reflect and explore their spiritual experiences. Spiritual experience is a given; spiritual awareness must be learned or it will remain dormant for a lifetime" (Sasso).

Injecting religion into children's literature is actually not a new idea, even though the genre of children's literature IS fairly new. Indeed, before Gutenburg and his printing press, storytellers traveled from village to village, city to city, and entertained the masses, much as street musicians do now on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. But most of their work would today be rated R, for sex and violence. In the earliest centuries, the stories told were of Greek Gods, Odyssean heroes, and moralizing fables; in the middle ages and Renaissance, storytellers' bestsellers were primarily variations of folktales - Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty - and they too were spiced with sex and violence (in some versions, Cinderella's stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the silver - not glass - slipper; only the hovering white doves seem to notice and alert the prince that his potential Bride is spewing blood from her once notoriously large feet.). Biblical stories were equally popular, and often as violent. Children happened to hear these stories because they were with their parents, the intended audience.

But Gutenberg invented his printing press in 1450, and slowly, ever so slowly, publishers began to see a market for literature aimed at children. Books were suddenly plentiful, and during this intensely religious period in European history, the few books for children did one of two things: told them how to behave as young gentlemen (girls "didn't merit their own books" [Russell] 5) or why to stay loyal either to the Protestant Church or the Catholic Church. Published in 1563, John Foxe's anti-catholic Book of Martyrs was a favorite among England's schoolchildren for its "grisly scenes of violent deaths" for the sake of religion. In the very Puritan United States, one of the most successful children's texts was first published in 1690 - The New England Primer. In print until 1886, this text used rhyme to teach American school children the alphabet - with a blatantly religious sub-text: A="In Adam's Fall, We sinned all," J="Job feels the Rod, Yet blesses GOD." Until the late 1800's, what little children's literature that was published was published with the intent of immersing the child in religion and morality. Notice that I have not yet used the term spirituality!

But the Victorian Age ushered in a period to which we now refer as the first Golden Age of children's literature. For a number of reasons, the Victorian period set the stage for a proliferation of children's literature that finally "abandons the shackles of a moral didacticism that was more interested in the message than literary quality" (Russell 10). The family unit became stronger than ever (thanks in part to declining infant mortality rates); technology made book publication and printing cheaper and easier; the status of women was slowly but steadily improving; education for all children was gaining support by governments and families; and the middle class not only became educated but grew and began to affect the marketplace (Russell 10). And books became less a lesson in what to think and how to behave and more a celebration of language and imagination and, at times, spirit. Indeed, one of the most significant publications to come out of this period was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), with its extraordinary flights of fancy and nonsense. Another key contributor to the new approach to children's literature was Unitarian Beatrix Potter, whose The Tale of Peter Rabbit set a new stand for writing and illustration, offering a sophistication and 'gentle irony' in its affectionate presentation of Peter's naughty nature.

Importantly, once children's writers were free of the limitations imposed by religion and social morals, children's literature has produced an array of imaginative, thoughtful, hilarious, and gorgeously illustrated books. Of course, one need spend only a few minutes in a Borders - or Waldenbooks, I'm sure - to see that the distinctly "religious" children's book still thrives, and I don't mean to disparage such texts, but I suspect that their purpose is to impose Big Answers, rather than to celebrate the Big Questions and encourage children to Ponder Big Answers.

I can't say that we will find many distinctly Unitarian Universalist books, for that would be quite antithetical to our own beliefs wouldn't it? But how does a faith like ours - creedless, disinclined to preach to our kids, self-reliant and self-reflective - find literature that corresponds with our own, shall we say, VALUES?

Many books geared toward older children - say 10 and up - are indeed imbued with intriguing spiritual, even distinctly religious, themes. We have all heard the debates about Harry Potter and Christianity or anti-Christianity, and the discussions about C.S. Lewis' Narnia series as Christian allegory. But many of Lois Lowry's young adult books also ask The Big Questions: The Giver may be her most famous, most controversial (i.e., most banned), and most compelling book about the meaning of life. In Lowry's science fiction fantasy, 12-year-old Jonas has been selected to become an apprentice to The Giver, the keeper of all the bad memories and emotions of his community. By containing all negativity, the community has created a sort of utopia, but Jonas begins to question the value of such perfection at the cost of knowledge and emotion. A poignant and at times ambiguous book, The Giver illustrates Lowry's insistence that "young readers can face issues of great importance . . [for] 'Pain, too, is a gift of great value. It is what makes us human'" (Silvey 147). Another classic book that encourages readers to ask the Big Questions is Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, the story of 10-year-old Winnie Foster who accidentally uncovers a magical spring that ensures eternal life for those who drink from it. But Winnie also befriends the Tuck family, who did once drink from the spring and who have found the gift of immortality both blessing and curse. A lonely and imaginative child, Winnie is invited to join the Tucks and must weigh the advantages of mortality and immortality.

I don't think any of us would question the ability of children 10 and up to take on such issues. But what of younger children? Sure, the bookshelves at Borders have a good share of 'adequate' literature - "Captain Underpants" anyone? But we will also find some texts that do encourage even the youngest readers to Ask the Big Questions and Ponder the Big Answers. Remember that "cute" and "funny" Winnie the Pooh to which I referred a bit earlier? Well, a cottage industry has sprung up channeling the Chinese principles of Taoism through Pooh, and Pooh through Taoism. Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. frequently make their way onto college Philosophy reading lists, as does Ernest H. Shepard and John A. WIllams' Pooh and the Philosophers: In Which It Is Shown That All of Western Philosophy Is Merely a Preamble to Winnie-the-Pooh. And remember our friend Max in the wolf suit? Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are masterfully presents the boy Max encountering and taming his own "wild" self - a self which all children, indeed all people, have somewhere inside. Max becomes king of all Wild Things and instigates a wordless Wild Rumpus, but finds such power lonely and really just wants to be home, "where someone loved him best of all" (Sendak in Schulman 116).

Prolific author Jane Yolen has penned over 100 children's books - poetry, picture books, and young adult novels. Her lyrical picture book Owl Moon is notable for its sensitive and respectful rendering of the relationship between a young boy and his father, who leave their farm one winter night to go "owling." The prose poem evokes the sense of wonder and tentativeness in humanity's relationship with nature. The boy and father quietly and patiently seek to spot an owl; and after a long, cold wait finally succeed. In Yolen's words:

Pa turned on
his big flashlight
and caught the owl
just as it was landing
on a branch.

For one minute,
three minutes,
maybe even a hundred minutes,
we stared at one another.
Then the owl
pumped its great wings
and lifted off the branch
like a shadow
without sound.
It flew back into the forest.

'Time to go home,'
Pa said to me.
I knew then that I could talk,
I could even laugh out loud.
But I was a shadow
as we walked home.

When you go owling
you don't need words
or warm
or anything but hope.
That's what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shining Owl Moon.

But spirituality in children's literature can spring from silliness as well. You may find this a startling proposition, but if we share the assumption that spirituality is, indeed, about looking beyond oneself, about helping "young children move beyond what they know into the wider worlds of feelings and experiences," as Sandy Sasso asserts, then one of our most spiritual children's author might be Dr. Seuss. Sure, this is the man who brought us Whos and Sneetches and Loraxes and Green Eggs and Ham. But even from some such apparent nonsense, spirit might emerge. In fact, we could probably find a Seuss book to fit each of our own UU Principles:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas contains the theme of nearly every Christmas Eve church service most of us have attended: What makes the Grinch's heart grow 3 times that day is the epiphany that "Maybe Christmas . . . doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas perhaps. . . means a little bit more." As the Grinch joins the Whos in Whoville for pudding and Roast Beast, the community demonstrates the "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth"

And in The Sneetches, prejudice and injustice are challenged when the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches engage in a class war fueled by Sylverster McMonkey McBean and his Star-On and Star-Off Machine. But The Sneetches grow from their experience, ultimately affirming "Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" :

"I'm quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon Thars."

While nearly all of Dr. Seuss' books celebrate individuality, one Seuss book that underscores "The inherent Worth and Dignity of every person" as well as the "interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part" is certainly Horton Hears a Who, which tells the story of Horton the Elephant who almost literally stumbles on a small speck of dust that is in reality a tiny planet, home of Who-Ville and its microscopic Whos. The very, very small Jo-Jo, Who-Ville's self-appointed advocate, appeals to the compassionate Horton to protect Who-ville. And at great peril to himself - he is ridiculed and threatened by the other animals in the Jungle of Nool for believing in something they cannot even see - Horton successfully encourages the Whos to make themselves heard. Convinced finally of the tiny universe, the Jungle animals agree to respect the existence of Who-Ville. Horton proclaims throughout the book that "a person's a person, no matter how small." The refrain has two spiritual meanings - one for Horton, who clearly honors the tiniest existence, and one for the Whos, who learn that even the tiniest voice can change the world.

Seuss aside, one book that we must touch on that is appropriate for children of all ages is E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Perhaps this book, more than any other we've read this term, convinced my students of the potential for spirituality in children's literature. I suspect most of you are familiar with White's work about a young girl, Fern, and Wilbur, the runt pig Fern saves from her father's ax, and Charlotte the grey spider, "a true friend and great writer." Charlotte's Web unflinchingly touches on the miracle of life and friendship, as well as the certainty of time passing and death. Seasons come and go, and the unlikely friendship of pig and spider grows as Charlotte selflessly devotes herself to saving Wilbur's life; and in the process, Wilbur eventually sees beyond his own potential doom (he is to be slaughtered before the year is out) and learns to honor Charlotte's life and friendship. The miracle is less the words on the web than the life on the farm. And White somewhat affectionately exposes the hubris and humanity of the people involved as well - Dr. Dorian, perhaps White's alter-ego, assures Fern's mother that she need not understand how the words appeared on the web:

"Oh no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle."

Regardless of her discomfort with what she cannot understand, Mrs. Arable gets caught up in the excitement of the miracle of Charlotte's web. And as Wilbur wins a special award at the county fair - Charlotte has declared him "humble" - his life is secure. But Charlotte dies soon thereafter, her egg sack entrusted to her friend, Wilbur.

The book concludes with a poignant celebration of life and friendship:

As time went on, and the months and years came and went,[Wilbur] was never without friends. Fern did not come regularly to the barn anymore. She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen. But Charlotte's children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, year after year, lived in the doorway. . . .. Life in the barn was very good. .. . It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

In 'transcending the condition of his experience', Wilbur becomes aware of the extraordinariness of not only his life, but life itself.

The beauty of Charlotte's Web is that it, like most of the books mentioned here, can be visited and revisited - the spiritual lessons never grow old, never weaken in their delivery. Indeed, as author Robertson Davies once said, "A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight." And Charlotte's Web IS a truly great book.

I am sure as I've spoken that you have been turning over in your own minds books that have touched your spirit or that of your children or your children's children. So I'd like to close by encouraging you to celebrate the "glory of everything" that is to be found in truly great literature - for these texts may be categorized as "children's literature" but we're never too young, nor too old, to Ask the Big Questions and Ponder the Big Answers. To quote Donna Freitas, professor of Religion, Spirituality, and Gender, "Good religion doesn't give us answers but instead gives us the space to ask, to want, to seek, provides us with a roof over our heads, a bench where we can sit and ponder, and a place to soar high up into its rafters. Children's literature, in its own small way, offers a similar house for reflection, a safe place to cry and to love, to get angry and cry out in wonder, to leap with joy and abandon."

Closing Words

"It is only when man cultivates humanness that society will shine with radiance and the nation and the world will progress. Humanness can be promoted only through spirituality and not by any other means. Just as a seed can sprout only when it is planted in the soil and watered, human values can grow only in spiritual soil."--Sri Sathya Sai Baba

Works Cited

©2006 Dr. Susan Morrison Hebble

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Dr. Susan Morrison. 2006. Spirituality in Children's Literature, /talks/20060507.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.