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Children’s Books & the Kingdom of Heaven

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” — Jesus

This verse says as much about heaven as it does children. What does it mean The-Tale-of-Squirrel-Nutkinthat “heaven belongs” to children? Does that insinuate that all children automatically go to heaven? Perhaps. It might also mean that child-likeness is the essence of heaven. Which could be why Christ went on to say, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).

If heaven and children / child-likeness are in such close proximity, it shouldn’t be a surprise when those realities intersect. Like they sometimes do in children’s books.

I’ve had two rather profound spiritual experiences reading children’s books, which I’d like to share.

We happened upon the Beatrix Potter collection quite by accident as young parents. We purchased a wonderful series of small hardcovers that our family wore out when the kids were young.  The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was my favorite. I read it over and over to the kids, sometimes quoting lines from memory.

Much later, I would discover something profound lingering behind the sad tale of the impertinent squirrel.

It was during my reading of Surprised By Joy, the autobiography of C.S. Lewis, that he referenced the sweet children’s story. Lewis was describing his experience of sehnsucht. The word is German and means “longing,” but is almost impossible to translate. It has to do with “desire” and “nostalgia” of the deepest kind. Lewis describes sehnsucht as an “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.”

It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? . . . Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. The second glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books . . . it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible – how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it. And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’ . . . [it was] an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy . . . anyone who has experienced it will want it again . . . I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.

(C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, 16-18)

Lewis suggests that the concept of sehnsucht is of “incalculable importance” to the human soul — we long  for a far off country, one that, like Moses, we can Velveteen-rabbitonly glimpse but never enter. Though it defy words and explanation, it is a “sweet melancholy,” an “Idea of Autumn” that lingers behind the “commonplace.”

And what makes this ethereal concept all the more intriguing is that it’s tucked away in a children’s story.

During a particularly difficult season in my life, I took up the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit. It, likewise, conjured a strange longing, as if the book’s themes were much bigger than the simple story itself.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” — Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

Oh, how I wanted to be Real! And as the Velveteen Rabbit learned, we become Real by being loved.

Please don’t parse the theology of that too finely. For me, at the time, I was learning about God’s love. How unlike my parents’ love and the world’s love it was! And God used a children’s book to give me a glimpse of heaven.

But something else supremely coincidental happened at this time. I was over my mother’s house and she’d been going through some old belongings when she discovered a stuffed animal I’d treasured as a child. It was a pony. A raggedy little pony that I used to sleep with. I’d worn it out. The seams were bulging, the stuffing was bleeding out. That ratty little thing had been loved to death.

My love had made it Real, made it Special, just as God’s love makes us Real.

It’s funny the profound impact children’s books can have on us. I’m not talking about simple moralism or the cultural conditioning that so many children’s writer’s foist. I’m thinking of something transcendent, something even heavenly.  The  “reawakening” of sehnsucht. A “sweet melancholy,” an “Idea of Autumn,” a glimpse of a far off country, where Love is forever making us Real.

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Question: Are there any children’s books that have had a profound spiritual impact upon you? What children’s stories, do you think, capture a sense of Heaven and speak to something transcendent?

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Margaret January 22, 2013, 7:45 AM

    Such a beautiful post, Mike. I have always loved children’s literature, often feeling more of a soul connection to the stories and characters than I do with adult literature. Perhaps it is the child-likeness in my heart that says, when stumbling upon simple yet eternal truths found in their pages, “Yes…this…this!”

    May we always feed our souls thus.

  • Melissa Ortega January 22, 2013, 7:52 AM

    What a GORGEOUS post!

  • Kat Heckenbach January 22, 2013, 8:17 AM

    There are a lot of children’s books I adore because of their message, but they’re not spiritual ones necessarily. The Lorax I love for its message about caring for our world, and The Giving Tree for its message about sacrifice (and how we often take it for granted).

    Another children’s book that captured my heart is The Dragons Are Signing Tonight, which is not at all spiritual and I gratuitously mention it here because it’s just so cool :).

    The only children’s book that I’ve found that really touched me spiritually is an overtly Christian one, but it’s just so beautiful: “The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale” by Angela Elwell Hunt and Tim Jonke (Illustrator)

  • Jim Hamlett January 22, 2013, 9:03 AM

    We read the Beatrix Potter books to our children, too. And I’m hard put to think of other books that touched us as much. (My wife would be better at that.) We visited Scotland several years ago when I was researching my first novel and stopped at a small Potter museum near Dunkeld on the river Tay. Beautiful spot. Highly recommended.

    A movie about her (“Miss Potter”) came out several years ago with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. Well done; worth seeing.

    Thanks for bringing back some good “childhood” memories.

  • Nicole January 22, 2013, 9:22 AM

    I know this longing, this “Idea of Autumn”. You captured it so beautifully. Thank you.

    I can’t say a children’s book comes to mind other than perhaps my illustrated version of Black Beauty. Much about life and death and longing in that story as I recall now.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) January 22, 2013, 12:10 PM

    Maybe Dwarf Longnose illustrated by Sendick.

  • Brandy Heineman January 22, 2013, 12:23 PM

    Beautiful post. Last year, I set out trying to rediscover some of the books I loved as a child. Not sure why, exactly — maybe to recapture the wonder, and see if it was still as wonderful?

  • R.J. Anderson January 22, 2013, 2:43 PM

    On reflection I agree with C.S. Lewis about the embodiment of Autumn, but my personal (and far less profound) favorite thing about THE TALE OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN is the bit where Nutkin ends up in Old Brown’s waistcoat pocket. I find that endlessly hilarious, not just because Nutkin has amply proven that he deserves it but because since when did owls have waistcoats OR pockets? And yet somehow it seems eminently reasonable in the context. Bless you, Beatrix Potter.

    When it comes to sheer awe and wonder, though, I find few things to match the ending of George MacDonald’s THE PRINCESS AND CURDIE. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but there is a lovely scene near the end which simultaneously manages to evoke Christ washing the disciples’ feet and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and it’s beautiful. There are a lot of such transcendent moments in MacDonald, even though they seem to be different for every reader (Lewis was greatly moved and inspired by PHANTASTES, for instance, which he insisted was full of “the fragrance of holiness”, while I saw nothing particularly special or even particularly spiritual about it).

    The other one that gets me every time is THE LAST BATTLE. I don’t normally cry over books, especially not after multiple readings — but I cannot, absolutely cannot, read the “Farewell to Shadowlands” chapter without getting choked up and my eyes filling with tears. It makes me so sad when I hear other Narnia readers disparaging TLB or even saying they skip that book when reading the series, because for me it’s the closest thing to a true vision of heaven that I can imagine. But I suppose that if you don’t really have any personal hope of heaven, or any Biblical concept of it, then Lewis’s description wouldn’t have the same resonance.

    • Thea January 23, 2013, 12:41 AM

      I *love* The Princess and Curdie! It’s definitely my favourite by George MacDonald (although I would never recommend that people read it without having read The Princess and the Goblin first, because I don’t think the beauty of the second can truly be seen without knowing the first as well). Day Boy and Night Girl is also a good one. I find the questions he poses in it utterly fascinating.

      The Last Battle is also fantastic, and my favourite of the Chronicles of Narnia. It gets me teary, too, but not just because of the ending. When I read that book for the first time, I remember my heart being broken because of how everything in Narnia was all so *wrong*, starting with Shift’s idea to make a fake Aslan and culminating in that battle before the end of Narnia. The part with the horses was definitely the saddest for me… but then that last chapter! Those tears were good tears. Not only had everything been made right, but it had been made better than anything that had ever been revealed over the course of the series. Other people can skip that book all they want; the series wouldn’t be what it is without its ending. 😀

  • Tim George January 22, 2013, 6:09 PM

    Excellent post and a great reminder to us old codgers to view faith through the eyes of innocence. The first time I read lines from The Velveteen Rabbit was in Chuck Swindoll’s, Living Beyond the Daily Grind. There is a wealth of faith in the prose there.

  • Christian Jaeschke January 22, 2013, 6:26 PM

    I’m going to be very unoriginal and say that C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” had a profound impact on me spiritually as a child, as a teen and still do as an adult. They’re great stories of true and pagan mythology, stories that point to Christ without preaching sermons. They’re entertaining and have countless layers of meaning. The character of Aslan helped me to see God as both wild and humble, not safe but good. “The Last Battle” specifically had a huge impact on my understanding of Heaven, as being something very real, more real than this reality; something far greater than pop-culture (eg. the Philadelphia Cheese spread ads (with angels, harps and clouds) would have you believe of Heaven. I finally recognised Heaven as a real place, the New Heaven and the New Earth – a redeemed creation.

    Other books that influenced me were mystery/adventure/thrillers by Roy Pond. Many of the stories involved people facing off Egyptian gods and goddesses and having to play games of chess against them, or solve riddles or escape great labyrinths to escape the Egyptian underworld, alive. In the end, the only thing that saves them is looking inside themselves, to their own hopelessness and then outside themselves to God (thankfully this wasn’t done in an overly preachy manner).

    These books cultivated my imagination and helped me see God in new lights and as integral to every day life on dear old Earth.

  • Thea January 23, 2013, 12:53 AM

    Controversial as the book may be for some people, Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time has been my favourite ever since I first read it, and I find new things in it every time I come back to the story. I could (and probably will) write a whole blog post or more on how that book has impacted me but, when it comes to heaven, there’s this part where a group of beings sing, and their words, once translated, are similar to a section in Psalms. The first time I read that bit, I stopped and read it over twice or three times so that I could soak in the beauty of it and, in it, I caught a glimpse of what heaven must be like: The most joyful, desireable, and God-imbued place that anyone could ever dream of -and, somehow, even more wonderful than that at the same time. It was so transcendent an experience that I almost didn’t want to read past it because I didn’t want to lose that feeling. I still linger over that part on every reread.

    As to childlikeness being important in experiencing the kingdom of heaven:

    “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

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