The teachers were exasperated. Normally it was a challenge to get a child to read at all but it soon transpired that getting a child to read the right thing is even harder. Parents were summoned.
She reads too much fiction.
Even a child psychologist weighed in. His solution was to recommend Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea trilogy, much to their despair. But he had a good reason for doing so.
Today, I read an article by a Christian lad about why she and her husband decided not to let their children read fiction. Don’t judge too quickly, she was an English Literature student before she was ever a homeschooling mother — both excellent pursuits. The majority of her argument was that, for her, fiction had become a distraction from reading and meditating on God’s word, a very valid reason to give it up. However, the rest of her argument hinged on Philippians 4.8 and the fact that fiction, being untrue by definition, is lying and we should not lie. Parables and allegory are permitted because Jesus used them and they are helpful for teaching spiritual truths but otherwise, reading is confined to non-fiction, biography, and a limited selection of poetry.
There are those out there who believe that reading fiction is poor stewardship of our time, teaches us nothing, and distracts us from God. Some even believe that by creating these made-up worlds, the writer is playing God. I’ve been scolded myself for reading stories, it is such an ‘unprofitable use of my time’. Granted, like all things, stories (true or otherwise) can become an idol but that doesn’t make them inherently wrong.
It has been a long time since my parents handed me a copy of Earthsea, I’ve changed a lot since then but I think it was probably a pretty important decision that they made for me. Earthsea was a little bizarre and scary back then but I read it. By giving me the tales of a travelling wizard rather than the biography of someone who travelled the world, they showed that they knew something that my teachers didn’t: they knew what I needed in order to grow as I should.
The lady on the blog was right; fiction, by its very definition, isn’t true.
On a basic level.
But on a deeper level, it’s more honest and true than we can bear to be in real life and therein lies its value. I understand the desire for truth and the desire to teach children not to waste their lives on fluff but here are some reasons why I believe that fiction is an important component in raising a child.
Sticking to ‘Possible’
Not that long ago it was impossible for human beings to fly and the internet was a ridiculous idea.
One thing fiction taught me that non-fiction couldn’t, is that many of impossible things are only impossible because someone hasn’t proved otherwise yet, sometimes through fear and sometimes simply through lack of imagination.
Had my parents caved to my teachers’ desires and curbed my fantasy reading in favour of what is real, I would have been a very dull child and my problem-solving capabilities would have been significantly hindered. Much of the time, when someone suggests something ridiculous, my mind doesn’t find itself scoffing, it turns to how one would make something like that really work.
For example, did you know that, actually, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of fantasy for vikings to have created a working (potentially even fire-breathing) submarine? Tricky, yes, dad and I are ironing out the wrinkles, but possible because reading fiction taught me that thinking in a straight line is only one of many ways to think.
Reading only non-fiction confines a child to think and analyse things within the confines of what already is and what has already been done. Though these things are important, they aren’t everything.
Non-fiction teaches children that this is how things are and this is what is possible but good fiction asks why. Why is this the way things are and why isn’t something possible? Both have much to offer, helping a child understand the world we live in but reminding them that imagination can be the midwife of change and there is much we don’t understand.
I’ve known a fair few children who have grown up with a sparse amount of fiction in their diet (usually concessions such as The Famous Five and the Elsie Dinsmore Series) and it has brought me to the conclusion that one of the most effective ways to dull a child is to confiscate their story books (whether you replace it with 100 Fascinating Animals or some educational iPad game is irrelevant).
It has to be said that some children simply have a more scientifically and analytically inclined mind but they should still be given a mixture of books because fiction isn’t just about imagination and about showing people that the term ‘impossible’ is more flexible than they think; fiction is about truth — truth we simply cannot swallow cold.
Safe Space to Learn
Now, why did the psychologist recommend Earthsea and not Man’s Search for Meaning when both contained hard truth and someone’s quest for identity?
Because he recognised not what I was reading but why. This little girl was stuck in a less than kind world that she didn’t really understand and didn’t really know how to deal with and she needed somewhere to retreat where she could stop for a moment and work things out. Children do it all the time.
At that age, I would never have been interested in a book about psychology or human nature — what child is? But my books reminded me time and time again that all people are flawed and some of them are even proud of their sin (but that ends in disaster).
There are truths that even adults struggle to come to grips with. A child doesn’t understand death, it’s vague and irrelevant. But read them Goodnight Mr Tom and watch their face as Zach rides his bike down the lane towards Will, laughing and shouting, only for Will to realise that it isn’t happening and it never will.
You can tell a child that some people are downright nasty or you can give them The Twits. You can tell a child that the world is a hard, hard place or you can read them stories like the Dragonkeeper Chronicles. You can tell a child that monsters exist and prowl in daylight or you can read them a book like The Monster in the Hollows.
Children learn through watching and by reading fiction, you are helping them begin to learn difficult truths in a safe and controlled environment where all it takes to get away is for you to close the book and they are safe. Sugar makes the medicine go down and stories teach us what we can’t bear to hear said plainly. See Nathan confronting David about Bathsheba for a case study.
Showing How Life Works
Facts are cold, callous, abstract things. The difference between saying that there were 23, 000 plants and animals threatened with extinction in 2017 and reading a story about the last griffin is that one matters to a child and it’s not the IUCN Red List. Facts hold no weight without the emotion and empathy that stories lend. We recognise that, that’s why charities don’t just say 36, 000 children die a day of starvation alone, they tell you the story of one of those children, they tell you their name and show you what they look like.
Fiction can be used to teach. Read a story about a last griffin and show your child that how they felt about that creature is what it’s like for tigers or rhinos today. If a child can empathise with saving the last fantasy creature in a book, they can be taught to make a difference to real animals in the real world. This is only one example.
On a different level, in most (if not all) children’s books, good triumphs over evil — even if it was a little touch and go for a minute there. This is the ultimate gospel narrative. Stories showed me many things in life that I needed to know, things that mattered and shaped how I view and interact with the world:
- Evil is real.
- Good is real and it triumphs over evil.
- Good doesn’t triumph without a fight.
- Evil will be punished in the end.
- Faithfulness matters.
- Betrayal is very real and very painful.
- Forgiveness and redemption are not only possible but desirable and beautiful.
- Never underestimate what appears weak to the world.
- All men are sinful.
- We need to be saved, we can’t save ourselves.
- A Hero rose from among us and saved the day.
I could go on but do you see the biblical truths in these things? There are so many truths that hurt to speak plainly and there are so many that seem simply irrelevant until we understand them in more than just theory.
Fiction, when chosen wisely, is a safe and healthy place for children to grow emotionally and in their understanding of the world around them and how they should relate to it.
The psychologist understood something that the teachers didn’t: sometimes the world is too difficult and overwhelming and children need a place they can retreat to where they can work out what is happening, why it is happening, and how to respond. Reading fiction will expand their imagination and problem solving skills, it will teach them difficult truths in a way no lecture ever can, and it will give them all kinds of hope.
There is much good to be gained from a decent tale; there are pure, noble, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy, and especially true things which can be found in a good story. I don’t believe that fiction in general is unhealthy or distracting, we just need to learn how to enjoy it and how to talk with our children about it through a biblical lens. If anything, it will help them, and us, to grow.