Are There Good Religious History Books for Children?

Are There Good Religious History Books for Children? May 23, 2017

Earlier this month The Christian Science Monitor reported on an unlikely success story in the world of publishing:

Anyone who interacts with younger readers on a regular basis knows that short attention spans and restless wandering are simply part of the package – and entertaining children often means turning away from reading material and towards more immediately distracting video or music-based diversions.

That’s why it may come as a surprise that at least one genre of children’s books has been trending upward over the past few years: religious titles aimed at kids. Sales of religiously-themed board books, storybook Bibles, and devotionals for children, have all been doing remarkably well over the last few years, especially considering some of the struggles of other genres of traditional print media aimed at young readers.

Between 2013 and 2016, such books have jumped 22% in sales, with an annual growth rate of 4% going back to 2003. “The trend has not gone unnoticed by publishers,” found Monitor reporter Weston Williams. “Since the new research hit the market, many religious printing companies have begun taking steps to meet the new demand with ads, new children’s titles, and other programs to serve the growing market.”

Which is great news for those of us who are not only trying to parent young children to enjoy reading in an age of distraction, but who are raising those children in a religious tradition (and want them to understand other religions).

DK Eyewitness book on Islam
Another of my son’s favorites: the DK Eyewitness series

We stopped by our local Barnes & Noble last Friday night, where we were not the only family perusing the Religion shelves in an otherwise quiet children’s section. In addition to the children’s Bibles and devotionals, we were happy to find books about Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, subjects that interest our twin seven-year olds as they encounter religious diversity at their public school. (“Some parents and educators also worry that – given the reluctance of many public schools to allow religion in the classroom – children aren’t learning anything about world’s major religions,” added Williams in his report.)

Right next to the two religion cases were two on History (mostly American) and two more dedicated to Biography. My son is especially fond of those sections, and happily started pulling age-appropriate books about World War II off the shelf. At the rate he and his sister read them, we couldn’t afford to buy biographies in Penguin’s Who Was? series, but fortunately their school library is well stocked.

Still, it was striking just how little overlap there was between those neighboring cases. The Religion one didn’t have anything that was primarily historical, and History/Biography wasn’t much better when it came to religious topics. For example, the featured book in the former was Tonya Bolden’s Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls — none of which is especially well known for their connection to the black church, despite that institution’s crucial importance in African American history. Contrast this to an American Girls book that I’ve previously praised for its attentiveness to the role of denominations like the AME — but can no longer be found in B&N’s AG section.

(It’s pitched more for kids quite a bit older than ours, but I did find — tucked away on the bottom shelf — Patricia McCormick’s book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Plot to Kill Hitler, which covers that martyred pastor’s theology and the German church’s response to Nazism. For the record, its footnotes listed both Eric Metaxas and Charles Marsh, though leaning more heavily on the former than the latter.)

Gigliotti, Who Was Mother Teresa?
I’m still waiting for them to find this particular Who Was?

The Who Was? series is a bit more complicated. I haven’t seen the entire list of 120+ subjects, but so far our voracious little readers have brought home only two entries that focused on individuals best known as religious figures: Jesus (a surprisingly well-done story that draws on the four gospels to present its subject in ways that should satisfy both Christian and secular parents) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (which neither neglects King’s role as a pastor nor pays nearly enough attention to the way that faith inspired and shaped his activism).

That’s not to say that faith is absent from the series; in fact, it turns up in interesting ways in biographies that might not seem especially religious or spiritual. In recent weeks, for example, our kids have read that

  • Isaac Newton “was a Christian and very serious about his religion” but “read the Bible with the same fierce, questioning mind he turned on the natural world… If he refused to agree with what the church said, he would be forced to leave Cambridge in disgrace, but he didn’t want to lie about something so important.”
  • Daniel Boone wrestled with aspects of his Quaker upbringing, including its commitment to non-violence.
  • Robert E. Lee was strongly influenced by his mother, who “Above all… taught him to have faith in God.” (But you’ll want to pick up R. David Cox’s newest book to learn more on this count. Likewise, you’ll need to read Tommy Kidd to your kids to flesh out the little said about Ben Franklin’s religious beliefs in that Who Was? installment: “‘What is serving God?’ Poor Richard asked in 1747. His answer: ‘Doing good to Man.’ After retiring from printing, Ben Franklin tried to do just that.”)
  • Hillary Clinton grew up Methodist and was strongly influenced by a pastor who “wanted [her] youth group to understand what life was like for kids from other backgrounds” and introduced her to the civil rights movement.

(I first came across Who Is Hillary Clinton? last fall on sabbatical. I was so excited to see the pages on Rev. Donald Jones that I tweeted a picture of them to the Anxious Bench-er who is working on her own Clinton book.)

But I wonder if publishers and authors couldn’t do more and take advantage of the boom in children’s religious books to help introduce historical thinking at earlier ages. For his article, Williams talked to two Christian publishers: Westminster John Knox and Harvest House. WJK has 176 titles in print in the realms of church history and historical theology, but I couldn’t find one intended for children. Harvest’s children’s wing (recently rebranded as Harvest Kids) has a sizable non-fiction line, but none of its titles are histories or biographies.

Perhaps other Christian publishers are doing better in this area, and our kids simply haven’t encountered their efforts yet. (Please correct me in the comments section!) And I’ve no doubt that there is home schooling curriculum on church history, but my own explorations in this area last summer (we home schooled our kids during the sabbatical) were discouraging, running more to hagiography and polemic than actual history.

But the Monitor report, plus my experience as both a parent of young children and a history professor at a Christian college, leaves me convinced that there’s a market for church history for kids: thoughtful and inspiring, well-researched but developmentally appropriate. If any publisher out there is interested in talking about developing such a line of books, let me know!

(Or perhaps I could convince some of my colleagues to follow the lead of other writers and develop YA or children’s versions of the histories or biographies they originally wrote for general adult audiences. For example, I can personally guarantee the good people at WJK that my Founding Father- and baseball-loving son would devour a kid-friendly version of either John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? or Michael Long and Chris Lamb’s spiritual biography of Jackie Robinson.)

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