Truth in Fiction

How does our Christianity come into play when we write for
middle grade or young adult readers?

We can give several answers to that question. Christians
should produce work that is:
  • Excellent
  • Helpful
  • Thought provoking
  • True

I could go on, but I’d like to stop right there and argue that in order to write
a book that is excellent, helpful, thought provoking, and true, we need to preach.

The best books have messages.
I would like to relieve Christians of the guilt they feel
when they set out to write books that teach children. I would like to convince
you that passing your wisdom to future generations is a great thing to do in
the novels you write. It’s not wrong to create stories for the purpose of encouraging
children to be moral and kind and obedient, or even to trust and obey Jesus
Christ.
If we can’t preach, why bother writing? Entertainment is fine,
but if entertainment is all that matters then why shouldn’t I give my arthritic fingers a break? There
are plenty of entertaining writers around already.
I don’t want to merely entertain, though, and I don’t think
I’m so different from most writers. Most of us, Christians or not, are writing
because we have a desire to communicate truth as we see it. Christians are not
the only ones preaching. I don’t even know how many children’s books are
pushing for environmental conservation. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care
of the earth—I’m saying that the green message is a darling in the children’s
market now, so people don’t holler about preachiness when they read it. They applaud
it, even when it’s slopped across non-biodegradable paper in thick coats of
lead-based paint. 
Another pet message? Affirmation (which is packaged as
tolerance). Children are often encouraged through books to be affirming of
people of different races, religions, and sexual preferences. This message is
welcomed in the children’s lit community. And, again, my point isn’t that we
shouldn’t affirm people. I’m just saying that most folks don’t mind if you
preach as long as you tickle their ears in the process.
All kinds of ideologies and religious beliefs are preached
in children’s books–feminism, humanism, pantheism, materialism, pacifism, and
atheism—but children’s writers like to pretend they aren’t preaching. Philip
Pullman, the atheist author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, says on the one hand that he’s not in the message business; he’s in the “Once upon a time,” business.
But he also says: 

 “I dislike his [CS Lewis’s] Narnia
books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life:
is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does
engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn’t touch it at all.

“The
Lord of the Rings’ is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious,
though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all
[in the His Dark Materials trilogy], I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not
worth arguing with.”

What is arguing, if not pushing one message over another? Pullman’s arrogance aside (did he really say
The Lord of the Rings was trivial?), for all his “once upon a
time-ing” he really thinks preaching is a good thing to do in fiction. The New Yorker quotes him as saying: 

“We learn from
Macbeth’s fate that killing is horrible for the killer as well as victim,” he [Pullman] said, before
reading a passage from “Emma,” by Jane Austen, in which the heroine is
mortified when Mr. Knightley reproaches her for mocking poor, garrulous Miss
Bates. The scene, Pullman
said, shows that, “we can learn what’s good and what’s bad, what’s
generous and unselfish, what’s cruel and mean, from fiction”; there is no need
to consult scripture. As Pullman
once put it in a newspaper column, “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but
it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”

I agree with
Philip Pullman. Story is a great way to reach the heart.
I think Christian
children’s writers should be writing stories that aim to move their readers to
believe (in their hearts) the biblical answers to those questions that Pullman calls the
“great questions of human life.”
I understand frustrated
novel readers who don’t want message thick as sugar in a glass in sweet tea. I usually
nod when they say, “If you want to preach you should write nonfiction. When people read fiction they just want a good story.” And yet, I still think the authors
writing the best stories, preach. They use a teaspoon rather than a measuring
cup, maybe, but they mix their message in and their stories are better for it.  
Which way do you
lean? Do you tend to put too much preaching into your novels or not enough? I
was saved while I read a novel. King David was moved to repent because of Nathan’s
story. What about you? Have you ever been changed from reading truth in fiction?

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 is represented by Reclaim ManagementHer short works have been published in various magazines, including Highlights for ChildrenShe blogs about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com