CATECHISM WITH CHILDRENS BOOKS Some Helps for Parents

It is a daunting task to look for books.  The book of Ecclesiastes had it right. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ Ecclesiastes 12:12 While I in no way can vouch for everything below, it is my best effort to find some useful guides to children’s books. I welcome any additions and helps. Parents are often the best resources for one another, but when it comes to faith, we often feel inadequate. I do, too, especially in the subject of children’s books. Many childrens religious books are trivial, superficial and some are downright wrong about God. You have to be careful when talking about heaven, God, Jesus, death and faith. So, here are some things that helped me.

 The Teaching Children Philosophy site is the work of Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg and his undergraduate students from Mount Holyoke College  is an interesting site with a terrific booklist, each one having a study guide with summary about the books and suggested questions for discussion. Click here to go to the site.   Although it is not specifically a faith-based site, the issues and questions it raises overlaps with faith. A New York Times article about the author gives some background on how it came to be. Spend some time looking around.  The summaries are very helpful!

University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has a similar site and has put together a guide also with summaries and issues. It is well-researched, and can help a parent have substantial conversations with children.

In 2013 the New York Public Library published the 100 Great Children’s Books For 100 Years list of the most read (i.e., checked out) and favorite books of all time of the past century.  It is a wonderful list of books from 1913-2013, and most of us will recognize some of our favorites, but it’s also a good way to find some new ones.  It was chosen by their Children’s librarians.

Amazon books and other booksellers offer similar lists, although they are proprietors and may be a little different and about marketing rather than other criteria.  Amazon’s 100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime is found at

 

When it comes to religious books for children, I was overwhelmed by the choices. And not always in a good way.  From Mommyblogs to homeschoolers, these were all over the place. So I would say, “Search at your own risk.” You will find whatever you’re looking for, which is pretty much the problem of the internet KDQuiltmakerGiftto begin with—the lack of “guidance” for the uninformed. A good teacher matters! There are lists everywhere—NY Times booklists, Goodreads, Listopia, Religious Tolerance, denominational books, and so on. Oddly, sometimes they are some of the worst books for teaching faith, because they are either so overtly religious and pedantic that they lack the quality of inspiring curiosity, or they are theologically questionable. Still, there are treasures out there. Magazines like Christianity Today and the Christian Century occasionally make recommendations, and even the Mommyblogs can have some good suggestions. Just read them with a critical eye. Someone’s entusiastic recommendation does not a classic make… Continue reading “CATECHISM WITH CHILDRENS BOOKS Some Helps for Parents”

Why Stories Matter


I see a dearth of storytelling power, almost an absence in our current public life. We have become a culture of three word slogans, name-calling, distortion and manipulation.

This summer, I decided to preach a series of sermons in dialogue with children’s books.  I heard another pastor last year at the Mercer Preaching Consultation in Chattanooga tell about the joy of doing such a series, and I wrote a note then that I wanted to try it.

The book, not the movie...
The book, not the movie…

I will have a Pastor’s time with the children in every service, and we will read from a children’s book. I will post top lists of books for children on our church website for parents, including a list from the New York Public Library list of the most read Continue reading “Why Stories Matter”

Say Hello to Porky for Me…

In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days.   It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel.  When I was a student, I

Miss Jenkins, in my 1973 annual, in her style shamelessly stolen by Flannery O’Connor and Lauren Winner

heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others.  I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers.  Now it was at hand.

I sent biographical info about me ahead of time.  The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives.  Here is what I wrote:

As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary.  Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins.  You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team.  Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby.  The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!

My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking.  I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever.  We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.

Mother and Child. Miss Jenkins was always coming by.

Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us.  We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something  else.  Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful.  It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva.  More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am.  I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.

My teachers changed my life.  Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience.  She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.

Henrietta loved her subject.  She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages.  “By heart” was an apt discussion.  When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.

Unidentified close friend of Miss Jenkins

But she was more.  Henrietta was our neighbor.  We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month.  A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her.  She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her.  She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer).  And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.

Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety.  He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks  were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible.  Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it.  She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion.  Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class.  “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!”  Every day they happily walked down the street together.

We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years.  She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor.  Our first real neighbor as a couple.  The best.  And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her.  Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss.  He was buried in the backyard of her  home, a different house from the one we knew.  We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack.  No doubt.

Since I am record as believing in the potential resurrection of the animal kingdom, too, I am hopeful that Porky and Miss Jenkins will be reunited, walk the streets of gold (hopefully without the inconvenience of the more unpleasant responsibilities of curbing the dog, for the former things are no more.  I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Porky for her.

But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either.  Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions.  She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.”  She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.

So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time.  We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night.  We sat in the parlor where we courted.  And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.

* * * * * * * * *

My chapel fantasy?  It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way.   Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper.  It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.

Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven.   My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book.  Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone.  I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby.  Life doesn’t stop.  Neither does death.

People who love you even leave eventually.   There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably.  It seems untouched, not altered by time.  A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us.  How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes.  But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,

            ‘Tis in my memory lock’d,         

            And you yourself shall keep the key of it.

Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins.  Thank you for the keys.

Distant cousin of Porky