“A rocking chair,” the student noticed as she came through the door, “can I sit in it?” A corner of the classroom had been cleared of tables, desk-chairs, and all but a garage-sale rocker. Before I could answer she was sitting and swaying and smiling with child-like hope for whatever lay ahead.
“For now you can sit there,” I explained in my best Mister Rogers voice, “but we’re going to take turns.”
Soon she gave up the throne to her teacher and took a place on the floor with the rest of the class. I explained that we would begin and end every class in our reading corner, with a picture book. Claps and cheers filled the room, yet they were quickly replaced by respectful silence as I opened the book.
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The above scene could have taken place in the pre-school Sunday school class I teach. But it did not. This was a room filled with adults for the first day of a course at a theological school where we train future ministers and therapists for their work ahead, including work with children. My co-teacher — Dr. Carol Cook — and I had each independently incorporated some children’s literature into our religious education and pastoral care courses for years, but in sporadic ways. Students often claimed it was the best part of the courses. The break from reading dense textbooks of ill-crafted, jargon-filled prose was one reason, but more importantly, students remembered the stories, characters’ feelings, the sadness, the joy, the inner lives, the outer hardships, all the complex situations, of childhood. In turn, these works opened up terrific conversations about the worlds of children, and students could see children themselves in deeper ways. Carol and I decided it was time for a whole course devoted to the subject and developed Children’s Literature in Faith and Life at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.
While we wanted students to read books written for grade-school age and teen readers, we were also set on immersing students in the powerful world of picture books. We came up with two strategies: one was to have them go to libraries and bookstores to explore; the other was to replace the typical devotions that ordinarily opened a seminary classroom with picture books. We hit on the idea of a reading corner with a rocking chair.
In the class, students and teachers alike take turns reading out loud their favorite books from the rocker. These future pastors and therapists put their bodies in the positions of young children, down on the ground, low, where the rest of the world looks so much bigger. The time together — the page-turning and looking, the reading and listening — becomes devotional, whether reading from a children’s book of prayers or from Dr. Seuss.
We hear stories of friendship, compassion, hope, beauty, and love. And we share a lot of funny and silly stories as well, tales that make us laugh out loud and stories that are sheer fun. Yet the reading corner is not only about rainbows and butterflies. In addition to beauty and kindness and fun, we also encounter the tougher side of life: stories of bullying, loss, addiction, illness, even stories of death. Many are fictional, but others involve historical figures and troubled situations as well.
One of the points of this exercise is to remind ourselves that children, too, face the same kinds of existential dilemmas and threats that adults do. Down low, low on the ground where children are, we feel how threatening the world can be to a child. This awareness is essential for any who work or live with children, and especially for those who encounter children in ministry and therapy.
At the same time there can be a resiliency in childhood that hopes and laughs and lives fully even in the face of challenge, a resiliency often testified to in children’s literature, if not faith itself. It helps a lot to have a caring adult or two around, whether at home or school, in a congregation or therapist’s office — adults that understand children. That is our goal.
An unexpected consequence of the course has been how our students, adults, re-discover the joys of sitting close to the ground — the profound grandeur of a big world, the deep wonder of childhood, fresh perspectives on life, the energy and vitality and imagination available through stories. And such joy has a way of cultivating care.
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“Let all God’s children say?” the reader prompts at the closing of the book.
We all respond, “Amen.” We say “amen” while we sit, down low, our bodies on the ground like little children, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. We say “amen” to express gratitude and devotion.
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Dr. J. Bradley Wigger is professor of religious education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the author of Thank You, God.