There’s little doubt in my mind that we’re living in a golden age of children’s literature, but still, sometimes I wonder: where’s the romance?

No, not that kind.

This kind.

Between the ninja snails and gassy cows, sarcastic superheroes and berserker kitty cats that fill our favorite books, kidlit today strikes me as more fun—more ingeniously clever and entertaining—than I can remember it being in my lifetime. Read-aloud times with my kids are a blast, punctuated by uncontrolled giggling and riotous merriment.

Yet still, as a mother, I ask myself: could it be that kids’ books are becoming altogether too merry? Too fun? Too irreverent and cynical?

The Golden Key

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy laughing with my kids more than I can say, and I have no intention of banning ninja snails from our reading list. But still, the question nags at me: is there any room left in their young skulls for romance?

This question came to the forefront of my mind a few days ago, when I brought home a copy of George MacDonald’s classic fairy tale The Golden Key (just out in a gorgeous new edition with illustrations by Ruth Sanderson).

Here’s a quick summary, for those who may be unfamiliar:

When young Mossy hears the legend that anyone who manages to find the end of a rainbow will be rewarded with a golden key, he becomes determined to do exactly that. But finding the golden key is the easy part—discovering what it unlocks is a much harder task. Together with a runaway girl named Tangle, the two set out to find the key’s purpose—and discover their own along the way.

This is a book that is entirely earnest. There’s no slapstick. No sarcasm. No ninja snails. Just two children on a journey through fairyland, encountering truth, beauty, goodness, and wonder along the way.

Whatever would my children think?

I shouldn’t have worried. They were enraptured. I read two chapters the first night, three the next—and each time, they wheedled and pleaded for more. They didn’t care that it wasn’t funny or clever by contemporary standards. It was beautiful—enchanting—and, as it turned out, that was enough to completely captivate their imaginations. C. S. Lewis wrote of George MacDonald’s writing that “It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”

This is the same process I read beginning on my children’s faces when I closed the book on the second night, complaining about my hoarse throat and the lateness of the hour.

My oldest—whose literary diet often skews heavily in the direction of comic books—picked the book up the moment I lay it down, asking: “Do you mind if I take this with me and read a bit more in bed?”

How could I say no?

Perhaps there’s a little room in this world for romance after all.

Rachel Bomberger
Rachel Bomberger

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About Rachel in Review:

Life for this kid lit enthusiast and working mother of four can be messy. Confusing. Painful. Funny. Breathtakingly beautiful.

Enter the Eerdmans books. So, so many of our books, whether they’re bedtime books for babies or coming-of-age novels for young adults, seem to have a single uncannily common quality about them: they just fit. These wise, wonderful books somehow manage to tie into—and by so doing, help me sort out—the knotty complexities of life as I actually experience them.