e-mail us

Starting Point

The wisdom in children’s stories


She caught me. I’d tried to sneak it into my bag for school the next day without her noticing. “Why are you putting my book in your bag?” our 3-year old daughter, Cara, asked. “I want you to read it to me.” I promised I would read it for her tomorrow.

Our 8-month old son, Brendan, actually had received it as a gift for his baptism -- a children’s book called Old Turtle by Douglas Wood. I remember Bill, the friend who had gotten it for him, saying that he almost didn’t get the book because it was too “heavy.” “As I read it again,” he said, “I thought it was too deep.” I’m glad he ended up purchasing it though. With all that had been going on in the world recently, I thought it would be great for my class of senior theology students to hear.

Though I’d given them fair warning the day before that I was going to read it, I still don’t think they believed me until I pulled it out of my bag. “All right,” I said, “make yourselves comfortable, but not too comfortable.” At this point I heard one student say, loud enough so I could hear, “He’s insane.” This was followed by a “You don’t expect us to take this seriously?” look.

But I did. I hoped they would, too.

The story begins with an argument. The topic, interestingly enough, was God. Animals could talk then. Except it didn’t appear that they listened to one another. The breeze argued that God was a wind that always blew free. Stone and mountain disagreed. God, they thought, surely was immovable and high above the earth. The fish insisted that God, like itself, was a swimmer. All the other animals -- ant, antelope, lion, bear and robin -- followed suit. The noise became deafening until Old Turtle yelled, “Stop!”

Agreeing with all of them, yet recognizing their singular incompleteness, Old Turtle echoed all of what they’d said and finished by saying, “God is.” Before leaving he told them one more thing. Humans would soon be in the world.

Humans, too, fell victim to arguments about God. Except this time the effects were far greater. People were hurt. Wars were fought. Forests were cut. Oceans were polluted. The earth itself was dying.

Then one day a voice was heard again, “Please, stop.” This time, though, all of creation could be heard crying out. “And after a long, lonesome and scary time ... the people listened, and began to hear ... And to see God in one another ... and in the beauty of all the Earth ... And Old Turtle smiled. And so did God.” (If only!)

After it was over, I asked the class if anyone had any comments. Several remarked that it was a “nice children’s story.” Yes, I agreed, but not quite what I was looking for. Then, someone said it. David remarked, “You know the best children stories are really meant more for adults than for children.”

Point proved! I couldn’t have agreed with him more. If only we’d put down our Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele and John Grisham books and open up more children’s books -- The Ugly Duckling, The Runaway Bunny, The Wind in the Willows, The Emperor’s New Clothes. I wonder what would happen.

After her evening routine of bath, snack and teeth brushing, Cara and I cuddled up at the foot of her bed. We readied ourselves for story time. Sure enough, she wanted Old Turtle. Every now and then, I’m tempted into thinking that there are more important things to do -- watch television, make a phone call, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, and do some grading. I’ll try to rush, skip a page or even get out of reading to her altogether. “She won’t notice,” I tell myself. But Cara always notices because the stories we read are never just children’s stories. As I’ve experienced over the years, the truths contained in these stories are just as necessary and meaningful for me as for Cara.

Such is the power of children’s stories.

Mike Daley is a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. He edited Vatican II: 40 Personal Stories to be published this winter by Twenty-Third Publications.

National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2002