Schools, libraries, and families across the Diocese this week will be celebrating Children’s Book Week. But how is religion represented in children’s books today?
Not very well, according to Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a children’s book author. “I have had bookstores cancel my children’s story time appearances when they read my books and realize prayer is portrayed as an integral part of family life. They were concerned that passages about ‘praying hands’ and ‘saying grace’ would offend non-Christian customers.” Cusimano Love’s books, You Are My I Love You and You Are My Miracle celebrate the parent-child relationship, from breakfast and baths through bedtime prayers.
Many in the children’s book industry are often more comfortable portraying religion as a point of conflict. Judy Blume won the prestigious National Book Association Lifetime achievement award this year for books like Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret that portray children searching for their own religious identity outside mainstream religions or the beliefs of their families. Other books, such as Snow in Jerusalem, lament religious conflict around the world.
In response, Christian bookstores have increased their offerings for young readers. “While the growth of Christian bookstores is wonderful,” says Cusimano Love, “the problem is it leads to a ghetto-izing of religion. Children get the message that it’s O.K. to talk about anything from sex to farting dogs in children’s books, but books that have a positive or more explicit portrayal of Christianity belong in a separate bookstore.”
On the other hand, the commercial success of Christian booksellers has gotten the attention of the publishing industry, making some companies more willing to publish children’s books with religious themes. “Despite the cancellations of some bookstores, my publisher Philomel/ Penguin/ Putnam stood behind me, and readers rewarded them, making the books best sellers,” Cusimano Love says. “My publisher did not ask me to water down or remove passages with religious overtones. You Are My Miracle is fully a Christmas book in which the family reads the nativity story and sings religious carols, not a generic ‘holiday’ story.” Once a children’s author is established he may be given more latitude to produce religious-themed books, such as Tomi dePaola’s books Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Patrick. Technology also offers options beyond the nearest bookstore shelf. From internet book sales to easier inter-library loans, families, teachers, and librarians can expose children to books with more varied and positive portrayals of religious values.