“Do you have any book recommendations for my son?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked too many times to count, and it’s one I don’t always find easy to answer—even if I feel like I should. As an author and publisher of Middle Grade and Young Adult literature, I wish I had an easy rubric to determine what is true, good, and beautiful in all the books ever published. But the fact is that although I confidently recommend those books I love—trust in what is beautiful in those stories for young readers who may wander into their pages—the world of publishing is too vast and families too diverse in their tastes, tolerances, and perspectives to know I what would be a good recommendation every time.
My own view is too limited and lacks variety even to begin with to be worthy of recommendation to parents looking for books for their children. The same can be said of any of us, individually, as our views will always be subjective to our experiences and tastes. For example, I love fantasy books, but it took me years to realize that my recommendations weren’t connecting with my own 13-year-old son because he prefers to read nonfiction nature books and historical fiction. Even though creating stories for young people is my career and passion, within my own family, I struggle to find stories that I can trust to pass on to my children, as reading nonfiction and historical fiction is in out of my comfort zone.
This is where such a resource Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, the new book from Square Halo Books, can help parents, caregivers, grandparents, godparents, friends of families—anyone who is welcome in the process of helping to shepherd and raise children. Wild Things and Castles in the Sky is “A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children.” In this collection of over 40 essays edited by Leslie Bustard, Carey Bustard, and Théa Rosenberg, each essay covers a topic related to storytelling for children and youth—from the importance of reading aloud to your son, to what to look for in classic picture books, why diversity and representation are important in youth literature, and much more.
Wild Things and Castles in the Sky is useful because it is not prescriptive; it does not presume to act as The authority on selecting the best books for children. Instead, by presenting the ideas of many essays from different Christian backgrounds and theological perspectives, it allows the reader to examine the topics and examine the ideas—and the book’s recommendations—for themselves. Each essayist recommends five books for young readers related to their essay topic at the end of their essay, with a paragraph explaining their recommendations. Because the essays are topical, it’s easy to skip around and find the topics and recommendations that best suit your needs or interests.
I encourage you, however, to read the entire text, because reading outside of our comfort zones helps us develop empathy. As I mentioned above, I never even realized what kind of books and stories one of my own children would be most interested in reading because my perspective was so limited. In introduction to Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, editor Leslie Bustard wrote, “The stories we offer our children are essential to their growth as people. Stories can train our imaginations and help us grow in empathy and compassion, but they can also help us understand how we fit into God’s kingdom.” God loves the whole world, and so does each of us—and each of our children—as individuals.
As I think more about the books and stories I tell my children, I realize how important it is that I don’t just try to recreate my childhood experiences. My goal in their moral development through the stories should be to see them grow closer to God, to “grow in empathy and compassion” for all people—not to see them languish over their Hogwarts letter or see they pushed behind their closet walls to get to Narnia, as I did. These kinds of experiences are fun, but ultimately not about moral development or developing a moral imagination. This is my desire that they should follow my footsteps, but God’s desire that they should follow him. Reading about other people’s literary experiences and recommendations for books for the children in their lives can help me help my children experience the kingdom of God in ways that I cannot.
The next time someone asks me for book recommendations for their child, I’ll be happy (as always) to name my firm favorites. But I’m also quick to point them out Wild Things and Castles in the Sky as a guide to expand their reading horizons and choose books for the children in their lives that will help those children grow in wisdom and understanding outside of what they might choose. As Junius Johnson writes in the Afterword, “The essays in this book… point the way along the various roads that will lead children who grow up to have childlike eyes with mature heart.”
The importance of stories to children’s moral development can feel overwhelming in light of the plethora of books being published for them—especially if you have a child in your life who loves to read. Wild Things and Castles in the Sky is not only a great and useful resource, but it also serves as a reminder that we can come together to share what is true, beautiful, and good in the wide spectrum of world books.