Get Children Outside –Of Themselves (by Zach Franzen)


I love Zach Franzen’s illustrations and am an even bigger fan of the man. He marries a profound and far-reaching intellect with gentleness and humility. If one way to judge a man is how he treats children, then Zach (a new dad!) is one of the good ones. This post, which first appeared at Story Warren, is excellent. –S.D. “Sam” Smith


Kids today are offered many invitations to be shallow. Everywhere they are bombarded with proclamations that reality is self-defined, appetites are sacred, and self-control is self-defacement.

If you examine the children’s books on the shelves of your local bookstore you’ll find that girls are afflicted with books like Teenage-ness: the Teenage years, Glitter Edition (Now with Sex!).

And boys are offered versions of Want Some Angst With Those Jokes? Gross-out Pranks From an Orphaned Underachiever Who Is Really Quite Special.

Those actual titles don’t exist … yet, but books like that judge their success on how closely they are able to repeat the appetites and solipsism of the youth market. Through the advocacy of self-regard, these books pluck only the low hanging fruit of ego. They promise to spiral the outside world in toward the reader. But the ability to spiral inward is limited, whereas the ability to spiral outward is unlimited.

One way to display a higher opinion of children than the popular fashion is to address them as members of the human family and not as a special class of self-worshiping mirror-gazers.

Older writers did this. There is no reason we can’t.

Consider this contemplative poem meant for a young audience by Robert Louis Stevenson.

by Robert Louis Stevenson

The rain is falling all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

—– —– —–

I love how Stevenson ties a child to the romance of the sea by the common experience of rain.

The poem refuses to pander. Instead of organizing the world around the child, this poem uses rain as a universal binder and inserts the child into it. The rain falls on the field and tree of the country, the umbrellas of the town (where the child lives), and the ships at sea. The world is bigger than the child, and the child has a place in it.

The way to habituate a child to shallow thinking is to present a world that needs to bend itself to the child in order to obtain significance. However, some literature (much of it older) allows a child to see the grandeur of the world outside themselves and perceive a higher order in which they might have a place.

What are your favorite books/poems that treat children as people?


  1. Matthew Benefiel

    Oh man, this is so true! Not only do we keep them self centered, we treat them like their dumb. Even some of the amusing books like “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” refrain from teaching kids new words. It’s amazing what kids pick up if you let them. My kids have pick up meanings of words just from context. When you can talk about the deception of the Pharasees to a five year old, I think you can expand their world a little more than our society does.

    My kids have been listening to “Nate the Great” on tape, and while the family isn’t the focus, a kid sovling problems (and managing to let him mom know where he is) seems to pull the kids in. I always love Dr Suess as a kid, nothing opened up imagination like he did.

    Boxcar children was always a good one, my seven and five year old both liked it as well. They also like Chronicles of Narnia (what they been read so far).

  2. Joseph Barbier

    Perhaps the best example I can think of is Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. An expert navel gazer, only a naval voyage in Narnia could get him outside himself enough to break him and heal him of selfishness.

  3. kate haynes

    Love this; agree wholeheartedly! I have spent the last few months reading about Charlotte Mason, who was a British educator at the turn of the 20th century. She was big on valuing children as persons who are fully capable of grappling with a wide realm of ideas. She advocated that in educating our children we ought to spread a broad feast of quality literature, art, experience for them regardless of their age; the younger child will pull out something different from what his mother does as she reads to him or takes him for a long walk in the woods but both souls are nourished!


    Amen to Charlotte Mason, Kate!
    I wholeheartedly agree and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay added to CM.
    Gorgeous illustrations.
    The world is grander than the child: Alfie and Annie Rose books by
    Shirley Hughes. Meindert DeJong: Journey from Peppermint Street,
    The Wheel on the School, etc..
    Poetry: Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson

  5. amy in peru

    you are right on. i think when we read the Bible to our children we do this same thing; we invite them to come to the recognition that they are a part of something so much greater than themselves. also learning another language; widening the world with tools to share ideas…

    she’s already been mentioned, but Charlotte Mason, who wrote a volume on education is the main source who comes to mind in treating children as persons.

    one author of old books that comes to mind at the moment is, hillyer, he wrote in a conversational style respecting the child’s natural interest in: a child’s history of art, a child’s book of geography, a child’s history of the world. old books, but good books, which open worldwide vistas. there really are so many oldies.

    but what about contemporary authors? where are they? surely there are some.

  6. Blair

    Thank you for this! As a teenager myself, I browse the selections in the teen section, and see nothing but books about shallow love, and stories that don’t give a larger meaning to the world. In fact, I believe that this is affecting my reading skills too as I’ve read other classic novels and haven’t been able to clearly see themes, symbols, etc. And Amy, Andrew Peterson is a great author who lets children see how vast the world is outside of itself, and I’m sure several authors do as well.

  7. Heather

    George MacDonald books for children are also excellent: The Princess and the Goblin, and The Princess and Curdie.

  8. Jennifer Trafton

    Thanks for this reminder, Zach! I LOVE classic children’s literature, but I feel the need to stick up for contemporary writers a bit here. There are many, many great children’s and YA authors today writing books that honor children as persons, take them seriously, and widen their view of the world. Just because they aren’t receiving prime bookstore space doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Kate DiCamillo’s books are as good as anything written in the last century. Gary Schmidt, Katherine Paterson, Christopher Paul Curtis, Linda Sue Park, Richard Peck, Kevin Henkes, Cynthia Rylant, Grace Lin, Jeanne Birdsall, David Almond, N. D. Wilson, many other respected names – all lift children’s literature to an art form that deals with profundity, not fluff.

    I would encourage folks to ignore the bestseller lists and peruse the lists of books selected for Newbery, Caldecott, Boston Globe-Horn Book, and National Book Award honors in the last few decades. Not all will be to your taste, but there is much gold to be found.

  9. Amy

    You’re right. Children can pick up so much if you give them the opportunities. I grew up with my dad reading The Lord Of the Rings to my family. I don’t remember not knowing the story, and looking back, I can see that I was able to follow the story and the language of that and so many other stories and better understand the world around me at a young age because of reading real, solid literature from the beginning. Anything from The Chronicles of Narnia and Wind in the Willows to old children’s poetry.

  10. Amy

    One of my favorite contemporary authors of childrens literature is E.L. Konigsburg. “The View From Saturday” is an all time favorite, but all of her books are thought-provoking and expand the child’s imagination. Jerry Spinelli is another that feels confident entrusting world-wide issues to children.
    And of course, in my opinion, Madeleine L’Engle is the queen of children’s literature.

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