Sunday, July 29, 2007

Confounded by the Cul-de-Sac Kids

Her father pulled out pictures of two Korean girls.

Carly stood on tiptoes to see the pictures. "Will they get homesick?"

"Our home will soon become their home," her father said. "We want to make things easy for them. You and Abby can help us." He hugged Carly.

"We'll help them learn our ways, Daddy," Abby said.

Carly nodded. "And God's ways. We promise."

My 6-year-old laughed at me in bewilderment as I punctuated this passage in our library book with disbelieving groans; I kept having to put the book down on my lap. "I can't read this," I said. "I hate this book. If you want to get any more of these out of the library, you'll have to read them yourself."

"Why?" she said; but she was still laughing. She could even tell, herself, that there was something strange about the book. We'd already noticed that the first page of each chapter was graced with a small American flag icon. This had worried me even before Abby and Carly launched unexpectedly into their first prayer session in the bedroom closet.

The girls did their hand-over-hand secret code. Then they prayed.

"Dear Lord," Abby began. "We're getting new sisters."

"They might not know about you," Carly added.

Abby finished the prayer. "Please help us show Your love to them. In Jesus' name, Amen."

They turned off the flashlights and crawled out of the closet.

If you had a 1990s kid, perhaps you're familiar with Beverly Lewis's Cul-de-Sac Kids series. Not me. I was caught completely off guard. We'll help them learn our ways??-- They might not know about you, Jesus. I must be dreadfully naive; I never imagined this old-fashioned missionary colonialism was still alive and well in children's literature. Not only alive, but present in my public library. I'm opposed to censorship, but I almost feel there ought to have been a warning label.

"It's, like, a Christian book, isn't it," my daughter said with surprising cultural savvy. She still likes it. That's fine.

But it's a struggle to explain to a six-year-old why this particular juxtaposition of religiosity with the American flags, suburban utopian environment (the cul-de-sac), and clear sense of cultural superiority gives me such heebie-jeebies that I can barely read.

Some customer reviews for the Cul-de-sac Kids: "My son loves these books! He has read them over and over and really enjoys the characters. It is a blessing to not have to worry about what he is reading."

"I enjoyed reading this to my 5 year old. The content is safe for the minds of young children."

That's what you say, people. What does it mean for a book to be “safe” for a child?

Beverly Lewis, by the way, comes from a Mennonite background. Doesn't the overt nationalism of the series conflict with Mennonite beliefs about the priority of faith over national loyalty?


So I got curious about this world that was heretofore unknown to me: contemporary Christian children’s literature, where “Christian” seems, at least sometimes, to apply in the God-and-country sense. Assuming many of my readers are equally unfamiliar, what is out there?

I love this: the Extreme Teen Bible. Is there any title that could better exemplify the cultural collisions of American youth society?

The Extreme Teen Bible is about discovering who God is, what He's doing in the world, and what He promises for your future. So take the plunge into all the great stuff we've packed into this Bible to make your Bible time more extreme than ever before. […] So go ahead: dive in and discover extreme Truth for yourself.

Right after you finish snowboarding and eating that stuff so laced with citric acid that you've barely got any tastebuds left. Oh, wait, someone has already analyzed this.

In the purity ball department: The Princess and the Kiss. Blurb:

A loving king and queen present their daughter with a gift from God--her first kiss--to keep or to give away. The wise girl waits for the man who is worthy of her precious gift. Where is he and how will she ever find him? The surprising answer in this marvelous parable will touch the heart of parent and child alike.

Says the author, Jennie Bishop, founder of PurityWorks: “I asked God how I could teach my young daughters the value of their purity, how I could begin in their early years to stress the importance and beauty of saving themselves for marriage. This is God’s poignant answer. (She adds, in the interview: “It's really important that parents speak to those issues intentionally, so our kids know what we approve of, what God approves of, and how they can take steps to keep themselves clean … and why that’s so important.”)


One reader review for The Princess and the Kiss:

bought this book to read to our two daughters (aged 5 and 7) and they loved the story and sighed when it ended that first time we read it. But their eyes widened when I said, "Do you know that YOU have a kiss, too?" They were so excited and we explained that someday when each girl was ready, Daddy and Mommy would take her out for a special dinner and give her her own "kiss," which would probably be in the form of a necklace. "You can wear that necklace until you're married and then give it to your new husband on your wedding day," we told them

And then there's His Little Princess:

Cinderella is a great story, but after the last page is turned, little girls can't look forward to the tale coming true when they grow up. It's just "for pretend." Now girls ages four to nine can unveil the reality of their royal calling! His Little Princess shows them that they are not pretend princesses--God is for real! When a grown-up sits down to read out loud these touching love letters, girls will come to understand and embrace how much they are truly loved and adored by God, the King of kings! Recommended for ages 4 to 9.

Oy. And I was going to try to teach my daughter that there's more to be being a girl than princess-hood. Instead, let's encourage that role for life.

Some publishers are actually looking to reprints from the past (here, 19th century) to protect our children from the evils of the present-- like this “character-building” series from Grace and Truth Books, which “will be valued by any family who desire your children to be saturated in God's truth.

And then there’s these. Don’t freak out, people, it’s a joke site. I think.

Please understand that I’ve been selective in this post. There are plenty of Christian books, too, that focus on the wonder of bugs (incidentally, God made them), or the value of compassion, or the uniqueness of the individual child. And there are sensible parent reviewers who apply their critical skills to more than doctrinal orthodoxy. Many mainstream Christian sites recommend a familiar list of books that most parents, of any spiritual bent, will consider “safe” and high-quality. I object, not to invocations of God, per se (though, frankly, I often find that startling), but to the strains of jingoism, anti-feminism, and Christian exceptionalism that can be found in some of this literature.

So do we progressives take a page out of the Christian parents’ book and start screening for “safe” stories before we read them to our kids? That’s a key question. For myself, no matter how much The Cul-de-Sac Kids make me squirm, I’m unwilling to forbid them to my daughter. But I’m not going to hide my discomfort, either.

Anyhow, she thinks it’s funny when I screech and wave my hands around while reading.

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