“Do you have any book recommendations for my child?”
This is a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count, and it’s one I don’t always find easy to answer—even though 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, beautiful, and good in all the books that have ever been published. But the truth is that although I feel confident recommending the books that I love—confident about what is good in those stories for the young readers who might wander into their pages—the world of publishing is too vast and families too diverse in their tastes, tolerances, and perspectives for me to know what will land as a good recommendation every time.
My own perspective is too limited and lacking in diversity even to scratch the surface of all that is worthy of recommendation to parents seeking books for their kids. The same could be said of any of us, individually, because our perspectives will always be subjective to our experiences and tastes. For example, I love fantasy books, but it took me years to realize my recommendations were not connecting with my own 13-year-old son because he prefers to read nonfiction nature books and historical fiction. Even though producing stories for young people is my career and passion, within my own family, I floundered to find stories I would trust to pass along to my children, because reading nonfiction and historical fiction falls outside my comfort zone.
This is where a resource like Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, the new book from Square Halo Books, can be of help to parents, guardians, grandparents, godparents, friends of families—anyone welcomed into 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 adolescents—from the value of reading aloud to your children, to what to look for in classic picture books, to why diversity and representation matters in youth literature, and much more.
Wild Things and Castles in the Sky is helpful because it is not prescriptive; it doesn’t presume to act as the authority on choosing the best books for children. Rather, by presenting the ideas of multiple essayists from a variety of Christian backgrounds and theological perspectives, it allows the reader to sift through the topics and evaluate the ideas—and the book recommendations—for themselves. Each essayist recommends five books for young readers that are 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 look for the topics and recommendations that best suit your needs or interests.
I would encourage you, however, to read the whole text, because reading outside our comfort zones helps us to build empathy. As I mentioned above, I didn’t even realize what sorts of books and stories one of my own sons was most interested in reading because my perspective was so limited. In the introduction to Wild Things and Castles in the Sky, editor Leslie Bustard writes, “The stories we offer our children are important to their growth as people. Stories can train our imaginations and help us grow in empathy and sympathy, but they can also help us understand how we fit into the kingdom of God.” God loves the whole world, and also each of us—and each of our children—as individuals.
As I think more about the books and stories I present to my children, I’m realizing how important it is that I don’t just try to recreate my childhood experiences within them. My goal in their moral development through stories should be to see them grow closer to God, to “grow in empathy and sympathy” for all people—not to see them long for their Hogwarts letter or to find them pushing on the back of their closet wall to get to Narnia, as I did. Those sorts of experiences are fun, but ultimately not about moral development or the development of a moral imagination. It is my desire that they follow in my footsteps, but God’s desire that they follow in his. Reading about other people’s literary experiences and recommendations for books for the kids in their lives can help me help my children experience the kingdom of God in ways I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to.
The next time someone asks me for book recommendations for their child, I will be happy (as always) to name my stalwart favorites. But I will also be quick to point them to Wild Things and Castles in the Sky as a guide to broaden their reading horizons and choose books for the kids in their life that will help those kids grow in wisdom and understanding outside of what they might otherwise have chosen. As Junius Johnson writes in the Afterword, “The essays in this book… point the way along various roads that will lead children to grow up to have childlike eyes with mature hearts.”
The importance of stories to the moral development of children can feel overwhelming in light of the vast quantities of books 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 good and helpful resource, but it also serves as a reminder that we can come together to share what is true, beautiful, and good across the wide spectrum of books in the world.