As the father of a one and a half year-old boy, I read a lot of children’s books. I read so many, in fact, that I have four Dr. Seuss books memorized and I’m working on my fifth. Some dads may dread reading the same books over and over, annoyed by the simplistic, repetitive text of many a slender tome, but I love reading children’s literature. I always have, really, but I gained a new appreciation for it long before I was a dad, during my wife’s years as an elementary school teacher and librarian.
Sitting around, waiting for her to finish her work when I came to pick her up from the school, there was little else to do but peruse the numerous tiny volumes around me. Some were dreadful, with poor meter, badly rhymed verse and pointless, nonsensical plots unconvincingly passed off as whimsy. Others, however, were surprisingly delightful and even deeply moving. By the end of the first year, I was an ardent fan of the genre. The not so good books were fun to criticize, at least, and the good ones were enjoyable reads that made me smile. But the great ones – the truly great ones, I found, were concise yet thoughtful narratives, describing contours of the human condition and often impressions of our relationship to the Divine.
One such book (which also happens to be one of my son’s favorites) is the 2005 Caldecott Medal winner, Kitten’s First Full Moon. In this beautifully crafted work, author and illustrator Kevin Henkes takes us on a journey with a kitten who mistakes the first full moon she sees for “a little bowl of milk in the sky” – one she wants very badly to drink. After unsuccessfully attempting to lick it out of the sky, Kitten chases it far from the front porch of her house and out into the night.
As you can imagine, Kitten never attains her prize. Like many of us, she is drawn away from where she is safe and loved into potential danger, seeking after something that isn’t really there for the taking. Just as we may pursue the illusion of happiness or satisfaction in things that cause us to move away from values we know we should hold and people who love us, so Kitten ventures into the dark, trying to take a sip from the moon. In Henkes’ celebrated black-and-white illustrations, Kitten’s focus on the moon becomes our own as the bright, white circle in each scene inevitably draws the eye. Her frustration is apparent as the orb grows no closer, no matter how far she chases it.
“Still,” Henkes repeats, “there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.” On these pages, only this single line of text bridges the gulf between Kitten on the lower left side of the first page and the moon on the upper right section of the next. This emphasizes the standoff between the two and Kitten’s continued determination, even as she licks her wounds from her previous attempts. In the same way, so many of us are dazzled by the promise of success on the other side of unwise choices and even sinful actions. We don’t just make rash, foolish decisions in the moment. We keep up the pursuit, in spite of the cost or setbacks that we encounter, because we are driven by a desire, a hunger, for something that ultimately eludes us.
The grandest and most dangerous illusion comes for Kitten as, frightened atop a tree, she sees a bigger bowl of milk below her – the moon’s reflection in the pond. Running down the tree trunk and leaping after a promise far too good to be true, Kitten ultimately finds herself “wet and sad and tired and hungry.” Indeed, though we go to great lengths in our lives to find happiness and hope away from the things that truly offer them, we often find ourselves deeply, coldly immersed in the harsh reality of our illusions and filled with a hunger that has not gone away, but is in fact stronger than ever. It is at these times, when we have become utterly lost within our vain pursuits, that the error and foolishness of our desires becomes uncomfortably clear to us. It is at these times that many of us give up hope.
But Kitten knows what to do. She goes back home. At first dripping with the evidence of her greed and pride, she gradually dries off as she walks back toward the house where she lives. By the time she arrives at the walkway leading up to the front porch, she is completely dry. Similarly for us, the damage done by our mistakes can often be reversed by simply turning around and going the other way. It may take time for us to be restored – longer, in fact, as we walk wearily over the ground we once ran across – but restoration will indeed come. All we need do is set course for home.
Expecting nothing but merely a better condition than being stranded in the middle of a pond, Kitten pads her way up the steps and onto the porch. There, she is surprised by what she should have known would be there all along, “a great big bowl of milk on the porch…Just waiting for her.” The prodigal Kitten comes home to greater joy and satisfaction than she ever could have found elsewhere. She finds forgiveness and renewal in a bountiful meal she did not need to go in search of. Kitten finds, as we do, what singer/songwriter Billy Crockett calls “love we have not earned,” for which he entreats us in the song of the same name to be, “thankful boys and girls.” Kitten is indeed thankful as she curls her tired body up next to a now empty bowl of milk and drifts into a comforted, satisfied sleep.
Kitten’s First Full Moon is a simple, yet powerful and beautiful picture of the love and redemption available to us in the equally simple and powerful gospel of grace. Through this beautiful work, I hope these ideas continue to take root in my son’s heart, even as I am reminded each time I read of the truth that I needn’t venture far to find everything I need. To me, the best children’s books – the truly great ones – are written not just for children, but for the parents whose privilege it is to share them with their young sons and daughters. You don’t have to be a child to learn, as Mister Rogers was fond of saying, “something old every day” from these elegant and insightful books. Sometimes the things we learn as children are the lessons that we as adults most need to hear and remember again.
Five Great Children’s Books for Adults
1. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems
This book reminds me as a dad that, if you love your kids, you must love what they love. It also demonstrates that, in a childís eyes, nothing can replace the everyday heroism of a parent who loves them. Oh, and itís really funny!
2. When Marian Sang by Pam MuÒoz, Pictures by Brian Selznick
The true life story of 1930s American singing great Marian Anderson, whose voice captivated audiences around the world and helped break down racial divisions in the United States is elegantly and dramatically told. MuÒoz’s text itself sings, interlaced with the lyrics of the Gospel songs Anderson shared around the world. Celebrated illustrator Brian Selznick brings luminous emotional depth to her story.
3. The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse, Illustrated by Wendy Watson
Set in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, this book tells a true and remarkable story from the eyes of the girl who lived it as Hesse imagines her. Both thoroughly researched and heart-breakingly hopeful, this simple tale reveals complex struggles and unlikely heroes. Nobility and strength are found here in the “least of these.”
4. The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde
Written in 1888, there are many editions available, but I recommend the edition featuring illustrations by Gertraud and Walter Reiner from their prize-winning 1964 film. An elegantly told tale of repentance and forgiveness, this book asks all of us to examine our hearts and find where we have selfishly banished Christ and how we might invite him back in.
5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Similarly to Kitten’s First Full Moon, this classic is also the story of a prodigal. Sendak, however, chooses to focus on the process of anger and forgiveness and the limits of revenge fantasies to truly satisfy our deeper hunger as humans – to be loved. -Kevin C. Neece