“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
(The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett)
A door into the garden. A step into a wardrobe. A flight in a hot air balloon. Whether it is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), or Pauline Fiske’s Midnight Blue (1990), literature for children, in both realistic and fantastic genres, illuminates a spirituality that cannot be ignored. At least I couldn’t ignore it. And many young readers that I talked to couldn’t either.
What is spirituality in children’s literature anyway? I’m glad you asked. In my exploring of the topic, I first had to consider a definition of spirituality itself.
What in the world is spirituality?
Some researchers of children’s spirituality including Robert Coles, David Hay, Rebecca Nye, Brendan Hyde, and Tobin Hart, among others, perceive spirituality as a universal human attribute, a fundamental aspect of existence (1990; 1998; 2008a; 2003). In other words, spirituality is an “innate human trait,” playing an important and beneficial role in people’s lives and it is not limited to one religious tradition (Hyde, 2008a, p.23, 29). I like how Sandra Schneiders expresses it: “spirituality is a project of life-integration which means that it is holistic, involving body and spirit, emotions and thought, activity and passivity, social and individual aspects of life” (2003, p. 167). In the context of studying it within children’s literature, I think of spirituality as awareness, a lived reality, which can relate to an individual’s connection with other people, the self, the natural world, or a divine source such as God. Helminiak states that spirituality “refers to everything one does that expresses or enhances one’s awareness of and commitment to the transcendent dimension of life” (p. 34).
What does this mean in children’s books? It means there is a spiritual geography in many stories for children, and that talking to readers about those spaces can be incredibly rewarding and rich (for both child and adult!). Put simply, spirituality in a text might be a character’s awareness of something beyond the physical dimension of existence; it could be a sensitivity that can tune into profound hope, awe, wonder, selflessness, and love. A book’s spirituality could also be revealed through a relationship between two characters–but it’s not just any relationship. And yes, spirituality can be expressed within a particular religious tradition, but not all people who consider themselves spiritual would call themselves religious.
Think of the way that Mary Lennox (see The Secret Garden) shakes off her selfishness and begins to care for and nurture others. There is certainly a “transcendent dimension” to Burnett’s story, in the way that Mary and Colin experience renewed hope through their engagement with the beauty of the natural world. Lewis’s fantasy has the religious undertones, yes, but along with those, there is a spiritual aspect in Lucy’s openness to wonder and awe, and her faith and ability to hope in the midst of difficulty and sadness (See The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe). Fiske’s fantasy novel illuminates the battle between good and evil, a showdown that doesn’t have to be between hobbits and the evil forces of Mordor in order to be spiritual. Sometimes the struggle can be a lot closer to home (See Midnight Blue). These few examples are meant to highlight that the spirituality of children’s literature is more than just epic battles between good and evil, supernatural happenings, or religious stories. Although, spirituality in books can certainly include these.
Another opinion of mine: spirituality in children’s literature is important, for both young and old readers. The reason for this is because SPIRITUALITY is important.
Here’s one way to think about it: In his book, Hay discusses a study with people who said they had some kind of spiritual experience. The results of questioning hundreds of these people indicate “that the initial effect of their experience is to make them look beyond themselves. They have an increased desire to care for those closest to them, to take issues of social justice more seriously and to be concerned about the total environment” (Hay, p. 29). If spirituality in a person’s life plays a role in such activities, maybe reflecting on and talking about the spirituality of books with others might be a good activity too. One more way to think about it–a book might depict a character experiencing something “spiritual” or it could be that a book just happens to nurture a reader’s spirituality, though maybe it seems lacking in any spiritual aspects at first glance. So, we could talk about the spirituality of a story, or what a story does to the spirituality of the reader. Or both.
Doing this gives us a chance to reflect on our spirituality and think more deeply about this important aspect of life. For me, this happened with contemporary works of children’s literature such as Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006), Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle (2010), and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (2012).
I’m an adult, you’re thinking.
Is this kind of thing supposed to happen when you read children’s or young adult literature? If you are open to it (and sometimes even if you aren’t), then yes, literature for younger readers might just tap your own spirituality. It might remind you that there was a sad moment in your life when you hid your heart away, just enough, so you could get through to the next day (see The Heart and the Bottle). You might find yourself identifying with the way Edward Tulane refuses to hope anymore after so many times of being separated from the people he wants to be near (See The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). Even though Applegate’s novel is about a gorilla and an elephant, you might be surprised when you find yourself wondering if your own creativity could bring freedom to someone. Can art free others? (See The One and Only Ivan). These examples illustrate potential ways that reading children’s literature might nurture our spirituality. And they are just three examples: a picturebook, and two illustrated novels.
The journey of exploring the spirituality of children’s literature is neverending. There are countless texts that highlight spiritual issues and concepts. From my own experience, there is an amazing amount of books that might nurture the spirituality of young readers. But that discussion is for another time.
For now, I hope you will pick up a children’s book, and with an open mind, step through the wardrobe, open the door into the garden, and hop on the flying balloon for a journey into the spiritual dimensions of children’s literature.