Tag: children’s spirituality

Middle Grade Review: The Question of Miracles (2015) by Elana K. Arnold

Middle Grade Review: The Question of Miracles (2015) by Elana K. ArnoldThe Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 3rd 2015
Genres: Death & Dying, Family, Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Religious, Social Issues
Pages: 208

Sixth-grader Iris Abernathy hates life in Corvallis, Oregon, where her family just moved. It’s always raining, and everything is so wet. Besides, nothing has felt right since Iris’s best friend, Sarah, died. When Iris meets Boris, an awkward mouth-breather with a know-it-all personality, she’s not looking to make a new friend, but it beats eating lunch alone. Then she learns that Boris’s very existence is a medical mystery, maybe even a miracle, and Iris starts to wonder why some people get miracles and others don’t. And if one miracle is possible, can another one be too? Can she possibly communicate with Sarah again?

“Bad things happen, Iris thought. People die. Eggs sometimes do not hatch. But miracles…they happen too.”

What I Loved:

Iris asks the Hard Questions: I think Iris is such a wonderful character. Even though she doesn’t understand something—why miracles happen for some people and not for others, she keeps asking and  wondering. She is determined and if there is a glimmer of hope for a miracle for herself (seeing her best friend again), she’s going to pursue that.

“…maybe there was another part to her—a soul—and maybe that part was still out there.”

“But what I want to know is, if there is a God…if divine intervention is possible…then why would miracles only happen sometimes? Wouldn’t it make more sense, if God could make good things happen, that miracles would happen all the time?”

The Treatment of Grief in the Narrative: Even though this is a Middle Grade story, with a sixth grade protagonist, the author doesn’t shy away from tough topics. I think the way grief was treated in the book was sensitive and honest. The fact is that Iris’s best friend was killed the previous school year, and though the family has moved from California to Oregon and Iris is seeing a counselor, that kind of traumatic event is certain to have effects on Iris. This is a slim book, but I felt that there was a satisfying resolution to Iris’s working through getting over the death of her friend (and saying goodbye). The metaphor of gardening represents another important aspect of the story and played into the overarching themes of the story. When Iris joins her father to help with his garden, it represents more than just an activity to get Iris thinking about something else.

The Spiritual Aspects of the Story: Whether it is Iris wondering if a miracle is possible to bring back her best friend, Sarah, or her realization that Sarah’s ghost may in fact be living in her house, Arnold’s narrative features several pretty explicit spiritual aspects. At one point, Iris leaves a gift for Sarah—Sarah’s favorite book, Anne of Green Gables. Iris’s mother realizes Iris has left the book for Sarah, and the resulting conversation isn’t patronizing or discouraging. I thought the presence of these aspects in the story added a rich dimension to a sensitive topic, and I was glad the author didn’t shy away from some of the more difficult questions her protagonist asks.

This leads directly into the next category….

Illuminations of Spirituality:

Because of Iris’s journey throughout the book, the story also positions the reader to ask these (spiritual) questions:

What happens to our family and friends when they die?

Is there any way to contact them after death?

Why do miracles happen for some people and not for others?

All of these are pretty serious questions, but the book is an excellent jumping off point for talking about some of these questions with the middle grade crowd (or older readers too).

Who Should Read This Book:

Fans of The Secret Hum of a Daisy and Counting by Sevens would see similar themes in this book, though it’s certainly unique on its own, and I loved these characters, including Iris’s parents. In some Middle Grade books, the parents aren’t major players, but I appreciated the roles Iris’s mother and father played in the story.

I loved this book and have already purchased it for my collection. A true gem of a debut for 2015!

The Final Illumination:

This debut is strong, refreshing, and unique. I loved The Question of Miracles, perhaps more so because of its unflinching spiritual dimensions, which I felt were treated sensitively and with grace. Though there are many Middle Grade stories (at least that I’ve been reading lately) treating the death of loved ones in the lives of young people, that doesn’t mean each doesn’t have a unique contribution to make about questions that young people deserve to voice.

**I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What Katie Read

Wardrobes, Gardens, and Hot Air Balloons: The Spirituality of Children’s Literature (Part I)


“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”

 (The Secret Garden [1911] 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.

Midnight Bluewardrobe

Coles, R. (1990). The Spiritual Life of Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hart, T. (2003). The Secret Spiritual World of Children. Maui, Hawai: Inner Ocean.
Hay, D. with Nye, R. (2006). The Spirit of the Child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (Original work published 1998).
Helminiak, D.A. (1996). The Human Core of Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hyde, B. (2008a). Children and Spirituality. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Schneiders, S.M. (2003). Religion vs. Spirituality: A Contemporary Conundrum. Spiritus, 3, 163-185.
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