Growing up, I struggled to read and did not have access to many books. Ironically, for a short time my mom worked at a public library. When I was about nine, she brought me with her, and I signed up for a program to win prizes by reading books. I chose a story by Beatrix Potter – probably because it was short, but also because I loved animals and wished they could talk.
My mom said the book didn’t count. Beatrix Potter was for younger children. I should read something for my age group.
For the past few decades, I have dedicated myself to books, mostly for children. Reading them. Learning how to write them. And, more recently, reading them with other people’s children. Perhaps more than any other form of media, books open minds and shape our thinking. They help us understand the world, connect us with people from different backgrounds and enable us to travel through space and time, all without leaving our living rooms.
Books also introduce us to other points of view. As someone whose life has been formed by the life and words of Jesus, I value thoughtful books that realistically portray life’s struggles through a lens of faith — concerns about the environment, racial and economic justice, grief and loss. Yet most middle grade books I encounter from Christian publishers are either fantasy or are written about themes and characters so familiar they fail to engage the broader culture.
Please, don’t misunderstand. As someone who still wishes that animals could talk, I’ve enjoyed my share of fantasy books (along with dystopian novels and science fiction). I’ve also enjoyed many familiar stories that effectively encourage children’s faith. But in recent years, the general children’s marketplace has exploded with high-caliber books from a variety of authors who unflinchingly address critical contemporary issues. To remain relevant and to meet the needs of today’s young readers, Christian publishers need to do the same.
As I child, I don’t recall reading many books by Christian authors that addressed economic instability, parental absence, or the lack of belonging — all struggles my family faced. Which is why I eagerly read an early review copy of Linda MacKillop’s debut middle grade novel, Hotel Oscar Mike Echo (B&H Publishing, 2023), in which 11-year-old Sierra wrestles with a promise she believes she heard from God, “Sierra, you’re gonna live in a real nice home someday with a stove where all the burners turn on and the bathroom always has hot water…”
But Sierra’s mom, a military veteran with PTSD, struggles with addiction and providing a safe home for herself and her daughter. Into their lives step Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, who run the Koinonia Home in Richmond, Virginia, helping people struggling with homelessness rebuild their lives. However, at school, Sierra tries to hide her family’s circumstances while questioning whether she’ll ever find a home where she truly belongs.
MacKillop’s well-written story – which she initially considered “too gritty” for the Christian market – offers young readers a glimpse into the lives of families affected by war, trauma and homelessness, while also offering hope. Knowing how much my church-going single mom struggled to raise two children while overcoming her own trauma, I hope Christian publishers will risk producing more realistic middle grade fiction that honestly reflects the difficulties faced by today’s children. And I hope that general-market kidlit publishers will publish more stories that embrace children’s faith.
In an age when childhood anxiety is skyrocketing and children’s literacy rates are plummeting, young people need high-caliber books that honestly address today’s critical issues while giving them a reason to hope.
Award-winning author and educator Meadow Rue Merrill writes from a little house in the big woods of Mid-Coast Maine. Her memoir, Redeeming Ruth, tells the story of finding hope following a child’s loss, and her Lantern Hill Farm picture books celebrate the holidays with activities that build children’s faith. Her most recent book, The After Forest, a middle grade novel about loss, resilience, and a little green bug that is slowly killing the world’s ash trees, is available to agents and publishers upon request. This post has been updated from when it first appeared on May 18, 2023 under a different headline. To connect: www.meadowrue.com