Unexpected Theological Richness in a Picture Book That Deserves to be Better Known

When I first read Mick Inkpen’s picture book, Nothing, my kids were still too young for it–it’s a bit text-heavy–but I was immediately captivated by it, and have returned to it again and again to read to myself.

It is charming and witty, earnest and playful. It is beautifully–beautifully–illustrated.

It is also, unexpectedly, a deeply theological meditation on identity, community, renewal, and hope.

“The little thing in the attic at Number 47 had forgotten all about daylight. It had been squashed in the dark for so long that it could remember very little of anything. […] So long had it been there, even its own name was lost. ‘I wonder who I am,’ it thought. But it could not remember.”

GraemesCard 2Through a series of events, ‘Nothing,’ as the little creature begins to call himself, manages to escape from the attic and out onto the roof:

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.27.38 PM“How do you think you would feel if you had been squashed in the dark for years and years. And then you squeezed through a tiny hole to find yourself under the big starry sky? Well, there are no words for that kind of feeling, so I won’t try to tell you how Nothing felt, except to say that he sat on the roof staring up at the moon and stars for a very long time.”

Through a series of events, Nothing finds himself in the lap of the old grandfather to whom he had once belonged. He remembers his name. He is restored to the being he was meant to be, and, in fact, always was, even if he himself had forgotten.

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.30.59 PMScreen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.38.02 PM“And this, with the help of a good wash, some scraps of material, a needle and some thread is how he became Little Toby once more.”

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.40.11 PMScreen shot 2013-11-04 at 2.40.28 PM“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” (Rev. 21:5)

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1)

{While Nothing appears to be out of print in the USA; many used copies are available here.}

Reading Classics With Kids (Even as Comic Books)

My dad told me about a series of comic books that were available when he was young—comics based on the plots of books commonly assigned to schoolchildren, which served as CliffNotes in those pre-Internet days when plagiarism generally meant that you copied either from a classmate or from the saved papers of students a year or two ahead of you. I’ve never actually seen one of those comic books, but I always liked the idea of them, even though I’ve pretty much always been the sort of student who reads the book.

(Except for The Martian Chronicles, which was assigned in 9th grade and which I simply did not read.)

Yet even though I’m generally a fan of reading the whole, real book before seeing the movie (or taking the exam)—I read, and loved, an unabridged translation of Les Miserables as a teenager—I’ve discovered that shortened and child-friendly adaptations of classic books can be very good things. I mean, I’m no expert in reading instruction or in child development or in anything else in particular, come to think of it, but there is something about allowing children to absorb great stories, even in a sketched-out form, that seems to be pretty powerful.

A few years ago, my husband started telling the children a child-friendly version of The Lord of the Rings, and they continue to ‘play the story’ in Lego and out in the yard, mulling over the endurance of Frodo, the faithfulness of Sam, the pitiable nature of Gollum, and the dangerous allure of the ring of power. About a year ago, my father read them a children’s adaptation of Moby-Dick, took them to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, and watched the classic film (with Gregory Peck). Again, the story figures into their thinking and playing still.

And recently, I read them a children’s version of the epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving works of literature in (Old) English. They could hardly wait for each successive chapter, and they cried real tears over the death of the old knight Beowulf. Don’t tell them I told you that.

Graeme's version of Beowulf v. Grendel
Graeme’s version of Beowulf v. Grendel

This is not at all to slight classic children’s literature, which I also love (I cried reading Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter on Charlotte’s Web in her literary memoir Booked), but only to say that even as children can absorb stories from the Bible in simplified form long before they can understand theology or read passages from the Good Book itself, they can meaningfully encounter great stories in ways that open up their imagination and creativity long before they’re ready to read Melville—and even if they’re never ready to read Melville.

In Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wrote that one way to know you’ve encountered ‘myth’ (by which he meant not not true but rather a transcendently powerful story) when even reading the bare bones of the plot moves you in some way, or, in his words, a myth has “value in itself –a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work.” I think that when my children take little child-sized bites of Beowulf, Moby-Dick, Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian legend, it begins to open up the back of the wardrobe.