Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Paul Turner, Ying Hui Tan, What is God Like? Convergent Books, 2021. 40 pages.
Over my two daughter’s childhoods, we read a number of books that taught about God, told stories of the Bible, and encouraged wonder and kindness. Most were a gentle read with a good solid message, however, as I read this new children’s book by the late Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner, I realized that none of those books ever really provoked much discussion. Typically, the story just ended, and we would move on to another bedtime tale.
This book, although just as kind and gentle and soothing as all the other Christian Kids books, sparked discussion.
And so, even before writing a review of the book itself, on that basis alone I would recommend this book widely. What is more worthwhile than to have a discussion with your child and to wonder together what God is like? Looking back on the majority of the other books I’ve read with my children, I see that most of the other books were didactic in their approach. They were written with the objective to explain, to tell, to give moral instruction. Which is why they were not inviting to children to add their own thoughts, their own wonderings, their own experiences with God.
And perhaps that’s where things are interesting. Perhaps we collectively continue to underestimate a child’s ability to sense and experience God in both abstract and concrete ways. This book opens with an acknowledgement that adults have been wondering about God for a very long time. It also shares that wondering about God’s nature is a very big question and that nobody has seen all of God. That opening page was a real hook of interest for most of my reading review groups.
For this review, this book was read to nine kids in three different family groups, with ages ranging from 6-13. All of the families were white, Christian, and of a similar middle economic and social class. One family group I would consider to be moderately conservative in their social views, one family group would be more liberal and the third would be in the middle.
In the review groups, the children were struck at that opening page. A number of them listed that first page as their favourite one, where swirls of colour, animals, space and cosmos dance across the whole space. It’s acknowledged here on this page that even the adults don’t fully know and have always wondered. Perhaps they saw this as in invitation into the conversation.
Across all of the review groups, the children gave the illustrations top marks:
“I love the illustrations. I like how there is so much colour. There is so much to look at on each page” (Isabelle, age 11)
“I was drawn to the illustrations- the contrast of colours -blacks and purples and all the movement. I liked that the characters eyes are really expressive. You could look at the pages over and over and see new things.” (Piper 9)
“I really like all the colours in this book. It has a lot of dark and light. And lots of details. Like this page is a Mountain but if you look at it from the side it looks like a person. And I noticed a funny little blue bug. Look! It’s on every page.” (Eli 13)
“I like the picture where they are under the tent with the castle in the background. I like how it reminds me of God’s protection and safety” (Samuel 13)
For the message, all the kids agreed that the author was trying to describe God and needed other comparison words to help since we couldn’t see God. All of the kids seemed to understand what a metaphor was and how comparing is helpful in understanding something. One reader said that they liked how many different ways we could look at God and know better what God was like.
The youngest readers seemed to grasp the purpose of the book, but one of the youngest readers found it “a little long” (Isaac, 6) The group most interested in engaging with the questions the book was asking were the 9-11 year olds. It seemed like this group of readers picked up on some of the subtle theological perspectives of the authors as well.
“Why do they say “her sheep”? Why do they refer to God as ‘she’ or like ‘a mom’?” “Why do they choose to draw the dancers as more feminine men?” (Isabelle, 11)
“The dancers page is my favourite page. Like, look at this page. Everyone is there, well, not everyone…but this illustration makes it look like everyone could be there.” (Piper, 9)
“God for me is like a house or a blanket- a house is a place that is safe from storm, from the elements, a place of light and warmth.” (Eli 13)
“Being with people makes me brave. I guess God is like being with people, because God is always with you.” (Lynden 10)
Through this book, the authors chose a variety of male and female descriptive images to compare God to. It was only the oldest of the group that picked up on the gender language choices within the book. The different family groups saw this gendered language very differently. One with concern, one with welcome, and one family group didn’t see that there were differences in language at all, even with prompting.
Two of the readers disliked the last page at first glance. It reads “Keep searching. Keep Wondering. Keep learning about God. But whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel brave, and what makes you feel loved. That’s what God is like.”
One reader reacted this way: “Like, What? Whatever makes you feel brave? What if a Punk Rocker makes me feel brave?!” (Piper, 9)
This sparked a wonderful discussion about what qualities a Punk Rocker would have that would make a person feel brave and this kid talked about how a Punk Rocker doesn’t need to have people like them and that they would sing what they believed whether they were liked or not. This led into a really interesting conversation about the nature of God and how God is slow to anger but still gets angry. That was certainly not a conversation I’ve ever had with a child after reading a “Kid’s Christian Storybook.” It wasn’t in the book at all, but the words invited the conversation.
One set of kids in a family group met the question of gendered language with concern- wondering “Why do they refer to God as She, He and They? Is ‘They' the trinity? Or are they using ‘They’ as a pronoun- Is that a good idea?” (Samuel 13). That family group had a really productive and positive discussion with their parents about “how we can’t wrap our minds around God and we are all in His image both male and female.” (Mum, age undisclosed)
Overall, all of the kids recommended this book and found it to be interesting and helpful. What is also important were the conversations among the parents when talking about this book. This may also be another purpose for this book rather than the intended audience. It invited a lot of discussion as friends about gender, language bias, illustration bias, and theology itself. For some parents, this book was very healing and an important balm in their formation. Other parents found it provocative. All appreciated the conversations that were had and were interested to see what their own kids saw or didn’t see in the text.
Personally, I appreciated most the invitation to keep asking and keep wondering. What a gift for any age, to be welcomed further into a relationship that offers stability, strength, compassion, and courage.
I’ll end with this quote from a reader. She was answering my question that was raised at the end of the book: “What makes you feel brave?”
“It makes me feel brave when I look at the sun. The way it shines down through all the leaves. And the leaves are all different and it’s the same sun. Like, that the sun is steady. Like, that you know the sun will almost always rise in the morning. Wait. I mean… it will always rise. Like, that’s science. But it doesn’t always feel like it’s risen. (I asked, ‘Then how is God like the Sun?’) I guess that God is steady even when things look grey and awful. There’s always that little bit of lighter spot in the sky somewhere. Even if we can’t see it.” (Piper, 9)
May you and the children you love, ever wonder.
Rev. Sarah Scott lives among the beautiful community in Woodville, Nova Scotia with her two pre-teens and husband, John Scott. She is the Pastor at Arlington Baptist Church, Chaplain at Valley Hospice, and accredited with the Canadian Association of Baptist Freedoms.