Several years ago I stood in a long line at the airport behind a mother and her kindergarteners as we inched toward security. I was headed to Boston to meet with my editor about a book I was writing, and I was beginning to nurture a seed of doubt in my premise--that sharing stories with children provides an important opening for parents and teachers to offer character education and share the faith.
A woman walked by and captured the attention of everyone in line. She was dressed in a plain black business suit, yet she was far from ordinary. Her face, marred beyond human likeness, was astonishing, shocking. Horror gave way to pity as we alternately gaped and turned away. No one said a word except the little girl standing in front of me who suddenly pointed and cried out, "Look, Mommy! Isn't that lady ugly?"
Something truly remarkable happened next. Rather than remain paralyzed by embarrassment, the mother quietly accepted the opportunity of a teachable moment and knelt down in front of her outspoken child. "Do you remember that book we read last week, The Rough-Face Girl?" she asked her.
"Well, why was the girl so unhappy?"
"Because her sisters made fun of her burnt-up face."
"How did she feel when people pointed out her scars?" the mom continued.
"She hated it."
"Well, how do you think that lady feels when people remind her of her scars?"
"It probably hurts her feelings."
"Yes, I think it probably does."
"I'm sorry, Mommy."
"It's OK, honey. Let's just remember The Rough-Face Gift next time."
And with a hug, this mom completed her lesson with her bright little daughter and delivered a moment of grace to the only person in line who could hear their hushed conversation: me. I no longer doubted what I know to be true-that story provides the best and most accessible means of teaching children about faith and values, and that the best way to share stories with kids is to read to them.
The Rough-Face Girl (Putnam, 1992), written by Rare Martin and illustrated by David Shannon, is the re-telling of an Algonquin tale in which a girl's face and arms are scarred and disfigured from tending the fire. Like Cinderella, the girl is ridiculed and tormented by her two mean sisters until she finds love and healing in a happy ending.
The airport mom used the story to teach her daughter about empathy and kindness, but this same story contains themes of hope, perseverance, and justice, and offers captivating images of Native American culture along the shores of Lake Ontario. Like many stories available to today's families, it is a treasure trove of conversation-starters brimming with seeds of the gospel.
More than a good story
St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian thinker, wrote that each of us holds a gift for perceiving glimmers of truth because we are creatures of God, the source of truth. Every little bit of truth we recognize in our daily lives is a "seed" of the gospel. Justin cultivated the seeds he found in Greek philosophy; in the same way, we can unearth them in stories that we read with children.
Fortunately, many well-written stories with memorable characters and meaningful messages are readily available. Take, for example, one of the best-selling children's books of all-time: E. B. White's 1952 classic, Charlotte's Web (HarperCollins). On the surface, it is a delightful barnyard story about a pig named Wilbur, the runt of the litter who is rescued from the meat platter by Fern, the farmer's daughter, and later befriended by Charlotte, an amazing spider who speaks to him in his darkest hour.
Scratch below the surface and seeds of the gospel are plentiful here. There's Fern's valor in defending the life of the most vulnerable in her midst. There's also Charlotte, who consoles Wilbur and invites him to discover joy. …