My friends, there is an enormous difference between the childish and the childlike. George MacDonald famously commented that he didn’t write for children, but for the childlike (no matter their “age”). I think this is the key ingredient in the children’s classics we still read 100 years after their initial publication date, the reason we don’t hesitate to hand The Wind in the Willows, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and others to precocious young readers, as well as the reason why the content such as the “violence” in contemporary books such as Peter Nimble isn’t disturbing in the same way violence in A Dragon’s Tooth is. The former is “childlike.” (The latter isn’t “childish”, but it’s not “childlike” either).

In short, a work that is childlike celebrates the best of childhood with all its presumed innocence, the delight of make believe, the sense of a rollicking good adventure, the enjoyable suspension of disbelief, and the complete lack of grown-up or young adult concerns. There is no worry over who likes whom, do my parents still love me, what is my body doing, is the world falling apart, and the like.

And, my friends, the sense of the childlike is also what makes some contemporary children’s works so much better than others. To illustrate the difference between childish and childlike, let’s get to know Junie B. Jones and Jasper John Dooley. On the surface, they have several things in common: early elementary students, only child, title characters of early chapter books, and….

Well, that’s about it. I’ve seen Junie B. Jones books on numerous suggested reading lists–even those from Christian schools–and the inclusion of these books puzzles me immensely. WHY??? Junie B. Jones is a classic example of a childish protagonist: she has a bad attitude, is terribly disrespectful to her parents, tries to be funny at the expense of others–in short, she is a picture perfect example of the terrible two’s. We expect children to grow out of these behaviors (and, hopefully, our parenting reflects that goal…); we do NOT find these traits admirable, nor do we desire them to continue on into first grade. Why, then, do we hand books featuring protagonists like this to our children?

In contract, Jasper John Dooley is childlike. He is funny, endearing, lovable, and makes plenty of mistakes. But his mistakes are childlike and the logical outworkings of a busy, energetic, and creative elementary student. He is not disrespectful, he does not laugh at others’ expense, and he has a pretty good attitude, even when things don’t go his way. THIS is the kind of kid I want my children to read about and enjoy “getting to know.”

It’s worth helping your children pick their book friends the same way they pick their real-life friends. If there are traits in book friends that you wouldn’t want in real-life friends, it’s time to break off the friendship and find better friends….

For more childlike early chapter books, see my Pinterest board. One of my favorites is coming to America, finally! Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay has been out in England for some time now….

Book covers from goodreads