Last summer my parents rented a van, and my family of three joined them on an adventure to Colorado. It was our first family trip since 2019, and we didn’t know how our almost-first-grader would do with long days in the car. We packed snacks, games and books. My daughter will sit and listen to someone read for hours. Mysteries are always a hit — we’ve read every Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters and Boxcar Children book we can get our hands on.
I was excited to pack one of my childhood favorites: the first two volumes of the Mandie series by Lois Gladys Leppard. My daughter had seen them on the shelf at our church library and asked repeatedly if we could read them. They weren’t just mysteries; they were historical mysteries about a girl with long blond hair, just like her!
I was horrified when, on the first page, I found myself reading aloud about a God of fire and brimstone, a vengeful, punishing God.
Yikes! This wasn’t how I wanted to talk to my 6-year-old about God.
Recently I saw this series recommended in a Christian book review group I’m a part of. Everyone was raving about it. I was still processing our summer trip, and I started commenting about the troubling content. I was immediately inundated with comments like “I read them as a child and I was fine” and “I didn’t turn out racist.”
These are the same people who won’t even touch a book with a rainbow on the cover (unless it’s Christian: “They have stolen the rainbow and twisted its meaning”) and automatically reject books from certain publishers (watch out, they are full of “agenda”). Yet when faced with troubling content in a “Christian” book, they have no trouble giving their kids free rein.
When I was pregnant, I ran across the phrase, “Know better, do better.” What does it mean to do better when it comes to books? What does it mean as we review our home collections, recommend books to others and consider what is offered in our church libraries? How do we talk with our children about troubling portrayals of racial groups or other content that can do harm?
For me, knowing better and doing better means several things. In that moment, on the road, I decided to read these books to my daughter, but I didn’t read every word. With some mental gymnastics, I edited as I went, skipping or rephrasing words, sentences, entire paragraphs.
At times I read what was printed and stopped to talk with my attentive listener (and others in the car) about it. In this confined environment, with three other adults, we could talk about why characters should or should not do or say what they did or said. We all enjoyed a good book, minimized harm and experienced teachable moments.
But what if I wasn’t reading the book aloud? Would I be comfortable with my daughter encountering this text alone?
In addition to my work at Anabaptist World, I curate the collection at the Western District Conference Resource Library in North Newton, Kan. It’s wonderful to serve a diverse group of congregations and people, and I work hard to provide resources that present a variety of perspectives without doing harm. In this context, knowing and doing better meant removing the first two books of this series from our shelves. I felt that I couldn’t offer the library’s “approval” of these books and their content — white saviorism, disregard of trauma in Native communities, words now considered racial slurs and theology not consistent with Anabaptism.
Parents can’t screen every book (though some try), but we can think critically about who might be harmed by the stereotypes, theology and language in the books we talk about, make available to others and keep on our shelves.
A friend mentioned that when an elderly relative died, the family went through the vast book collection she left behind and discovered she had written notes in the books regarding how she felt about them, including things she didn’t agree with. What a good way to share these books while pointing out the content that troubled her! This is one way of doing better.
We are home from the Colorado adventure, but I’m still on the journey of knowing better and doing better when it comes to literature. We read the first two books in the Mandie series, and I’ve removed them from the libraries where I have influence, but what about the rest of the series? Will I read them aloud to my daughter if she asks? Yes. Will I remove them from the library collection? If I find more troubling content, yes. Am I inspired to review my personal library and remove books with harmful stereotypes or make notes for my daughter or others to consider as they make their own decisions? Absolutely.
How will you know better and do better?
Jennie Wintermote is Anabaptist World business manager and director of the Western District Conference resource library.