When I was a kid I was taught by my elementary teachers that non-fiction books are true and that fiction books are not true. I bet most of us were taught that same distinction. But as an adult I have discovered that these categories are very misleading and problematic.
I regularly hear Christians reason thus: Christians love the truth and stay away from things that are not true; therefore our family only reads non-fiction. We don’t want our children wasting time reading books that are not true.
My heart breaks a little every time I hear that argument. Fiction books are works of the imagination, yes, but to suggest that the ideas contained in them are somehow false or less than true, is completely wrong. In fact, fictional stories often contain more poignant truth than non-fiction essays.
Consider the way in which Christ Jesus himself taught his disciples. He did not preach a steady stream of non-fiction sermons; he did not write essays; he told made-up, fictional stories. The parables that Christ told continue to teach profound truths across cultures and centuries.
The truth contained in stories is far more powerful that the information provided in a work of non-fiction because while an essay can explain an abstract idea, a story makes the truth concrete and immediately applicable to our lives. That’s why the best non-fiction is the story of a person’s life.
We need a context, an example, to absorb truth. For example, the Bible repeatedly teaches that we should love our neighbor, but while that command remained in the abstract people struggled with knowing who their neighbor was; in other words, they didn’t know how to apply it. Christ taught the definition of “neighbor” by telling a fictional story. As a result, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is a part of our language and our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor.
I fear that by insisting that children only read non-fiction, these well-meaning Christians are producing a generation of Eustace Scrubbs who read none of the right books. Like Eustace, these homeschooled and Christian school students “like books if they [are] books of information and ha[ve] pictures of grain elevators.”
Works of fiction, especially fairy tales, can develop a child’s moral imagination, can help them distinguish right from wrong, and can prepare them for the great battles of their lives.
Reading the right fictional stories prepares a child to recognize giants and dragons when he encounters them. Don’t let your children be like Eustace Scrubb who does not recognize a dragon when he sees one because he “had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”
You can’t fight the enemy if you don’t know what he looks like.