Truth and Story

(Note: Betsy and I are indebted to Ethan Pettit, librarian and Children’s Literature professor from Covenant College, who enlightened us so much in seeing Christ in literature and taught us to discern Truth and Story.)

butterfly and wheat

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…”

Psalm 24:1 (ESV)

This verse applies to books and readers, too. This is the foundation of why we read to the glory of God, because we have Him to thank for excellent literature.

What are we at Redeemed Reader looking for when we read? Above all, TRUTH and STORY.

God is a God of words.

God uses words to reveal Himself. The Word was made flesh. He spoke and created all things, including language and narrative and meaning. When Solomon was a young ruler in I Kings 3, God offered him anything he asked for. Instead of riches or long life, Solomon sought an understanding heart and the ability to discern between good and evil.

Is this not what we would have for our children, that they would clearly see the world without compromising right and wrong, that they would be attracted to characters worthy of admiration and imitation?

At Redeemed Reader, we like to emphasize TRUTH compared with “truth” and STORY compared with “story” to distinguish superior examples of literature from the mediocre. How do we define these terms?


last stop on market street

There are two ways of looking at Truth in literature. TRUTH in bold letters refers to God’s Truth, what the Bible calls wisdom, manifested in creation as God has ordained it. Any time we find beauty, goodness, order, hope, light, loving one’s neighbor, good triumphing over evil, forgiveness and redemption, we see TRUTH. Our hearts rejoice because we were made to love what God loves.

We find examples of TRUTH in picture books like Last Stop on Market Street, Heckedy Peg, Horton Hears a Who!, and Yellow and Pink as well as in novels like Strawberry Girl, The Miraculous Season of Edward Tulane, The Season of Styx Malone, and The Wednesday Wars. TRUTH is also evident in Charlotte’s Web because the themes of friendship, loyalty, and sacrificial love are so powerful, in spite of unrealistic talking animals.


i spy

Books with “truth” in quotation marks includes concept books, seek-and-find type books like I Spy and traditional or series nonfiction like The Magic Treehouse. These books are still valuable to young readers and are harmless, they just don’t nourish the soul.

Many trite books consisting of “truth” are found on seasonal and celebrity displays at local bookstores. Still harmless, but not especially valuable. Although they’re heavily promoted by marketing departments, they aren’t requested by children as read-alouds because they contain nothing of a child’s real experience or character growth.

Half-truths and falsehood can be masked as “truth” in books claiming that there is no real goodness in the world and there are no trustworthy allies among adults. Recently there has been an explosion of picture books promoting political agendas such as feminism and gender issues which are contrary to what God’s reveals in Scripture, so they are WAY down on the “truth” end of the axis.

That’s how we compare TRUTH and “truth.” Now let’s talk about STORY and “story.”


thomas the tank engine

STORY is a classic narrative that has the power to represent either TRUTH or “truth” to people of all times and any places or cultures with unity, persuasiveness, conviction and memorability. These are the stories that really have power. They linger with you, and you just have to share them with others in order to enhance your own delight. These timeless themes are often found in folklore because they are worthy of being inherited from one generation to the next. What is the greatest story ever told on earth? The incarnation of Christ!

If you are a teacher who must address social issues such as bullying and kindness, would you rather read an informative brochure titled “How to deal with bullying,” or The Three Billy Goats Gruff? If the kids misbehave, you could remind them of the class rules listed on the wall (which is certainly appropriate), but you could also read them Miss Nelson is Missing! in an ominous tone and maybe plant a dramatic mask for someone to find.

How about a lesson on “Be nice to the kid who’s different and sitting next to you?” Well, you could plan that, or you could read Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, Adrian Simcox does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, The Watcher by Nikki Grimes, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, or Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan. These books show possible outcomes to ones’ actions through either the repentance or remorse of the main character.

Recent trends in nonfiction have turned bland narratives into engaging literature such as The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Fallout by Steve Sheinken, or The Girl Who Drew Butterflies by Joyce Sidman.


thomas goes fishing

story” fails to achieve classic value or status. It doesn’t hold together. It isn’t persuasive. The author lacked conviction, and the writing just isn’t memorable. Where a story fails to realize its potential, the fault is likely to be in some aspect of the narrative, its meaning, or its truth. Even if the story is READ with care and skill, even if it contains essential TRUTH, “story” still falls short in some way. Although such stories are too readily available in bookstores, libraries and dollar stores, sadly this is also true of many inspirational picture books and novels. In trying too hard to communicate TRUTH, the author’s care in storytelling falls short of richness, beauty and depth.

Some books are cheated of greatness when something beautiful is simplified, rendering it mediocre. This is common in fairy tales and franchised “new adventures of” popular characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Clifford, Curious George, Little Bear, etc.

In the Thomas the Tank Engine original stories the characters are more engaging and well-rounded. Trains who misbehave are corrected, and train-lovers can pick up a lot of interesting information about historic rail lines in England. Modern picture book and easy reader versions sacrifice rich language for controlled vocabulary which is no delight to read and loses a STORY worth listening to.

Unfortunately, well-meaning adults forget that beautiful words are powerful and that children love to hear them, regardless of age. Books that contain “story” in quotation marks are found in series that keep churning out titles because they’re based on a popular character such as Clifford, Thomas the Tank Engine, or Humphrey the Hamster. While these are designed to help beginning readers practice their skills and gain confidence (so they are certainly suitable for a classroom!), there’s not much depth in them.

The Ultimate STORYteller

Jesus knew how to tell STORIES. He is our greatest example of teaching TRUTH to the people using parables such as The Good Samaritan because the STORY draws you in with delight and lingers longer than a straight lesson.

ILLUSTRATIONS and “illustrations”


More than just images on a page, ILLUSTRATIONS are artwork that you and your children linger over because it is beautiful, meaningful, and enhance the story. The illustrator uses well-thought out techniques such as palette, line, proportion, and artistic media (watercolor, collage, oil, pencil, photography, etc.) to communicate greater emotion than is revealed by the text alone. ILLUSTRATIONS may be detailed and complex, like Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky, or as simple as Mo Willems’s expressive Elephant and Piggie series, provided that they enrich the reader’s experience of the book. Neither the text nor the illustrations are complete independent of one another.

Mere “illustrations” refer to uninspiring pictures that accompany the text, but add nothing to it.

READING and “reading”

Any active, skilled, memorable engagement with words or images that conveys worthy meaning to the reader or listener who absorbs them. The result of READING should include ideas or responses of one’s own; i.e., something original to the reader occurs by means of the activity and the text or images which occasion the READING. Real READING is a kind of cooperative creation between one human and another, having some of the life of each. 

reading” is a more or less passive and forgettable encounter with words or images that fails to bring one into any real contact with meaning or truth and resulting in no significant or lasting change in the reader, and nothing original to the story.

How does all this work together and become worship?

Discerning appreciation of literature, from picture books to lengthy classics, comes from learning to recognize these elements and how they resonate. There may be TRUTH told in “story,” or a STORY may only contain “truth.” TRUTH with STORY may suffer from mediocre illustrations, or truth conveyed in STORY may be greatly improved with ILLUSTRATIONS. All of these variations are greatly affected by the act of READING or “reading,” which is an act of redemption by those who seek to wonder and to worship God by offering up all our activities with our families in every area of life.

What books richly abound with TRUTH and STORY? 

Here are some top favorites to begin with.

Picture books



See also this post for a list of Truth and Story picture books that are ideal for a church nursery.

What books abounding with Truth and Story would you suggest?

This post has been updated from its original publication date on November 6, 2013.

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Megan Saben

Megan is Associate Editor for Redeemed Reader, and she loves nothing more than discovering Truth and Story in literature. She is the author of Something Better Coming, and is quite particular about which pottery mug is best suited to her favorite hot drinks throughout the day. Megan lives with her husband and five boys in Virginia.

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  1. Wendy on February 23, 2021 at 9:28 am

    Hello! I have a dear friend who recently “birthed” a book (as she calls it). It was self published by Granberry Books. Her name is Bernadette Botz and the title is “Liar”. I have shared it with many friends and my now 13-year-old son (an incredibly avid reader) has read it many times and loves it. As do I. Have you heard of it? Your title to this post reminded me of her book. I think it’s available on Amazon. It’s worth your time.

    Blessings on your venture to publish “Something Better Coming”. I can’t wait to read it!

    Wendy Broyles 🙂

    • Megan Saben on February 23, 2021 at 11:40 am

      I’m excited for your friend, Wendy! Birthing a book is a suitable comparison…it’s a lot of work, but there are plenty of joys and rewards as well. I haven’t heard of her book, for thanks for the heads up! Thank you so much for your kind comments and for supporting Something Better Coming, as well. 🙂

  2. Clarice on August 16, 2023 at 7:05 pm

    This is a fantastic post. I’ve come back to read it more than once! Here are some more I would add to your Truth and Story list:

    The Chestry Oak, and Kate Seredy’s other books
    Sweep, Jonathan Auxier’s other books
    The Fiddler’s Gun by A.S. Peterson
    Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt
    Bright Island, by Mabel Robinson
    Ashtown Burials series by N.D. Wilson
    Beauty, by Robin McKinley
    The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander
    A Place to Hang the Moon, by Kate Albus
    Basher Five-Two, by Scott O’Grady

    • Megan Saben on August 22, 2023 at 2:58 pm

      Clarice, these are wonderful suggestions! Thank you SO much. We’ve reviewed a number of them on our site, but I have not personally read all of them, so thank you for adding to my own list (or growing pile!). 🙂

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