Wise Words (Book Review)

wise-wordsWhat do I read my kids after Narnia?  It’s a question many Christian  parents ask themselves.  I discovered there is really no consensus answer on the web.  It seems we need more children’s stories that liberally use biblical themes and imagery.  But they seem hard to find.  So in an act of desperation I scoured my church’s library for something that looked promising.  What I found turned out to be another BIG HIT with my kids.  In 1995, before pastor and prolific author Peter Leithart became (in)famous for his role in the Federal Vision movement, he wrote a collection of original fair tales that illustrate various biblical proverbs. The book, Wise Words: Family Stories That Bring the Proverbs to Life, contains 18 tales that transport us back into a word with kings and queens, fools and wise men, talking animals, and many other common fairy tale devices.  Most stories have an accompanying illustration that engages the imagination with a medieval black-and-white woodcut style.

But this is not a Christian version of Aesop’s Fables, each tale merely illustrating a particular proverb from a moralistic perspective.  Leithart’s vision for his fair tales is much grander.  He writes, “My intention in Wise Words was to write stories that would appeal to children as stories; that would challenge parents who read to their children; that would illustrate biblical Proverbs; and that would borrow imagery, plots, characters, settings, and themes from the Bible” (p. ix).

The author makes the Bible the primary background to his stories in two ways.  First, each story is a commentary for the imagination on the book of Proverbs.  The structure of Wise Words follows the narrative structure of Proverbs.

In the first eight chapters of Proverbs, two women are presented: Dame Folly and Lady Wisdom.  The Prince, Solomon’s son, must decide which he will embrace as his bride.  At the end of the book, we learn that the Prince has resisted the temptations of Dame Folly.  Proverbs 31 describes the superhuman labors of the “excellent wife,” and we know the Prince has chosen well, for he has made Lady Wisdom his queen.  Wise Words is constructed according to this blueprint. [p. xii]

Second, every story employs biblical stories and themes to carry the story’s plot.  Most of Leithart’s stories each use many Bible stories and themes, merging them into one narrative.  This method produced many “Aha!” moments for my kids because they are quite familiar with the various stories of the Bible.  After the first couple of chapters, I found myself getting in the habit of stopping when I noticed the biblical allusion being employed, and asking my kids, “What does this remind you of?”  Many times they were thinking of the exact same Bible story as me!  Leithart’s stories are delightful and instructive in-and-of themselves, but for readers and listeners familiar with the Bible, these “Aha!” moments make the story even more satisfying.

Wise Words is written as a collection of bed time stories.  But parents should note that they really are a bit like the broad genre of fairy tales.  Not every story ends with a happy ending.  Bad things happen to characters who misbehave and act foolishly.  People sometimes die.  In these ways Wise Words illustrates real life.  children not used to some of the frightening aspects of traditional fairy tales will need to discuss them afterward with a discerning parent.  But this shouldn’t be too much trouble since they are, after all, children’s stories.  My children were totally fine, but that is because they’ve been repeatedly exposed to the foolishness and consequences of sin from Bible stories.

I don’t think Wise Words was ever a best-seller, but that is too bad.  This book is a rare jewel that Christian families may turn to over and over to discuss life through the lens of Proverbs.  Want to know what to read after Narnia?  Now you know. (Read the Preface and first chapter here.)

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