I wish I could say that it was the Bible or the lives of the saints alone that brought me to the Christian faith and, later, to the Orthodox Church. Instead, like many of us born after the advent of television, my faith as a Christian was inspired by an amalgam of impressions from weekly Sunday School lessons, stories about death from my mother’s childhood, annual viewings of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and frequent readings of Myths and Mythology by Anthony Horowitz, a vividly illustrated book I received as an eight-year-old.

The Sunday School lessons made me familiar with the stories of the Bible and the mysterious person of Jesus Christ. The stories of my mother’s biological father’s and step-father’s untimely deaths put subjects like dying and the afterlife on my radar at a very young age. The classic Bible films brought to life the Sunday School lessons that were appealing but abstract to me as a child.

If you’re wondering how the book of mythology fit into the picture of my early faith, you may have to think outside of the Judeo-Christian box for a moment. It’s true that not once is Jesus, the Holy Trinity, or the Church mentioned in this secular book. It contains tales of pagan gods and pre-Christian myths. But the book, and others like it, nudged me a little closer to the idea that this life is just one part of a larger story humans have been trying to understand since the dawn of time; it helped me look beyond my small suburban worldview and made me thirsty for a deeper meaning, for universal Truth.

No one can deny the sway of all forms of “story,” whether printed, recited, or projected on the screen. God knows His children learn best through story; that’s probably why Jesus used entertaining stories (parables) to convey timeless truths.

“Jesus could just have said, ‘your neighbor is anyone who needs you,’” said Bev. Cooke, author of Keeper of the Light: St. Macrina the Elder. “But the point is so much more clearly made when he tells of the Samaritan man who helped a Jew ... In the writing world, that's SHOWING not telling … Stories show. Maxims and short pithy sayings tell. Lectures and moralizing deaden and put to sleep.”

Oftentimes, story is necessary in illuminating abstract ideas. The stories of the Bible, for example, have been used for millennia to teach children about God and His creation. Noah’s Ark, the miracles of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles—all these stories are useful in teaching children the ancient truths of the Judeo-Christian faith. The lives of the saints, often vivid and compelling, can be instrumental in teaching children about self-sacrifice and the call to be “otherworldly.” Modern Orthodox Christian children’s books illustrate important spiritual lessons through both retold and new stories.

But we Orthodox don’t live in a Holy Spirit–filled vacuum. We live in a fallen world, a place where we must struggle daily to be “in the world, but not of it.” We are constantly bombarded with stories, generated by the larger secular culture, that inform our actions, our identities, our beliefs. How can we discern which stories can be of use and which we should avoid?

When it comes to books, author and mother Katherine Grace Bond gives her children titles “with language that sings, plots that engage, characters who are authentic and who undergo transformation.”

“I suppose one of the qualities I look for the most,” she said, “is what I call ‘heart.’ When I have a sense that the author cares about human beings and her characters live to give value and dignity to other people then I’m interested in passing her work on to my children.”

What’s off limits? Both Cooke and Bond hesitated to make sweeping statements about which books should or should not be banned from a Christian household. Rather, each family needs to determine their own reading guidelines based on each family member’s maturity level.

“Older teens,” said Bond, “are more equipped developmentally to read a book through the filter of their own values and decide whether its characters have the same values or not. The most important first step is years and years of family and one-on-one discussions on the topic of faith. That way young people can see clearly when there is a contrast between the book’s content and Christian virtues.”

Here are some basic guidelines to help you on the path:

  1. Do your homework. Organizations such as the Orthodox Children’s Writers Guild ([email protected]), the Orthodox Christian Education Commission (www.orthodoxed.org), and the Center for Family Care (www.familyaschurch.org) can guide you toward inspiring, educational reading materials for your family.  A trusted teacher, priest, or librarian might also provide guidance.
  2. Read what your kids are reading. Open that book that everyone is talking about and find out what it is all about. Make your own assessments. Properly and prayerfully addressing the challenging materials that cross our paths can lead to spiritual growth and maturity for all involved.
  3. Discuss. Talk things out. If something troubles you about one of the books your child is reading, talk about what concerns you. Discuss whether the characters, happenings, and books themselves have any redeeming qualities.
  4. Pray. Ask God to put inspiring literature into your life and your children’s lives and ask Him for the gift of discernment as you read what comes your way. Consider using the following prayer with your family:

Lord, as you granted Solomon the gift of wisdom, bestow upon us the gifts of wisdom and discernment. Help us to find inspiration and illumination in the words we read. Strengthen our hearts and minds, that we might not be led astray by deceptive or spiritually darkening literature. Fill our lives with wisdom, that we may be educated and edified and that we may ultimately serve you with the gifts you give so freely to those who ask. For you are a good and merciful God who loves mankind, and to you we send up glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Heather Zydek is the author of the middle-grade novel Basil’s Search for Miracles. She lives in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.