by Josephine Nobisso
Sometimes, I see it all over a person’s face. I mention that my daughter and I publish children’s books, and the head cocks, the face goes wistful, the eyes tender. She is imagining, I think, that the world we inhabit is kinder, inoculated against the infection of prevailing moral diseases. Well, it ought to be so, because, really, wolves in sheep’s clothing should remember that their place in children’s literature is in being that of the vanquished, but it is increasingly becoming a doggy eat doggy world in kids’ books, a world in which it sometimes seems that it is the very innocence of childhood that is being vanquished instead.
Some of my children’s books have had so many misadventures along their roads to publication that these sagas themselves have taken on the legendary scope of censorship around our dinner table.
There are those facts about a manuscript of mine that would later become Saint Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe (“Encounter the Saints” series; Pauline Books & Media.) First submitted to one of my secular publishers, it garnered this response from the editor, “We are not in the business of making Christians look good.”
About the same manuscript, another editor wrote, “I’m hesitant to take on a project that deals with the history of Christianizing Indians. As mass-market publishers, we simply can’t depict such a subjective, controversial issue as fact. Specifically, I’m referring to the idea that ‘Indians needed a miracle to free them from the horror of human sacrifice.’”
When, during research that lasted 12 years, I finally found, in an obscure newspaper interview, one actual quote by the eponymous hero of John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire, the editor at a secular press revised history by removing every instance of the word “Lord” from John Blair’s dialogue.
This was especially ironic because the subject of this non-fiction picture book -- an ex-slave who saved the lives of 300 white people -- clearly and emphatically attributed his heroic deeds to love of God and duty to neighbor and employer. The editor even put new words into the mouths of the eyewitnesses, from whose hundreds of letters I had recreated the events. They all recall John Blair’s having said, “For the Lord’s sake, get down!” when dousing fires in people’s hair. The proofs were returned to me with the word “pity’s” replacing “the Lord’s”, and no matter how many times I corrected the phrase, the printed book carries the erroneous “pity’s”.
A well-regarded editor was shown a sample painting from my picture book manuscript on an imagined boyhood moment in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, called Francesco Woke Up Early. In that painting, a kid goat is chewing on the young Francis’s hair while the child who would become a saint was milking his mother, the nanny goat. The editor thought the image “too sweet”, and he remarked, “I’d rather see the goat kicking the boy”.
And then there exist the surprising cases of simple ignorance. About the manuscript for Francesco Woke Up Early, another editor wrote asking for the “biblical references” (!) on the saint, asserting that without these, no one would know who Saint Francis was.
If children become what they read (and see in art, and hear at storytime), the creators of books for children are, in large measure, the arbiters of mood and mores for as many generations as their creations last. It seems to resist its own logic that a creative field that has, as its very object, the young mind, does not choose to put on the cloak of immunity to popular moral and spiritual contagions.
The fact is that in the field of children’s publishing, as in every other facet of the arts and of life, when the Truth of Christ is denied -- indeed, when the belief persists that truth is arbitrary -- defective notions enter in. So we see -- in literature, as in life -- the same wholesale idea that rebellion against Truth constitutes personal freedom, and the selfsame delusion that the human will is the benchmark of good.
I am not arguing for insipid children’s books. Those awful, pedantic, and earnest “moral” stories -- mostly self-published, and almost always artless -- do not good books make, by anyone’s standards. What are needed are bold and brave books, books that do not give way to the considerable pressure exerted against Christian culture.
In current children’s literature, however, there is an ever-increasing tolerance for the same kinds of disturbing concepts that are poisoning the efficacious elixir of Christ’s Truth in other sectors of society.
Along with many other deciding variables, my daughter Maria Nicotra (who was Catholic home-schooled for 7 years) and I decided to found our press Gingerbread House to have some freedom.
But what brand of freedom? Certainly not the pretense of freedom that exists in today’s marketplace. I conduct about 100 author sessions each year in all kinds of schools. Behind the walls of most public schools, I must remain mute on many counts. I cannot utter certain words like “God”, and in the name of intellectual “freedom”, I am not allowed to put a capital “T” on truth.
It’s only when I visit Catholic schools that a delicious sensation of proper freedom comes over me. We can begin our sessions with the Sign of the Cross, we can openly pray for heavenly help in our workshops, I can honestly and clearly expound upon the inspirations for my books, and I am free, as someone working in the arts, to give credit where credit is truly due, and to discuss what it means to be receptive to God’s love. It is ironic that while the secular culture seeks to suppress Christianity -- and, most specifically, Catholicism -- in the name of “freedom”, this author finds that ideas are most openly discussed, and that what our late John Paul II called “intellectual honesty” prevails only in Catholic venues.
There is more good news, and that is that Catholics know what they like. I couldn’t give away, to any of my secular publishers, the manuscript for my Catholic fairy tale, The Weight of a Mass, A Tale of Faith. When Maria and I decided to publish it ourselves we were told, “You’re going to take a bath on that book. It will ruin your publishing house.” In its own quiet way, The Weight of a Mass, A Tale of Faith has gone into five printings in only two years. It is outselling our other titles (wholesome, good books, but not specifically Catholic) 12 to 1.
Some public schools to which I donate a set of my books before each visit will refuse to shelve this particular title in the school library. Some of the schools remove mention of it from the pre-assembled send-home kit for ordering my books.
One librarian confided that she retrieved the book from the waste-paper basket after the principal had tossed it there. Another librarian told me, “We are not allowed to keep that type of book in the school!” -- just as she was about to show a popular movie to an auditorium full of young children. The librarian continued, “But I, personally, love The Weight of a Mass, and I gave it to the nun who runs the CCD program where I teach a Communion class.” (The movie she was showing the children was based on a series of wildly popular books about paganism, and the book of mine in question is a Catholic fairy tale.) I noticed that a little girl covered her eyes just as the movie came on the screen. Was this in anticipation of the particularly disturbing horror scene that the movie would graphically show? And the book that inspired this movie was mild in comparison to others promoted for children and teens. It is often enough to read just the reviews and summaries of many of these books to disturb even an adult’s peace!
My relatives from the Bronx would put it succinctly: “The world’s gone nuts!” and what is it that Scripture says about ears being tickled?
“Authoritarianism is suspect in any area of learning or culture”, the late Archbishop John May of St Louis, then-President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 1989. “…Therefore, to assert that there is a Church teaching with authority binding and loosing for eternity is truly a sign of contradiction to many Americans who consider the divine right of bishops as outmoded as the divine rights of kings”, the archbishop said.
In response, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) suggested that what Archbishop May perceived as a uniquely American problem was, in fact, a difficulty of all modern societies -- the inability to distinguish between authoritarian imposition and authoritative doctrine.* Such defective notions of freedom have led the world into an era in which every kind of perversion and paganism is not only accepted, but also advocated. This rebellion is at the heart of the fascination and tolerance for doctrines that fly in the face of reason and fact, and it has tossed that wolf in sheep’s clothing over the fence and into a field where one would expect to find special diligence over inherent innocence -- the field of children’s books.
The ill effects are furthered by a misguided -- if well-intentioned -- decision to avoid “censorship”, that seeks to not offend anyone, yet ends by offending everyone’s Creator.
There exists a classic children’s story about the little engine that, against odds, moves a big train. Since the Faith has always been the engine with which my family has wished to drive our home life, we decided, because of the generous response of other Catholic families to The Weight of a Mass, A Tale of Faith, to produce more books dealing with our Faith.
Our next picture books will be expressly Catholic ones. Maria and I have decided to release Francesco Woke Up Early ourselves, and a companion volume to The Weight of a Mass, A Tale of Faith, called Take It to the Queen, A Tale of Hope, will be on our next list. The latter is a fairy tale allegory about how Our Lady lived in the Divine Will, and about her role as intercessor and advocate. With the projected publication of these other decidedly Catholic children’s books, Gingerbread House is not exactly coasting into a station named “Conformity”, but we have dubbed our publishing house “The Little Press that Does”, and -- in fits and starts -- we are chugging toward the triumph of Our Lady’s heart, and the coming of the Father’s Kingdom.
* George Weigel; Witness to Hope, The Biography of John Paul II; Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins; 2001; p. 589.
Josephine Nobisso’s 28 books have won numerous prestigious awards and citations She is married to Victor Nicotra, and lives in Quiogue, New York. With their daughter Maria Nicotra, Josephine founded the publishing company Gingerbread House, www.GingerbreadBooks.com.
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