Losses: Aging isn’t easy! Where do you find delight?

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson


Benjamin Pratt little red truckBy BENJAMIN PRATT

I lost my truck the other day.

That’s the little red truck I’d had for 13 years for hauling wood, lumber, mulch, compost, rugs, neighbors’ old furniture, dirt—yes, just plain ol’ dirt.

That little red truck was part of me—my outdoorsy, garden-growing, firewood-collecting, mulch-spreading me. It was a part of me so basic that I ache with a sense of loss.

Ok, I didn’t really lose it; I sold it, but to me it was another loss. We don’t need two vehicles now and especially not a truck. No gardens, no fire places, no wood shop any more.

I’ve also lost my wheelbarrow, which had been my constant outdoor companion for 35 years. I’ve lost all those things. Some people will tell you I’m a bit crazy letting this stuff get to me. It’s like losing my favorite ol’ shirt or hat that’s weathered life with me—that gave me a good sense of my identity and vitality. Like an ol’ shirt or hat, that little red truck carried smells, aromas, memories of life’s little joys.

This aging thing is not easy. Every time I turn around, time—with a little help from friends—grabs something else. Something precious—at least something precious to me. Stability of walking. Strength. House. Vision. Hearing. Even the grocery store on the corner is gone!

One very deep sense of loss is the feeling that our country, one which I had hoped and believed we were improving, feels like it has taken major steps backward. There is a new wave of disrespect, of objectifying persons by race, class, sexual orientation or religion. I was never so naive as to believe we had dispelled racism, but it has raised its ugly head again and is looking all of us in the eye. I marched for civil rights in the ’60s. I was the founding pastor of a church that was 25% integrated when I left it in the hands if two pastors. It gives me hope that it is now even more integrated with skin color of every hue.

Everyday, I continue to resist losing the things I cannot do without—gratitude, hope, a sense of purpose—those simple things that give me a reason to get up in the morning and for which I give thanks at the end of the day.

One simple act that gives me hope is learning the name of any clerk who serves me in a store. I address the person by name and offer a smile and greeting. I have experienced remarkable appreciation as a result of this simple gesture. My guess is that often these men and women feel unnoticed and unappreciated. It doesn’t take much to change that.

I can even delight and smile broadly when I pray: Dear God, when I get to heaven, I hope I will find my ol’ shirt and hat hanging on the fence post and I can slip behind the wheel of my little red truck and haul compost and mulch and spread it around the gardens from my ol’ wheelbarrow!

In these troubling times, what are you losing? Or giving up?

And, even more importantly, where do you find delight? What sparks your hopes?

I invite you to share this column with friends to spark discussion. Yes, it’s fine to print out this column for your class or small group.


Care to read more?

DEADLY SINS—In 2017, Benjamin Pratt also is publishing an occasional series on the so-called Deadly Sins. Here is his first reflection on Greed, published earlier this year.

Cover of Benjamin Pratt Ian Fleming Seven Deadlier Sins bookAND, GET THE BOOK—Benjamin Pratt is the author of a book-length exploration of Ian Fleming’s life-long fascination with the challenge of “deadly sins.” In fact, Fleming believed that the traditional deadly sins should be updated with sins of the contemporary world—a theme he explored in his Bond novels. Learn more by getting a copy of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass.

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Greg Garrett on Crossing Myself: A spiritual pilgrimage through chronic depression

Crossing Myself by Greg Garrett

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

ReadTheSpirit Editor

Depression affects millions of men and women each year. While it is a psychiatric disorder that needs treatment, as Greg Garrett points out in Crossing Myself, depression also can be intertwined with spiritual crisis. In addition to therapy and medication, recovery can often draw on religious disciplines—and the embrace of religious communities—in restoring one’s balance.

Even if you have not been affected by depression, please read this interview with Garrett because you likely have a loved one who is affected—or you know a teacher, pastor or small-group leader who will want to read this book.


  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 16 million men and women are affected by depression in a given year. That means a huge portion of the population experiences the condition at some point in life.
  • Know the risk factors: Women are more likely than men to be affected. Adults aged 18-25 are more likely to face depression than older people. A wide range of medical conditions—from auto-immune disorders to nutritional imbalances—are related to an increased risk for depression.
  • Talk with your doctor: Health care organizations are trying to close critical gaps in medical care for depression. Studies show that the majority of people who move from depression to attempts at suicide have had contact with a primary care physician in the past year—yet effective prevention measures were not taken. One key reason is that people do not discuss the condition with their doctors.
  • Call: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The 24/7 nationwide service was established in 2005 and now coordinates with more than 160 suicide-prevention programs by providing one number to call with referrals coast to coast.


Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett

When Greg Garrett’s memoir Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth first appeared a decade ago, it was eagerly welcomed as a story of spiritual renewal from a rising star in the literary world. He was professor of English at Baylor University and his 2002 novel Free Bird had caused a positive stir among literary lights. Crossing Myself told how Garrett found himself embracing the Christian tradition in his 40s.

But the book also honestly described his life-and-death struggle with chronic depression. It opened by describing a nearly successful suicide attempt. Now, after a decade of further reflection, Garrett updates the memoir in some important ways. One addition is a preface that clarifies what has emerged as the main theme of this book: Finding help in the depths of depression.

The book still is a story of spiritual renewal. But as Garrett writes in his new introduction, there’s more to this story than Christian conversion: “Depression ran in my family. Had for generations. It would take a miracle for me to recover. And I had given up believing in miracles a long time before.”

Garrett is also very clear that depression is a real disorder requiring professional treatment. “I was helped by therapy and stabilized by modern medicine. I know and would not dispute that.” Professional help is essential, he explains in these pages.

Finally, there is a stronger sense of urgency in this expanded edition. The past decade, since the first publication, has shown Garrett that this book can help to save lives. He has heard from readers who discovered his book—and were prompted to get help with their own depression because of his honest account.


“Since the first publication of Crossing Myself, I have been aware that faith communities often deal poorly with mental illness. When I first agreed to write the book, I thought that it could help people, if I wrote honestly about my experiences,” Garrett says today. “I wanted to show readers that there can be a light at the far end of the darkness.”

Unfortunately, the book fell out of print. The new version of this book comes from Morehouse, an imprint of the Episcopal Church’s publishing service. That’s the denomination through which Garrett attended seminary and, although not ordained as a priest, is now licensed to preach and help lead services.

“Why did I agree to do this new version? Well, the original book had helped a lot of people.” Greg says. “I knew that from hearing from readers. But, it was hard to find—available only from resellers. So, I agreed to work on a new version. And that was a challenge.”

In fact, the original memoir had been “the most difficult book I ever wrote.” Although several years had passed by the time he wrote Crossing Myself, the daily experience of revisiting that crisis “made me feel all of the emotions associated with that period. I felt all those horrible thoughts again. I felt I was going through depression again.”


In the middle of this memoir, Garrett turns to the Gospel of James to describe the importance of honestly talking with others about the challenges of depression. That echoes the advice of veteran counselor Benjamin Pratt in his book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & James Bond’s Moral Compass.

“Yes, that’s a great book, too, and, yes, we both turn to James for this kind of very practical spiritual advice,” Garrett says. “It’s so important to talk about what we are experiencing—because we discover that so many other people are experiencing the same thing.

“For me, as a person who is a survivor of chronic depression, the physical and emotional parts of my cure were important. I could not have survived without medication to stabilize me—not a high level of medication, but some medication was essential to help me turn the corner. And talking to professionals was essential, too.

“But I’m also a big believer that this pathway toward seeing the world, again, through a filter of hope has spiritual elements to it. And part of that, I believe, involves finding a faith community. If I was part of the Jewish tradition, my journey might have included Jewish reading and spiritual disciplines and a welcome into an active Jewish community. I suppose I could have turned to Islam and become active in the community around a local mosque, if I had been drawn to that faith. But, for me, I don’t think I would have survived if I had not walked into the faith community I describe in this book, where I found people who, in their Christian love, were willing to walk with me. I needed men and women who would help me know that I was loved and I was part of a community.”

To this day, that powerful discovery moves Garrett to talk with others about depression and invite them to share their stories, as well. “That’s part of my approach as a teacher, preacher and speaker. I want to be up front about my own brokenness to help you, as you’re listening, to realize that you are not alone in your brokenness. As we tell our stories, we are welcoming the people around us to tell their stories.

“That’s so important. I’ve seen this again and again. I’ll talk about this in a class or at a diocesan convention and people will come up to me, afterward, and share their stories. Then, we have a chance to talk about this. And, that’s one of the most important steps in surviving depression—talking with others about what’s happening.

“When we are aware of what’s happening then we have a chance to give affirmation. I can say to you: ‘Do you know that, if you stepped off this planet today, that would not be OK with me. It’s important that you’re here with us.’ ”

Ultimately, that is the lasting message of Crossing Myself. As Garrett puts it: “I’m saying that it’s important to step away from the radical individualism that we’re taught is the aim in life. I’m saying, from the wisdom of the Christian tradition: Our salvation is with our brothers and sisters.”

Care to read more?

GET GREG’S BOOKS—A great one-stop shopping center is Greg’s Amazon Author Page. Or you may want to jump directly to the Amazon page for Crossing Myself.

EARLIER COVERAGE—We’ve welcomed Greg into the pages of ReadTheSpirit many times since we were founded in 2007. Among his more popular appearances: Stretching way back to the origins of ReadTheSpirit, here is an early interview with Greg about his special interest in spiritual themes in comic books. More recently, we featured this interview about Greg’s book about angels, demons and popular culture’s fascination with the afterlife. Among Greg’s collaborations over the years was this intriguing project with the late Brennan Manning.

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Dave Schmelzer on the revolutionary new Blue Ocean Faith

Blue Ocean leaders have “discovered what too few have discovered: that there is a tight-suit faith, and there is also a blue-ocean faith. One confines, one beckons. One limits, one liberates. One restrains, one expands. I’m so glad that this book is available to introduce more people to Blue Ocean Faith.”
from the Preface by Brian D. McLaren


Cover Blue Ocean Faith book by Dave Schmelzer

CLICK this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page. (If Amazon says “temporarily out of stock,” that’s due to initial strong interest in the book. Place your order and Amazon will quickly fulfill it despite the message.) The book also is available in Kindle.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Five hundred years ago, Reformer Martin Luther nailed a manifesto for religious freedom on a church door in Germany and touched off a worldwide revolution in faith. In 2017, as we have reported, Germany is drawing pilgrims from around the world who are celebrating that anniversary. This is a timely moment for a new network of American men and women to follow Luther’s example—by publishing a manifesto calling for an end to barriers in religious life. That’s the hope of Dave Schmelzer and leaders in growing congregations from New England to southern California.

This new Christian movement is called Blue Ocean Faith and the book introducing this daring new network of congregations bears the same name. The book’s subtitle signals the group’s high hope that they will be able to touch off another spiritual tidal wave. That lengthy subtitle reads: “The vibrant connection to Jesus that opens up insanely great possibilities in a secularizing world—and might kick off a new Jesus Movement.

Schmelzer understands the religious history:

  • Two thousand years ago, that belief in a living Jesus drew a wide range of people together into early churches and propelled Christianity to become the world’s largest religion.
  • Nearly three centuries ago, a renewed focus on welcoming everyone fueled the Great Awakening revivals that shaped the birth of the United States.
  • One century ago, the idea of radically demolishing social, racial and cultural barriers in pursuit of a relationship with Jesus touched off the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles that ultimately sent Pentecostalism circling the globe.
  • Half a century ago, the so-called “Jesus movement” once again fueled explosive interest in authentically connecting with Jesus.
Dave Schmelzer author and executive director of Blue Ocean Faith

Dave Schemlzer, author and executive director of Blue Ocean Faith

“We’re well aware of all that history. It certainly has been encouraging to us. We think another wave is building,” Schmelzer said.


There are a lot of water metaphors in this movement, which the founders are hoping will become a rising tide. Their name springs from a best-selling 2005 business book on marketing called Blue Ocean Strategy.

“The basic idea we take from that book is: Stop all the competition! Stop defining yourself by the boundaries you draw about who’s in and who’s out! There’s a big blue ocean of people out there who are hungry for a fresh word of welcome—who are hungry for Jesus. So, we’re not defined by boundaries. We call ourselves ‘centered set.’ If you want to move toward Jesus as the center of your life, you’re welcome to be a part of our community.”

Stop to think about what that radical assertion means. Over the past century, many Christian denominations waged divisive civil wars over racial barriers as well as disagreements over whether women could become leaders at all levels. In the past few decades, churches have been tearing themselves apart over whether gay and lesbian men and women can truly be considered Christian. In fact, many of the founding members of this new movement once wrestled with issues of inclusion within the boundaries of their earlier religious affiliations.


Blue Ocean Faith debuts with a clean slate—removing all those divisive barriers.

“The idea of that business book, Blue Ocean Strategy, is to go out and fish where other people aren’t fishing,” Schmelzer said. “Remember back in the days when Apple was known for introducing products that people didn’t even know they needed? Well, most churches still are focusing on bringing their traditional services to people who they know are looking for a new church. We’re innovating for a population that we believe can be well served by knowing more about what Jesus has to offer—even if they’re not looking for it right now. We’re working in parts of the country where there are a lot of people who aren’t even thinking about church! They’ve given up on that idea. We believe that, as we launch Blue Ocean Faith, a market will form around it.”

He added, “We’re confident this can work. We look back to earlier reformers and earlier revivals. We’re welcoming people who are open to hearing what God has to say right now, what God is doing in the world right now.”

That’s one reason Blue Ocean Faith—which clearly is Christian—doesn’t have any of the typical religious terms in its name. It’s simply “Blue Ocean Faith” without words such as: Christian, Church or Evangelical.

“Today, terms like ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Pentecostal’ or even ‘Christian’ have so much political baggage attached to them that it doesn’t help us in reaching out to people who haven’t been interested in church,” Schmelzer said.


“We’re telling the world that we’re simply people who are doing our best to try to follow Jesus,” Schmelzer said.

While that might sound naïve, Schmelzer remembers the powerful excitement in the so-called “Jesus movement,” which arose in the 1960s and 1970s as a nationwide network of people from diverse backgrounds who hoped to rediscover an alive-and-active Jesus interacting with the world.

“I’m old enough that I came to faith in the tail end of what today is regarded as the Jesus movement,” Schmelzer said. During its heyday, according to historians of American religion, many mainstream leaders and institutions were touched by the movement—from an explosive revival at Asbury College in Kentucky to appearances over the years by evangelists like Billy Graham. Many of the movement’s early leaders eventually moved into institutions, such as the booming congregations that sparked the megachurches of the 1980s.

“I remember the very enthusiastic response that so many of us had in the original Jesus movement,” Schmelzer said. “It was delightful. We knew that God is alive in the world. We were very focused on having a real relationship with Jesus. This wasn’t just truth for the head; it was an encounter with Jesus, alive and guiding our lives. The Jesus movement was a major religious revival in the classic sense of the word ‘revival.’ So, in launching Blue Ocean Faith, many of us already have had a personal experience of how this can move and grow.”


While the early Jesus movement was shaped by enthusiastic leaders, many of whom were not trained in traditional seminaries and graduate schools—Blue Ocean now is benefitting from grassroots leaders coast to coast who are steeped in theology, Bible study and other academic disciplines. For example, the leadership has closedly followed the ever-growing body of research into America’s millions of “Nones”—men and women who decline to give any religious affiliation.

Not to be confused with atheists, Pew Research scholars—among others who are studying the Nones—stress that those who self-identify as having no religious affiliation have a complex, if ambivalent, relationship to religion. Nones now account for 23 percent of the adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007, according to Pew reports.

“Many of us in what is now Blue Ocean Faith were early adopters of the Nones language,” Schmelzer said. “The initial word about this term ‘Nones’ was that it represents a huge number of people who are leaving churches. Now, research has shown us a lot more about this group—and we’re very encouraged that what we’re doing with Blue Ocean Faith can connect with Nones. We’re hearing it from Nones who already are choosing to join with us. One of the defining experiences of the Nones is that they have found ‘church’ and ‘religion’ to be loaded with triggers that tell them they are not welcome, and their friends are not welcome. What they are walking away from is all that baggage because a lot of that baggage has to do with the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ that define so many churches.”


Schmelzer recalled a recent experience with a man who now is an active Blue Ocean participant in his southern California congregation. “My story about this guy is like a lot of stories we’re all hearing in our communities coast to coast. After attending for a while, he comes up to me and says: ‘I don’t know if you realize this, but when I first showed up, I sat way in the back because I was just waiting for you to say or do something that would trigger me to leave. And, you know what? Week after week, I came and sat there—and I wasn’t forced to leave. I moved in closer. I’m still here with you.”

And that spiritually potent line—“I’m still here with you”—is one of the central affirmations in this new Christian movement. Blue Ocean Faith’s founding principles are further explained in Schmelzer’s debut book, available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.

“We’re not keeping this a secret,” Schmelzer said. “I’d be happy if lots of other people found what we’re learning to be helpful. So, we’re telling the world what we’re doing.”

Later in 2017 and in 2018, Blue Ocean Faith hopes to keep growing and to publish at least two more books about lessons they are learning about their radical approach to Christian growth. Sign up for the www.ReadTheSpirit.com weekly newsletter on our magazine’s front page for further coverage this year.


Blue Ocean Faith is available from Amazon. (NOTE: If the page says “Temporarily Out of Stock,” order anyway. The message is the result of initial interest in the book; Amazon has been quickly fulfilling orders, despite the message.) The book also is available from Barnes & Noble. The book also is available for Kindle and other digital book readers.

You also may want to visit the website: www.BlueOceanFaith.org

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The inspirational message of ‘Grounded’ is more important than ever

wpid-0404_Diana_Butler_Bass_author.jpgEditor’s Note: ReadTheSpirit magazine earlier collaborated with Christian educator and writer Debbie Houghton on a five-part study guide to Diana Butler Bass’s landmark book Grounded. Here are .. Here’s a link back to Part 1, also to Part 2, Part 3Part 4 and Part 5. We also published an interview with Diana Butler Bass on why she calls this “the first book of the second half of my life.”

As Spring, 2017, approaches, a new less-expensive paperback edition of Grounded has been released. (Visit the paperback’s Amazon page here.)

We asked Debbie Houghton to return and tell us why this book remains very important for the spiritual challenges of this new year.



Where is God?

How often are you asking yourself that question in the opening months of 2017?

Diana Butler Bass’s premise in Grounded is that that we find the Holy One in the natural world—dirt, water, sky—and the relational world —family, home, neighborhood and commons.

To say that we can find God in all of our encounters means that we need to treat those encounters as holy and sacred.

It means that children in Flint and all over the world deserve clean water to drink and use; it means our national parks need to remain as places of beauty and refuge; it means that we need to cherish and raise our families to respect and love this world; it means that our neighbor is not only next door, but in all whom we meet; it means that hospitality means opening the door and inviting in those who need a welcoming hand.

It is so important in this newly emerging era of fear and unkindness that we can live and love in the world and meet God there. My favorite image from Grounded is that of God’s dining room table, where, as Diana writes:

No one owns the table. No one gets to take it over. We receive this table; it is the gift of heaven to earth. Our job is pull up more chairs. And make sure all are fed.

She reminds us that God is here, now. We only need to recognize the Spirit in all. I hope that you will have a chance to read Grounded and start finding God in your world.


1st United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor (1)Care to come to Ann Arbor?

In Ann Arbor, we care so much about this message that we are hosting Diana Butler Bass for a series of talks on March 24-26, 2017. Here is our congregation’s webpage for the event, if you care to learn more.

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Missy Buchanan brings us ‘Spirit Boosters’ to start your day

“Sometimes you wake up and think to yourself, ‘There’s no reason for me to get out of bed.’ You have no motivation, no anticipation. Each day feels just like the last. Remember that you are called to be a disciple, and discipleship carries no expiration date. Your work on earth is not done. Get up, serve, stretch, and grow!”
Bible reference: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23
From Missy Buchanan’s Spirit Boosters

ReadTheSpirit Editor

Spirit Boosters by Missy Buchanan

CLICK on the IMAGE to visit the Amazon page.

Spirit Boosters is my eighth project with Upper Room Books and it comes from all the traveling I’ve done over the years, speaking at conferences and churches and senior-care communities,” Missy Buchanan said in an interview this week. “I keep meeting people who continue to do so much good, whatever their age may be. But they also talk about how easy it is, as we age and we lose some of our abilities, to become bitter about life. We may wake up each day facing aches and pains. And, there are other reasons we can become bitter. Finally, one day, a friend suggested to me: ‘What we need is a daily attitude adjuster.’ ”

That’s how Missy Buchanan—who has had amazing success over the past decade with books designed to inspire aging readers—decided to roll up her sleeves and create a spiral-bound, 365-day calendar of bite-sized inspirational messages, coupled with passages from the Bible.

If you haven’t read our earlier ReadTheSpirit columns about her work, then we are sharing links below to some of our past coverage. Here are the basic details you need to know: Since 2008, Missy Buchanan has had a meteoric career in writing very popular books for Christian men and women who are wrestling with the sometimes harsh demands of age. Many of her readers are 80 or older. Many of them live in senior communities. She also scored a big success in helping the mother of Robin Roberts, the Good Morning America co-host, write her 2012 memoir.

Like her other projects, her spiral-bound calendar is aimed at Christian readers, drawing on verses from the Hebrew Bible out of Psalms and Proverbs as well many passages from the Christian New Testament, including the words of Jesus.

But the real reason to order one of these calendars—perfect for someone wanting to start a deeper spiritual reflection during the Christian season of Lent—is the daily advice written by Buchanan herself, based on the scripture passages. She brings her trademark honesty to nearly every page.

“Every now and then, I find a critic who describes something in one of my books as ‘harsh,’ and I think Baby Boomers in particular may be uncomfortable about my level of honesty about the challenges of aging,” Buchanan said. “But from the very start of my first book, I had this group of older adults who I would visit regularly. These friends formed my core group of advisors. I’ll never forget the advice I got from one of them. She said: ‘Missy, whatever you do, don’t put on rose-colored glasses and try to convince us that aging is easy. It’s not! If you try to write like it’s all roses—we’re not going to believe you!’

“And over the years, that’s been my constant goal: honesty. So, part of that honesty is in the way I name what people are facing. I talk about the aches and pains. Those are real and trying to cover that up isn’t helpful to anyone. But there’s another part of my honesty and it involves telling readers that they need to get up each day and do some good in the world. Whatever your age or condition in life, you can do that, even if it’s only in the way you behave toward your caregiver.”

And, in recommending this inexpensive gift for yourself—or someone you love—here is another honest-to-Missy sample from the February section of the calendar:

“As an older adult, you have a responsibility to younger people. They are watching and learning about aging from you. Think of what you are teaching them about God’s faithfulness. Reflect on your responsibility to younger generations and the lessons you are passing on. Are you teaching them well?”
Bible reference: “We will tell to the coming generations the glorious deeds of the Lord.”
Psalm 78:4




ReadTheSpirit has recommended the work of Missy Buchanan over the past decade. If you missed these past columns about her work, you may enjoy reading:

ALSO, look for Missy Buchanan’s upcoming appearances via her website. In June, she will appear twice at the nation’s largest United Methodist congregation: Church of the Resurrection in Kansas.

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Celebrating 75 years of revolutionary Little Golden Books

Cover of Golden Legacy book about history of Little Golden Books (1)

CLICK the COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.

I was a Little Golden boy. Millions of Baby Boomer girls and boys were like me—raised on this revolutionary series of affordable, high-quality picture books for children. You may have a favorite. Mine is Wiggles, released in 1953 with gorgeous illustrations by Eloise Margaret Wilkin, who sometimes was called “the soul of Little Golden Books.” She used a variety of media to produce luminous illustrations—often depicting children at home in town and country. Wiggles was about a city boy who went to live in the country and discovered all sorts of wonders in the farmland surrounding him. I loved the book because several scenes evoked Robert Frost poems that I heard my parents read aloud in our home. One illustration shows apple picking; another shows a calf with its mother that is reminiscent of Frost’s “The Pasture.” When I learned to read and finally could read books by myself, I carried vivid images in my head from Eloise Wikin and Little Golden Books. They were—and are—images of harmony, hospitality and hope.
David Crumm

Little Golden Books (born 1942)

The post World War II revolution in children’s literature, now known as Little Golden Books, sprang from roots that were sunk decades before the war. “Roots” is a good metaphor because these earlier efforts were regarded as tangled, messy and downright plebeian by the literary elite who ruled American libraries.

The entire story is laid out—with lots of colorful pictures—in Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way, by Leonard S. Marcus.

One root beneath the launch of Little Golden Books was the Artists & Writers Guild, formed in the 1930s to dramatically rethink the way books were produced. Borrowing a medieval-sounding name, these writers and artists were based in New York and intended to create a whole new collaborative process for rapidly producing books. They weren’t interested in traditional literary gatekeepers—nor were those gatekeepers interested in their books, for the most part. Other pre-war taproots were pulp fiction, comic books and even Horatio Alger up-from-the-bootstraps novels. These were “popular” books in “cheap” editions and America’s librarians scoffed at the whole mess.

Beautiful American-produced children’s books already were redefining childhood before World War II—if you were part of a well-to-do family who could afford a $2.00 hardback copy of The Story of Babar, which first appeared in the UK and the US in 1933.

Everything about Little Golden Books was intended to democratize children’s literature, starting with the price: a quarter. These books were fast, inexpensive and focused on connecting all families with quality picture books about real life, including American cities, towns, human families, animal families, occupations and modes of transportation. The publishing project also spanned much of the nation—joining Simon and Schuster in New York City with Western Publishing in Racine, Wisconsin.

A pilot group of a dozen Little Golden Books—starting with Three Little Kittens and including the famous The Poky Little Puppy—were published in 1942, but wartime shortages prevented the full-scale launch of the project until 1946. The first two volumes in the post-war series were New House in the Forest, illustrated by Eloise Wilkins and The Taxi That Hurried, illustrated by Tibor Gergely. A Hungarian refugee who made it to New York in 1939, Gergely went on to create the super-popular books Tootle, The Little Red Caboose and Scuffy the Tugboat.

(NOTE TO READERS: Dig around in your attic. Some of the original Golden editions are valuable today! As we publish this column in early 2017, vintage copies of New House in the Forest are selling for $160 on Amazon.)

From the beginning, America’s librarians hated the whole idea of these upstarts who were intentionally bypassing their traditional pre-publication review process—and then were grabbing little eyes in drug stores, “variety stores” and “dime stores.” The gatekeepers of children’s literature favored fairy tale classics; they only bought “quality” editions and they encouraged the publishing of “timeless” stories for their institutional collections.

Librarians also turned up their noses at Lucy Sprague Mitchell, an educator who had tangled with library associations as far back as the 1920s. Mitchell became one of the major cheerleaders behind Little Golden Books. Earlier, she had founded an influential progressive school in Manhattan’s West Village, called the Bank Street Nursery School. (Today, the school founded by Mitchell in 1916 has evolved into the Bank Street College of Education.) A veteran of national debates on the future of childhood education, Mitchell went after the critics of Little Golden Books full force.

In Golden Legacy, Leonard Marcus writes: “Arguing that young children were naturally curious about everyday modern life—airplanes, telephones, cities—and apt to be confused by the ‘timeless’ fairy tales librarians favored, Mitchell … went on to propose prototypes for a new kind of child-centered children’s literature.”

The project picked up another major educational ally in “Mary Reed, PhD,” a name frequently associated with Little Golden Books although Mary herself remained largely in the background. She co-authored only two of the books, My Little Golden Dictionary in 1949 and Numbers in 1955. Mary, born in 1880 in a small town along the Susquehanna River, grew up to become a courageous scholar on the faculty of Columbia University’s Teachers College. She bumped into the Writers & Artists Guild, which she immediately saw as a sign of cutting-edge creativity in media. That led to her connection with Little Golden Books. The savvy team recognized that Mary’s “PhD” and her prestigious role at Columbia would trump the other gatekeepers among America’s libraries who kept disparaging Little Golden Books. Mary agreed to review and comment on all Golden books, lending her name and that fancy “PhD” to what became a popular movement in households nationwide.

Cover Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Children and their parents loved to collect Little Golden Books. They reshaped American childhood. One of the best ways to glimpse their cultural impact is through Diane Muldrow’s book, Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book. Muldrow is an editorial director at Little Golden Books and has written dozens of the stories herself.

In her preface, she describes the millions of American children who loved looking at the colorful covers of Little Golden Books while shopping with their families. If Mom or Dad agreed to buy one, “when you got the book home, you proudly scrawled your name on the inside front cover where it said: ‘This Little Golden Book Belongs to …’”

“Little Golden Books were first published during the dark days of World War II,” Muldrow writes. “They’ve been comforting people during trying times ever since—while gently teaching us a thing or two. And they remind us that we’ve had the potential to be wise and content all along.”

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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PBS: Exploring American Extremism

The Birth of a Nation (1915) movie still

The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith, Shown: Walter Long (as Gus) surrounded by Ku Klux Klan members.

ReadTheSpirit Editor

In early February, 2017, PBS will broadcast three documentary films about explosive touchstones in the rise of American extremism—and one about a Civil Rights hero. They are:

  • BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT—Subtitled “How The Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights,” the hour-long film airs on PBS’s Independent Lens series on February 6, 2017. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.
  • OKLAHOMA CITY—Exploring the worst domestic terrorist attack in the US, the two-hour film airs on PBS’s American Experience series on February 7, 2017. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.
  • RUBY RIDGE—Examining the 1992 confrontation with the white separatist Randy Weaver in Idaho, the one-hour film airs on PBS’s American Experience series on February 14, 2017. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.
  • JOHN LEWIS—GET IN THE WAY—Then, PBS turns to an inspiring profile of Civil Rights hero U.S. Rep. John Lewis who has been in national headlines recently. The one-hour film airs on February 10. Visit the film’s PBS website to learn more.


Do you think it’s unique that Civil Rights are under siege with the backing of right-wing media activists inhabiting the White House? On February 6, the PBS network will broadcast the true, tragic story of what happened when such forces converged in an earlier era.

In the documentary Birth of a Movement, PBS takes us back just over a century to a time when the U.S. president became an ally of right-wing media tycoons releasing a coast-to-coast tidal wave of what historians now describe as “racist pornography.”

Is this the first time you’ve heard this story? You’re not alone. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I occasionally talk with groups about the history of American media and I always get stunned reactions to the shocking 1915 story of Birth of a Nation. Most Americans today have never heard this story—unless they’re steeped in the history of silent cinema or the early years of the NAACP.

The movie in question is the infamous Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith—not to be confused with a 2016 movie of the same title. The president who broke with established Washington D.C. protocol to welcome a first-ever White House screening of a movie was President Woodrow Wilson. While most Americans might recall Wilson as an idealist during World War I, Wilson was better known in 1915 as a Southerner whose lifelong friend was Thomas S. Dixon Jr. In that era when Jim Crow laws were cropping up across the U.S., Dixon was the firebrand author of Birth of a Nation’s incendiary storyline about the need for the Ku Klux Klan to violently suppress African-Americans. For his part, Wilson was a Southerner who established and promoted Jim Crow rules throughout Washington D.C.

Then, here’s the real tragedy! By January 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had all but vanished. That all changed after the movie’s endorsement by Wilson, record-breaking crowds in movie debuts in various big cities and eventually unprecedented public protests against the movie organized by a pioneer of the NAACP. The original KKK had arisen after the Civil War, but had all but disappeared by 1915. However, sparked by the enormous popularity of Griffith’s movie—and President Wilson’s encouragement—the Klan was reborn and grew to its largest-ever membership by the 1920s.

In fact, until 1915, the Klan had never burned a cross. What later became its signature hate crime—burning crosses to intimidate African-Americans, Catholics, Jews and other minority families—was a vivid concept introduced in Dixon’s novel and Griffith’s feature film. Eventually, the KKK felt so embraced by the White House and the American people that a massive KKK march was organized in Washington D.C.—and the members no longer feared public identification. Most of the men marched proudly in their white costumes—without their trademark white hoods.

Book cover by Dick Lehr Birth of a Nation and Willliam Monroe Trotter (1)

CLICK ON this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The film is based on Boston-based journalist Dick Lehr’s book about early African-American activist William Monroe Trotter who organized an astonishing array of public protests against the film in Boston. Trotter was a contemporary and sometime ally of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. (Although Trotter and Du Bois both opposed Washington’s appeasement on racial issues, all three opposed Griffith’s movie.) Various historians featured in the documentary argue that Trotter’s tidal wave of public protests and marches proved to be an early model for civil rights activism all the way into the 1950s and 1960s.

Viewers will meet a very impressive array of scholars. Among the African-American scholars who appear in the film are: Both Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Vincent Brown of Harvard, William Jelani Cobb of Columbia and Dolita Cathcart of Wheaton. Filmmaker Spike Lee adds a personal perspective on the story. Danny Glover narrates.

ReadTheSpirit urges readers to watch these films, perhaps visit the supplemental websites PBS provides—and discuss these issues with friends.



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