Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) — Ten years ago, a chance encounter led Dr. Terrence Nollen to start his Southern Nebraska Register column, “The Children’s Literature Bookshelf.”
Dr. Nollen has always loved children’s literature. Initially trained as a librarian, his Ph.D. thesis was on children’s books and how to choose them. He taught Children’s Literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before accepting a job as librarian and history professor for St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward.
“After Mass one day, I was talking to a mother who said her daughter was reading this acclaimed book,” Dr. Nollen recalled.
He sympathized with the mother when she told him she had found the book to be morally inappropriate, despite all the accolades the author had received.
“It was actually an attack on motherhood,” lamented Dr. Nollen.
The conversation gave him pause. He certainly had a lot of expertise in choosing good children’s books. What could he do to help this woman and so many other parents like her? Dr. Nollen contacted Father Kenneth Borowiak, then the editor of the Southern Nebraska Register, and offered to write reviews of children’s books. Happily, Father Borowiak accepted.
Dr. Nollen’s first column was published shortly before Christmas in 2006. Since then he has reviewed a little more than 400 titles, ranging from picture books to adolescent-level novels and non-fiction.
“I try to use a mix of books: biography, historic fiction, different things,” he said. “My purpose is to give readers and parents a book that builds them up spiritually and emotionally, and is enjoyable to read.”
He strives to choose books that are available at most public libraries, which is great for budget-conscious families. Age ranges and page counts help parents (or grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents or teachers) know which children will enjoy each book. He also offers helpful tips on how the book can be used to help kids develop Christian virtues.
“If a book doesn’t talk about things like kindness or charity, I won’t review it,” Dr. Nollen stated. “I only get 42 shots a year.”
Despite his busy schedule at St. Gregory the Great Seminary – and the one class he teaches at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton – Dr. Nollen finds the time to select a children’s book, read it, and write his review for each issue of the Register. He estimates he spends four or five hours on each book, not counting reading time (obviously, reading a picture book versus a 250-page youth novel is a large range).
To find fresh titles, Dr. Nollen relies on resources familiar to all librarians. He narrows his search first by season and then by the books that have received the best reviews. Promising options are checked out of the public library.
“I do have to pay attention to a lot of things,” he said. “The difficulty tends to be in the adolescent fiction because there are so many things that are antithetical to Christianity.”
He added, “You have a real responsibility as a librarian with what you select, because what you tell your children is good for them had better be good for them!”
Sometimes, Dr. Nollen said he is well into an adolescent novel before he discovers something unsavory. Other times, he can tell almost immediately.
Such was the case of one particular award-winning novel. Dr. Nollen had previously featured an older novel by the same author in his column. However, the first page of the second novel contained such a reprehensible scene, Dr. Nollen was shocked it had received any award at all.
This is not to say that children should be forbidden from reading all modern books.
“At least read the non-fiction,” encouraged Dr. Nollen. “It’s really delightful to read most of the good nonfiction today.”
Despite having received several requests from parents over the years, the one thing Dr. Nollen will not do is provide a list of ban-worthy books.
“I’m not going to censure your kids’ reading,” he declared. “When I’m writing, it is about a good book that I would recommend or else I wouldn’t be writing the review.
Of course, not all of the titles he chooses are overtly Christian. One of his favorites, “1000 Paper Cranes,” is set in Japan, and the main character is Buddhist. However, she exhibits courage, kindness, and perseverance, which makes the book a good vehicle for Catholic children to learn about these virtues.
Dr. Nollen is frequently asked to gather all his reviews in an electronic bibliography, but that will have to wait, perhaps until he retires from teaching. For now, he’ll keep teaching and writing children’s book reviews.
“I really love to do the column,” he said. “I think God’s given me a certain gift in children’s literature, and therefore it’s kind of an obligation to at least try to share that gift.”
He hopes families benefit from his column, especially when it comes to raising kids in Christian virtues.
“All literature has the potential to lead a person to become happier and more developed, but they will only get this when they come to know who Christ is,” Dr. Nollen believes. “As St. Augustine said, ‘Our hearts will be restless until they rest in Thee… I’m trying to find materials that will help that process.”