Just as it’s important for our own holiness to train our imaginations to be sacramental and discover the links in the world around us between the invisible and visible, it’s perhaps even more important that we train our children’s imaginations to do the same. It’s during our childhood that we lean most heavily upon the imagination to discover meaning in the world around us, and it’s also during our childhood that our imaginations are the most trainable. Therefore, it’s important that we not only encourage our children to cultivate their imaginations, but also actively form and train their imaginations so that they will better understand how to discover meaning and recognize God’s presence in the world around them.

One of the best ways to train our children’s imaginations is through literature. It’s also helpful to rely upon a specific philosophy of education that provides a method for such a task. One that I think corresponds very well to the formation of the imagination comes from the Catholic writer, Stratford Caldecott. In his book, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, Caldecott sets up a trinitarian structure of education by dividing the education of children into three stages, each of which corresponds to a liberal art of the Trivium: remembering, thinking, and speaking.

The first stage, remembering, corresponds to the liberal art of Grammar. This stage of remembering is also the best place at which to begin forming a sacramental imagination because only as children fill the storehouses of their memories with images, symbols, and patterns from literature will they then be able to recognize likenesses among realities and make metaphors that relate visible and invisible realities. As Caldecott explains, there’s a profound link between language and memory, since “to fill a word with meaning is an act of remembering the being of the thing itself.” It’s therefore necessary that before children can use language to make meaning and discover truth, they must practice the art of remembering.  

In the second stage of education that Caldecott sets up, thinking, children move from Grammar to Logic, or Dialectic, as they begin the mental processes “by which we separate truth from falsehood.” In other words, they move from “the art of ‘interpretation’ or ‘reading’ (Grammar) to the art of analysis or discerning the truth.” In the formation of a sacramental imagination, the stage of thinking corresponds to the act of recognizing and analyzing the metaphors that relate visible and invisible realities, and it’s the point at which children can begin discussing what they’ve read in order to discover what mysteries the authors are revealing through their works.

In the final stage, speaking, children can then take those revelations and what they have discovered to be true in what they have read and analyzed and communicate it to others.

This stage corresponds to the art of Rhetoric. In this final stage of the formation of the sacramental imagination, young people can begin to not only communicate what mysteries are being revealed in the works they encounter, but they can also begin to create new metaphors of their own. They can participate in the imaginative act begun by the authors they’ve read of making metaphors that allow for the apprehension of divine mystery through language.

Of these three stages, it’s in the stage of remembering that it’s most important to provide our children with good literature so that they can fill up their memories with symbols and metaphors that make invisible realities present through language. Although there are many more excellent Catholic and Christian children’s authors out there, here is a list of a few of my favorites:

For young readers: 

Carlson, Natalie Savage

  • The Happy Orpheline 
  • A Brother for the Orphelines 
  • A Pet for the Orphelines 
  • The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle 
  • A Grandmother for the Orphelines 
  • The Family Under the Bridge

De Angeli, Marguerite

  • Bright-April 
  • Thee, Hannah! 
  • The Door in the Wall 
  • Petite Suzanne 
  • Henner’s Lydia 
  • The Lion in the Box 
  • And many others…

DePaola, Tomie

  • The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush 
  • The Clown of God 
  • Big Anthony and the Magic Ring 
  • Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato 
  • Francis the Poor Man of Assisi 
  • The Lady of Guadalupe 
  • Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs 
  • Mother Goose 
  • And many others…

Godden, Rumer

  • Mouse House 
  • The Dragon of Og
  • Tho Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle 
  • The Doll’s House 
  • The Fairy Doll 
  • A Kindle of Kittens 
  • The Story of Holly and Ivy

Hodges, Margaret

  • Saint George and the Dragon

Hunt, Angela Elwell

  • The Tale of Three Trees

For middle grade readers:

Alexander, Lloyd

  • Chronicles of Prydian: 
    • The Book of Three 
    • The Black Cauldron 
    • The Castle of Llyr 
    • Taran Wanderer 
    • The High King

Collum, Padraic

  • The Children’s Homer 
  • The Golden Fleece 
  • The Children of Odin

Godden, Rumer

  • An Episode of Sparrows

Hamori, Laszlo

  • Dangerous Journey 
  • Flight to the Promised Land

L’Engle, Madeline

  • The Young Unicorns 
  • A Wrinkle in Time 
  • A Wind in the Door 
  • A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Lewis, C.S.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia

MacDonald, George

  • The Princess and Curdie 
  • The Princess and the Goblin 
  • At the Back of the North Wind
  • The Golden Key 
  • The Light Princess

Speare, Elizabeth George

  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond 
  • The Bronze Bow 
  • The Sign of the Beaver

Tolkien, J.R.R.

  • The Hobbit 
  • The Lord of the Rings

Trevor, Meriol

  • Lights in a Dark Town 
  • The Rose Round 
  • The Sparrow Child 
  • Sun Slower, Sun Faster 
  • The Letzenstein Chronicles: 
  • The Crystal Snowstorm 
  • Following the Phoenix 
  • Angel and Dragon 
  • The Rose and Crown

Vision Books

  • The Cure of Ars: The Priest Who Out-Talked the Devil 
  • Edmund Campion: Hero of God’s Underground 
  • Father Marquette and the Great Rivers
  • Francis and Clare: Saints of Assisi 
  • Kateri Tekakwitha: Mohawk Maid 
  • St. Francis and the Seven Seas 
  • St. Isaac and the Indians 
  • St. John Bosco and St. Dominic Savio 
  • St. Philip of the Joyous Heart 
  • St. Pius X: The Farm Boy Who Became Pope 
  • St. Therese and the Roses

White, John

  • The Tower of Geburah 
  • The Iron and the Scepter 
  • The Swordbearer