Spiritual books for kids (and moms): The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge fits into the category of “children’s classics that I didn’t read till I became a mom.”   I’m sure that this one bypassed my girlish radar because the cover makes it look like a “boy’s book” — there are no dolls, no ballet shoes, no cute little puppy dogs or flowery meadows or all the other triggers that used to make the very young me grab a book off of the library shelf and curl up with it on the floor.  So I’m very glad that I get a second chance to  discover this book, because it’s a gem … and it has sure gotten me thinking .

In the book, a little red lighthouse sits in the Hudson River in New York City, warning ships away from the rocks.  The lighthouse is cheerful and responsible,  proud to have such an important job to do.  And then, one day, strange men come and start building a huge bridge, a behemoth of a thing that totally dwarfs the tiny red lighthouse underneath.   The bridge has a flashing light on top, one so bright that the red lighthouse becomes depressed, wondering what purpose he can possibly serve anymore.  But then a storm comes, and a ship flounders and struggles, and the great gray bridge tells the lighthouse to turn on his light, quickly, and help the ship.  “Your light is so bright that I thought mine was needed no more,” answers the lighthouse.

“I call to the airplanes,” says the bridge.  “But you are still master of the river.”  He then utters the best line in the book: “Quick, let your light shine again.  Each to his own place, little brother!”  And the lighthouse is proud and happy again, knowing that he does matter, and that he is needed.

The message to this story is pretty clear: each of us is indispensable.  There is something so poignant about the little red lighthouse (the illustrations by Lynd Ward capture this beautifully) being overshadowed by the hulking gray bridge, yet coming to realize that he still matters, that he’s still needed.  “Each to his own place, little brother!”  The story assures kids (and moms!) that every one of us has something unique to give, even if we feel, at times, inadequate alongside those who are larger, flashier, newer … or all of the above.

As a spiritual writer, I find this a particularly useful  message.  There are tons of us writers out there, tapping away at our laptops; at times, it’s easy to question whether it’s worth it, to wonder whether we can possibly say something about faith that is different or unique.   What helps me is to remember the words of St. Paul, about how we are many parts, but all one body.   If one of the parts isn’t there, the whole is diminished. Each of us looks at spirituality through the lens of our own experiences, gender, age, ethnic identity, personal likes and dislikes, hopes and questions and quirks, which means that we each have a unique perspective to offer.

What is mine?  I guess it’s the perspective of a thirty-something mom, a hybrid of Polish/German pragmatism and California optimism, a teacher and writer, a practicing Catholic who loves hanging out with people who aren’t.  I’m someone who has had bad experiences with obsessive anxiety and good experiences with opening up and talking about it.  I am an imperfect but enthusiastic gardener who believes, as the writer Beverly Nichols once said, that if all men were gardeners, the world would at last be at peace.    All of this and more makes me who I am, and gives me a specific lens through which I see God and life,  a lens through which I identify what really matters and how to get there.  Other people will see those same things in different ways, through different lenses, and I thank God for that variety.

This is why I love the big banquet that is my faith.  There’s such diversity out there:  one person may like the spirituality of St. Francis, another person may be drawn to the activism of  Dorothy Day, another person may find God through the writings of Thomas Merton.  There is something for everyone, and when we writers share our unique experiences of faith, we add more dishes to the menu.

And this isn’t just about writing, either; it’s really a broader message, about finding your own calling.  The trick to happiness lies in recognizing who we truly are, and what we alone have to offer; there’s no point in copycatting those who seem bigger or grander or more prominent.    The great gray  bridge can do a lot, but it can’t shine its beams where the little red lighthouse can. And on this river called life, every light matters.

The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegarde H. Swift, illustrated by Lynd Ward.  Click here to read more about the Spiritual Books series of posts.

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