The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted: A terrifying and potentially dangerous book for kids

A new children’s book, The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted (Sophia Institute Press, 2019), is getting rave reviews from moms, Catholic media, and conservative celebrities.

On the surface, it’s a simple, inspiring story about courage and change; but for many kids — and for many adults who have suffered abuse — the pictures, text, and message will be terrifying and even dangerous. At best, this children’s book delegitimizes normal emotions. At worst, it could facilitate abuse.

The rhymed verses by Anthony DeStefano, lavishly illustrated by Erwin Madrid, tell the story of a little seed who’s plucked from his familiar drawer

and planted in the earth. He’s frightened and confused, but soon realizes that change means growth, and as he’s transformed into a beautiful, fruitful tree, he becomes thankful to the farmer who planted him, is grateful and happy, and forgets his fears forever.

While religion isn’t explicitly mentioned until after the page that says “the end,” the influence of scripture is obvious (the seed packets are labelled things like “mustard,” “sycamore,” “olive,” “grape,” and “fig,” and it makes references to “mansions” and “vineyards”). The seed is everyman (or everychild), and the farmer is God the Father, and/or authority figures like parents and teachers.  

It sounds helpful and wholesome, but let’s take a closer look.

Margaret Realy, author, artist, and speaker (The Catholic Gardener) reviewed the book, anticipating a pleasant read, but was alarmed and disturbed. She wrote a review on Amazon that pinpoints the specifics. Realy said:

This story places childhood abuse and neglect in the center of its theme. A small defenseless being is repeatedly traumatized by seeing loved ones ‘disappeared’ “…and no one would see that seed anymore.” Then the following stanzas speak of anticipatory trauma that he too will be taken away.

The fearful day comes, he can’t escape, and the man’s hand clasped around him. No matter how the seed cried and yelled, he was taken from a secure and loving environment to one of “horror”, “pain”, and “agony.”

The man that took him away was silent and unresponsive to the pleading seed, buried him alive, and left him abandoned.

That’s a lot for a young child to process, and nearly impossible for one—of any age—that is abused.

The pictures are dramatic and gripping, and the dark subject matter contrasts weirdly with the cartoonish faces and font:

Here is the seed, weeping after being abruptly buried alive:

The seed does, of course, come out well in the end, and it becomes a home for birds and animals; children play around it, and it bears much (confusingly diverse) fruit while overlooking a prosperous paradisal landscape with “millions of mansions.”

But this happy ending doesn’t do the job it imagines it does. Realy points out that, while the story attempts to show that the seed’s fears were unfounded and it would be better if he had trusted the farmer, it doesn’t show any of that in progress. Realy said:

Unfortunately I find the story’s transitioning through fear of the unknown into transformation by Grace, weak. The ‘seed’ began to change without any indication of the Creator’s hand, and his terrified soul was not comforted or encouraged by human or Holy.

Instead, it simply shows him transforming “all at once, in the blink of an eye”

This might have been a good place to point out that a seed grows when it’s nourished by a farmer, and to illustrate what appropriate care and concern  actually look like. The Old and New Testament are absolutely loaded with references to God’s tenderness, kindness, mercy, love, care, pity, and even affection; but this book includes none of that, and instead skips seamlessly from terror and abandonment to prosperous new life.

It explicitly portrays God (or his nearest representative in a child’s life) as huge, terrifying, silent, and insensible and unresponsive to terror and agony — and also inexplicably worthy of unquestioning trust.

Realy points out: 

Research indicates that up to 25% of children in the United States are abused, and of that 80% of those children are five and under (Childhelp: Child Abuse Statistics Facts. Accessed December 2019). This is based on only reported cases.

That’s a lot of kids.

Imagine a child who has been taken from a place of comfort, happiness, and companionship and is thrust into darkness and isolation by a looming, all-powerful figure who silently ignores their terror and buries them alive.

Now imagine what this book tells that child to think about himself, and what it tells him to think about God. Imagine how useful this book would be to someone who wants to continue to abuse, and who wants his victim to believe that what is happening to him is normal and healthy and will bear fruit. 

It is ghastly.

But what about kids who aren’t being abused? The statistics, while horrifying, do show that most children aren’t being abused. Can’t we have books designed for these typical children? 

It is true that some kids are inappropriately afraid of change and growth, and need to be reminded that the unknown isn’t always bad. Imagery is useful for kids (and for adults), and I can imagine an anxious child who’s afraid of going to second grade being comforted with a reminder: Remember the little seed? He was scared, too, but the new things turned out to be good and fun!

But even for these children who aren’t experiencing massive trauma or abuse, and who truly are being cared for by people who want good for them, the narrative minimizes and delegitimizes normal childhood emotions. It’s clear that the seed is wrong to be afraid, even though his situation is objectively terrifying. Teaching kids to ignore and minimize their powerful emotions does not facilitate growth or maturity; it encourages emotional maladaptations that bear bad fruit in adult life. Ask me how I know. 

The flaws in the book are especially egregious when they make the message explicitly spiritual. The final page says “From the Bible” and quotes four passages from scripture. Two are unobjectionable, but two are breathtakingly inappropriate for kids: One quotes John’s passage about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying; and one describes Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane and praying that the Father might take the cup away, but saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

These are not verses for children! They are certainly not for children of an age to appreciate the colorful, cartoonish illustrations and simplistic rhyming stanzas in the book. These are verses for adults to grapple with, and goodness knows adults have a hard enough time accepting and living them. 

Including them in a book for young kids reminds me chillingly of the approach the notorious Ezzos, who, in Preparation for Parenting, urges parents to ignore the cries of their infants, saying, “Praise God that the Father did not intervene when his Son cried out on the cross.” I also recall (but can’t find) reading how the Ezzos or a similar couple tell parents to stick a draconian feeding schedule for very young babies, comparing a baby’s hungry cries to Jesus on the cross saying, “I thirst.”    

On a less urgent note, it’s also sloppy and careless with basic botany. Realy, an avid garner, points out its “backwards horticulture” which has the tree growing “nuts and fruits that hang down,” but then later “the tree sprouted flowers/and blossoms and blooms.” It also shows a single tree producing berries, fruits, nuts, and grapes, refers to how “woodpeckers pecked/at his bark full of sap.” Woodpeckers do not eat sap, and sap is not in the bark of a tree. Realy and I both also abhor the lazy half-rhymes that turn up, pairing “afraid” with “day” and “saw” and “shore.” 

But worse than these errors is the final page, which shows a beaming, full-grown tree, along with a textbook minimization of trauma:

“The tree understood
that he had been freed.
He barely remembered
when he was a seed.

He barely remembered
his life in the drawer.
his fears disappeared
and returned . . . nevermore.”

Again, if we’re talking about a kid who was nervous about moving to a new classroom, then yes, the fears might turn out to be easily forgotten. But that’s not what the book describes. When the seed is being carried away from its familiar home, it says, “I’m in so much pain and such agony!” and “He felt so abandoned, forsaken, alone” as he’s buried alive by a giant, faceless man who offers no explanation, comfort, or even warning. In short, it describes true trauma, and trauma doesn’t just “disappear and return nevermore.” It’s cruel to teach kids or even adults to expect the effects of trauma to vanish without a trace.

As Realy said: “PTSD never goes away, even with God. We learn to carry the cross well.” 

Let’s be clear: Children don’t need everything to be fluffy and cheery and bright. Some kids, even very young kids, relish dark and gruesome stories, and I’m not arguing for shielding children from anything that might possibly trouble or challenge their imaginations. We recently read Robert Nye’s Beowulf, for instance. We read mythology; we read scripture.

But when we set out to explicitly teach a lesson — especially a lesson that purports to speak on behalf of God! — it’s vital to get the context exactly right. This book is so very sloppy and careless with children’s tender hearts, that even if there isn’t some dark intention behind it, it’s very easy to imagine a predatory abuser using it as a tool.

 A Catholic publisher like Sophia Institute Press ought to know better.

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21 thoughts on “The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted: A terrifying and potentially dangerous book for kids”

  1. This piece seems politically/ideologically motivated, e.g., it’s because of the affiliations of the author and those who gave reviews. To get the ideas that Simcha does from the book you really have to heavily read things into it. And to say things like the book “could” facilitate abuse. Quite a speculative firebomb lobbed out. And her authority is a single reviewer on Amazon! And, given books out there that are truly damaging for kids, it’s very odd she should choose to focus on this one, e.g., how about books promoting sexual deviancy to kids. Again it’s like someone has to be going out to their way to single it out because of other factors. This is the book some one chooses to do a diatribe over? Her buddy Mark Shea gives up the ghost when he explicitly links this to a diatribe against Trump, Trump administration officials, Fr. Frank Pavone, etc.

    1. I didn’t bring up any political or ideological issues, so I’m not sure why you’re bringing them up. The content itself was disturbing on its own. I chose to review this book because it would likely appeal to people in my audience (which books promoting sexual deviancy would not), and I thought a warning was in order. The reviewer’s concerns were seconded by a licensed therapist.

      1. Actually, you tip your hand when you note, for example, positive reviews coming from “conservative” celebrities. Why the need for a classifier at all? And the pot shot at Sophia Press, who has become a target of attack recently amongst “progressive” Catholics, also tips the hand. What made you single out this book, whom most people will probably never hear of? You choose the negative review of one person (I don’t see another one backing it up, but even then you would have 2) over the “rave reviews” of many, including the other 33 on amazon. That speaks volumes- as though everyone else is somehow missing the bad content you claim is in there, those conservative saps who are predictably praising the book don’t see it, and only the enlightened folks such as yourself and the amazon reviewer see it. The odds are quite against that, of course.

        Consider that the good reviews come from parents/grandparents who have read the book to their children and thus not had any such reactions. The negative reviewer writes only from a theoretical perspective, and in fact, she seems to have no children and is perhaps even isolated in some ways (she’s a hermit). To then take her speculation, as a supposed “expert” over the actual experience of parents is questionable, while it’s like you’re looking for any negative review, 1 out of 33 on amazon, to latch on to. And the over the top claims- “terrifying.” Really? And if it’s so obviously terrifying, again why does not everyone else see it and why no reviews from parents who had any such reaction from their kids? You also arguably greatly exaggerate the one reviewer’s claim- she notes her concerns as just one caveat and you turn it into something larger. The fact you go on a tear about a single children’s book of a minority category in books and take a shot at Sophia press, and want people to follow your take, is just odd and indicates something else at work.

  2. I would be interested to read about what you think of Frozen 2, which takes up the same call to, and fear of the unknown.

  3. Sometimes I’m flabbergasted at what adults think is appropriate to say or read to children. Do they have no sensitivity, no imagination, no memory at all of what it’s like to be a child?

    As far as the story depicting a child (because the child listener will identify with the seed) being removed from a familiar, safe environment into one of pain, terror, and abandonment–what were they using for brains? My kids, very secure in this stable 2-parent home, have all gone through a phase when they first realize that people grow up and leave home and they are disturbed by the very idea. They say “I don’t want to ever leave Mama and Daddy! Do I have to move away? I want to live here forever.” I always tell them with complete confidence that they can live with us as long as they want to, even when they are grown up. Because somewhere around 15 or 16, that desire dies a natural death without anyone having to say anything. Children need security until they grow into teens who start to need other things more.

    1. I’m so glad my parents did the opposite of what you are doing to your children. Life is very very difficult and the best thing that parents can do is to push the baby birds out of the nest and teach them to FLY on their own. If you don’t teach them to fly you’ve failed as parents.
      Keeping them in the nest longer is selfish on your part. My parents taught me at a young age that GOD is always with me and that they would not always be there for me . I think of how strong my parents made me, strong to survive in a harsh world. I called my Dad up several times in my adult life to thank him just for that, being a great example to follow of a strong servant leader. You are wise to toughen them up from the beginning rather than coddle them so they are floundering around when life throws them curveballs. The devil is not going to shoot arrows made of cottonballs at them, he is going to tey to take yoir kids out! The Bible firmly states that the man is the Head of the Christian home, meaning your 1st charge is their Spiritual welfare and to help provide thst form breastplate of faith so when the devil shoots those arrows at them they fall to their feet without causing injury. If your kids don’t have that strong breastplate then you haven’t taken that role as the head of the Christian hoisehold very seriously have you?

  4. It’s unfortunate he went this way with this book. We have a few of his others and they are nothing like this. The Puppy that Nobody Wanted is just amazing and has tons of scriptural allusions and very clearly has the family that adopted him be the Holy Family. Seems like he didn’t think through this seed one…

  5. Not sure the purpose of this story. Not sure children would benefit or even “get” the moral of the story. Young children don’t know how to rise above their fears. Yes they can be encouraged and nurtured. But they only truly conquer their fears over time, and with the increase in age. And they probably only start to overcome their childhood fears as they venture into the teen years. Hence, not an age appropriate themed picture book, really.

    1. Sorry, just wanted to add that I was referring to children who have not been abused or suffered trauma. On the other hand children who have suffered abused should never be made to believe, via a picture book, that the sense of security which was cruelly taken away from them was ever EVER acceptable. Ever. Which it seems this picture book is trying to do.

    1. I think it’s really cool that you’re branching out into women’s names now, Tom/Bob/Steven/Jasper. Are you taking hormones, or just testing the waters?

  6. Yikes.

    I know you’re writing this on one particular book, but I wanted to add that I think badly written saint stories fall into this category too.

  7. I would find this un-readable-aloud for the banal rhymes, let alone anything else. If your meter and rhyme scheme rely on words like “quite,” then you really have no business writing rhymes at all. This fails my “write well for children” test on that score.

  8. Thank you for this review. On a side note, those Ezzos sound really sick. If I remember correctly,they’re the ones who wrote “Babywise?” I’m so glad I was told to avoid that book.

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