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.

The Woman Who Took Everything Personally: Garden Edition

(Reprinted upon request. I am now two years older and have given up on tomatoes. Other than that, everything is the same.)

People sometimes ask me* how I manage to keep up with gardening. With all my many responsibilities, how do I manage to maintain my flower beds in their customary splendor?

Here’s how you do it. First, you decide to live in a place where the soil is 78% soccer ball-sized rocks with paltry little swaths of dirt in between. Then you crank the climate way down to supidsville, so it may be Memorial Day, but you’re still squinting wrathfully at the sky and thinking, “Yep, that’s definitely a snow cloud.” You consider burning the dog for fuel. Nothing personal; it just really, really hurts to pay for heating oil in May.

This in itself should make gardening miserable enough. But if you really want to reap sorrow and lamentations as you bring forth flowers into the world, then I cannot recommend highly enough the following technique.

Take it personally. All of it!

Above is a little diagram of one of my little flower beds, which also doubles neatly as a functional map of my psyche. Every single thing that grows tells you something about me, and all of it is stupid.

That lilac tree is a sehnsucht-laden bearer of my youthful memories of this other lilac tree we used to have, alas. I wait in agony for the blossoms to open so I can smell them, thinking all the time about how quickly they will fade, alas alas.

The day lilies come up on their own, and spread like crazy, and I have to rip them out to make way for other flowers, because life is like that. Not even flowers will be allowed to flourish where they will. Death will always have his portion, and I will be his agent. Sheesh, Death.

The purple bushy stuff and the white bushy stuff, I bought on clearance, where the heartless Home Depot generation stopped bothering to water it just because it had already bloomed for the season. Can you believe that? A nice, decent flower, with so much growth left in it, just shoved aside before it’s even fully passed. Just because a flower is forty-one years old and maybe has a double chin and big arms and can’t stay awake through movies, they stop watering it, and nobody even cards it at the liquor store anymore, but this is not right! It’s not right! It’s . . . it’s just not right.

The poppies, I bought out of rage. The only thing that would have made me happier is if they had cost five times as much, because that would be just like them. Freaking poppies. I have been trying to grow poppies all my life, because they are so lovely, and I’ve never gotten so much as a single glossy petal or even an inch or two of hairy, snakelike stem. So here I go, freaking buying freaking poppies, and I HOPE THEY ALL DIE. Freaking poppies. *sob*

The daisies, I dug up from another part of the yard and chunked into my garden because the cruel mower was headed for their sweet heads. If that isn’t just like a man, humph. You stick with me, daisies. We’ll start a book club together, you and me, and you can chip in for the rent once your candle business gets off the ground. I understand.

The roses, I picked up last year at Aldi because they were on sale. I don’t even like roses, but what could I do? They were on sale. And wouldn’t you know it, they survived the winter and they’re doing fine. Thanks a lot, Aldi. By the way, your three bean salad stinks. I rate it two beans at best.

The various plants marked “??” are things that I don’t dare to weed because I can never remember if they are anything or not, because I’m an idiot.

And then there’s this beauty:

Oh, yeah, this is going to be great, I can tell already. Huge masses of fragrant, glowing blossoms will definitely ignite the senses in the fall, kindling hope anew in hearts that were beginning to falter. Totally. Yeah, I have super high hopes that we’ll see a real turnaround with this particular item.

And one more thing: did you notice that none of this was grown from seed? That’s because I stink! I stink! I didn’t even smell the lilacs today, because I stink!

In conclusion: at least Google knows what I’m talking about.

*No one has ever asked me