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.

Does Francis know he sounds like an abuser?

Shall I tell you the most charitable, least rash explanation I can muster for Pope Francis’ recent words and behavior? It’s that he’s surrounded himself with yes men who are shielding him from understanding the depth and breadth of institutional sex abuse and its cover-up in the Church.

He’s appointed, or left in office, no one but men who tell him that the world is chock full of false accusations, that the whole scandal thing is overblown, that it’s all in our past — oh, and that right now would be a good time to talk about litter in the ocean. The few who will tell him the truth, like Cardinal O’Malley, are so outnumbered that even their dire warnings can be dismissed as local problems.

That’s the charitable answer, and it’s not great. If he’s in a bubble that protects him from seeing the true state of the Church, it’s a comfortable bubble of his own making. The servant of the servants of God is not supposed to be in a bubble.

But the other explanation is worse. Here it is:

I have a number of friends who have escaped abusive marriages. They tell me that Pope Francis is sounding more and more like the men who abused them. He’s sounding like the men who hid that abuse from the world, who taught their victims to blame themselves, who used spiritual pressure to persuade them and their families that it would actually be wrong, sinful, to defend themselves.

Just listen to him. After responding to a question about Vigano’s very serious accusations, he said point blank, “I will not say a single word on this.” Several of the faithful speculated that he may have had this or that logistical reason for putting off responding to that specific question; fine. But for the rest of the week and more, he kept up an unmistakable theme of calling for silence, equating silence with holiness, and painting himself as a Christlike victim in his silence. Then he says it’s “ugly” to accuse others of sinning.Then he suggests that healing and reconciliation will only come if we take a hard look at our own flaws.

These statements are all true. They all reflect Christian thought. They would be reasonable at any other time in recent history. But coming right in the middle of our ongoing agony, they land as heavily as a fist on a bruise.

To the victims of the Church, and to those who love them, it sounds like he is saying, “Who do you think you are? I don’t have to explain myself to you. You’re the guilty one. You brought this on yourself. If you want to be loved, then know your place. I’m the victim, here, not you. If you know what’s good for you, keep your mouth shut.”

This is how abusers talk. They’re not content with power; they have to keep their victims doubting and blaming themselves constantly, so they don’t become a threat. Whether Francis knows it or not, this is how he sounds.

I know that we hear what gets reported, which isn’t necessarily everything he says. I know that the pope isn’t required to say everything we want him to say. I know that whatever is going on in our own diocese or our own country isn’t the whole of what goes on in the Church. I know that there are eternal truths that need to be told no matter what is going on in the current moment.

But even keeping all these things in mind, it beggars the imagination why the pope keeps talking the way he does. It’s clear he intends to keep on talking, despite his exhortations to be silent. This is what he chooses to say. The very best possible explanation is that his context is pure bubble, and he simply doesn’t realize that much of the Catholic world is transfixed with horror over the sins of the clergy. He simply isn’t aware that, with his words and with his silence, he’s turning his back on so many suffering priests and bishops, including my own, who tell their flock that they have not been abandoned — only to hear their spiritual father override their efforts with a huge, unmistakable message of “NOBODY CARES.”

Maybe he simply doesn’t realize that his cozy little aphorisms are coming off as a passive aggressive threat, as chilling as an abuser who smiles warmly at the world while secretly showing an open blade to the victim who stands faithfully at his side.

I do remember his gentleness, his compassion, his direct and sincere kindness in the past. I don’t believe that was false. You all know I’m not a reflexive Francis-hater. I don’t have any ideological reason to want to bring him down. I have defended him as long as I could, up until the Chile debacle.

And so I am working as hard as I can not to assume the worst, not to believe that this man who promised so much fresh air is really so intent on slamming doors shut before we find out even worse things hidden inside. But he is not making it easy. I am not saying he is an abuser. But he sounds like one.