As a child, my family would crowd around our dining room table most nights, where toward the end of mom’s meal Dad would reach onto the window sill for Little Visits with God, where he would begin to read tales on morality from the 1950s-published book.
All these years later, when my siblings gather to resurrect memories from growing up in our bluish-gray corner colonial home in Bowie, Maryland, Little Visits From God invariably comes up in conversation. Those nights around the table, we each agree, have become cherished heirlooms of warm memory.
Here’s the way it worked: At the head of the table, Dad read a short 2-3 page story, where characters named Henry the Grocer, Frank the Milkman, Judy the Homemaker, etc. came to life through storylines to speak words of wisdom to children. Thereafter, Dad worked his way around the table to ask us three or four questions based on the right or wrong moral choices made by the children featured in that story.
All these years later, my siblings laugh at the outdated character who led a wayward, teasing, or lying child to virtue – but, man, did folks like Harry the Grocer subconsciously help to shape each of us in our own character, decision-making, and individual paths to virtue.
But here’s what’s even better: “Harry the Grocer” and “Frank the Milkman’s” life-lesson visits into our imagination around the dinner table helped to sustain our relationships with God. Each of mom’s and dad’s eight children has maintained our Catholic faith. Some are daily communicants and one is a priest. Each of us prays the Rosary, frequently goes to confession, and works with diligence to lead our own children to greater intimacy with God.
So powerful were the memories of those nights in the 1970s that I searched out an old copy of Little Visits of God on Amazon. The day after it arrived on our doorstep, I began to read the same stories to my own children. And in a similar fashion to all those years ago, my children laughed and laughed at the outdated characters – but I also watched them take seriously the lessons on morality and do their best to answer my questions.
I am not taking space in this column to convince you that my Dad’s reading – or my own – of Harry the Grocer helped each of my siblings to maintain and grow in their Catholicism – but I do write to say that middle-school-aged children starve today to be captivated and influenced by heroic or relatable characters in books.
The soul of the sleepy-eyed child wants little more than mom or dad to read an old bedtime story to ripple through their imagination. Perhaps in these modern days, a King and a Queen in a far-off land, a dragon-slaying prince, or even “Harry the Grocer” won’t get it done – but Patti Maguire Armstrong’s Dear God, I Don’t Get It most certainly will.
As a fellow Catholic author and journalist, I have read Patti’s bulldog-like reporting in the National Catholic Register and other periodicals for several years. I’ve found her writings on exorcists, human trafficking, Marian apparitions, and the thornier issues in the Church to be an exercise in top-flight beat reporting. Because Patti takes her faith seriously, she also writes captivating human-interest pieces for laity desirous of being taken more deeply into the multilayered stories of faith.
Never, though, did I think I would be reading Patti’s children’s books! But on a recent leisurely weekend, I began to flip through her 2nd editions of Dear God: I Don’t Get It and Dear God: You Can’t Be Serious. A few hours later I found that I had read every word of both books.
These two gems are Little Visits From God for 2023. They are precisely what the Catholic middle school child – perhaps unwittingly – hungers for today. In this seemingly rudderless youth culture, immorality is already beginning to be mainstreamed and sacred truths pushed aside for pre-teens. Thereafter, of course, many young minds experience confusion, anxiousness, and travail.
Even homeschooled children or those being taught in orthodox Catholic and Christian schools will undergo the strain of existing in today’s expanding moral rudderlessness. In some fashion, today’s riotous youth culture will rear up and sting even the most fortified and insulated child, whose childhood innocence is being re-written, refashioned, and redirected by the world. At public schools in my Maryland county is a book for Pre-Kindergartners called Pride Puppy. The book’s cover is bathed in rainbow colors, with small children cheerfully waving Pride flags. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding is on the kindergarten reading list. The cover shows a man squeezing the arm of “his husband” on their wedding day. First, second, and third-graders are introduced to books on transgenderism. Each book cover has a joyful-looking character/s.
Why do I mention this modernist infiltration? To emphasize how badly books like Patti Maguire Armstrong’s are needed to counteract and dam up the constant flow of garbage. Catholic parents need Patti’s books – and so do their children..
The books are gritty, easy-to-absorb stories centered around the fictional life of sixth-grader Aaron Ajax, his two brothers, and his loving parents. In Dear God: I Don’t Get It, Aaron’s disc-jockey father loses his job and is forced to move his family from the wilds of Montana to suburban North Dakota. Poor Aaron, who fears moving away from a best friend, familiarity, and the mountainous state he has come to love, is confronted in his new hometown by a bully, a rude girl, classroom spitballs, the embarrassment of fumbling a football in a schoolyard game, and being sent to the principal’s office. All of this unfolds within the first few days of his new life.
This series of calamitous events causes him to begin to ponder serious questions: God, why have you abandoned me? Are my prayers even heard? Why am I so lonely and out of place? Thereafter, Dad – a prayerful and joy-filled presence in the home, begins to introduce him to the mystery of the cross and to the lives of a few heroic saints. Meantime, Mom is the wind at Aaron’s back with gentle reassurance after unsettling days at his new school. His youngest brother Tyler’s love for him, warms his heart and settles his nerves at the end of his days. Essentially – Patti holds up for young readers the wonder, aid, and graced moments of family life.
After Aaron makes a few unwise choices, Dad and Mom help him see the manner in which God brings goodness out of his sin of deceit. Thereafter, Aaron begins to see how the difficult – and often humiliating work – of confronting his sin, misstep, and struggles begins to lead to graces, peace of mind, and unexpected blessings.
Don’t dare tell anyone, but I found myself tearing up (yikes) when Aaron managed to summon the courage to admit to an elderly neighbor an enormous mistake and partial lie he told. He unpacked his soul to his neighbor in a beautiful, bold, and startlingly humble fashion, to which the neighbor found endearing (my watering eyes did as well!).
Patti Maguire Armstrong, who has raised a large family of her own with her husband Mark, understands the youth exceedingly well. She knows they want to hear moving and entertaining stories on kids’ real-life struggles and misfortunes. She also knows how children are swept into the arc of a well-told story to absorb the manner in which they can overcome sin and become closer to Christ. Knowing each child unwittingly desires sainthood, Patti centers her stories on time-honored Catholic themes to show how the road to sainthood can be attained – even as early as the age of 11 or 12.
Catholic parents today need all the help they can get – and Aaron Ajax can’t help but to gently shape and warm children’s souls, psyches, and memories. Between each line of Patti’s books lay the gentle reassurances of God’s measureless love and tender care for characters such as Aaron.
I have passed both of Patti’s books on to my fifth-grade nephew, Brian – and asked him to have his father (my brother) read a chapter to him each night at dinner or before bed at night. Patti has included thought-provoking – and even probing – discussion questions at the end of each chapter.
My own children are older now. But as a dad, I will never stop desiring to slay every dragon in their sight. That’s why I chose to read Little Visits With God all those years ago – and it is why I wish Patti had written her Dear God series twenty years ago. They are that good.