Crayons Talk

"Talking is okay," an 8-year-old boy once told psychiatrist Robert Coles, "but I don't do it all the time the way grown-ups do; I guess you have to develop the habit." Instead, many children draw. In a new picture book compiled by Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University Medical School, a variety of at-risk children-hungry, ill, or homeless-let their imaginations soar and use their crayons to talk as they depict, in color and shape, their ideas of God's house. A bright, pictorial essay, In God's House is 32 pages of full-color illustrations with commentary by children.

"From the very beginning of my work," Coles introduces the book, "I asked children to draw pictures-I had discovered that a boy or girl drawing or painting is a person trying to say something, trying to show what is on his or her mind." Here, both children from a Brazilian slum and American children "living on the edge" draw their visions of God. Through the houses that take shape, we see as well the reality of these children's lives: their dreams, aspirations, and fears.

What color is God's house? What shape? Is it a house of rain, topped by sun? Or is it a scary place, hovering above the earth? For Daniel-a 12-year-old boy who wields his crayons to block out a house of gold, flanked by two suns-God's house is "a house with free stuff inside." For another child? A red, crooked building, replete with green door, is the place where God lives. Full of life, it is a place where God keeps bad people; but it is also a place with "enough food for everyone."

And Lue, 8 years old, paints a tropical field where rain falls in bright aqua drops. Above, a green sun shines. In the center, two children stand in a red capsule, surrounded by sunlight and cheery, aqua rain. "God lives," Lue explains, "in Heaven and in my house."

WHAT IS CURIOUS is the light. Bright, brighter, brightest, each picture is a splash of canary yellow, blue, or purple-dazzling. But the colors are intensified by the subtext; these are sick children, destitute, poor. Those whose daily lives may be foggy, dark, darkest. Yet the two elements fuse-effervescently, poignantly. Thus Carl, a 12-year-old, crayons in a black fortress. Twin towers guard the "castle" Carl creates. God's house for Carl? "It's a scary place. I'm scared to draw this," he notes.

But just as these drawings express children's ideas of God's house, they also leave the viewer to wonder: From where did each child's spoken and unspoken assumptions about God arise? Missing is a social, political, and cultural context. Here the drugs, gang violence, AIDS, or poverty that may plague these children are absent; gone is the textual analysis Coles uses so effectively in his earlier books-namely Children of Crisis (1964)-in which he examines the effects integration had on the inner lives of children in the American South. Absent is a social psychiatrist's analysis of God: Who is he, or she, in the late-20th century landscape?

Instead, the crayon sketches of houses, rain, and flowers float across a sky. Yet, in a strange way, the absence of dialogue and commentary makes the book sing. The drawings shake loose the absurdity of our divisions, and leave a colorful vision of God broken open across the sky. Perhaps, in a child's view, any house of God is big enough for us all. So writes Mary, 8 years old:

He has this big house, God
does, and he has a room for
everyone who comes there, and
He shines on you.

Talking is okay. But these children use crayons to make God's house into the shape of dreams and the color of sorrow. In God's House is a complicated house; one bursting with light.

ROSEMARIE C. SULTAN is a free-lance writer living north of Boston. She writes articles and reviews, and is currently working on her first novel.

Review of In God's House. Forward by Robert Coles. Crawings by children. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.

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