This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition on July 11, 2023.
Colleen Chao has walked through the valley of the shadow of death and knows its hazards and heartache. When her little boy was only 6, her cancer diagnosis overwhelmed her family like a flood.
Chao dutifully endured multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, with all the sickness, pain, and exhaustion they entail, in the hope she might live long enough to mother her son into adulthood.
After a year of treatment, however, she received the devastating news that her cancer had metastasized. This side of heaven, her affliction is incurable.
Many would buckle and break under this torrent of suffering. For Chao, however, the ordeal has been a path toward a more tender and intimate communion with Christ.
Over these arduous years, even as she’s borne physical pain and deep, abiding grief, she’s written and spoken about God’s kindness and grace toward her in suffering.
She has related with heartfelt and biblically informed prose how God has refined her, broken down her idols, and held her during her most fragile moments. Her words and witness have offered suffering believers a cool cup of water when they’ve most longed for relief (Ps. 42:1).
Now, in her latest book, Chao extends this same comfort to hurting children.
In Out of the Shadow World, a novel written for middle-grade readers (ages 8–12), Chao introduces young people to a theology of suffering through an imaginative story.
“While I’m not a child therapist nor am I an authority on kids’ suffering,” she writes, “my heart beats big to share the comfort our family has received from God through many years of walking together through various sufferings. This story is one of the ways I can share that comfort—gently addressing themes of grief and pain and death through adventure, friendship, and a touch of zany humor.” Her efforts don’t disappoint.
Shadow World follows the adventures of Pax, a fictional young boy struggling with cancer, and his best friend Jayni. Pax’s ordeal with terminal illness has taken a toll on them both, with Pax mourning life as a healthy kid and Jayni missing the exuberance that cancer has stolen from her friend.
While sequestered in their favorite climbing tree, they meet a strange and comical three-wattled bellbird who regularly (and hilariously) confuses idioms and who leads them into a magical world where both friends and dangers await. When Pax’s illness worsens, the pair journeys up a mountainside to seek help from a healing man named August (an allegory of Christ). August doesn’t heal Pax bodily but instead offers a glimpse of the new heavens and the new earth—the “Everworld,” of which our fallen, broken world is but a shadow.
Pax and Jayni return home brimming with encouragement, and as they descend the mountainside they can suddenly decipher a signpost they’d previously been unable to read: “In suffering—hope!”
Teaching Through Story
This is a unique book. Many children’s books on suffering adopt a didactic approach. In contrast, Chao follows in the footsteps of Lewis and Tolkien and invites young minds into an exploration of theology through rich and imaginative storytelling.
She gives kids characters to whom they can relate and magical landscapes that will stick, offering beautiful, poignant moments of Christian truth packaged within memorable images and scenes. Through such vivid storytelling, Chao’s message of hope promises to linger in the minds of young children long after they’ve tucked the book on a shelf.
While indeed “zany” and whimsical in overall tone, Shadow World echoes Pilgrim’s Progress in its narrative beats, with the main characters encountering numerous obstacles meant to knock them off the path.
A gaggle of creatures called Bumfuzzles flatter passersby to distract them from their journey; a treacherous White Willow preys upon fear, anger, and shame to ensnare travelers; a dragon lures pilgrims with lies. In each case, the protagonists triumph not through might and will but rather through leaning on truth.
Such moments invite conversations with children about faith, the reliability of Scripture, and our Father’s love for us, which no illness or challenge can ever wrench away (Rom. 8:38–39). They further create a framework for understanding suffering: Trials will come. Lies and fear may afflict us. But God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105), to guide us on our way.
Chao appreciates children’s delight in fun and whimsical language, so any child will pick up this book and savor the tale she’s woven. (My children haven’t even read the book but are already begging me to make “popple-cream,” a sweet, warming drink for which Chao includes a recipe.)
And yet Chao guides her readers in whispers rather than shouts; the youngest children may miss her more profound and subtly expressed lessons. For this reason, Shadow World may be best enjoyed as a family read-aloud, slowly, with frequent pauses to dwell and expound upon the key phrases of wisdom—of which there are many.
When Pax suddenly collapses and his friends rush him to the healing man, a character notes August may not choose to heal him, but “Pax will meet him, and that will be enough” (81). A leprechaun sees a purpose in his wooden leg as it endears him to other sufferers whom he can then guide to August. In a scene bound to elicit tears, Pax realizes the healing man bore suffering beyond what anyone on earth has endured, and says, “That’s why you . . . understand” (197).
The youngest readers may not notice the poignancy and meaning in such dialogue, but an alert parent or teacher will easily catch the echoes of 2 Corinthians 12:8–10 and Hebrews 4:15 and ease their listeners into a rich discussion.
Preparing for Suffering
Chao intended this book for hurting kids, but children of all circumstances will benefit from harboring her story in their hearts.
Having walked through the dark valleys, she’s uniquely equipped to guide children toward an understanding of suffering that leans into God’s grace. “My present suffering will only get harder and harder,” she writes on her blog, “and it won’t end until I die, but every day I’m pressed further and further into God’s heart—and that enables me to walk through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ with a God who also ‘leads me beside quiet waters’ and ‘restores my soul’ (see Psalm 23).”
In Out of the Shadow World, Chao invites young readers to join her in that restoration. Children who journey into Chao’s Everworld will find meaning in sorrow, hope in suffering, and constant assurances of God’s love for them in Christ. When fiery trials burn ahead of them, they’ll rest in the truth that God works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
Thanks to Chao’s heart for service and engaging prose, they’ll enjoy a few smiles and mugs of popple-cream along the way.