Tim Keller shares an applicable story related to substitutionary atonement (fitting for a children’s book review, right?!):
What if you and a friend were walking alongside of a river and your friend looked over at you and said: “I want to show you how much I love you,” and this friend throws him/herself into the river and drowns… could this act be an expression of sacrificial love? No! It doesn’t make any sense. I could tell my friend that I loved them through words and actions, not one of suicide.
What if, however, you and a friend were walking alongside the same river and you happen to fall in… and your friend jumped into the raging waters and saved your life, but in the process he/she ended up being succumbed to the water? Even without words, but in action, it could be said that this friend truly loved you.
Keller sums up this story by identifying the important principle at work: You have to be in trouble for someone to die for you as an expression of love. Otherwise it’s a waste of a life. In other words, Jesus didn’t just die to demonstrate his love to us for no reason. Jesus died on the cross because humanity was in trouble! We are in danger! When we look at it from that angle, we can begin to understand how deeply Jesus loved us and how great the Father heart of God is for humanity.
C.S. Fritz’s three-part Cottonmouth series illustrates in allegorical detail such a story of sacrificial love.
Somewhat cryptically, the audience learns that Frederick Cottonmouth has lost his parents to the river and it has been two years. Freddie encounters a black egg and eventually meets a monster by the name of Tug with whom he enjoys an incredible series of pictorial adventures. The audience is introduced to the antagonist in the story, a rat named Menson who deceives Freddie into doing something that he promised Tug he would never do. Frederick Cottonmouth’s act of betrayal causes him to be sick. He is told that he is going to suffer and die. In an act of sacrificial love, Tug allows himself to be taken by the river in order to take Freddie’s pain away. This is the story of the first book, Cottonmouth and the River.
The second installment finds a both a gift and a mission that Tug bestows to Freddie. Compelled by Tug’s sacrifice, young Frederick Cottonmouth embarks on an adventure to find the girl with two-colored eyes and The Great Blue. This is the story of the second book, Cottonmouth and the Great Gift.
The third and final installment starts in a deep hole and a sort of entrance to The Great Blue. Young Frederick Cottonmouth must trust in his relationship with Tug and Yellowthroat to succeed in delivering the black egg to the girl with two-colored eyes in The Great Blue. In order to be successful, Menson and his constant deception must be encountered. What will Freddie do? This the basic plot-line of the third book, Cottonmouth and the End.
I read these three books to my two daughters (currently ages 6 and 8). They were mesmerized by the tale of Frederick Cottonmouth and his friend, Tug. Each book carried incredible connections for them with Scripture and they found themselves wondering with hopeful anticipation how the series would end. We didn’t read these stories to them in succession in one sitting, rather we read the first book one night, the second book the following night, and we didn’t read the third book until a few days later. When the second book ended, the girls screamed: “What?! Read the next one, Dad, please!” The Cottonmouth and the Great Gift ends on a great cliffhanger (or a hole hanger). It made them thirsty for more.
I asked my girls what they liked about the books and they loved the adventures of Freddie and especially the descriptions of Tug. My oldest kept making connections to the story of the Bible and Tug’s seemingly allusion to a Savior-figure. As a parent, I really like it when literature has a depth and an interpretive element to it. The Cottonmouth series does a phenomenal job of leaving things open for interpretation.
Personally, while I was reading these books to my kids, I found myself confused and disoriented at times. Some events, situations, and characters weren’t developed as much as they could have been. But that could be up for interpretation as well. I found myself lost as to why certain things were happening the way they were happening without much explanation. It didn’t seem to bother my kids, though. A fanciful world of intrigue and adventure doesn’t have to make sense to a child, and much was left to one’s imagination.
One last thought: This series has a sort of mystery to it that borders on being somewhat scary. I found myself looking over at my girls as I read these stories at bedtime when it was getting dark to make sure they were okay. This trilogy references things that are scary and dark, things that are ominous and dangerous. It wasn’t at all inappropriate, but if children are easily scared, it might be a good idea for one to read it before it is read to their children. A discerning parent/caregiver is the best one to screen any kind of literature or media because they have a heart for developing their children in healthy and appropriately challenging ways.
C.S. Fritz pulls off an amazing three-part children’s series that engages with all the senses and leaves children on the edge of their pillow as they wonder what Freddie will do with Tug’s instructions and Yellowthroat’s direction.