Have you ever loved a book or TV series as a child, re-watched it as an adult, and realized how terrible it actually is?
Several stories fall into this category for me—many of which are Christian and contain heavy-handed messages. Some I refuse to revisit because they would ruin my nostalgia.
However, one children’s audio series held up even after I reached adulthood: Adventures in Odyssey by Focus on the Family. Within the 800 or so episodes, it has high and low points. But whenever I’m home and my younger siblings are listening to it, the strength of the stories has struck me time and again. Not only is Adventures in Odyssey popular among conservative Christian (largely homeschooling) circles, it’s also a superb example of Christian storytelling. It excels in three areas that writers can glean from and apply to their own projects.
1. Experiments in Living and Poetic Justice Underscore Themes
I’ve previously covered how experiments in living, along with poetic justice, form the core of a story’s theme. As a brief review, compelling themes emerge when characters are given experiments in living (worldviews that shape their actions throughout the story) and then receive poetic justice for those beliefs (rewards or consequences that reveal whether they made the right or wrong choices). This cycle allows writers to powerfully show a story’s message without obnoxiously broadcasting it.
Adventures in Odyssey displays an acute awareness of the thematic cycle and relentlessly uses it to convey a point. For instance, in “Muckraker” Lucy suspects that a hair product company is corrupt and confirms it by trusting people who agree with her (experiment in living). After publishing an article defaming the company, she realizes her accusations were false and has to publicly apologize (poetic justice). In “All Things to All People,” Aubrey tries to evangelize her non-Christian friends during every conversation, believing that’s what Christians are called to do (experiment in living), and she drives them away (poetic justice) before learning better tactics.
While the series frequently expounds (and sometimes sermonizes) morals through Mr. Whitaker, it is a children’s show (which tends to be less subtle as a genre). More importantly, it doesn’t rely on his advice to deliver a message. Instead, Whit acts as a mentor guiding the characters toward wise decisions. Sermons serve the overall goal of the thematic cycle rather than the reverse.
Children’s works like Adventures in Odyssey tend to streamline the thematic cycle so that it resonates with a young audience. Because of the simplicity, these stories can serve as useful material for writers to study to understand how the cycle functions. My early forays into thematic writing were both consciously and unconsciously influenced by Adventures in Odyssey. Even as my skill has grown beyond that, I still gain insights from and admire the series. Experiments in living and poetic justice have immense potential, and Adventures in Odyssey reminds writers of that.
2. Tricky Subjects Need to Be Tackled
Modern children’s literature often avoids hard-hitting topics. The Brothers Grimm model—rife with murder, adultery, rape, and incest—isn’t in vogue nowadays. Furthermore, Christian fiction sometimes shies away from tough issues to maintain “cleanness.”
Thus, Adventures in Odyssey’s refusal to fit into that mold is refreshing.
Despite being marketed toward children, the series regularly delves into difficult matters. In “Father’s Day,” Connie grapples not only with her parents’ divorce but also her father’s upcoming remarriage. “A Question about Tasha” confronts the challenges of a Christian being married to a non-Christian. “To Mend or Repair” addresses barrenness. And “Something Old, Something New” demonstrates the suffering that comes from failed romantic relationships.
The producers’ choice to go down this route may seem odd. Most kids don’t wrestle with barrenness or singleness—or want to think about coping with the messiness of divorced parents. But people need stories that prepare them for both present and future challenges they may face. Far from being impractical, perhaps childhood is the ideal time to begin considering the struggles of singleness.
Adventures in Odyssey can teach Christian storytellers how to navigate weighty topics. First, don’t underestimate your audience, no matter how young. They’re not dumb and may be able to handle more than you assume. Giving them this sort of material now may benefit them more in the long run. Second, be courageous. Christian stories should urge readers to view issues biblically instead of pretending that the world is unbroken. In my mind, much of Adventures in Odyssey’s success is due to how it approaches tricky subjects.
3. The Hardships of the Christian Walk Shouldn’t Be Glossed Over
Treating faith as the conclusion of a character arc is a trend in Christian fiction—particularly in stories that focus on conversion narratives. Coming to Christ straightens out the character’s life and puts him in the place he belongs.
This plot line, however, is unrealistic. Christ warned His disciples that those who follow Him would experience trials—and possibly torture and death.
One of my favorite aspects of Adventures in Odyssey is how it doesn’t tie off a character arc with salvation. Since most of the characters are Christians, it doesn’t have that liberty. Instead, it highlights problems that Christians encounter in the real world: coaching a baseball team without showing favoritism to your son (“The Defining Moment”), the challenges of ministry and what it looks like to support a pastor (“George Under Pressure”), and the danger of Christian sports celebrities and how Christians should live out their faith in public (“The Holy Hoopster”). These explorations make Adventures in Odyssey surprisingly meaningful—even when I’m no longer part of the target audience.
The world needs stories that portray all the dimensions of the Christian walk—not just conversion. The more you zero in on this when writing explicitly Christian fiction, the more impactful your storytelling will be.
Learning from Examples
Though Adventures in Odyssey has its ups and downs, it remains one of the best ongoing Christian series I’ve seen over the past couple decades. And it contains a multitude of valuable lessons for Christian storytellers.
Telling stories that reinforce audience beliefs is easy, whereas addressing thorny issues is hard. Yet, when you bravely go against the grain, you offer the audience a rare treasure: a story that’s meaningful, complex, and powerful. Adventures in Odyssey has produced quality stories over the years by following these principles. If you pursue the same vision, so can you.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 11, 2019. Updated September 9, 2021.
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching writers at Ink Slinger Academy or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.