October 14, 2012


What Should Children Read? (Russell Kirk, 1979, Crisis)

Were I compelled to name just one book that all children must read, I should reply, Pinocchio--which Collodi (whose real name was Lorenzini) wrote just a century ago. It is readily available in inexpensive editions. Some children will have had this read to them when they were quite small, but it will do them good to read it afresh for themselves at age six or seven. The malicious Fox and Cat are many children's first lesson about evil--and, in our bent world, ignorance of evil is not bliss in this year of Our Lord.

Were I asked what children's books have charmed me longest, I should answer, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Lewis Carroll is as wondrously comical now as he was in Victoria's reign, and his miniature theater of the absurd, so impossible, nevertheless somehow introduces a child to firm knowledge of reality.

Were you to inquire of me what author of children's literature moves me most as an adult, I would tell you, "George MacDonald." He immensely influenced G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, among many others. Don't fail to give your children At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdle, The Golden Key, and MacDonald's other books for the young, all of which also teach adults.

Were the question put to me, 'What children's author of our century has had the healthiest influence upon the rising generation?" I should tell you, "C.S. Lewis." Get his Chronicles of Narnia, seven volumes, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and ending with The Last Battle. These make up a children's parable of the Christian understanding of the human condition. Incidentally, most of the better books for children have been written by people who ordinarily write for adults.

Should you want to know how to teach courage and fidelity to children through literature, I would commend to you some very old books and some very new ones. Among the old, I would have you turn to the legends of King Arthur and his Table Round, in Sidney Lanier's version or Howard Pyle's.  (And don't forget Pyle's own Book of Pirates and his Jack Ballister's Fortunes).  Among the new books there stand eminent Tolkien's fantasies, beginning with The Hobbit: Frodo does live. Older boys, and some girls, will be ready for Tolkien's three-volume Lord of the Rings, with all its sorcery and derring-do in Middle Earth. When I was in the sixth grade, I took for my models of manliness the heroes of Stevenson's Treasure Island and Kidnapped. The anti-hero may dominate adult fiction in our time, but the hero still strides triumphant in children's books.

Am I forgetting girls? Perish that thought! Our daughters' favorite book, I find, is Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden--which I never encountered until my own little girls introduced me to that convincing tale of pathos and triumph in the policies of an English country house. It is written with strong tenderness, and it teaches us how to rise above our vices, especially the ugly vice of self-pity. Another especial favorite with our Monica, Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea (aged, at this writing, eleven, ten, eight, and three years) is Maurice Maeterlinck's Blue Bird, still available either as a play or a narrative, from which even small children learn that we must find our own ways to happiness, usually by brightening the corner where we are. (It is a pleasure to act out The Blue Bird, with tiny dolls and the Palace of Night constructed of building-blocks: your children will love you always if you work out that play with them).

Am I omitting American authors? Well, let me start with Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially commending for this age-level his Wonder Book and his Tanglewood Tales, which are ancient myths delightfully retold. As for Mark Twain, boys and girls will like The Prince and the Pauper and Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn, grim in part, is not fully appreciated until later years. For a touch of this land south of Mason's and Dixon's line, take Emma Speed Sampson's Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, and its companion volumes; and, of course, Joel Chandler Harris' narratives told by Uncle Remus.

Do I seem too old fangled? Then permit me to offer you some very recent writers. Late did I myself discover the persuasive realism of Mary Norton's The Borrowers (four volumes, and would that there were forty!), all about a race of tiny human folk who live under floors, in old shoes, and behind lath-and-plaster partitions. (Swift's Gulliver's Travels, by the way, distinctly is a mordant work for adults, except in expurgated editions; but Mistress Masham's Repose, by T. H. White of The Once and Future King, gives us twentieth-century descendants of the Lilliputians). Young readers will enjoy Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach; adults, incidentally, will take to his collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. The more advanced sixth-graders will understand well Madeleine L'Engle's trilogy (influenced by C. S. Lewis) A Wrinkle in Time, Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet--science-fiction, but more than science-fiction, for young folk with developing awareness of the marvelous intricacy of existence. Most of Ray Bradbury's readers are in high school or college, but some of our present age-group will relish a number of Bradbury's short stories and his Martian Chronicles.

Am I jumbling together writers of strangely different approaches and times? I must admit that impeachment; but then, all lively children do that in their highly miscellaneous reading. 

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Posted by at October 14, 2012 8:28 AM

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