Classic works of children’s literature might be greater than the Great Books. Few of us can tackle Rabelais or Rousseau, but most of us can appreciate Heidi and Homer Price. Classic children’s stories welcome us to partake with wonder and wisdom.
This is not to say that those of us who can read the Great Books ought not to. When the Memoria Press staff book club read Anna Karenina, I accepted the challenge. To my surprise I experienced the same impulse Andrew Pudewa described when he finished the daunting novel: Immediately I wanted to read the 880-page work again.
But none of us begins with a Tolstoy novel. When I was little my mother and father read to me The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Boy, and The Three Little Pigs. Decades later I shared these same stories with my children.
The pencil inscriptions on Heidi and Little Women in our home bear my mother’s maiden name because she read the hardbacks seventy-five years ago. She gave them to me when I was a girl. Heidi’s Children, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, and Eight Cousins round out those collections because my grandmother added to them for my birthdays. Now my daughter Michelle has read them all.
Reading is not, of course, merely a feminine pursuit. In our family, my husband read picture books to our children, most memorably 10 Little Puppy Dogs, which my husband can recite to this day. As the children grew, he looked at our son Michael one day and, as if in a rite of passage, he began to read Watership Down to him.
One summer my husband announced to the family: “We’re going to read The Lord of the Rings series. We will start with The Hobbit.” At this time the movies had not yet been made, nor had our children heard of these books. They protested the length, the odd title, the unfamiliar illustrations. Undeterred, my husband began. With shrugs, the children acquiesced. Within days, at the end of each reading they would chant in unison, “Read some more! Read some more!” They finished The Hobbit and then the trilogy. My husband urged our children never to see the movies but to keep the characters in their minds as they imagined them. To this day “An Unexpected Party” from The Hobbit now ranks among Michelle’s most often read and most giggled to chapters in all of children’s literature. Recently, with so much time at home, Michael mentioned to us that he needed a new book series. Michelle overheard, thought for a moment, and pulled from her bookshelf Anne of Green Gables. She assured him that this first book would, in her words, “whet his whistle.” She then pulled the remaining books from the top of her shelves: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, and so on. She told Michael that the books were not just for girls, but Michael already knew this, for he had listened years ago to a faithful radio drama of Anne of Green Gables and deemed it “exquisitely beautiful.” As the author L. M. Montgomery noted, “Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again.” Michael gratefully scooped up all of the books. Before the books were my children’s, they were mine. I loved them. I had never met in person anyone like Anne Shirley, who named the paths and places in her life. With her Violet Vale and Lake of Shining Waters, Anne opened my mind’s eye and was about to do the same for my son.
Classic children’s literature connects boys and girls, parents and children, and people of varying backgrounds. Over the summer an older couple visited our home. With gray hair tucked in a loose bun, the wife had smooth skin, a curious mind, and a thirst for conversation. When she described her childhood farm life, the woman said she had loved horses as a girl. When Michael and Michelle had mentioned a love of books, the woman asked them, “What was the name of that famous book about a horse?” “Black Stallion by Walter Farley?” Michael offered. “Yes, Walter Farley! Black Stallion,” she said with a wistful look. She added, “Oh, I read that book many times.” My children smiled. The woman paused. “Then there was that other book about the mistreatment of horses in the 1800s.” “Black Beauty?” Michelle suggested. “Oh, yes,” said the woman, shuddering. “I never need to read that again.” Michelle agreed. On they chatted.
We must preserve classic children’s literature because stories unify. For example, not only do we share books with our children; sometimes our children share books with us. Such was the case with The Chronicles of Narnia. Somehow I missed these books as a child. My son introduced them to me. “You must start with The Magician’s Nephew.” I did. With the exception of Genesis, Job, the Psalms, and the Gospel of John, never have I felt from words on a page such a deep appreciation for Creation and its Creator. My son urged me to read the next book, through which my soul grieved for the Crucifixion but also thrilled with the Resurrection. In Aslan I sensed the theological paradox of terrifying magnificence and merciful compassion embodied in our Lord Jesus Christ. My son and I share this understanding. Little else matters.
When gripped by the cares of life, we can turn to a classic children’s story for warmth and comfort. As we grow older or weary, we can refresh our imaginations. When our minds are too full of academic pursuits or the daily logistics of life, classic children’s literature renews our thinking. The stories welcome us home.
In the dedication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis wrote the following words to his goddaughter Lucy:
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not
realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result
you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time
it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some
day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales
again. You can then take it down from some upper
shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it.
We never outgrow classic children’s literature. On the contrary, may all of us grow old enough to start reading such stories again.