Saturday, February 27, 2016

Capturing the imagination and cultivating the conscience

Among the luckiest children are those whose parents read to them. I have collected a few books that suggest good choices although, having no children of my own, I haven't been able to use the advice myself. One that I just revisited, and that I am happy to find still in print, is Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories. I wish I had thought to give it to parents I know who have young children.

The first chapter is "Imagination: The Heart's Best Guide" and begins:
WHEN HER TWO-YEAR-OLD sister began to cry over a missing stuffed bear, Crystal, age four, declared, "She wants her Dogger," and proceeded to offer one of her own stuffed animals as a substitute. Dogger is a story about a boy who loses his worn, stuffed dog, and about his older sister, Bella, who trades a large and beautiful stuffed bear to get Dogger back for him. Crystal, who had heard the story only the night before, was putting into practice the good example set by Bella.

Crystal is a lucky girl. Her mother reads to her. And her mother is selective in what she reads. As a result, Crystal is beginning to develop a picture in her mind of the way things should be, of how people can act when they're at their best.

This book is intended to introduce the reader to books that help youngsters grow in virtue—books like Dogger. There is no shortage of such books. In fact, there are thousands of finely crafted stories for children that make honesty, responsibility, and compassion come alive. But they are not always easy to find. Concepts such as virtue, good example, and character have been out of fashion in our society for quite some time, and their absence is reflected in the available guidebooks to children's literature. Although there are many such guides, they all suffer from a common limitation: that is, their focus is almost solely on readability or, worse, on popularity. What is missing from these guides—what seems to be avoided—is any suggestion that certain books may help to develop character, and that others may not. The distinctive feature of this book, by contrast, is its focus on the moral dimension of reading. We think many parents want books for their children that are not simply a good read but good in the other sense of the word—books that not only capture the imagination, but cultivate the conscience as well.

Such books bestow a double blessing. They provide hours of pure pleasure. They also provide good companions. They introduce your child to friends who are a little older, a little wiser, a little braver. Along with these companions your child gets to ask some tough questions. Is Long John Silver good or bad? Should Beauty keep her promise to Beast? Should Frodo continue on his seemingly doomed mission while there is still a chance to return to the safety of the Shire? These are not easy questions to answer, especially when time is running out or the edge of the cliff is crumbling underfoot, but they are the kind of questions with which we are all confronted sooner or later. And when they come they often come in situations in which we have little time to think or at times when we may be angry, fearful, or just plain exhausted. It's exactly at times like this that the half-forgotten memory of a story can rise to our aid. ....
Most of the book (240 pages out of 317) is devoted to recommending books. The recommendations are in categories like "Picture Books," "Fables and Fairy Tales," "Myths, Legends and Folk Tales," "Sacred Texts," "Historical Fiction," etc. with a paragraph or two about each book and particular recommendations for "Younger Readers" and "Middle Readers."

For example, the "Younger Readers" recommendations in the "Sacred Texts" section include:
  • The Children's Bible
  • Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by Eric A. Kimmel
  • Ladder of Angels: Stories from the Bible by Madeleine L'Engle
  • The Song of the Three Holy Children by Pauline Baynes (who illustrated the Narnia books)
The "Historical Fiction" recommendations for "Middle Readers" include:
  • Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Gray
  • Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge
  • Johnny Tremaine by Esther Forbes
  • The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
...and many others, including my boyhood favorite, Treasure Island.

There is also a section for "Contemporary Fiction" but since the book was published in 1994 those recommendations are not contemporary any more.

An Appendix recommends "Twenty Great Children's Videos" and they are really good recommendations, all now available on DVD.