Convincing families to venture into the world of living books as the heart and soul of their children’s education has had some challenges, but there is one challenge I can honestly say we were not prepared for. Evidently there is a deep mistrust of books, especially if they are not included on some well-known book list. The unknown content potentially holds ideas children’s minds and hearts are not prepared for, can’t cope with. The desire is to keep life as free from unpleasantness as possible as long as possible.
Let me share three little stories from my life and library as examples, true ones about true children who read about some true things in the lives of make-believe people in the pages of fictional children’s literature.
When I was a child, I was caught unaware by a major life event when my parents divorced and remarried. Strange to imagine in these times, I knew no other child in my neighborhood or school to have this experience. I had this monumental life change going on and not a person to confide in about my fears or anxieties, nor would I probably have had the least idea how to articulate them if there had been. At random one day I started reading a book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Only in retrospect do I now realize how that book relieved my burden. I had nothing in common with Francie, had never heard of Brooklyn, knew nothing of tenement life amongst German and Irish immigrants, but entering into her world, empathizing with her struggles to cope with conflicting family loyalties and loss, I was enlightened, gained understanding.
Many, many years later we adopted a child with physical and emotional trauma. He didn’t speak English until he was five, and though we knew there had been unthinkable emotional injury, we knew nothing about his first two years of life. Consequently, he was very hyperactive and uncontrollable. I battled for six months to get him to sit still in my lap to have one page of a picture book read to him. When he was around five, I attempted our first “chapter book,” Here’s a Penny by Carolyn Haywood. As usual, he was restless, playing with Legos, and seemingly paying no attention. The story was about a little adopted boy and I had not read it before, but knew the author’s books were sweet and light. I found in the first chapter that Penny was being challenged by a little friend of his. Patsy was jealous that Penny was going to get to have a kitten while she could not. In the story she taunts him on the way to school and almost before I knew what I was reading aloud she said, “Well, least I’m really truly my parents’ child. You’re not ’cause you’re ‘dopted.” I was horrified, but also realized that my son was sitting in rigid motionless attention. Bravely I read on about Penny’s horrible day at school, choking back tears, wishing only to run home as soon as possible after school to burst in on his mother and tell her all about it: “Mother, Patsy says I’m not really truly your little boy.” And the loving mother in the story gathers her heartbroken son to her and consoles, “Do you know what makes a little boy really and truly his parents’ child? It is the love the mother has for her little boy.”
At this point in the story my son spit out through gritted teeth: “So there, Patsy!”
Then a few years after that one of those unforeseen disasters you read about in books happened in our little community, to a mother in our library, a friend in my church. This mother of nine children from ten months to 13 years, this intelligent, vivacious, energetic inspiration to anyone who knew her was driving home one stormy night when a tree fell, crushing her to death. Certainly it is impossible for me to convey the shock we received, the drowning grief, the inadequacy of the arms that tried to surround those little ones in their real life nightmare. Our family was privileged to share in their misery and went several days a week for several months to help them learn how to carry on without Mommy.
What could Emily and I think of to do in those long afternoons after school lessons and chores were over in that cold, dark winter, but to find a book to read aloud? We read Heidi, and they were not particularly interested – not at first, but within three chapters even the restless boys and demanding toddlers were sitting round the table in rapt attention. They did not talk much about it, but always begged to read Heidi again. Heidi was alone in the world, unwanted by a selfish aunt, dumped on the doorstep of a bitter old man, an orphan. Her stint in Frankfurt is one of the most poignant descriptions of loneliness I know. That charming, delightful tale has a blissfully happy ending.
How could this minister to children whose lives had been so brutally altered? Couldn’t even this well tied up little unrealistic tale wound them? From another perspective, couldn’t the idea that good things still come along after miseries encourage them? Don’t the happy endings (so absent in most modern children’s literature) shine a beam of hope into despairing hearts? The fact is, bad things do happen to good little children and they are always unexpected. Stories containing misery and misfortune can help them cope. When a mother in our library wailed one day, “Why does somebody always have to die?”
Emily said, “Of course they do. It is the crucial act in the plot of God’s story too.”
We do not give our children books to pacify them or entertain them, but to enrich and feed them. They naturally learn to accept difficulties and the reality that life is beautiful and full of wonder, as well as sown with inexplicable pain and misfortune. It is vital to prepare them for these eventualities by allowing them to “practice” through story. Their stories instruct them, enlighten, equip, and supply them with a wider range of knowledge than the circle of life around them affords, and books are their best teachers.
I admit that it can be a fearful thing to let our children face the dangers of life, to wrestle with the unanswerable questions, even in literature, but we are not to be afraid for them when God has provided a better teacher than us; the Holy Spirit is their true instructor, and their books simply one of His lessons, summed up in Mason’s last principle of education:
20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.
© 2013 by Liz Cottrill