My youngest has been traveling to conventions with us over the past few months. Amid the different locations and changing venues, she has held tightly to one constant: on every trip she brings a classic children’s literature book.
These books are her old friends: Little House in the Big Woods; Charlotte’s Web; Winnie-the-Pooh; Farmer Boy; Black Beauty; Mr. Popper’s Penguins. They have given her much joy and lots to think about and grow on over the years. They are worthy companions to have along on the journey.
So I’m always a bit saddened when a parent raises an objection to fictional literature. And I do my best to explain how much children can grow from hearing and reading fairy tales, classic children’s literature, myths, fantasy, and Shakespeare.
Usually the objections take the form of three main concerns. Let’s look at each of those concerns and review how good literature can actually be very beneficial.
Concern #1: Fictional literature has no value since it is not true. We should give our children only what is true.
There are true facts, and then there are truths about life. Good literature teaches the latter; it conveys timeless truths about life—sometimes hard truths—wrapped in a nonthreatening presentation.
Fiction helps children learn to deal emotionally with hard and unpleasant things. It softens the blow, since the hard things happen to someone else, but the story gives them a schema for those feelings that they might meet again later in real life. Because their emotions are involved, it gives them a chance to practice, as it were.
Practicing through fiction is something children do naturally. You see it all the time in their play. They pretend as they play in order to try to figure out certain aspects of life, to learn a bit more about it in a safe setting. Good literature can do the same thing.
Concern #2: Some fictional literature has inappropriate content.
Content is always important. But some of this concern depends on what is meant by inappropriate. One mom, for example, asked us for books that did not contain any unkindness, hatred, or war. She didn’t want any of those words in the text nor any of those ideas in the plot.
Those themes are not inappropriate. How they are treated could be done inappropriately, but the themes themselves are useful—needful, even.
A good plot usually contains some aspects of conflict or evil, and perhaps more importantly, it portrays the consequences of those choices. Our children need to learn to recognize what comes of evil or of unkindness or anger—in stories and in life. Good literature will illustrate how choices lead to various kinds of consequences for the person making the decision, himself, and for those around him. It will demonstrate those truths in story form.
Of course, we do not want to steep our minds, or our children’s minds, in evil. And if by inappropriate we mean topics that are unsuitable for a child’s stage in life, then, yes, I agree, some literature does contain questionable content. Therefore, we should exercise care when selecting which books to give which children over the years. As they grow and mature, they will be able to deal with harder or more sensitive topics. But be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is plenty of good fictional literature available that is perfectly suited for young children. This is where pre-reading proves its worth.
Concern #3: Some fictional literature can require a lot of effort to understand.
It’s true. Some of the good stuff is written in archaic language, using different sentence structures than we are used to and words we may never have heard of before. But rather than being an obstacle, this challenge should be viewed as another benefit. Good literature should encourage us to think. The struggle and the discipline can cause great growth.
Charlotte Mason said that those types of books are valuable:
“The lectures we hear, the books we read, are of no use to us, except as they make us think” (Ourselves, Book 1, p. 182).
And it’s not just the effort-of-comprehension type of thinking that causes the reader to grow. Another type of thinking is happening that will make great contributions to life.
Jesus told parables that were easy to comprehend but that required thinking, pondering, in order to fully understand. Charlotte explained:
“He told the people stories which they might allow to pass lightly through their minds as an interest of the moment, or which they might think upon, form opinions upon, and find in them a guide to the meaning of their lives” (Ourselves, Book 1, p. 184).
And that is what good literature can do for our children. The choices and consequences portrayed in fictional stories—the timeless truths illustrated about appropriate topics for the level of the child—those examples help our student readers to gradually form their own principles for life.
We don’t want children to live in a fictional fantasy world, but trips into it can do much to instruct their consciences and educate their hearts—to grow—in powerful ways.