Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading to my sisters and me. Raggedy Ann and Andy books are prominent in those memories. I believe Mom chose the Raggedy books because she remembered them from her childhood. I wonder what she would think of the stories if she read them now. I have gone back and tried to read them as an adult and couldn’t get into them. They seem syrupy and silly. I remember some of the cute characters from the illustrations, but I don’t remember much about what they did. It seems that Ann and Andy went around being nice to people and wishing cream puffs and soda water into existence. The antagonist of each story was cured by kindness. Though the lovely color illustrations of fairies and strange creatures in dreamy settings fed our fancies, I don’t believe they fed our moral imaginations at all.
What did I feast on once I got into chapter books? I may have bought all the books about animals published by the Scholastic Book Club in the late 1960s and early 70s. 101 Dalmatians, Kavik the Wolf Dog, Blaze, the Story of a Horse, Incredible Journey, The Black Stallion, and many others the titles of which I don’t remember and which haven’t survived the years that are rather hard on 25 cent paperbacks.
Why all the animals? For one thing, I’m a girl, I lived in the country, and I really wanted a horse. But what else was I longing for? While it’s hard to look back and analyze the me of forty-five years ago, I think what I hungered for was a nobility depicted in these creatures that I hadn’t yet discovered in books about people. The Dalmatians and their friends organize a daring rescue at great personal (animalial?) risk, Kavik is strong and loyal, Blaze bravely pulls a fire engine, The Black Stallion and the pets that make the Incredible Journey show amazing stamina and heart. Most of these stories feature a strong bond of friendship between man and animal or animal and animal.
When I ponder why my child doesn’t like to read, I should probably start by asking what type of books I’m offering. As I note the kinds of books that are being published by the ton for children today, it seems that often we are denying our children stories of characters who develop strong virtues. Many of today’s children’s books can’t avoid the themes of the inherent wisdom of children, the serious want of wisdom in the adults in their lives, that any child can grow up to be anything he wants to be, and children, at least the main characters, are good enough just the way they are.
Perhaps our children are starving for healthy servings of virtue even as we keep offering them the latest, most popular brand of empty calories. Children who are allowed to choose whatever they want to eat don’t usually choose the foods that are best for them unless they have been properly trained to choose well. Maybe our children who won’t read are suffering from malnutrition while surrounded by food.
A few years ago, I was commissioned to read and review all of the Time Warp Trio books then in print. They were eye-opening for me. While I couldn’t point to much in them that is overtly objectionable, these are vapid stories masquerading as an entertaining introduction to history. It would be possible for middling readers to gobble these books like potato chips. Are these the sort of books that will genuinely satisfy a healthy appetite?
I also note the disturbing trend of bringing children, and at times animals, into historical settings to “help” our heroes. Why do our heroes need the wisdom of children in order for things to come out “right?” Ben Franklin got his ideas from a mouse? The Wright Brothers needed help from a dog? If children and animals are wiser than our most famous historical characters, where do children go from here? They are wise enough to know that these scenarios are not truth. Whence the idea that children can’t appreciate anything unless we bring it down to their level? When we do this, we leave them nothing to which to rise.
Why the insistence that every new book be part of a series? I assume that, first of all, it’s the current marketing ploy which creates an appetite then graciously offers to feed it. Most of the popular series’ seem designed to be consumed in a binge. “No one can eat just one,” the publisher hopes. I’m reminded of a chapter in C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. Toward the end of the book, he recalls having made it his goal to achieve a particularly satisfying state of mind and continually attempting to reproduce it. He says, “To ‘get it again’ became my constant endeavor.” Is this why we hunger for a series? To continually get it again? Are we so unwilling to turn loose of a desirable state of mind that we mistake quantity for quality? Are we so eager for that state that we shy away from contemplation in favor of consumption?
We Christians are admonished to fix our thoughts on things that are true and honorable, right and pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and worthy of praise. We are also warned against gluttony. We are nowhere instructed to contemplate how good and worthy we are just the way we are. While I hope there’s some room there for a bit of junk food, our standards must be higher than the average. We can teach our children to be satisfied with fruit for dessert rather than training them to require continuous snacking. It will be a full time job, but it is our job. And our sacred obligation.