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  • What Should Children Read?

    by Russell Kirk

    In recommending books to be read by young people from the age of seven to the age of twelve, this critic’s problem is not paucity, but plenitude. For the number of good books for young people is large, and it increases every year.

    So I set down here brief remarks about a select few books calculated to rouse the imagination of children. Necessarily, for the lack of space and time, I omit some books which are favorites with my children and me. But I do try to suggest below how certain books for young people work benevolently upon those faculties which are distinctively human.

    What I can say here is limited. But there exists a substantial body of books about children’s books, and many universities have children’s literature programs or curricula in their schools or departments of pedagogy, English literature, or library science. For fuller information about readings for children, several manuals are in print, though I find none of them perfect. One widely available is James Steel Smith’s A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature; another well-known one, Anne Thaxter Eaton’s Treasure for the Taking; a third, Children’s Books Too Good to Miss, by May Hill Arbuthnot and collaborators. For background, there is the useful Three Centuries of Children’s Books in Europe, by Bettina Hurlimann. I offer you here, succinctly, merely some convictions of my own.

    In this age of television, strange enough to say, the production and sale of good books for young people have been increasing; most of them pleasant books, clever, well illustrated, well printed, widely sold. Many standard nineteenth-century books for children, too, have been handsomely reprinted. Children’s departments in big bookshops seem to flourish. The typical American adult does not read one whole serious book a year. But clearly the typical adult American still believes that children should be encouraged to read decent books.

    The average child of today, nevertheless, is less interested in books than was the average child of 1929, say. Among the several, the biggest reason for this decay of interest is television. It is true that television can and does stimulate children’s interest in certain good books that have been adapted to television programming: thus we have had a tremendous healthy revival of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, in its many volumes; similarly, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and other Alcott books have won hundreds of thousands of new readers through television showings.

    In general, however, the habit of television-watching tends to draw children away from books and to impede their development of reading-skill. In the long run, this tendency works mischief: for the knowledge acquired from the flickering screen is less than that acquired from a comparable period of book-reading; and while a child may turn back repeatedly to a book, if he wishes, rarely can he watch again the same television program.

    So today it is especially desirable that parents, elder brother and sisters, friends, and teachers encourage children to read attentively, rather than contenting themselves with television-viewing. It may not suffice to depend on drawing books out from school libraries or public libraries; all households should possess a private collection of books for the children (or, nowadays, the child, more commonly) so that at least a few books, worth re-reading often, will be ready to hand. What with paperbacks and other inexpensive editions of children’s books, almost no family needs to be without a shelf of books for boys and girls. (If the choice must be made, it is better to buy several hundred dollars’ worth of individual good books than to buy a children’s encyclopedia costing the same sum: most children, alas, pretty well ignore a home encyclopedia).  The books which I am going to mention might form the core of such a children’s collection.

    In this present essay, I am concerned with good books for boys and girls whose literary tastes and skills are being formed—from the age of seven, when most children learn to read to themselves tolerably well (if ever they learn adequately at all), to the age of twelve, approximately, by which time most young people have formed habits that determine their bent lifelong. I do not take up here the subject of basic readers in schools, since it would be too large a task to compare all the competing series of readers on the market. It may be said, however, that most such basic readers are unsatisfactory today, although there has occurred some improvement during the past decade.

    Two series of basic readers may be commended generally, even if both still could be improved in some respects: the series published by the firm of Lippincott and that published by the firm of Open Court. Most of the selections in these readers are intelligent and praiseworthy, and both series are founded upon a good mastery of phonics—the only sound method by which most children learn to read.

    But my intention just now is to make recommendations for children’s individual and private reading, rather than for classroom sessions. In this individual reading—which, after all, is the method necessary for real mastery—parents and other elders may be of incalculable help to small boys and girls. The first thing is to read aloud to children—and to continue oral readings long beyond the ages of seven or eight, so long as the children continue to enjoy group-reading. Thus children’s vocabularies and comprehension are built up well before those children are able to unravel for themselves the mystery of transforming abstract letters on a printed page into mental images. Besides this, one ought to give books to children as presents, show interest in whatever they are reading, and talk about one’s own favorite books with boys and girls.

    I am thinking of reasonably intelligent children with reasonable proficiency in the art of reading. Children curiously gifted can and will read books more “advanced” than most of those I name here; while children upon whom poor reading instruction has been inflicted, or who lack talent for abstractions generally, will have trouble mastering these books unaided. In general, these are books which (except for those published quite recently) have been found suitable for typical children over several generations, and which therefore ought not to be rejected as impossibly demanding.

    For children between the ages of six and twelve, the most important form of reading is that which develops the imaginative powers; accordingly, I emphasize such books in my recommendations below. I do not mean to disparage books concerned with the natural sciences, mathematics, biography, geography, history, and other branches of knowledge; the more such the child reads, the better; but I have not space enough here to print lists of recommended books in several disciplines. I do append, nevertheless, some suggestions for reading in the field of history, since for some reason that discipline is neglected shamefully today in many schools—and because history is closely related to many of the works of imaginative literature upon which I touch in this essay.

    Well, then—what is the first book that a child should read to himself, with little assistance? Why, the answer to that inquiry varies with circumstance. Most children today begin by reading the newspaper comics. Certainly the first book which my own daughters mastered for themselves was the heavy tall volume of the selected Little Nemo comic-strips, that lovely and terrifying creation by Winsor McCay which was the delight of my own tender years—when it appeared in the Sunday papers, not in an enormous book. For my own part, I did not read to myself until I was well past my seventh birthday: my mother had read aloud to me since I was a few months old, and I didn’t see why this pleasant process should not continue forever. But when a little sibling loomed in prospect, my mother compelled me to learn to read to myself, and presented me with cheap sets of the selected works of Hawthorne, Cooper, and Scott. Thus before I had turned eight I was reading three major novelists, with understanding, because my vocabulary and general knowledge had been well founded before I could interpret print for myself.

    Whether the first-read book is ephemeral trash or something of enduring substance (an edition of Aesop’s Fables, say, or Mother Goose), it should be followed soon by some of the books suggested below. For if such books as these are read in early youth, their little readers will not trouble themselves with trash once they have become big readers.

    Were I compelled to name just one book that all children must read, I should reply, Pinocchio—which Collodi (whose real name was Lorenzini) wrote just a century ago. It is readily available in inexpensive editions. Some children will have had this read to them when they were quite small, but it will do them good to read it afresh for themselves at age six or seven. The malicious Fox and Cat are many children’s first lesson about evil—and, in our bent world, ignorance of evil is not bliss in this year of Our Lord.

    Were I asked what children’s books have charmed me longest, I should answer, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Lewis Carroll is as wondrously comical now as he was in Victoria’s reign, and his miniature theater of the absurd, so impossible, nevertheless somehow introduces a child to firm knowledge of reality.

    Were you to inquire of me what author of children’s literature moves me most as an adult, I would tell you, “George MacDonald.” He immensely influenced G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, among many others. Don’t fail to give your children At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdle, The Golden Key, and MacDonald’s other books for the young, all of which also teach adults.

    Were the question put to me, ‘What children’s author of our century has had the healthiest influence upon the rising generation?” I should tell you, “C.S. Lewis.” Get his Chronicles of Narnia, seven volumes, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and ending with The Last Battle. These make up a children’s parable of the Christian understanding of the human condition. Incidentally, most of the better books for children have been written by people who ordinarily write for adults.

    Should you want to know how to teach courage and fidelity to children through literature, I would commend to you some very old books and some very new ones. Among the old, I would have you turn to the legends of King Arthur and his Table Round, in Sidney Lanier’s version or Howard Pyle’s.  (And don’t forget Pyle’s own Book of Pirates and his Jack Ballister’s Fortunes).  Among the new books there stand eminent Tolkien’s fantasies, beginning with The Hobbit: Frodo does live. Older boys, and some girls, will be ready for Tolkien’s three-volume Lord of the Rings, with all its sorcery and derring-do in Middle Earth. When I was in the sixth grade, I took for my models of manliness the heroes of Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped. The anti-hero may dominate adult fiction in our time, but the hero still strides triumphant in children’s books.

    Am I forgetting girls? Perish that thought! Our daughters’ favorite book, I find, is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden—which I never encountered until my own little girls introduced me to that convincing tale of pathos and triumph in the policies of an English country house. It is written with strong tenderness, and it teaches us how to rise above our vices, especially the ugly vice of self-pity. Another especial favorite with our Monica, Cecilia, Felicia, and Andrea (aged, at this writing, eleven, ten, eight, and three years) is Maurice Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, still available either as a play or a narrative, from which even small children learn that we must find our own ways to happiness, usually by brightening the corner where we are. (It is a pleasure to act out The Blue Bird, with tiny dolls and the Palace of Night constructed of building-blocks: your children will love you always if you work out that play with them).

    Am I omitting American authors? Well, let me start with Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially commending for this age-level his Wonder Book and his Tanglewood Tales, which are ancient myths delightfully retold. As for Mark Twain, boys and girls will like The Prince and the Pauper and Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn, grim in part, is not fully appreciated until later years. For a touch of this land south of Mason’s and Dixon’s line, take Emma Speed Sampson’s Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, and its companion volumes; and, of course, Joel Chandler Harris’ narratives told by Uncle Remus.

    Do I seem too old fangled? Then permit me to offer you some very recent writers. Late did I myself discover the persuasive realism of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (four volumes, and would that there were forty!), all about a race of tiny human folk who live under floors, in old shoes, and behind lath-and-plaster partitions. (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, by the way, distinctly is a mordant work for adults, except in expurgated editions; but Mistress Masham’s Repose, by T. H. White of The Once and Future King, gives us twentieth-century descendants of the Lilliputians). Young readers will enjoy Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach; adults, incidentally, will take to his collection The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. The more advanced sixth-graders will understand well Madeleine L’Engle’s trilogy (influenced by C. S. Lewis) A Wrinkle in Time, Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet—science-fiction, but more than science-fiction, for young folk with developing awareness of the marvelous intricacy of existence. Most of Ray Bradbury’s readers are in high school or college, but some of our present age-group will relish a number of Bradbury’s short stories and his Martian Chronicles.

    Am I jumbling together writers of strangely different approaches and times? I must admit that impeachment; but then, all lively children do that in their highly miscellaneous reading. Take our second daughter, Cecilia. She was rather slow about learning to read to herself. But when she abruptly burst into the art, she at once took up historical romances like John Masefield’s Martin Hyde, the Duke’s Messenger (still a favorite book, “because it’s so exciting”), and in no time at all was intent upon the novels of Willa Cather, none of which were written for little girls. (At her present age, I was deep in Victor Hugo, though now I do renounce him and all his works).  If set loose in a library, children will find their own level—and if it’s a decent library, will take no harm thereby. Yet a common blunder of many school librarians and public librarians is to refuse a child permission to withdraw a particular book (usually a good one, no risk to anybody’s morals) “because it’s not for your age-level.” The boasted “freedom to read,” about which certain librarians talk much, needs to be extended to children with inquiring intellects and healthy curiosity.

    How do we find our way through this labyrinth of books written for children or purloined by children? There are so very many more I am eager to mention—the Brothers Grimm; Andrew Lang’s collections of fairy tales in many volumes; Mrs. Molesworth’s books; Miss Mulock’s books; E. Nisbet’s Edwardian books, approved by C. S. Lewis, and particularly her Book of Dragons; Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Penrod and Sam and Penrod Jashber; the Arabian Nights; E. B. White’s slim books; Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages; Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, especially “The Selfish Giant;” Walter de la Mare’s tales and poems; the Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare; Kipling’s Jungle Book and Kim; books about horses, books about dogs; Jean Ingelow’s Mopsa the Fairy; L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels (all readily available at bookshops again); Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles in five volumes; perhaps Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy (though perhaps that had best be reserved for slightly older young folk); Sheila Burnford’s Incredible Journey; others, others….

    Aye, it’s bewildering and baffling, this infinite rich variety of children’s imaginative literature; and although I have seen sixty winters now, I never will find time to read a good many children’s books that stand on my daughters’ shelves. Life here below is so short—which, I suppose, is why you and I are made for eternity. And speaking of eternity, track down, if you can, a children’s book little known in America—written only a few years ago, in England, by A. Philippa Pearce: Tom’s Midnight Garden. For eerie pathos, this tale of the transcending of Time is unexcelled; also it is heartwarming, and we were sobbing in happy sympathy at the end, even this old Stoic.

    But I must extricate myself from this enchanted wood of the marvelous. As I commenced with Collodi, let me conclude with Andersen. Pinocchio is a trifle frightening, and so are many of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. That is because, though seemingly so fanciful, they are true. Melancholy men are the wittiest, we are told; also they are the most tender writers of tales for children. “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Fir Tree” make us smile and weep (at least internally) as promptly when we are sixty as we did when we were six years old. Andersen, a child all his unhappy life, still was profoundly wise. So read Andersen’s fairy tales, works of genius, to your children when they are very small indeed; then give them a handsome illustrated edition when they can read well for themselves; and let Andersen impart his bitter-sweet knowledge of the splendor and the tragedy of the human condition; and those young folk will make fewer blunders in their own lives, having read Andersen and perceived much truth as in a glass, darkly.

    True to my earlier promise, here I insert some advice about the imparting of an historical consciousness, during the formative years between ages  six and twelve. Children at that stage of growth feel a natural yearning to understand where they are in time, as well as in place—an instinct too often frustrated by twentieth-century utilitarian schooling. Yet if history and geography are not taught competently in the classroom, this melancholy failing may be remedied privately and at home.

    Historical writing and “creative” writing are closely allied; John Lukacs, one of the leading historians of our era, declares that historical writing will be the chief form of the literary art in the age which is dawning. So it is that some of the ablest men of letters have written historical novels, and even historical fiction directly intended for young people. There is no rigid line of demarcation between imaginative literature and historical literature.

    Our first step in this is to introduce young people to a curiosity-waking introductory history of the world. My own interest was aroused by my grand­father’s bulky three-volume set of Ridpath’s History of the World, with hundreds of dramatic illustrations. That work is long out of print; but there now exist numerous histories for children, most of them handsomely illustrated.

    The most influential of these is Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s Story of Mankind, with Van Loon’s own little amusing pen-and-ink drawings. This was the first historical work I read eagerly, from cover to cover—a Christmas present. Van Loon has his prejudices and crochets, but he does impart the relevance of history to our present life. His Story of America also remains in print; his Ancient Man and his Geography can be found only in second-hand bookshops, more’s the pity.

    Some twelve-year-olds may get something out of H. G. Wells’ Outline of History—well written, as was everything that Wells wrote, but seriously impaired by socialist ideology and a narrow materialism. Nevertheless, the Outline is stimulating, even when its belligerence provokes reaction. Most boys and girls, though, will not be ready for Wells and other popular “adult” historians until a few years later.

    Three great novelists of the nineteenth century wrote histories especially for young people. I mean Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Grandfather’s Chair (about Puritan New England), Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather (about Scotland), and Charles Dickens’ Child’s History of England. All three remain very readable, but I believe that none of them is in print at this writing. When one comes upon them at rummage sales or on booksellers’ dusty shelves, ordinarily their price is low: snap them up.

    Once young folk have in their minds a general framework of the sequence and character of the principal events in history, they will enjoy historical romances. Some boys and girls are ready to read James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Scott’s Waverly Novels, or Stevenson’s Black Arrow before they enter their teens.

    Talented authors of historical romances are numerous. I cannot attempt to list systematically here such writers. Let me commend in particular Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, about the distant past of England: Arthur Conan Doyle’s White Company and Sir Nigel, medieval romances; Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Splendid Spur and other books; Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest; Carolyn Dale Snedeker’s perceptive fiction of life in classical times; Eric Kelly’s medieval Polish adventures, The Blacksmith of Vilna and The Trumpeter of Krakow; Constance Lindsay Skinner’s romances of the American frontier; Cornelia Meigs’ tales of colonial America; Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers and its sequels; Sienkiewicz’s novels of seven­teenth-century Poland; James Boyd’s Drums, about Revolutionary North Carolina; Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur and The Fair God; Charles J. Finger’s Courageous Companions, concerning early exploration of this hemisphere; Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive; J. Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet, about English smugglers; and, best of all, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the first full-length yarn of adventure in the English language.

    How many more I would like to name! But this miscellany must suffice for now; young people who read the books named above will be led to others as good, by the same authors or by others whom I have not had space to list. And out of this maze of historical characters and intrigues and vignettes there will take shape in the young reader’s imagination a glowing historical pattern, destined to endure far longer than the dry barebones history taught in the typical social-science classroom.

     

    *       *       *

    Having read the preceding pages, you may be exclaiming interiorly, “What, no Uncle Wiggly, the rabbit gentleman? No Hardy Boys, no Nancy Drew, not even the Oz books?”  I’m sorry, but no. I remind you that I am concerned here with literature for young readers—that is, really first-rate books which belong to a body of well-written, enduring works of imagination and learning. I have omitted, deliberately, the second-rate and third-rate.

    Children’s books of the second and third and fourth ranks may be amusing, usually are harmless, and often do some little good to their readers. But they cannot offer what good books offer; and for the most part they simply help the young reader to kill time. Young people between the ages of seven and ten, however, ought not to be merely killing time. In those formative years, days ought not to be wasted on the insignificant; and the significant really is far more lively.

    If a child is incapable of reading anything more demanding than the Oz books, by all means let him read to himself The Wizard of Oz and the rest of Frank L. Baum’s many, many volumes: I have nothing against Frank Baum, except that he was a pedestrian writer whose imagination did not soar high. Surely it is better for a small boy or girl to read The Wizard of Oz than to watch the typical program on commercial television.

    Yet time spent in reading mediocre yarns could be spent upon the powerful writing and the real thinking of important men and women of letters. If, turning away from Hardy or Drew, a young reader should take up just one first-rate author for young people—why, that young reader would profit more, emotionally and intellectually, from one book by that good author than by a score of books out of some twentieth-century Grub Street.

    Let me make my point by referring to one Victorian writer, Charles Kingsley, whose fiction still is in print—at least his historical romances and fables are, although his novels of social protest are nearly forgotten. Kingsley was a clergyman of sorts and a professor of sorts, and in some ways not a very agreeable person; but he could write. How nobly he could write! I began to read Kingsley when I was small, and I am reading him still, and he has given me, all by himself, a liberal education—even though I am not much attracted by his “muscular Christianity” or his anti-Catholic prejudices.

    First I read Kingsley’s Water-Babies, one of the most charming and disturbing of modern fables; I learned all about the stern Mrs. Be-done-by-as-you-did and the loving Mrs. Do-as-you-would-be-done-by, and I suffered and rejoiced with little Tom the drowned chimney-sweep.

    Then I read The Heroes, Kingsley’s version of classical legends, and was moved. Presently I turned up somewhere a copy of Kingsley’s romance of eleventh-century England, Hereward the Wake, and it made me think about the intricate entwining of good and evil in human character. At a public library, a year later, I obtained Kingsley’s novel of Elizabethan adventure, Westward Ho!, and set sail with Amyas Leigh. In junior high school, I found Kingsley’s novel of fifth-century Alexandria, Hypatia, and fell in love with that beautiful girl-philosopher. Kingsley, in short, was for me one of those dead who give us life. Had I been lazing my way through the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, I would not have had time sufficient for Kingsley.

    So much for my seeming strictness here. Real literature is something much better than a harmless instrument for getting through idle hours. The purpose of great literature is to help us to develop into full human beings.

    There exists no guarantee that such books as I have suggested above will bring us material success or earthly power. Yet such reading will teach us about what it is to be a real man or a real woman. Of this we may be certain, that when the wisdom derived from high imaginative literature is ignored, order in the soul and order in the commonwealth are crumbling.

    To catch my meaning here, read for the first time, or read again, Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Snow Queen”—in particular, his preface about the splintered mirror of distortion and mockery. If we rear a generation or two quite deprived of that moral imagination which humane letters nourish—why, the victims of this denial will end frozen in the Snow Queen’s icy palace. And if they have languished too long in that permafrost, not even little Gerda’s sacrificing love may redeem them.

     

    This article was first published as “Humane Literature for Young Readers” in the Textbook Evaluation Report, no. 768 (1979).  It is reprinted here for the first time and done so with the kind permission of Mrs. Annette Kirk.

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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