Common Wisdom: Last Homely House

I have loved reading since I first put “see,” “spot,” and “run” together, and so one of the great joys I anticipated from motherhood— not in vain—was the pleasure of revisiting childhood books and being introduced to ones I’d missed the first time around.

At first there were board books and Pat the Bunny and truck books. When my firstborn was about one and a half, we moved up to Goodnight Moon. Of course Peter and I read the stories of Scuffy the Tugboat and Ferdinand the Bull and that plucky little engine that could, and many editions of nursery rhymes. I revisited Dr. Seuss, whose anarchic Cat in the Hat had rather frightened me as a child.

I loved reading the inventive rhymes of the Madeline books, each beginning with satisfying predictability: “In an old house in Paris / That was covered with vines, / Lived twelve little girls / In two straight lines.” Fortunately, my children liked them too. In the evenings, bargaining would go on as to which and how many books were read before bedtime. My children were lots more likely to get another story if they chose one of my favorites.

I still have one and sometimes two eager listeners to picture books, but as my oldest began reading I braced for the end of our book sessions. But two things happened: First, his reading abilities lagged for some time behind his interests and thinking abilities. He could not yet read the kinds of things he wished to learn about and the stories he wished to hear. Then I read an argument in favor of continued family reading as a way of building a shared bank of books and memories, encouraging “good books” to round out the diet of Goosebumps or Babysitters Club hooks.

I began one cold winter’s day when we were holed up around the living room fire. With some trepidation—because I could not have borne it if the children did not love it as I did—I commenced with the first of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales. It was an instant hit, and we have gone through them all about yearly since then.

After that I embarked on a series recommended by everyone, but missed by me as a child—the Little House on the Prairie books. These were another success. I sometimes tacked on an extra chapter or two to our reading without being asked, just to see what happened next.

We’ve read the Little House series several times now, too. But in between we’ve sampled many other books, including Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories, Norse and Greek mythology, and stories of great explorers. We’ve read Frances Hodgson Burnett—author of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, certainly, but also of a wonderful “boys” book called The Lost Prince, about an obscure East European kingdom, and a secret society bent on reinstating its rightful rulers.

More than a year ago, my son requested The Hobbit, which he’d seen in the animated version. I happily agreed, but hesitated when he asked for The Lord of the Rings afterward. Was he a bit too young to appreciate it? I didn’t want so great a favorite of mine to be ruined for him by too early an introduction. I gave in and he was enthralled—so much so that when we both heaved sighs of regret at the end, he had me plow through most of the appendices on ancient Middle Earth history and languages. We have since reread both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

How long we will go on this way, I don’t know. I’m grateful for the introduction to books like the Little House series, which I otherwise would have missed, and the chance to introduce to a new fan books that shaped my own childhood and adolescence.

Do I hope these books shape my children in some way? Do I mean them, like William Bennet’s Book of Virtues, to edify? Sure—but they only have the chance to do that because they grab hold of the imagination. They are what we in the ’60s might have called mind-blowing. They expand the mind in the proper sense, by the force of powerful images and mythic story lines, marrying adventure and duty, sallying forth on quests and taking the consequences. They romanticize both risk-taking and homemaking.

I know they speak to my children’s deepest yearnings—for accomplishing great goals, risking all in a great cause, and meeting the Last Homely House on journey’s end—because they speak to my yearnings as well.

There is an emotional intensity about our memory of certain children’s books that can feed us all our life. Choosing and reading some of these together is a way of instituting another kind of family meal.

By

Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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