Monday, May 25, 2015

Charlotte Mason On the Reading of Novels

Emily and I bristle when, on a fairly frequent basis, a child in our library informs us that "fiction is fake," or "I want to read a true book," though we know that these ideas are not their own, but have been adopted from adults in their lives. All of us speak and believe according to the ideas we have been fed, and I share here ideas I have gleaned from my own teachers.

I refer to teachers like Jesus Himself, for example, of whom Scripture states, "Without a parable, he did not teach," (Mt. 13:21) Parables are fabricated stories meant to be enjoyed by all as a literal story and for the instruction of spiritual truth for those who had "ears to hear." Good fiction does the same, showing life to us so that we can perceive lessons for living our own.

This is the principle Charlotte Mason emphasizes as well when she states that "fiction is of enormous value to us in teaching morals and manners," as it illustrates for our mind's eye to see, gives us food for thought. She believed that children should be taught through story - "living books," as they instruct by showing, as well as telling. In a work of fiction, life is revealed, as if lifting a curtain, to see how others have lived so we can learn how to live our own lives. This is a powerful teaching tool, not just for informing the mind, but the heart as well. After all, there is more to education than knowing information, and learning to live well is a lifetime process, a mystery continuously to be solved. For that reason alone, fiction is more valuable to us than nonfiction.

Mason considered novelists as offering us "a key to the vexed problem of education," because she recognized the child's "immense appetite for knowledge, and when he does not want to learn, it is because he does not get the right books. We give children a diet of facts, either condensed or diluted, unaware that the mind has really no use for facts uninformed by intelligence. It takes ideas to evoke ideas, intelligence to awaken intelligence, and the heavy compendiums of the schoolroom are of no use in education." (Vol. 5, pg. 394) I am not stating that nonfiction is by any means useless, but is helpful most when it appeals to the needs of the whole person, who craves literature of beauty and noble ideas for living, in addition to gaining knowledge for utilitarian information.

Children learn more about who to be and how to behave from stories than from our endless verbal instruction. The short tales and stories of childhood appeal to their short attention span, providing concise explanations of right and wrong and the immediacy of consequences from specific choices. but, as children mature and understand that life is bigger and more complicated than their own familiar surroundings, novels become invaluable instructors for them.

Parents must provide excellent novels to give guidance for their children in ways they cannot give themselves, and not simply to educate them in the classics. Charlotte Mason deplored the attitude that "I've read Austen...or Shakespeare," as a mark of ignorance and as silly as having said, "I've eaten breakfast." Surely breakfast is not a one-time experience. Good novels require being read and reread, the mind of the author, his wisdom and knowledge, continually teaching the discerning reader, as long as that novel is good literature.

Taste, however, must be cultivated, and parents are responsible for ensuring the quality of the books their children read. "It is stupid to disregard such a means of instruction; and yet, judicious parents either 'disapprove of novel reading for their young people' or let them read freely the insipid trash of the circulating library until they are unable to discern the flavour of a good book." (vol. 5, page 374) All that is written is not gold, and much of what passes for it is a waste of time, not to mention of mind. Not only does twaddle not cultivate their taste, it bores children with reading.

We parents can also err in another direction. In a natural desire to protect our children, Sometimes our fear of contamination prevents our children from benefiting from the literature that can nourish them. Here too, Mason advises, "There is a good deal to be said for this point of view; but the decisions of life are not simple, and to taboo knowledge is not to secure innocence. We must remember that ignorance is not innocence, and also that ignorance is the parent of insatiable
curiosity." (Volume 5, page 374)

Mason next guides us in our discernment by classifying novels into two categories: sensational, and "reflectional." By sensational, she does not discount exciting adventure, high action narratives, but is deploring those that titillate the senses and incite lust. Especially in the popular genre of "romance" fiction, she is quite clear:

"The 'his lips met hers,' 'the touch of her hand thrilled him in every nerve' sort of thing which abounds in goody-goody storybooks, set apart in many families for Sunday reading, but the complete absence of which distinguishes our best English novels. To read that a girl has been betrayed by no means affects an innocent mind; but to allow oneself to thrill with the emotions which led to the betrayal is to get into the habit of emotional dram-drinking--a habit as enervating and as vitiating as that of the gin-shop." (Volume 5, page 374)

The other category, the "reflectional" novel, on the other hand, offers invaluable insight for both self-knowledge and understanding of others. She is not referring to morbid introspection here, but positive reflection. "He who would save us the trouble of reflection ministers to the intellectual slothfulness which lies at the bottom of the poverty of our thoughts and the meanness of our lives." Instead, the novel that provokes our thoughts "with every page we read... offers in every character and in every situation a criterion by which to try our random thoughts or our careless conduct." To occupy our mind with what to do in various circumstances, or what would happen if we behave in a particular way - like one of the characters whose life and motives are being described in the novel - is eye-opening, shows us our own faults, "some selfishness, shallowness, or deceitfulness upon which man or woman make shipwreck of their lives." (Volume 4, page 160) She even goes so far as to say that we cannot learn such things but by these two ways: through fictional literature, or, through bitter personal experience.

I believe Mason's thoughts explain why fiction is most certainly not all "fake." She addresses how worthy literature is an instructor of truth in a unique and incomparable way. Our True Teacher, and hers, said that truth would set us free. "I know no greater joy than that my children walk in truth," is the cry of every Christian parent, and our best novels may penetrate our children's hearts in ways we cannot imagine to shine a spotlight on truth.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, May 18, 2015

A Library of Their Own

If you can imagine this, when I was a child, a little Golden book cost  $0.25. My grandmother used to slip a quarter into her letters to our family for me, and it was a treat to go to the local "dime store"
(also a phenomenon of past days) to buy a new book. Along with Christmas and birthday gifts of books, this surely was the beginning of my habit of book collecting, and fed my growing love of stories.

One practice we can adopt to involve our children in reading books, in addition to reading to them, is to see that they have their own private library. Children prize what is their own possession. Whether it's a bookcase that matches their bedroom furniture, or boards and bricks, it is worth making room for a place for books. Children need to learn to care for, arrange and order these books for themselves. When the shelves become overcrowded, let them do the weeding, selecting which to part with or store away in specially labeled boxes to hold this treasure till they leave home. I am currently helping my fourth child pack before her wedding, and, as with her older siblings, a significant number of boxes containing her personal library are departing with her.

In a day of disposable everything, books never lose value. They are a legacy to share with future generations. Think of the toys and clothes that have been outgrown, broken, forgotten, discarded. Excellent books outlast every fad and fancy of childhood and live on in their hearts forever.

I once thought the local public library was the repository of all that was good and beautiful in literature, but, unfortunately, demand for the popular drives what ends up on those shelves as space necessitates weeding. A personal collection, however, is not tied to that standard and never goes out of style. Each child's collection is a reflection of his or her own tastes and personality. Interests change over time, of course. One way to develop a child's discernment is to give them the very best in children's literature. Children who love books of enduring quality, of superior literary content, instinctively know which to keep, while unimaginative, trendy, and twaddly books aren't generally cherished enough to pack away and are happily tossed into the "give away" box.

It rests with us to whet their appetite by providing them with the classic children's books, and read them to them. Every toddler should have copies of Marguerite De Angeli's Mother Goose, poetry by A. A. Milne, A Child's Garden of Verses by Stevenson, A Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Madeline and other timeless favorites of previous generations just for starters.

As they grow, the collection should expand to include The Wind in the Willows, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, HeidiTreasure Island and other enduring tales that they will read over and over again throughout their lives with increasing pleasure. The list of classics is long enough that most children usually don't work their way through them all before they move to adult literature, but these books are special for this very reason - they can be enjoyed at 10 or 60.

Summer vacation is the perfect time to introduce new titles and here's a short list of my lifetime favorites still in print:

Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong
The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy
Little Britches by Ralph Moody
Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare

With long summer days ahead, I hope you have not packed your children's freedom from school hours so full there is no space and time for reading. Remember that a child with a book is not just
passing the time, but learning life. Purchasing personal copies is an incalculable investment. Let them prize their books, let them put their name inside, let them live in stories so these books continue
to live in themselves.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, May 11, 2015

A Mother's Gift

With the celebration of Mother's Day, my thoughts naturally turn to my own mother who died a year and a half ago. The gifts a mother gives are impossible to sum up, or gratitude for them properly to e express, and, whatever the shortcomings, inadequacies, or failures our mothers have, it is indisputable that we owe them our life and that, however variously shown, they have laid that life down for us in more ways than we know or could comprehend. This truth becomes reality to us most when we become mothers ourselves.

This offering to my mother's memory is only a shred of who she was and what she did for me, but pertains to our efforts on this website to celebrate books and, more importantly, the reading of them. My mother is behind this passion of ours.

For, in casting back to early childhood memories, my mother is of course there. Though I don't have a huge number of distinct memories, I have a few that emerge from the mist of childhood and several of them involve her reading to me. She was a busy, busy woman; I could never hope to imitate her activity level, but will, to my dying day, be thankful that one of the things on her "to do" list was to read to her children. It's about my only memory of her sitting down. It may have only been a responsibility she felt she had, but I'm glad she didn't shirk it, and I believe she enjoyed it as much as we did. I vividly recall my sister and my trundle beds, the pattern of the bedspreads, the pictures on the wall of our room, and her voice lulling us to sleep with Mother Goose. To this day, I can chant dozens of those ancient English ditties.

My grandmother lived in Florida much of the year, but sent us letters with a quarter inside, which, believe it or not, was enough to go to the local "dime store" and purchase a Golden book. My mom would walk us there and help us select one. We had a special small bookcase in our room for this precious collection and I'm sure she read us those stories dozens of times because we had them memorized long before we could read ourselves.

My mother also gave us a very special gift one Christmas. I still remember the picture on the box. It was a set of 24 long-play records packed with recorded children's stories - fairy-tales, legends, and
folk tales. We played them on a turntable (which you may never have heard of) and nearly wore them out, though some survived for me to share with my own children to enjoy 25 years later. I can still bring back to mind the particular voices of the narrators of The Three Bears, Stone Soup, Mike Mulligan, The Biggest Bear, and Cinderella. Hours of rainy or wintry days were filled with wonder for us as we listened and lived inside those stories, playing with toys or acting them out as we did. Thanks to my mother, the delight and truths of those tales were planted in my soul and provided some fertile soil for future thinking, not to mention a thirst for more stories.

As we grew older, the bedtime reading grew from nursery rhymes and A Child's Garden of Verses, to Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Ribsy, The Secret Garden, and Little Women. Though I remember her yawning with fatigue during those nightly sessions, and I know we often drifted off to sleep before the end of a chapter, I also remember it was not always us begging for another chapter, but she who wanted to read "just one more." I know we often wondered aloud why a character was doing what they were doing, or where the story was going to lead, and she was never willing to give her own suggestions for possible reasons. How wise that was, as our curiosity was insatiable and our power to imagine and problem solve was being cultivated. And, by the way, she read aloud to us until we left home.

When babysitters came to stay, the books were part of her parting instructions. Trips to the library were a regular event. Special chores were invented so we could earn money to buy books from the "book club" at school. My mother made books as natural to us as eating and sleeping. Of all the things she did for us, gave us, was to us, I must say that this love of reading was probably the greatest gift she gave us.

Someone has said, "Literature is equipment for living," and it would take more than a brief article to expound upon the truth of that in my life, but just a quick glimpse into my memory bank reveals that the foundations were laid well and the time she took was an investment that has served me superbly.

Let me just add, dear mothers, that no matter how weary your body at the end of your day, no matter how pressed you are for time, you are giving your children an irreplaceable gift when you sit down, open a book, and suggest, "let's read."

For the joy of reading,