Monday, August 22, 2016

Living the Tales Told (Ps. 90:9)

My 30-year-old son found out yesterday he probably has cancer, had surgery this morning, and while I was talking with him in the recovery room, he mentioned staying up very late the night before. He wasn’t worrying, he was writing.

It seems he once read a book where a dying father with many young children wrote them each a letter for them to receive on their birthdays the year after his death. My son had tucked this away in his mind, just in case he should ever find himself in that situation.

Of course, I hope my son’s children never have to receive these letters after their father’s death, but this incident reminded me of the power stories have in our children’s lives. When a child’s heart has been richly furnished with tales of love and loss, ordeal and overcoming, that child is being well prepared for the unknowns of life.

How often, in my own difficulties, have I admonished myself when on the brink of despair, “Now, what would Caroline Ingalls do?” … Or Marmee March, Mary Emma Moody, Marilla Cuthbert—or, for that matter, Anne of Green Gables herself. Living in the lives of fictional characters instructs. Our heroes and heroines don’t exist because their lives are free of rocks, snares, toils and dangers. They are our heroes precisely because they have faced the unthinkable or impossible and found a way through, around, under, or over those impediments. We live inside their skin, feel their pain and bewilderment, will them on to meet their messy and miserable circumstances. Their fortitude and tenacity inspire us. We close the book, put it back on the shelf, and possibly never return to its pages again, but the lessons stick, the pictures hang in the galleries of our imagination, and when life deals us unexpected twists and turns, we have a wealth of inherited advice, so deeply embedded we usually forget who we learned the lessons from.

What would we do without the tales that have told us how to live? What will our children do if we don’t provide them with a bountiful supply of heroes to grow on? It doesn’t matter if those teachers come from the pages of the Bible or fairy tales, from nonfiction or fiction. Truth is our light for life wherever we read it. Wisdom is the fruit of a story-strewn childhood.

For the Joy of Reading,


P.S. “And they all lived happily ever after,” is not just for fairy tales. My son called the next day to tell me that the doctors’ best opinions were wrong and there is no cancer. Who says amazing twists don’t happen in real life?

Monday, August 15, 2016

What About Mom’s School Books?

Like it or not, school is in session or nearly so. Homeschooling moms all over the country are scurrying to make final book choices. The last question turned in for my summer reading input concerns books for mom: "What should we moms be reading? How many books and on what subjects?”

Good question. I am convinced that one of the reasons homeschool moms wear thin is that they are not feeding themselves with a good diet of books. In the effort to select and serve good literature to their children, they forget that the teacher also needs some nutritious helpings herself.

When is a mother to find time? Anyhow she can. Don’t forget my old challenge to read ten minutes a day. That will get you through a couple of dozen books a year. C. S. Lewis said,
“The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.” (The Weight of Glory)
And why must a mother read? For the same reasons her children should. The mind lives on ideas, Mason said, as the body lives on food.

And where are those ideas to come from? From books—a vast array of living books full of living ideas. Mason said mothers would find new energy from reading:
“One cannot read without many life-giving thoughts from almost any good book: poetry, biography, history, essays, good novels—all will supply our need.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, Essex Chomondeley)
Years ago I discovered that reading books on some of the subjects my children were studying was the key to my own mind expanding and growing. I had more energy and enthusiasm for life in general, and for teaching school specifically. Mason states:
“People are naturally divided into those who read and think and those who do not read or think; and the business of schools is to see that all their scholars shall belong to the former class; it is worth while to remember that thinking is inseparable from reading which is concerned with the content of a passage and not merely with the printed matter.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 31)
So, reading just any old thing doesn’t count:
“You will find if you read thoughtfully and steadily ONLY that which is worth reading, daily nourishment, stimulating thought will come to us, and however foreign the subject may be, what we read, if it is worth reading, will help us do our work better and will give us fresh thoughts to impart to the children.”
We may not have the privilege of extended, uninterrupted quietness in which to read, but we can attend for short intervals, just as our children have short lessons; we can read a little in several different books on different days as our children do; and, best of all, we will find our own education is far from over—perhaps just beginning.

If we believe Mason’s principles are effective for nourishing the mind of our children, why will they not work for us? Are you spreading a wide and varied feast for yourself? Are you stretching your mind in new directions? Are you nourishing your mind with the life-giving thoughts straight from the mind of other thinkers—the wealth of ideas found in books? Mason said,
“If you find yourself sinking to a dull commonplace level with nothing particular to say, the reason is probably that you are not reading, and therefore, not thinking.” (Story of Charlotte Mason).
If you’re interested in making up your own curriculum, here are some steps to take:

1. Write down four to six subjects in which you need to gain knowledge. Don’t shy away from unfamiliar or intimidating areas.

2. Begin hunting for a book for each of these subjects.

3. Read a little in each of them every week—slow and steady progress.

4. Narrate to yourself—or to anyone who will listen—what you are learning.

5. Have a wonderful school year—and enjoy the feast!

For the joy of reading,


Monday, August 8, 2016

Vision for Children—Or Parents?

At the 2016 CMI conference, a mother approached me to share her reaction to my lecture the preceding year. I was awed and humbled, once again, to realize the tremendous impact that story has on our lives as persons—my story on her, and stories in general on her family. I asked her if she would be willing to share this personal tale with my readers and she graciously agreed.

Dear Liz,

Prior to hearing your plenary speech at the 2015 Charlotte Mason Institute Conference I had serious concerns about fairy tales. I thought they might be a gateway to the children ascribing good things to magic rather than to God. Especially in our culture, New Age thinking can creep in so quickly, I wanted to be extremely discerning. We read all kinds of nursery rhymes and Mother Goose tales, but when it came time for "real" fairy tales I was not at all convinced they were essential. I decided that the risk was greater than the reward and not to include them.

We also had great trouble with some history and missionary biography selections. Our kids are quite sensitive and prone to fear. Tears and pleading not to continue reading were daily occurrences because of the violence that they had never really been exposed to before so we had to put those down too. I even struggled with Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories but because we had already removed so many book selections I thought we would at least try it. I would strongly caution my children, assuring them that we knew that it was really God and not some accident that rhinoceroses had wrinkles or that leopards were spotted. We tried some of the non-fairy stories from Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm and were left with not much at all.

Then I attended the CMI conference. I didn't even know how much of an impasse this issue of their fears and my concerns with fairy tales was. Your talk gave me new eyes to see a much bigger and grander role of fairy tales beyond just exposure to good literature. From your testimony and your journey through suffering I saw in a very real way that these stories became the fertile ground for the Gospel. These stories exposed good and evil, and had characters who endured great trials, often without a happy ending. Children were orphaned, there was violence, and great suffering. You helped me to see these great themes are also in Scripture. There's something much bigger than ourselves presented in these stories. These stories bring us to the truth that the unseen is more real than the seen or experienced.

Mason emphasizes so often that as parents and educators we must trust in the work of the Holy Spirit. For the first time, I realized that these stories weren't just a part of their academic education but shape their hearts and give them a way to see God in his grandeur and sovereignty. I was overwhelmed. My paradigm had been shattered. I returned home filled with confidence that God would use these fairy tales for his good purposes and that they were not something to be feared. Even in your unique suffering and challenges you knew a big, glorious and GOOD God. Seeing how God had used all the stories in your life I wanted that for my own children and for myself.

He slowly showed me that this was true not just from your testimony but even in the hearts of my children. We were visiting my parents and my 8 year old found Andersen's Match Stick Girl. An incredibly sad story, where the young girl endures much suffering and abuse, is left out in the cold to freeze to death, yet finds joy in being reunited with her loving grandmother in death. My daughter, who was the most sensitive of all, reported to me how much she loved this story. She read it again and again. I couldn't believe it. We began to incorporate Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book. My son saw the print for “Little Red Riding Hood” and asked me to read it. I read not thinking twice until the last paragraph. I finished having no idea that the true Red Riding Hood was in fact eaten. My son looked at me astonished, questioning, "But Mom?!" I was equally as surprised. We then read “Beauty and the Beast”. Our children haven't seen any of the modern versions so many of these stories were completely new to them. To my amazement again, the children weren't fearful! In fact, at dinner my 6 year old boy, seemingly out of the blue, stated with excitement, "Mom! It's like God. The beast only wanted her to stay if she chose to. He didn't make her. God wants us to choose him, he doesn't force us to love him." I couldn't believe that he saw the doctrine of free will through this fairy tale! Magic, spells, good, evil, the whole gambit and the Holy Spirit revealed to him this amazing and foundational truth about God. My heart was full, as were my eyes. There's just no lesson or contrived anything that I could have used in my own power to teach these truths to my children.

We all pray as parents for wisdom. I believe that the Lord was answering my prayers for wisdom when he used your plenary speech to move my heart so deeply and show me how He would use these stories to change hearts. These stories became a gateway for our children to safely experience suffering through characters that they had fallen in love with. Never would we have even dreamed of such a genuine and authentic way of teaching them a theology of suffering. Since initiating these tales, we have had a host of wonderful conversations about evil and good and God's sovereignty in it all. We dove into all the fiction I had had reservations about and saw much fruit in return. I decided it was time to try Our Island Story again. This time, no tears! No nightmares and no begging to stop. I know they heard it. I know they comprehended it because they narrated all of it. Something had changed. They were now able to handle some of the violence and evil that we would not have been able to read through before. Joan of Arc by Diane Stanley, for example, though a true story, would never have been something we could have read. Quite by “accident”, we finished it the day before Good Friday. My children saw the cross in a completely new way as they had come to love Joan and feel the injustice waged against her.

I didn't realize how much injury I had done to their innate ability to process stories that are fiction. My persistent cautions and "over teaching" denied them the ability to enjoy stories at all, even just fiction that had nothing to do with fairies and magic. We are slowly healing from this and even though they still ask in a suspicious way, "Is this even real?" I do my best to navigate the question in a way that gives them permission to enjoy the story. I can tell they want to dive in, but they are hesitant because that's what I modeled for them. My 4 year old son loves St. George and the Dragon. He asked a few times if it was real. I didn't feel I needed to lie to him. I just redirected the question and asked him his favorite parts. Sometimes I'll encourage them that maybe it's not as important to know if it's real or not. I don't believe that they will feel betrayed when one day they mature enough to see fiction in a different way. We trust in the work of the Spirit and pray that their hope will be in a sovereign God. I do know that as I nurture this sense of wonder whether through nature or fairy tales their hearts and minds thrive.

This is only our family's story and how we've seen fairy tales give them a fertile ground to receive and see God and his glorious gospel as well as give them a theology of suffering.



(If you'd like to read my Plenary talk that Carolyn refers to, it begins here.)

For the Joy of Reading,