My books have shown me what was good, and what was not.
The best fiction books are not those without any negative or ugly incidents, but show characters who wrestle with difficult moral choices and reveal the subsequent good or bad consequences. Sometimes the miseries characters suffer help children with their own. For example, I was nine when my family broke up. Divorce is devastating to children, but I knew that awful things happened to people because I had read about some. During that year, I had a book I read over and over. Its happy ending gave me hope. The long suffering its heroine endured showed how life requires extended periods of endurance. Doubtless, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett is familiar to you. In this excerpt, Sara, a child born in luxury and suddenly orphaned, is reduced to service as a house drudge, exhausted from performing adult labor, excruciatingly lonely, thinly dressed on a bitter winter day, and hasn’t eaten for two days, when she miraculously spies a coin in the ankle deep slush, a fortune. She looks up to see the wonder of a bake shop across the street, and an animal – no, a wretched child (is it a girl?) more destitute than herself, sitting on its step. The shop is warmth, good smells, a rosy, smiling clerk. Sara can buy six hot buns with this coin. Then the wrestle begins:
“The beggar girl was still huddled up in the corner of the step. She looked frightful in her wet and dirty rags. She was staring straight before her with a look of stupid suffering…muttering to herself. Sara opened the paper bag and took out one of the hot buns, which had already warmed her own cold hands a little. 'See,' she said, putting the bun in the ragged lap, 'this is nice and hot. Eat it, and you will not feel so hungry.' The child stared up at her as if such sudden, amazing good luck almost frightened her; then she snatched up the bun and began to cram it into her mouth with great wolfish bites…Sara took out three more buns and put them down. The sound in the hoarse, ravenous voice was awful. 'She is hungrier than I am,' Sara said to herself. ‘She is starving.’ But her hand trembled when she put down the forth bun. ”I’m not starving,” she said—and she put down the fifth. The little raving London savage was still snatching and devouring when Sara turned away. The girl was too ravenous to give thanks, even if she had been taught politeness—which she had not.”
We can tell children what’s right, but more important, they must love what’s right. Sarah made me do that. When a chance comes for a child to be a hero, to show courage, to make the right moral choice, there isn’t time to run and find a book, to ponder over what to do, which is why a stock of book experiences is invaluable preparation. Long before their own crises occur, books show what can or ought to be done in possible situations.
Books also help children cope with suffering. Awareness of the suffering of others was something Mason didn’t feel we should shield children from, on the street or in the pages of a book. Ignorance is not equal to innocence, she said (Formation of Character, pg 374). Fairy-tales begin introducing the idea that evil can be overcome. Good literature deals with sinfulness prudently and shows its dangers before children face dilemmas themselves. Our broken real world is what is shocking. Remember, in God’s story, the hero is crucified, the most undeserved violence ever suffered. If we allow our children only to be exposed to books void of darkness, we deprive them of the great lessons to be learned in Peter Rabbit, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, the Holy Bible. Mason said we “must read to learn the meaning of life.” (Ourselves, pg 72)
For the joy of reading,