Monday, August 3, 2015

Vision for Children, Sixth Installment

(A portion of the plenary speech at the Charlotte Mason Institute's Annual Conference, June 20, 2015)

Like Stella, I remember puzzling over Scripture. Once I read the parable of the sheep and the goats and suffered great anxiety about which of them I was; I also remember wondering whether I was giving someone In need a cup of water, and how I would ever be able to visit a prisoner. Parables winsomely inject truths. Think of the prophet Nathan’s skillful use of that parable he told that adultering, murderer, King David to convict him. Mason says the mind only seeks to answer the questions it asks of itself. These stories raise questions in a child’s mind.

Mason thought the Bible the perfect living book because it presented characters simply, in all their struggles and failures, without evaluation or judgment, that children have measureless receptivity to the things of God and that the unadorned, straightforward narrative of Scripture suited them. Parables were included in her curriculum, accessible because they were stories, and indispensable for revealing God’s truth. For years I have used parables to justify why fiction is critical to us all, since, “without a parable, he did not teach.” She said Socrates had his favored disciples with whom he discussed truth, but our Lord told parables, fabricated stories, to great multitudes so that the words could pass lightly through some, be of interest literally to others, and to a few, reveal profound spiritual truth and mystery. We are like that farmer in His parable of the sower, planting, not knowing which seed will take hold, which will thrive.

But we need not fret about our children in this planting time. The God given gift of imagination, which Mason personified as Chief Explorer, is a grand cultivator. Imagination’s work is truly a reflection of who we are as persons, more than just physical beings, because imagination is our way of seeing what isn’t visible externally. Our own mental picture maker transports us to places we can’t go, takes words from language and breathes life into them. Mason explains that “the pictures that remain with us are those that are first conceived through the medium of words; that pictures or illustrations may at some point help us to correct some notions, but imagination does not work upon a visual presentation, we lay the phrases of a description on our pallet and make our own pictures.”

Reading exercises imagination. Our children’s “inner eye” helps them to see beyond the page of words, to see life. I still vividly see my first trip to Switzerland, up the Alm with Heidi. I got to go there with her because my “talking book machine” from the state library for the blind arrived along with a box of records. I think my Dad was more excited than I was. I had no idea what treasures the world of literature held yet. I climbed with Heidi as the story’s first page was read. With wonder I met the forbidding grandfather in his rustic hut after that long, hot, toil up the mountain. I was entranced with the idea of sleeping in a loft, snuggling in a bed of hay, seeing the sun come up through the little window, hearing the goats bleating for me to come out and play with Peter. We adults forget this magical awe and wonder of our childhood imagination. Mason says our children’s books should give them these pictures – “not flat photos, soon forgotten, but that should take them places and show them people who are as alive to them as the ones they know in every day life.” Heidi’s Switzerland is like that for me. The fact that, yes, 53 years later, I know their color, and where she hid the clothes she shed on her way up the Alm, shows the power of words to paint pictures in a child’s mind.

Through imagination, fired by superb living books, I have a gallery full of pictures, as well as a wealth of experiences. I’ll never forget either that arduous journey with Lassie across Scotland – how I suffered and feared with her; how amazed I was at the ingenuity of the Swiss family Robinson; and how shocked at the behavior of adults in Scout’s Alabama when reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Dozens of stories like these stand out like Narnian lamp-posts in my childhood shining on what is good, and noble, and lovely to see,throwing light on an otherwise unknown, incomprehensible, real world. What a gift imagination is to help our children see. They automatically see themselves in stories, which act as a mirror for them. Living books increase curiosity, strengthen their ability to think for themselves, and the accompanying emotion aroused by the narrative cements stories for future reference. The characters they meet in books become their mentors and instructors. Books guide, give them a taste for righteousness, show them all those virtues we so long for them to adopt. My own books helped me to know – that unquenchable craving within all of us - to know, and shaped, one by one, who it was I wanted to be. It isn’t the specific curriculum, but it is most definitely our cultivation of our child’s natural ability to imagine that will make the difference in their education, and influence their character. Story is the house that holds the knowledge they need, but imagination is the key that unlocks the door and lets them go in and discover the secrets to life.

The story, unlocked by imagination, literally turns the light on inside a person, digests ideas, absorbs lessons. Best of all, stories develop moral imagination. Children who make believe, relish the impossible, consider possibilities, grow in faith. Moral imagination is the training ground of faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the belief in things not seen.”(Heb. 11:1) Faith is a gift of God, but imagination fertilizes it.

Children fed on living books, learn wisdom and knowledge naturally, learn far more than we can ever teach them. C. S. Lewis, a rather imaginative man himself, said “When I am reading great literature, I
become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poems, I see with “myriad eyes” but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I
transcend myself and am never more myself than when I do.” Stories, he also said, don’t make us retreat from reality, but make reality more real.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Thank you, Liz, for sharing this with us. This was simply magnificent. I have eagerly looked forward to each installment and now plan to re-read them all consecutively and pretend that I am in the audience at CMI while you are delivering your talk:).

    1. Dawn,

      My heart is thankful you are able to share with me in that rich life that books make for us.


    2. Dawn,

      My heart is thankful you are able to share with me in that rich life that books make for us.