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Topics: Education, Family, Motherhood, Public Square

Cultivating an Appetite for Good Books

July 27, 2015

When the children in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are preparing to meet Aslan for the first time, Susan asks Mr. Beaver about the Lion’s approachability. “Is he — quite safe?” she wonders. “Safe? says Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Once while sampling a CCM radio station on a car ride, the announcer assured us that the music they play is “safe for the whole family.” Steve didn’t miss a beat: “It’s safe, but it’s not good.”

Regardless of where your tastes in music lie, the sentiment is true of many modern books for children. Too much of what’s published these days, while morally inoffensive, is safe, but it’s not good. Fine stories are too often abridged, others are adapted into politically correct retellings, and yet more are barely veiled brand extensions for the latest animated movie.

By contrast, “… good books appeal to all ages,” says Gladys Hunt in Honey for a Childs Heart. She recounts that “C. S. Lewis said that no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty” (p. 39). Hunt says, “The home is still the greatest educational force, and parents who make reading attractive contribute immeasurably to their children’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development.”

What then, should children read?

There’s plenty of great literature to choose from. But it’s often overshadowed by all the insipid, silly, and morally objectionable books on the market. Much of what’s initially appealing to kids, and readily available in the children and young adult sections of the library, is, as one Mom blogger describes it, “junk-food books; trans-fat-laden, corn syrup-saturated Hostess cherry pies on the literary highway.” Judging from the shelf-upon-shelf of such well-worn paper backs in our local library, many kids are glad to help themselves to what tastes good going down.

That’s a problem, because you are what you eat—and what you read.

I remember my dad, a dentist, talking about a conversation he had with the mother of a young patient whose teeth were rotting. He asked her about her son’s diet, trying to figure out the source of his decay. “All he drinks is soda,” she said, “and the only vegetables he’ll eat is canned corn. He eats a lot of junk food,” she admitted. My dad replied simply, “Who buys the groceries?”

He knew that for all the kid’s poor choices, his mom was the one stocking the fridge. So, too, with books. Moms and dads, for as long as our children are in our home, we’re responsible for developing their tastes in the kitchen, as well as the library. We must intentionally guide our children’s choice of books. Their growing bodies need the full range of grains and vegetables and protein, of vitamins and minerals and water. And their growing minds and hearts need the full range of poetry, prose, fiction, biography, history, and more.

Acquiring a taste

When our kids don’t like the taste of something I’ve made for dinner, they’re not allowed to say, “Yuck!” We’ve taught them instead to say, “I haven’t acquired a taste for it yet.” As the chef, I want to know what disagrees with them, but I also want them to know that learning to like new foods is a process, hence, the yet. I read somewhere that you have to offer your kids a new food 10 or more times before they even try it. Whether or not the science backs that up, I’ve experienced something similar when it comes to books.

I kept seeing the British author G. A. Henty on lists of historical fiction for boys. The first time I brought a “Henty” home from the library, Harrison passed right over it on his way to yet another Hank the Cowdog title. I didn’t give up. Every few months, I’d reorder a copy of In the Heart of the Rockies, or With Lee in Virginia, hoping that eventually he’d crack the cover and give it a try. Eventually, he did. But even then, it wasn’t an immediate hit. I coaxed him gently. “Read the first chapter,” I said. “Just give it a try. If it doesn’t hook you, then you can choose something else.” It took a couple of years to develop a taste for Henty. But once he did, there was no stopping him.

Proverbs says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). When all the toys and treasures of childhood are outgrown, the stories children read will remain because books are friends. In the library and bookshop, as in the park and on the playground, we must teach our children to choose well.

Thankfully, you don’t need a degree in library sciences to actively guide your children’s book choices.

Where to Look for Good Books

I’ve found several faithful guides:

  • Honey for a Childs Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life, by Gladys Hunt
  • Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Childrens Literature, by Elizabeth Wilson
  • Read for the Heart: Whole Books for Wholehearted Families, by Sarah Clarkson

These “books of books” are annotated bibliographies that provide a short plot summary of each title, along with author and publisher details, so you have a good idea of what your child will be reading. They are organized by genre and age or reading level. What’s most helpful about these three books of books in particular is the authors’ commitment to books that shape the moral imagination.

I revisit these titles again and again, pre-ordering books from our library system. That way, even if the kids don’t find many good books in stock, the “holds shelf” is full with the books I hand-selected. When we get home, we have several stacks to choose from. I love seeing our 8-year-old son grab one from the massive pile of books, start reading, and not want to put it down.

The other reason to bring home a lot of books is that every child will gravitate to something different. Some will relish the classics, others will want more scientific books. If you only bring home a bag full of one type of book you may find your son or daughter rejecting the whole lot. But throw in Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, a few missionary biographies (the Trailblazer series), a catalogue or encyclopedia-styled collection (think DK Eyewitness books), and a book of geography—or even better, Paddle to the Sea, or Pagoo, by Holling Clancy Holling—and they’re sure to find something that hooks them.

Vary the options and they’re likely to discover an author, genre, or style that suits them. This isn’t to say we should only give our children good books to read that they naturally love, but that beginning with such books will kindle their love of reading, making it more likely that they’ll stick with you when you suggest books outside of those they’d normally choose.

What our kids read matters. It matters greatly. The substance of a book will stay with them, will shape their thinking, and will be part of what forms their conscience. This summer, show them how delightful it is to read a book for pleasure, not because a teacher is requiring it of them. But don’t leave them to figure out for themselves what they’ll read. Gladys Hunt reminds us that “Children don’t stumble onto good books by themselves; they must be introduced to the wonder of words put together in such a way that they spin out pure joy and magic” (Honey for a Childs Heart, p. 14). Plan regular time to go to the library together in search of new treasures. And equip yourself with a faithful guide to the titles of beloved and worthy books.

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