My darling friend Lauren is starting a blog about fairy tales which I'm very excited about. Our conversations prompted me to reference a few of the books that were instrumental to shaping my views and ideology about teaching children literature.
E. Nesbit 1913
E. Nesbit (who is known for her many children’s books such as Five Children and It) is spot on in her descriptions of how children learn and their glorious capacity for curiosity. There is no book closer to my heart and my own philosophies than Wings and the Child.
She addresses current education (circa 1913) that speaks so clear to today’s. “In the inner nature, in the soul and self of it, each child is different from any other child, and the education that treats children as a class and not as individual human beings is the education whose failure is bringing our civilization about our ears even as we speak.”
She implores parents and teachers to “remember the world of small and new and joyous and delightful things.” For, she explains, “what sort of poetry do you get from one who has forgotten beauty and sorrow, and the Spring, and how it feels to be young and a lover? And if the people who have the care of children have forgotten what it feels like to be a child, those who do remember should remind them. They should be reminded how it feels to be not so very much higher than the table, how it feels not to be so clever as you are now, and so much more interested in so much more- how it feels to believe in things and in people as you did when you were new to the journey of life- to explore every road you came to, to trust every person you met.”
Nesbit addresses playthings, the nature of toys and the kinds of toys that encourage growth and imagination in children. She is particularly inspired in her chapter about storytelling. “To the child, from the beginning, life is the unfolding of one vast mystery.” Why not indulge children in the stories of magic and fantasy, in fact Nesbit argues, it is even necessary to do so.
“The child believes of these wonders likewise. Why not? If very big men live in Patagonia, why should not very little men live in flower-bells? If electricity can move unseen through the air, why not carpets? The child’s memory becomes a storehouse of beautiful and wonderful things which are or have been in the visible universe, or in that greater universe, the mind of man. Life will teach the child, soon enough, to distinguish between the two.
Imagination, duly fostered and trained, is to the world of visible wonder and beauty what the inner light is to the Japanese lantern. It transfigures everything into a glory that is only magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.
But Mr. Gradgrind prefers the lantern unlighted. Material facts are good enough for him. Until it comes to religion. And then, suddenly, the child who has been forbidden to believe in Jack the Giant Killer must believe in Goliath and David. There are no fairies, but you must believe that there are angels. The magic sword and the magic buckler are nonsense, but the child must not have any doubts about the breastplate of righteousness and the sword of the Spirit. What spiritual reaction do you expect when, after denying all the symbolic stories and legends, you suddenly confront your poor little Materialist with the Most Wonderful Story in the world?
If I had my way, children should be taught no facts unless they asked for them. Heaven knows they ask questions enough. They should just be taught the old wonder-stories, and learn their facts through these. Who wants to know about pumpkins until he has heard Cinderella? Why not tell the miracle of Jonah first, and let the child ask about the natural history of the whale afterwards, if he cares to hear it.”
Nesbit’s philosophy is as close to my heart as could be. Her views of Beauty and Knowledge in relation to teaching children are exactly what I have grown up with and by instinct have lived my life with my own children. “To show a child beautiful things, and to answer as well all the questions he will ask about them, to charm and thrill his imagination with pictures and statues and models of the wonders of the world, to familiarize the child with beauty, so that he knows ugliness when he meets it, and hates it for the outrage it is to the beauty he has known and lived ever since he was very little- this is worth doing.”
She even addresses putting down roots in your home and community. “A certain solidness of character, a certain quiet force and confidence grow up naturally the man who lives all his life in one house, grows all the flowers of his life in one garden. To plant a tree and know that if you live and tend it, you will gather fruit from it; that if you set out a thorn-hedge, it will be a fine thing when your little son has grown to be a man.”
“When people’s lives were rooted in their houses and their gardens they were also rooted in their other possessions. And these possessions were thoughtfully chosen and carefully tended. You bought furniture to live with, and for your children to live with after you. You became familiar with it- it was adorned with memories, brightened with hopes; it, like your house and your garden, assumed then a warm friendliness of intimate individuality.”
Interestingly the later chapters delve into creating "magic cities" out of building materials such as blocks and tiles.
Mary Margaret Keaton 2005
During a library conference I became acquainted with this resourceful book whose title says it all. The speaker at the seminar I attended was discussing the merits of children's literature (particularly secular) in the framework of teaching Christian morals and faith. If for some reason you are hesitant to encourage secular storytelling to your children, read this book. Keaton is extremely well read and introduces the reader to the importance of Story.
“In story, we restore the mystery that leads to intimacy with God. That face- God’s face- which we seek is concealed from immediate view, and in story we venture to find it and recognize it through the power of our imaginations. When we parents share story with our children, we encourage their delight in the beauty of God’s creation, which remains ongoing around us, and we foster an attitude of wonder that our children can carry with them into a mature faith.
Created in God’s image and carrying God’s message within us, we are a people of the Word who participate in God’s ongoing creation through words.”
“Story carries us to a place away from our immediate reality. From that fresh outlook, and assisted by our imaginations, we can examine our own little world- filled with its personalities, situations, problems, and mysteries. We can secretly and safely sort out our feelings and ideas about life and begin to interpret them. When the themes we discover in this process help us to understand Truth and Beauty, even if it is by examining their absence in evil, story has taken us to an experience of the divine.”
“Even if a story’s message differs from Christian principles, it still holds value because it offers us an opportunity to think about what we believe and how we view the world.”
I suspect if more people (maybe Christians in particular) thought like this, there would be fewer outcries for certain books to be banned or censured. Keaton reminds the reader that Jesus spoke in parables, he told stories about everyday people in everyday and often messy situations. She believes that the Spirit is still speaking to us through stories and we can use these stories in current media, books in particular, to encourage, enlighten, examine and inspire both imagination and faith in our children.
Keaton takes examples from many popular books. She highlights some, giving author background, a synopsis and the “Seeds of the Gospel”- Keaton’s impressions of the faith lessons that can be gleaned from the story. She then includes an extensive list of book titles divided into categories such as family and belonging, perseverance, responsibility, pride, human dignity, death and loss, etc…
For any Christian parent or teacher or librarian, this book is an absolute must for your library!