I read recently that classic children’s literature is being removed from schools and school curriculum. Books like The Odyssey, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are now considered unsuitable for a child to read or to be taught. I take exception to this. There is great Children’s Literature out there and to be honest I don’t think that the books that claim to be written for children these days are not anything more than feel good shlock made for the child to feel ok about his or her own self as opposed to becoming self-aware that we all can always be improving. It has been said that once you stop changing you start dying. I think this is true. We are people that have been put on this planet to grow first outwardly and then inwardly. We start out being constantly in need and when we have grown old enough, we begin meeting the needs of others and this should never change.
There are some books that we should come across early in life that celebrate just letting a child be a child. Winnie The Pooh, Peter Pan and Tom Sawyer are three of these. Let’s take a look at these three classics.
Winnie The Pooh is heading toward his one hundredth birthday. He is 95 this year. AA Milne released the “silly old bear” on the world in 1926. I doubt there are very many children in the world who don’t know of this lovable bear. The reason, of course is the star treatment this character has gotten from The Walt Disney Studio since the 1960s. Disney, as much as I admire the work of Walt Disney did a bit of disservice to Pooh Bear. The book of his adventures is charming because they are not adventures at all. Winnie The Pooh never gets his honey as is depicted in the film Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. He really never accomplishes anything in the books, and he is perfectly content with that. His world is the world of the very young pre-school child who also plays at all kinds of imaginary games but never goes much further than his back yard.
Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, is an adventure for all the characters. Peter defeats Captain Hook and saves Wendy, John, and Michael. Here we see character development in Wendy, John, and Michael as they leave Neverland knowing they will grow up. In the book Peter’s lost boys go with Wendy and her brothers and are adapted by Wendy’s parents. Peter however stays the same. In the book and in the original play Peter comes back for Wendy and in a heart-breaking scene finds that she has grown up with a child of her own named Jane. Being heartless Peter takes Jane to Neverland and we are led to believe this will go on thru time.
Tom Sawyer is probably the most read of Mark Twain’s novels by younger people. But younger people were not his only target audience in his Preface he wrote: ‘Although this book is intended mainly for boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and how they felt and thought and talked and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in. – Hartford 1876
Mark Twain was not only writing for children but for adults too. Any children’s book worth its salt should be able to engage the adult as well as the child. In other words, it might be easy to read but the words and stories have depth to them that you have to look for in order to find them.
Tom Sawyer is like that. Here is a boy longing to hold on to his childhood but being slowly drawn into adulthood. He is a hero and an antihero at the same time. His friends Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn are names etched into our collective memory and it would be tragic if any of these names became forgotten.
As we grow older the world of children’s literature grows with us. We begin to have complex thoughts so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its charm and wit appeals to us. We make friends, some of which will be life long and so The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham makes sense to us as there are no better friends in literature then Mole Rat Toad and Badger. Our minds begin to solve problems and we begin to learn more complex math and language skills. Even at this stage there is a book, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
Most of the books mentioned in the last paragraph, in fact I think all of the books in this Blog have been made into movies, but they weren’t good movies. The screen writers took liberties with all the books and cut out some of the best parts. There is a stop motion animation version of The Wind in the Willows that is well worth seeing. And the 1970s adaptation of Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker is also worth watching. Still parts are left out and there is nothing like the book.
One book that captured my imagination in the fifth grad was My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. Sam Gribley, a city born boy, learns to live on the land his grandfather bought in the Catskill Mountains. That book was mostly novel, but it also taught you how to fish and other practical camping secrets. I am no great outdoorsman, but I love a good adventure and Sam striking out on his own, building a house inside a tree and taming a falcon to help him hunt food had everything a boy could want.
There are other books that I wish I had read when I was younger but was glad, I discovered them as an adult. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a great American novel. I don’t really see it as a book for children alone. It is about four sisters growing up and sharing hard times as well as fighting and making up. It’s really about the idea that if real love exists in a family, you can conquer the worst of times.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is another book that teaches fundamentals of life. Those lessons are that hard work, and healthy habits are what you need to lead a good life. It helps that it is set in an old castle on the desolate Yorkshire moors with strange secrets.
Robert Lewis Stevenson gave us the greatest high seas adventure of all time when he wrote Treasure Island. Treasure maps, pirates, tall ships, men with one eye or leg and black spots thrill the imagination. There is a very good film version of this book starring Christian Bale and Charlton Heston. I still believe it is more fun to read the book first and see the film afterward.
Now we come to the father of modern fantasy the great JRR Tolkien. While professor Tolkien was grading papers, or so the story goes, he wrote on the back of one of the exam books, “Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” And the world would never be the same.
The Hobbit was published on September 21, 1937. It became a popular book for children and Professor Tolkien found that he had very strong base of enthusiasts for his book. The story of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to aid the 13 dwarves to get their gold back from the dragon Smaug took the reader into a new land of Middle Earth and they didn’t want to leave.
I first came upon the book when I spent the night at my Aunt Mary’s house. It was sometimes in the 70s and I can’t remember why I was there. I was put in my cousin Steve’s old room. Steve is ten years older than me, and he was already married. I was rummaging through the bookshelf and found The Hobbit. I started it but of course couldn’t finish it all in one night and asked if I could have it. Steve had left it behind and as anyone knows treasure that is left behind is free for whom ever finds it. My Aunt Mary said “no”, but I could borrow it. So, I did and was transported myself to the best of the fantasy worlds.
I remember the first time I read the book of having a dream where the dwarves came to me and in one way or another invited me to go with them. I remember pickaxes and ropes and climbing but that’s about all. The Hobbit had a hold of my sub-conscious mind as well as my conscious mind.
If you look at the title of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, you’ll find that it is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Tolkien, who was, to put simply, a professor of languages, decided that that was not the way to spell Dwarfs and changed it in his book to dwarves. It has remained that way ever since.
Tolkien got letter after letter asking for information about hobbits and Middle Earth. It would take him almost 20 years to publish The Lord of the Rings the first book of the sequel, The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in July of 1954. The other two books in the trilogy would follow, The Two Towers in November of 1954 and The Return of the King October of 1955. These books probably surprised his readers. The light touch of The Hobbit was slowly pulled away and a darker scarier world was revealed. Tolkien had gone form writing books for children to writing books for both children and adults.
With the publication at the subsequent popularity of The Lord of the Rings books of fantasy were no longer just in the realm of children’s literature but squarely in the world of books for adults too. And those adults who cherished the memory of going to Wonderland with Alice now would have books that led them into strange new worlds of adventure and excitement.
I would be remiss in not mentioning here CS Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis was a friend of Tolkien and an atheist. The story goes that one day the two friends took a walk. They both loved the old myths and legends of ancient times and Tolkien explained to Lewis that Christianity and Jesus redemptive work on the cross was the one true myth. This argument convinced Lewis that Jesus was all that he said he was and that the Gospel’s were true. He became an ardent follower of Jesus and wrote many books for adults on Christianity. Mere Christianity is Lewis’s explanation of The Christian Faith. The Four Loves is an explanation of the four Greek words for love and how they interact with Christianity. Surprised by Joy is his memoir. All these books are great for adults but his work for children may well out last anything else he wrote.
CS Lewis once said “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now That I am 50, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” He also said, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” In Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, he gave us, in seven books, the history of Narnia from its creation to its end. He also gave us many characters to know and love. First the children who find their way from our world into Narnia and then the inhabitants of Narnia itself, Prince Caspian, Reepicheep, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Father Christmas himself.
The Narnia books are more than fantasies. They are in many ways allegorical to the Christian faith. Many people come away from reading these books with their faith strengthened and commitment to Christ renewed. Others who read them see no connection at all between Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia and in that I believe you see the genius of CS Lewis.
There are so many other books that in children’s Literature that I could mention but if I did, we would be here for weeks on end. The Harry Potter books that grew up with the readers as they originally were published. Aesop’s Fables which seem to have disappeared in these days but when I was child held valuable lessons and still do if they are sought out. Then there are the books of legends, The Greek God’s and Heroes and The Norse Gods and Goddesses. Then there is The Matter of Britain better known as The Story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and we cannot leave off this list The Adventures of Robin Hood. The there are the fairy tales those collected by The Brothers Grimm and those written by Hans Christian Anderson these are some of the tales that Lewis was speaking of when he said there would be a time when we are old enough to read fairy tales again.
One last thought somewhere in the late 1800’s L Frank Baum decided that American children had no fairy tales of their own. Oh, we had our legends, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and The Headless Horseman to name a few but no magical fairy stories. In 1900 Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and gave America it’s first fantasy. Baum would go on to write 15 Oz books all truly delightful tales and all for American children, though, of course, the books would go on to delight children around the world.
I started this as a call to arms not to allow classic children’s literature to disappear from our schools and libraries. Our kids shouldn’t be deprived of the lessons these books teach and adults should be at the forefront of the fight reading these books again and digesting the simple yet profound messages almost every one of these books teach.