children's books, genres, homeschool

On morals in children’s books

In addition to books we are reading individually, I like the idea of having something we are reading aloud together. Over the years, we’ve had some very memorable experiences reading aloud. The Wind in the Willows was a particular favorite, as well as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and more recently Peter Pan.

Currently, our read aloud book is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women is interesting in that the morality and lessons to be learned from the daughters’ struggles are laid bare; often complete with a sermonette from their mother.  I myself am not particularly fond of what is known as “preachy” entertainment, but in this book, I have determined that the detours are a net advantage to the story. I and my children rather enjoy the brief, overt moments in the book which extol virtue, but not everyone does.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to muse on this issue of “preachy” or overt morality presented in children’s books as writers far more articulate than me have tackled the subject. First, Krysta at Pages Unbound makes the very astute point that despite any protestations, most people do prefer children’s books with moral. Indeed, the problem most people have with the older children’s books is not that they are overtly moral, but that the morals presented are out of step with our postmodern sensibilities and current morality.

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

She is absolutely correct. In fact, our moral lessons of today actively discourage cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic if those virtues in any way conflict with our ability to be a confident individual. Hence, it’s not particularly hard to see why Little Women’s overt moral lessons might be offensive to contemporary readers.

Additionally, there is the presumption that Marmee, the mother of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, offers her lessons and sermonettes in a way that is unrealistic or stilted. I find the assertion curious as it is not at all unusual in our home for events to evolve into teaching lessons complete with reminders of what our faith and the rules of our family demand. Our children seem to connect with, enjoy, and be enriched by those moments. we do our kids a disservice when we project our hardened resistance to being influenced to a higher standard onto them. The teachable, open hearts of children are much more receptive to such messages than adults tend to be.

In addition to Krysta’s post, there is another well presented argument in defense of preachy children’s books by Lindsay Brigham Knott at Circe Institute. One of the thoughts she offered is our error in presuming that children’s books are to be read solely for entertainment in the first place:

As near as I can tell, the arguments against preachy children’s stories range from shallow to significant. On the shallow end is the argument that children will, by nature, “tune out” anything that smacks of a sermon. The following excerpt (again, compliments of Google) typifies this argument:

Adults patronize kids almost all day, so as an adult ourselves, it is too easy to make this mistake. The key here is to make your point without going too preachy or didactic. Nothing can turn children off faster than a lecture, or worse, a moral lesson. Kids want to be entertained and delighted. The first thing you can do is erase the words moral, teach, message, and lesson out of your vocabulary. Instead, trust your readers to figure it out through the storyline and actions that your characters take. Another tip is to keep authoritative figures, like parents, teachers, or older siblings, in the background. Lastly, never let the adults in the story tell what the main character should do. Remember, it is a sin to preach in fiction.

I shall let that argument stand for itself, and not belabor a rebuttal; anyone already committed to classical education likely does not need to be convinced that kids’ desire for entertainment should not determine the content of their reading, nor that authoritative figures ought to be honored rather than stuffed in the closet.

Over the course of the recently ended school year, our 11-year-old, in her fulfilled assignment of writing a short story, was admonished by her teacher that her story didn’t direct the reader to draw a conclusion with regard to the behavior of her characters. Because I was stuck on my concern that it sounded so much like a Disney movie, that particular aspect of her presentation eluded me.

Rather than ask her what she wanted to convey, I read the story again, and again was struck with the notion that the problems inherent in the behavior of the characters was evident because of the troubles their decisions wrought. The fact that there was no overarching, ultimate consequence could certainly be perceived as problematic.

However, on the heels of having read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which was also very matter of fact in its presentation of behavior and consequences, I was prepared to accept my daughter’s presentation as valid. What to do about the canned plot development is another issue.

It left me wondering what positions others general have when it comes to presenting morality and life lessons in children’s books.

What say you?

 

 

 

 

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educational, homeschool, philosophy

An Ongoing Conversation

Someone thought I was equipped -dare I say intelligent enough?- to entrust with  leadership in one of the rooms where a segment of The Grand Conversation is being unfolded. That’s my fancy way of saying that for a remunerative pittance, I have agreed to teach a class at a level of academic accountabilty and rigor that is beyond the standard cooperative that springs to mind when most people think of homeschooling.

Of course, we’ve never been engaged in what typically springs to mind when one considers Chrisitan homeschooling as it was done by the pioneers who paved the way 30-40 years ago.

The good news is that it’s in a subject that I have steadily grown in appreciate of and passion for. The bad news is that it’s in a subject where there isn’t a cohesive and developmentally appropriate collection of material and curriculum for the grade level I am teaching. This means I am in the process of building one from the ground up. If I was simply interested in the disseminating of information, this would be a piece of cake.

However, as a family who has enbraced the Classical philosophy of education, we view every subject as interconnected and woven together in such a way that the whole person is fed; not ony intellectually, but spiritually, emotionally, and rationally. In effect, a true education is simply the beginning of a conversation on the lifelong journey to discover truth, beauty, and the strands which connect the past, present, and future to eternity.  Building a curriculum and itinerary that disseminates the facts and information in a way that brings the subjec to life, connecting it to the whole is daunting, even as I feel relatively confident that it is doable.

Despite that confidence, some inspiration is helpful and I can always count on finding educational inspiration when I click on Circe Institute. And since I am relatively certain that anyone who reads this relatively mundane corner of the web is equally interested in intellectual stimulation and the wider conversation, I figured it would be fitting to share the links from Circe which inspired me over the past few days as I began my project.

The first is Round is a Shape, by Lindsey Brigham Knott. My favorite excerpt:

And then come the genetic tendencies and environmental factors—hardest of all to discern, diagnose, and deliver care. As anyone knows who has struggled with allergies or autoimmune disease, bodies are mysterious things, and what nourishes one person’s health may destroy another’s. This mystery is encountered in the classroom, too: even when a uniform diet, lifestyle, and exercise can be enforced upon students, these will not affect them all in the same ways. Some students complete assignments decently, are fairly obedient at home, and seem like generally good kids, but never approach the zeal and love that, like the glow of health, are the marks of being truly fit in soul. Some students reject all we have sought to teach them, set out to discover the truth they think we’ve denied them, and then, like Chesterton discovering Britain, eventually learn in the only way they ever could have done that it was all true after all, and give to it their hard-won love.

From the uniqueness of every student’s soul flows the mystery and wonder of the teaching vocation; its unruly currents and unforeseen eddies often frustrate our best efforts to direct them in an even course, but to dredge and straighten the stream would be to kill its bubbling inner life. Only wisdom, patience, and prayer can finally aid the teacher who seeks the health of her students’ souls.

The next is Do not read that now; You will read it in 5th grade by Joshua Gibbs, which is heavily relatable as our 4th grader has already read many books that she will encounter or be assigned in the next couple of years:

If an elementary school student is a voracious reader, he will often set his eyes on books which are part of school curriculum from forthcoming years. His teachers or parents will say to a 3rd or 4th grader, “Oh, don’t read that book yet. You’ll read it in 5th grade.” But often enough, this is unfortunate advice.

I will grant that some books are thrill rides and mysteries best experienced for the first time in community. The same is true of films. If a room full of people is watching The Game or Memento and no one in the room has seen the movie except one fellow, that fellow will likely ruin it for everyone else with pointed sighs and gasps and repeated claims of, “This all makes so much more sense the second time through.” No one can stand that fellow.

That said, everything does make more sense the second time through, which is a thoroughly classical point to make to students, and very few children’s books contain twist endings. Barring one-off stories with unusual endings, I see no reason to tell 3rd graders not to read 5th grade curriculum simply because “you will read that in two years”, and here’s why:

You can read the “why” over at Circe Institute.

Whether your kids are homeschooled, traditional schooled, or like our kids, hov’ring somewhere in the middle, we are all probably experiencing a bit of spring fever and anticipating the respite of summer. I hope this bit of educational inspiration helps us to hang in there and finish our school year strong.

Happy Monday!

 

 

 

children's books, fiction, homeschool, joys of reading, just for fun, tales from the local library

Picture Book Bonanza!

Our 9-year-old is one of the sharpest tools in the shed. Mother wit is not her strongest suit (we’re working on that), but she was blessed with a hefty bit of cognitive fire power.

I don’t just say that about all of my children. We tend to be very open and honest about gifts, talents, abilities, and how the Giver of all gifts does things the way He does for a reason. There’s a point to this particular line of thought, and it is wholly centered around books.

During our recent trip to the library, the kid surprised me by making a beeline for the picture book section. Since she has read chapter books alongside picture books from the time she was 6 or 7,  I figured she might find picture books less worthy of her time and attention. It turns out that a full school year of reading great literature, even though enjoying it,  gave her a craving for some light-hearted, brightly colored picture books.

After readng them to herself, and reading them with her 11-year-old sister, she wasn’t quite read to return them to the library until she’d had the pleasure of my voice reading them to her. I am very glad we took the time to do that, because these were all very enjoyable books:

 

phobe sounds it out

The fun thing about these books is that they were books I would never would have chosen on my own, since none of them meet the standard guidelines I tend to use when picking out children’s books.

The other interesting thing I noted was how often she gravitated towards boks with characters who looked like her. Although only two of the books listed here met that criteria, she looked at quite a few.

The lesson I took away from this excursion was that no matter how “advanced” kids are, they’re still kids, and they like kid things. Such as brightly colored picture books!

autobiographies, Christian, homeschool, Uncategorized

The Hiding Place

hiding place cover

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom. Originally published in 1971. 241 pages.

This review, like the one before it, is of a book one of our kids was assigned as a part of a literature and writing course. I was already very familiar with Corrie ten Boom’s -and her family’s- story. So familiar in fact, that it had escaped me all these years that I had never actually read her story. Her memoir, recounting the story has inspired countless Christians since she originally penned it with the help of authors John and Elizabeth Sherrill, who learned of her while writing about another Dutch Christian, Andrew van der Bijl.

Here is the Cliff’s notes version, for those who may not have heard the story. During WWII Corrie ten Boom, along with her entire family and at great personal risk and cost, opened their homes up as a hiding place for the Jews who were being rounded up after the German invasion of Holland in 1940. As a result of their efforts, they themselves were rounded up, imprisoned, suffered many hardships and suffering. Corrie’s father, and later her sister, both died in German prisons before Europe was liberated and the war ended.

The real story here, for those who’ve read the book (or seen the movie), is the depth of the Christian faith and resolute foundation of God’s word on which the ten Boom family was built long before the war began. It was this faith that permeated the entire story, moved the ten Boom family to compassion rather than hatred of their invaders, and catapulted Corrie and her story into the history books.

Our daughter has decided that Corrie ten Boom is an inspiration and someone whose faith she would do well to emulate. I wholeheartedly agree with her sentiments. However despite the fame and accolades that were poured onto Corrie as a result of her survival and story being retold, there is plenty of faith, love and hope to be found not only in Corrie’s story, but in that of her brother, father, extended family, and most of all her sister Betsie with whom Corrie served most of years of hard labor in the German prison.

It would be nearly impossible for me to do this memoir the justice it deserves in the contest of a 50 word book review, and to add anything more would be to risk politicizing or trivializing a moving and compelling book; one from which the love of Christ, far more important than the details of the occupation, drips from every page. I highly recommend this book, and although I wish I had read it sooner, I’m happy to have read it late than never at all.

 

 

 

Grade: A

 

children's books, fiction, homeschool, Uncategorized

The Samurai’s Tale

samurai's tale

The Samurai’s Tale, by Erik Christian Haugaard. Originally published in 1984, 256 pages.

This, like many of the books I’ve read over the past several months, is a book I only read becuase it was assigned to one of our children as a literature assignment. It has been a pleasure to read these book in a way that does not describe the books our public schooled middle schoolers were assigned to read. This year has been one filled with books which fully meet the standard of C.S. Lewis’ famous quote about stories worth reading.

The Samurai’s Tale is a novel set in feudal Japan, and begins when our hero Taro, is a four-year-old boy whose powerful samurai father, along with his mother and brothers, are killed by a rival samurai in the fierce struggle for Japanese power. His mother, before her death stripped Taro of his costly, regal clothing, dressed him up as a servant, and concealed him in a box. Her aim of hiding the truth of his lineage in an attempt to spare his life was successful. The warlord, amused by Taro’s mettle as he rushes out to defend his home, takes him under his wing as a servant.  So begins Taro’s long, tumultuous journey as the vassal and liege of the powerful samurai Lord Akiyama.

Reading along as a witness to the tale Erik Haugaard has woven was at times sad, and others harrowing, but was never boring. The realism of the story was refreshing as well as unsettling.  Many wrters would have Taro grow up under Lord Akiyama waiting for the day that he could avenge his family’s death. Haugaard however, offers us a more true to life scenario, one in which Taro’s loyalty to Lord Akiyama increases the longer he is with him and he grows into a faithful young samurai warrior to his liege lord.

The Buddhist religion loomed large throughout the book, and was another angle that offered opportunity to explore and compare belief systems. Haugaard offered an interesting aside concerning different competing sects within the religion which to us sounded eerily familiar to the kinds of schisms and battles which take place in Christianity as well.

Our daughter found that the book moved too slowly for her at times. The overall narrative was interesting to her and several of Taro’s experiences motivated interesting conversations. It was not her favorite of the books read this year, but neither was it her least favorite.

I liked it, but I concede that it would likely have been a less than exciting book for me to read when I was 11 years old. I was impressed with the issues and writing she produced from the reading given the fact that she was less than enamored with the book. The grade being offered however, is based on my review. I’ll add hers as an addendum.

Grade: B+ (the kid gave it a ‘C’)

Content advisory: war and violence.

Age range: 9+ (or 5th grade and up)

 

 

children's books, fiction, homeschool, novels, Uncategorized

A Wrinkle in Time

wrinkle in time

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeliene L’Engle. Originally published in 1962. 228 pages.

While Peter Pan was our 4th grader’s latest literature class assigned book, this was our 6th grader’s most recently assigned literature book. I think I was the only mother in the class who hadn’t read it as a girl, but I’ve read it now and I’m glad I did.

While the dominant motif of this story is quite familiar, Madeliene L’Engle presented it in a fresh way that was sure to appeal to her young readers in 1962. It was a time of domestic and international political tensions paralleled with a transformation of cultural norms and mores aimed specifically at the youth of that era. As I read it I wondered how the younglings of that time viewed it compared to the young readers today. It is a book with timeless themes, like any one still worth reading 56 years after it was originally introduced to the public.

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of the Murry family, whose father has disappeared for the last two years. No one knows exactly where he is or when he will return. His wife, Mrs. Murry, along with their four children: Meg, twins Sandy and Dennys, and the younest and most exceptional Charles Wallace, are an oddity and source of gossip in their community for a variety of reasons.

Meg, the Murry’s teenage daughter, is the central character through whose lens the reader views most of what occurs. Charles Wallace, largely regarded by the townspeople as a dunce due to his self-imposed silence, is exceptionally intelligent and insightful but keeps this knowledge between himself and his family. Until the nearly equally exceptional Calvin O’Keefe joins him and Meg on an adventure to save the world from a darkness which trying to absorb everyone into itself and make the world a place of one consciousness and “unity”, but void of uniqueness.

They get a little help along the way from three immortal beings known only as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. These are three colorful, quirky characters whom only Charles Wallace really understand. You’ll have to read the book for more lest I spoil the plot and the ending.

One of my favorite passages, which captures the heart of the story, is this:

“But a planet can also become dark because of “too strong a desire for security … the greatest evil there is.” Meg resists her father’s analysis. What’s wrong with wanting to be safe? Mr. Murry insists that “lust for security” forces false choices and a panicked search for safety and conformity. This reminded me that my grandmother would get very annoyed when anyone would talk about “the power of love.” Love, she insisted, is not power, which she considered always coercive. To love is to be vulnerable; and it is only in vulnerability and risk—not safety and security—that we overcome darkness.”

Grade: A-

Age level: 10+, though as usual, I am open to a different take. These books are a part of a series, and as I read the next two, I hope to review them here.

 

 

 

children's books, fiction, homeschool, iconic characters

Peter Pan

peter pan

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie. Originally published in 1902. 151 pages.

This book was assigned to our fourth grader, who is a very strong reader, but the language and some of the themes have proven to be a bit more advanced than 4th and 5th grade. She is still reading through the book, reading the chapters as assigned by her teacher, but I forged ahead and finished the book. Firstly because I found it thoroughly enjoyable, but also because it will be easier to work through the narrations with our student having familiarized myself with the story.

The interesting thing about this book is that it is far less innocent and far more intense than the Disney-tized version of Peter Pan most of us were exposed to from chidlhood. This one is more violent, with more mature themes. It does contain a mixture of adventure and whimsy missing from the Peter Pan I was famliar with, however.

This quote from Peter, however, is the common thread we are all familiar with, and was one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“I’m youth, I’m joy, I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”
The characters were all engaging and entertaining, and even the villains, such as the pirate Smee, confidante and first mate to the fearsome yet ironically cultured Captain Hook, were the types that stick with you long after you close the last page.
Peter, the ultimate bad boy crew leader, was the character you rooted for because you were supposed to, but was not without less than endearing qualities. His Lost Boys were wonderfully innocent and faithful to him, while all of the female characters surrounding Peter were written with a coquettishness that was completely lost on Peter Pan. Nevertheless, Peter seemed to know exactly when and how to exploit the affection his charges and the ladies (Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and Wendy) felt for him.
At the end of it all is the great and violent showdown between Peter and his Lost Boys and Hook and his pirates. Peter is the ultimate victor, while Wendy, John and Michael wrapped up their adventure, and headed home to their griefstricken parents. Parents who had kept a window open in anticipation of their return one day. J.M. Barrie had an interesting way of expressing what the narrator considered the heartlessness of the three children who flew away on an indefinite adventure, leaving their parents behind to fret:
Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked.
I found that quite funny, second only to Wendy’s exasperation with being the mother to the Lost Boys (Peter was their “father”):
Oh dear, I am sure I sometimes think spinsters are to be envied!
She says this several times, and although I heartily disagree with her, it is funny nonetheless.
There is actually plenty to be said about this book, but I recommend that you take the time to read it yourself as it is enjoyable on many levels. It is a perfect example of this quote from C.S. Lewis which I have always loved:
No book is worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally -and often more- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.
Grade: A
Age range for this book,which is the original, unabridged version I’d put at 12+. I chose that not because of reading ability, but because of the violent content, adult language (nothing overly offensive, but still), and general level of maturity required to appreciate the themes and subtexts of the book.