Shouldn't Children's Books Still Be Beautiful?
Rebellion against some of the least humanity-friendly aspects of modernity
This Weekend Edition of Ecstatic features Nadya Williams
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
Yes, in case you are wondering, the above excerpt simply describes a mole cleaning up his home, and it's just plain beautiful writing. For a children’s book. About animals.
Indeed, you may have recognized the book in question: these are the opening sentences of Kenneth Grahame’s gorgeous Wind in the Willows, the most recent read-aloud book I got to enjoy with my kids. We usually have a couple of books that we are reading aloud together, about a chapter at a time. It takes us a couple of weeks or a bit longer even to finish each one, but this slow reading allows us to savor these books. And in this case, from the very beginning, savoring has been the mode.
We sometimes forget this, living in our pressure-cooker industrial-paced world, but we all, as human beings, have been created to crave and love beauty. It is, indeed, one of the features wired into us through the imago Dei. We love beauty because our Creator loves it and has created a world that is filled with it.
It is perhaps because of the beauty of the language that, as I have been reading this book, I found myself wondering: why do writers not write like this anymore? Indeed, it is a concern not only for children’s books but ones for adults also. I recently tried reading a very highly reviewed best-selling novel published in the past couple of years. I gave up after about fifty pages. Neither the subject matter nor the language seemed beautiful. Quite the opposite, rather. It was all, at the risk of sounding overly snobbish, utterly pedestrian, vulgar, unpleasant in all the mundane and uninspiring ways. Not even the general plot premise, quite interesting and creative though it was, could keep my attention at the end or convince me that this book would prove edifying in toto.
Perhaps not every book we read will fill us with a “spirit of divine discontent and longing,” but maybe more books in our lives should live up to this standard. For parents, such a goal is particularly significant: what we read with our children matters, because our time with them is so short, and how we spend it will form their tastes and character for life.
It may sound dramatic and, indeed, somewhat stress-inducing, but our children are only little for a brief window, a mere blink of an eye, we say in wonder as we reflect on the years that fly by. Should we not form them, therefore, from the very beginning to love beauty, wonder, and the transcendent? What if we placed this as a goal for educating them, especially in the early years?
Such a goal does require conscious thought about selecting books, and not for the reasons that those waging the anti-woke library wars propose. Rather, perhaps we should worry more about the dumbing down of language and content in too many books these days. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I walked into a large chain bookstore, on a mission to find a Father’s Day present for my husband. I was thinking of getting a nice book that he could enjoy reading to our then one-year-old. When I described to a salesclerk what I was looking for, she proudly showed me the new release the store was actively pushing: Jimmy Fallon’s Dada.
I vaguely knew who Jimmy Fallon was. To be honest, the book’s contents did little to excite me to learn anything further about him—at the very least, it left me underwhelmed with his writing. Fiction book reviews often might include a disclaimer that there are (or are not) plot spoilers ahead. In this case, however, there is nothing to spoil, for there is no plot. There is, really, nothing of substance to this book. To be fair, someone might object that it is designed for infants. True, but does this mean a book ought to have no words, no beauty, no glimpse of glory at all? What does this say of our view of children’s intellect?
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Do we not care to offer something greater for our children? Previous generations of writers and parents certainly did. From Alice in Wonderland to Winnie the Pooh to Peter Rabbit to We’re Going On a Bear Hunt to The Little Prince to the Narnia books, the best children’s books offer words that delight even the youngest listeners, rejoicing over the very sound of beauty spoken by a parent’s voice before they have a framework to know much else besides the security of presence and love. Then, as infancy gives way to toddlerhood and beyond, the beauty of the best books continues to delight through plot nd character, in addition to the sound of the words. Finally, as children grow older, the deeper message of such books offers more intellectual food to chew. Yes, Peter Rabbit’s misadventures or those of Toad in Wind in the Willows are certainly funny, but maybe I don’t want to do what he did, a child might think. Or he might realize at some point, perhaps when a bit older, that so much of life is just like every stage in the Bear Hunt: “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Uh oh, we have to go through it.”
The idea of children’s literature is, in and of itself, a relatively recent phenomenon, I was reminded of this while reading aloud with my children George MacDonald’s delightfully strange (and oh-so-beautiful!) children’s book The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, The Princess and Curdy. MacDonald, indeed, was a pioneer of such literature, historian Timothy Larsen notes. His work is deeply theological—as befits the Scottish theologian that he was—and has overt moral overtones. The good and the wicked reap their just rewards. Furthermore, both the good and the wicked are readily known by their fruit and even by the very touch of their hands.