(Photo: Sue Careless)
*Just don’t tell them it’s a classic
By Sue Careless
No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not worth reading at the age of fifty. – C.S. Lewis
A book read aloud is a book better remembered especially if the reading took place in childhood. – Wm. Henry Chamberlain
WHAT AN AMAZING gift we can give to the children in our lives by sharing with them a classic from children’s literature. And if we want to offer an experience, not just an object, why not read the volume aloud to them? Settle down beside a winter’s fire or a summer pond and open to them – and reopen to yourself – books that have stood the test of time.
Too often we stop reading aloud to children when they start reading for themselves. And we cheat ourselves and them of some great times together. Johanna Spyri said Heidi was “for children and those who love children.”
“Good books are written not so much for children as written by people who have not lost their childhood,” writes Gladys Hunt in her fine work Honey for a Child’s Heart.
Lest you think no child today, especially a boy, would part with his electronic games to hear a novel read aloud, consider this. Whenever my husband reads from one of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books (written well over a century ago) to a Cub pack of rambunctious eight- to eleven-year-old boys, you’d be able to hear the proverbial pin drop. And these boys, all of whom play computer games, always beg for another chapter.
We need to distinguish between the reading level and listening level of a book. The listening level is the level at which a child can hear and understand the story, not when she can read it for herself. The beauty of reading aloud is that you can introduce the listeners to more complex narratives and characters, words and ideas than they can read for themselves.
Let’s look first at fiction for nine- to twelve-year-olds, those in grades three through six. Such children should be reading by now but most won’t be at a very advanced level. It would be rather unfair to give a child who can just manage one of Robert Clyde Bulla’s clear but simple short novels like Sword in the Tree (grade two reading level) a copy of a full length novel like Heidi or Treasure Island and expect her to read it by herself. It will probably gather dust on a shelf. But together you can both enjoy it.
If possible, try to find editions that contain the wonderful illustrations of N.C. Wyeth or Garth Williams, Tasha Tudor or Jessie Wilcox Smith, thus delighting both ear and eye.
Hunt, in her sequel Honey for a Teen’s Heart: Using Books to Communicate with Teens, offers lists of books that would work well as father-and-son read-alouds and others for a mother and daughter to share. Some communities now hold mother and daughter book clubs.
On long drives the whole family can enjoy audio books dramatically read by professional actors. If audio books are too expensive to purchase, encourage your local library to stock them.
Some grandparents who live far from their grandchildren record themselves reading a picture or chapter book and then send the recording to their grandchild, along with the book. With Skype the reading can happen in real time.
A child needs to sample different genres: adventure and suspense, wit and whimsy, contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, romance, and historical fiction, even if he settles into one or two particular types.
Some parents may be dubious about fantasy, especially for the older child. Yet like the biblical parables, fantasy can reveal great truths.
G.K. Chesterton said: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Hunt warns: “Our natural tendency, if we have a belief system ourselves, is to indoctrinate our children – tell them what to believe. That is good and bad. It is good because we are hopefully recounting great truths; it is bad because it may only give a Christian veneer. A second option is to explore ideas and truths through books, asking questions that lead to truth.”
Anglican Beverly Boissery, the author of the Sophie Trilogy, has said: “I want to make kids yearn for a life with God without weighing books down with a gospel formula. Formulas for the gospel are easy to find, but the yearning is not.”
Katherine Patterson, award-winning writer of Road to Terabithia, says: “The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like a fancy dress.”
“I felt life first as a story,” said G.K. Chesterton, “and if there is a story, there is a storyteller.”
“How do we help children recognize the Storyteller?” asks Manya Egerton. “If a yearning for the good, the true, the beautiful and eternal has been nurtured through the reading of books then children can more easily recognize the One who is all goodness, all truth, all beauty and eternal life.”
Egerton and Beth Allen are Vancouver Anglicans who give talks on the impact of children’s books on a child’s emotional development and spiritual formation. Egerton maintains:
“The more children have the opportunity to actively engage in the inter-working of stories, the more ready I believe they will be to actively engage with the biblical narrative. If they have learned to enjoy words, Scripture won’t seem strange. If a child has not been sitting passively in front of a television or computer screen, but rather imagining other worlds through the pages of a book, that child will not have any difficulty imagining and inhabiting the worlds of the Old and New Testaments.”
Other parents are concerned that some children’s books are too realistic. Hunt wisely suggests that “good literature does deal with reality” but asserts, “A good book is not problem-centred; it is people-centred. It reveals how to be a human being and what the possibilities of life are; it offers hope.”
Canadian author Jean Little, herself legally blind since birth, writes sensitively about all sorts of disabilities and adversities in fine books such as Mine for Keeps and Home from Afar.
Canada boasts a strong tradition of children’s literature. It begins with Lucy Maud Montgomery, Farley Mowat and W.O. Mitchell but continues with Monica Hughes (science fiction and fantasy), Jean Little, Bernice Thurman Hunter (the Booky Trilogy), John White, (Archives of Anthropos fantasy series) and Barbara Smucker, Janet Lunn and Barbara Boissery (all historical fiction), to name but a few.
Girls shouldn’t miss the ‘Dear Canada’ series of over thirty fictional diaries, written in the voices of twelve-year-old girls at important moments in Canadian history. They are penned by fine Canadian authors including Jean Little, Janet Lunn, Sarah Ellis and Kit Pearson.
What is a classic? Some would say it is a book that is over fifty years old which still appeals today. Hunt claims that “Good literature should always make life larger.” Here is some fine children’s literature written by Italian, Swiss, German, French and Russian authors as well as English-speaking ones. Many were written over half a century ago.
Some books, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, Huckleberry Finn and The Yearling, were not written specifically for children but were quickly appropriated by them. Others that began as children’s books, such as Watership Down, have become favourites with adults as well. One child who was reading Winnie the Pooh with an adult asked, “Are you reading a children’s book or am I reading a grown-up book?”
And if you have not read them yourself or not for a long, long time, open them (again). They are well worth (re-)reading. And hopefully there will be a young person with whom you can share the adventure and enrich both your lives. TAP
Classic Novels for 9- to 12-year-olds
Grades Three through Six
1678 Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan. Use a children’s version such as The Family’s Pilgrim’s Progress an adaptation by Jean Watson (2007) or Dangerous Journey an abridged version by Oliver Hunkin (1985).
1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll (Seq. 1871)
1868 Little Women Louisa May Alcott (Series of 4, last 1886)
1871 The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald (Seq. 1882)
1877 Black Beauty Anna Sewell
1881 Heidi Joanna H. Spyri (Eng. tr. 1884)
1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio Carlo Collodi (Eng. tr. 1892)
1883 Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrator N.C. Wyeth
1894 The Jungle Books Rudyard Kipling (Second volume 1895)
1900 The Wizard of Oz Frank L. Baum (S. of 14, last 1920)
1908 The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame, il. Ernest H. Shepard
1908 Anne Of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery (S. of 8, last 1921)
1911 Peter Pan James Barrie
1911 The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett, il Tasha Tudor
1923 Bambi Felix Salten (Eng. tr. 1928)
1923 Emily of New Moon L.M. Montgomery. Trilogy
1926 Winnie the Pooh A.A. Milne, il. E.H. Shepard
1930 Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome (S. of 12, last 1947)
1932 Little House on the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder, il. Garth Williams (S. of 8, last 1943)
1937 The Hobbit JRR Tolkien
1939 The Sword in the Stone T.H. White (S. first of 4)
1943 The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exubery (Eng. tr. 1945)
1945 Strawberry Girl Lois Lenski
1949 Door in the Wall Marguerite de Angeli
1950 The Narnia Chronicles C.S. Lewis (S. of 7, last 1956)
1952 Charlotte’s Web E.B. White, il. Garth Williams
1962 A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle (Trilogy, last 1978)
1962 Mine for Keeps, Jean Little
1963 I am David Anne Holm (Eng. tr. 1965)
1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
1968 Ramona the Pest Beverly Cleary
1968 The Book of Three Lloyd Alexander, (S. of 7, last 1968)
1970 Summer of the Swans Betsy Byars
1970 Sounder Wm. H. Armstrong
1975 Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang Mordecai Richler
1977 Road to Terabithia Katherine Paterson
1978 Underground to Canada Barbara Smucker
1980-1982 The Isis Trilogy Monica Hughes
1981-85 Booky Trilogy Bernice Thurman Hunter
1981 Jacob Have I Loved Katherine Paterson
1985 Sarah Plain and Tall Patricia MacLachlan
1998 Holes Louis Sachar
A Sampling of Classics for Teens
1813 Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen (plus 5 other novels)
1837 Oliver Twist Charles Dickens
1843 A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens
1847 Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë
1847 Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë
1849 David Copperfield Charles Dickens (who said, “Of all my books, I like this one the best.”)
1859 A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens
1861 Great Expectations Charles Dickens
1866 Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky
1869 War and Peace Leo Tolstoy. Romance, war, historical fiction
1876 Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
1880 The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky
1884 Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain (his masterpiece)
1886 Kidnapped Robert Louis Stevenson
1918 My Antonia First of Willa Cather’s ‘Prairie Trilogy’
1930 War in Heaven First of Charles Williams’ supernatural thriller trilogy.
1938 The Yearling Marjorie Rawlings
1938 Out of the Silent Planet, First in C.S. Lewis’ ‘Space Trilogy’
1945 Animal Farm, George Orwell allegorical novella
1947 Who Has Seen the Wind? W.O. Mitchell
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
1954-55 Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien. Trilogy
1954 Lord of the Flies William Golding
1960 To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee (P)
1962 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch Alexander Solzhenitsyn
1972 Watership Down Richard Adams. Classic heroic fantasy novel
Resources for Parents and Educators
• Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life Gladys Hunt considers the role of good books in developing a child’s life and faith. Nearly 1,000 books recommended for toddlers to 14-year-olds. (Revised 2002) Paperback $14.50
• Honey for a Teen’s Heart: Using Books to Communicate with Teens Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton help teens ask meaningful questions about what they read. 400 books recommended. (2002) Paperback $14.50
• A Time to Read: Good Books for Growing Readers Canadians Mary Ruth Wilkinson and her daughter Heidi Wilkinson Teel have written not just a bibliography of recommended books but essays on the nature of children, families, literature and story – and how these interweave in a Christian life. (2000) Paperback $20
• The Read-Aloud Handbook Jim Trelease’s bestseller discusses strategies for parents and educators to help children become avid readers. His bibliography of 1,000 read-aloud books suggests related titles: ‘If you liked this book you’re sure to like these ones too.’ Sixth Edition, (2006) Paperback $20