“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
― C.S. Lewis
In July I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the delightful Sarah Mackenzie for her Read-Aloud Revival podcast. It was more like a friendly chat over coffee as Sarah and I shared thoughts about life, literature, reading-aloud, children’s book publishing, history studies and our mutual love for good books. The podcast is now up and you can access it here.
Sarah has recently published a book about home schooling entitled Teaching From Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace. As a young mom of six little ones, Sarah knows how hectic and demanding the homeschooling lifestyle can be and offers great advice for letting go of striving and finding a deep peace in your heart and home.
One of the topics we discussed briefly was the current educational trend of teaching history by “beginning at the beginning.” Those who are interested in a little more in-depth look at this topic might enjoy reading, “When Should I Teach Ancient History, which you can access here. Memoria Press has also written a brief intro on this topic entitled “History is Not Chronological, which you can access here.
In closing, one of the questions Sarah asked was what book I had read as a child that most impacted me. I always come back to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for the book that I believe truly, as C. S. Lewis coined, “baptized my imagination.” I read it as a teen or young adult, but it opened the eyes of my imagination in a way no other book ever had. We never know which book will do that for us or our children–thus the reason to read, read, read! But read the best books first, because you never know if you’ll have time to read them all!
We cannot see with our eyes when our imagination is out of focus.
The above quote was shared in a recent speech given by Kwame Alexander at the biennial Simmons Children’s Literature Symposium in Boston. I was thrilled that Kwame Alexander was speaking as he is the most recent recipient of the Newbery Medal for his wonderful book Crossover. Crossover would make a brilliant family read-aloud as it is a hip, yet lyrically beautiful story of identical twin brothers and their lives seen through the metaphor of basketball. Kwame understands relationships, family, and community and has written a fast-paced, at times funny, and other times heart-wrenching story of life and universal lessons of the human heart. His presentation touched on many areas, but one important theme was the power of imagination to help us truly see what is real. Twain’s quote above reminds us that it is often through the power of literature that our imagination can be enlarged and we can be set free from our prison-houses of self absorption.
The last Saturday of August I’ll be hosting my sometimes annual Back-to-School Soirée. I would like to present the topics of most interest in the group so if you plan to come please vote on the following: Renaissance & Medieval, Early American, Modern America & World (Civil War to Contemporary–based on our two new guides) and/or a session on Poetry in the Home. Each of the former historical periods will be explored through the best literature to use across various grade levels. For the Poetry in the Home session, the currently popular trend focused on memorization of facts highlights the importance of what we set the minds of our children to memorize. This powerful faculty is critical to cognitive development, but can be infinitely effective in cultivating a sense of humor, facilitating joy in the family, and encouraging moral and ethical awareness. Some ladies mentioned they would like to have books for purchase at the Soirée, so if that is something you’d like to see please let me know.
•Please note this is a Lady’s event. We do hope to offer a couple’s event some time early 2016, so watch for that. Also, nursing babies 4 months and under are welcome to attend with their mamas. Hope to see you here!
. . . the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.~Pearl S. Buck
One of the topics of discussion during our soirée the Saturday before last was the way in which the dystopias of today–The Hunger Games, the Divergent trilogy etc., present disturbing scenes of violence between children. While violence against children has always been a component of fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction etc., what the astute Samantha Riddering pointed out was the way in which that violence has traditionally been perpetrated by the evil adult antagonist. Obviously, sometimes that antagonist was a monster, a dragon, an ogre, a wicked stepmother, or an evil Sméagol. From fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, to sophisticated Pulitzer-prize winning fictions like To Kill a Mockingbird, violence against children is presented as the work of evil personified–the Big Bad Wolf to Bob Ewell respectively. The difference in some of today’s young adult dystopias is how often the ogres perpetrating evil against children are the children themselves. While these dystopias are the literary grandchildren of William Golding’s–The Lord of the Flies–the groundbreaking novel that first featured this disturbing literary trope, the nature of Golding’s brutal images did not popularize it to a youthful audience. In the US it only sold a few thousand copies before going out of print. Today it is mandatory reading in high school. Unlike The Lord of the Flies, the trilogies of Divergent and Hunger Games, replete with graphic violence between children are wildly popular with young readers who seem inured to a level of violence that seems extreme.
Additionally layering the complexity of child-to-child violence is that the teen protagonists become hardened and highly skilled warriors perpetrating acts of war at a young age. Sometimes these actions involve gut-wrenching cruelty like the Divergent character Peter plunging a knife into Edward’s eye while he’s asleep. Though youth becoming skilled warriors isn’t new in children’s lit–Frodo and Sam Gamgee are young hobbits when they fight the evil forces of Mordor, and Peter and Edmund become warriors in Narnia–again, what is new is war between rival youth. Perhaps the real-life counterpart is gang warfare, which would beg the question of how books like the trilogies mentioned may contribute to an already violent gang culture. Oh, but gang members don’t read, so not to worry. I think it’s interesting to note that the film scene of Peter’s nocturnal knifing of Edward was cut from the movie. Director Neil Burger denied that the scene was cut because it was too graphic, but rather because it “disrupted the flow of the story.” Hmmm. Gratuitous perhaps?
As I was finishing writing this my daughter Rebecca posted a wonderful blog entry on the “Loveliness of Reading Aloud” which I think you’ll enjoy. She links in her article to another by Meghan Cox Gurdon which may further inspire the effort it takes to develop this practice in your home. Gurdon is the children’s literature critic for the Wall Street Journal and as a mother of 5 has her finger firmly on the pulse of the kinds of books most parents want their children to enjoy. For parents reading this that have YA readers, I think you’ll find her article on this genre enlightening.
For those that attended the soirée who might have thoughts they didn’t share that day or any others who would just like to comment on this topic, please feel free to do so below. What are the thoughts ruminating around in your mind when you confront the issues of violence in children’s lit today? Let’s continue this discussion! In the meantime I’ll close with this beautiful quote from Tolkien on the function of fairy-tale as it reminds us of the limitless power of the well-crafted tale to cultivate the best in the human heart.
The eucatastrophic tale [one with a happy ending] is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale: this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist”, nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, or sorrow or: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. –Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (68-69).
On Saturday, June 27th I’ll be holding my annual Summer Reading Soirée!
The theme will be “Summer Reading”–exploring the world of children’s picture books, folk and fairy tales, and best picks for family read-alouds. We will also explore the deeper meanings available in children’s literature as we look at how great stories have the power to bring catharsis, anagnorisis (self-knowledge), and promote the practice of a self-examined life. As Socrates so poignantly recognized, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Children’s books can help us cultivate self-knowledge and lead our children to establish an understanding and recognition of this in their lives too!
For those with teens, cultivating the family read-aloud time becomes more and more difficult–sports, evening activities, and homework all tend to take precedence. Because teen’s opinions and perspectives are solidifying, these years can be some of the most rewarding for reading aloud together as we share more complex literary works. These times build emotional, spiritual, and intellectual bridges in our relationships–bridges that help us cross over the tumultuous tides of teen life into the adult world. We’ll explore ways to continue the practice of sharing the best literature even as our children move through the teen years.
Those who attended last summer will remember that we had the distinct pleasure of having Bernadette Speakes bring the poetry of Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems, to dramatic life through her powerful readings. Bernadette will delight us with her art once again! So, if you have a poem or a literary passage you’d like to suggest for Bernadette’s reading, please feel free to make a suggestion. See Bernadette’s bio below.
Finally, I am currently reading the ancient philosopher Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life.” Here is a passage that has really made me ponder how we use our time:
I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself–as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap–in fact, almost with out any value” (12).
This sentiment has made me more cognizant of the incredible gift you are giving me (and hopefully yourselves) when you heroically carve out a full day of timeto attend a literature Soirée. I want to value your time as it should be valued. In that light I intend to focus on the things that really matter–i.e. the things that can cause us to respect each day we are given, to nurture and build the relationships that are near and dear to us, and to focus on transcendent things. Because ultimately “when time is no more”, only those will have enduring value. I hope to see you on Saturday, June 27th!
Bernadette Speakes graced the stage last winter, in the Elephant Theatre’s West Coast Premiere of the comedy, North Plan, directed by David Fofi. In the 2013 Fringe Festival, she portrayed Tituba, in The Crucible.She created and produced the successful Get Up Stand Up . . . Clean Comedy 4 A Change–a showcase bridging the gap of laughter and charity together. Bernadette appeared in several acclaimed shows such as The Elephant Theater’s In Arabia We’d Be Kings, and The Fountain Theater’s West Coast Production of Direct from Death Row . . . The Scottsboro Boys. Bernadette will be furthering her film and TV credits with a key role in the upcoming film The Woods; A New Beginning. Other Film and TV Credits include: The Soloist, Heroes, Parenthood, To Sir with Love II with Mr. Sidney Poitier, and the 1997 Sundance Festival Winner Love Jones. Awards include an Emmy Nomination for A Stage of Our Own with James Earl Jones, The LA Drama Critic’s Circle, and the LA Weekly. Bernadette is a wife and mother of 2 beautiful children. She presently lives in Los Angeles.
“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
One of the beauties of reading classics again is the heightened ability to empathize in different seasons of life. Reading The Grapes of Wrath with my 15 year-old daughter, is an entirely different experience than reading it as a teenager. I see it now through the eyes of a grandmother, a mother, a sister and a daughter. But it is the position of Mrs. Joad that is particularly striking for me as a mother and grandmother. Steinbeck’s passage above reflects an unconscious notion many mothers feel as they strive to build strength and integrity in their families.
Becoming re-acquainted with Steinbeck’s tale of the great Dust Bowl migration displays the timeless power of literature. As we immerse in the story of a formerly middle-class family cast off from their one-time prosperous farm, forced to migrate with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few family members in extremities of health, with little money and facing cruel prejudice wherever they go, I’m struck by how capricious our relative ease and comfort can be and how blithely we view it.
I relate particularly to Mrs. Joad, as she struggles to keep her family together, knowing how important that is, yet watching the vicissitudes of fate and chance play their hand cruelly against her best intentions, and my heart aches with her mother heart. As she buries both parents along the way due to the extremities of travel and little chance of rest and sustenance, I feel I can understand her heartbreak and agony. So determined is she to keep the family together that when the men make plans to split up, she takes up a jack handle and threatens to wallop Pa if he forces his plan. The formerly mild-mannered and temperate Ma is forced to such means to do what she believes is right. Tragically, despite her best efforts the family is split up. Steinbeck describes in vivid detail how the tragedy of the Dust Bowl, corporate and individual greed, and small-minded prejudice brought such devastation to hard-working, happy, God-fearing families all across the plains.
The lessons of The Grapes of Wrath are many. But the one that is resonating with me currently is how displacement is such an ongoing human tragedy. It strips dignity, creates prejudice, subjects the innocent to violence, and destroys families. While we have no great forced migrations occurring in America today, around the world they are an ongoing reality. We have displaced Mexican children swamping our borders, the Syrian refugee crisis is daily in the news, Rwandan refugee camps burst at the seams, and there are continuing crises in Sudan and Somalia.
Watching the heartbreak of Mrs. Joad is an important exercise in learning to have a heart for refugees and for the disenfranchised around the globe. Mrs. Joad stands as an icon of the tragedy that is repeated around the world as families are forced to flee their homes. Through one of his characters, Steinbeck poses the question, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” It is a good question to ask ourselves. The next time we’re tempted to dismiss the plight of the refugee, whether at our border, or elsewhere on the globe, let’s remember Mrs. Joad, and say a prayer for all those in her place.
Rea Berg is passionate about children's books and has been republishing classic and historical children's literature for the last 30 years through her company Beautiful Feet Books. She also designs guides for teaching elementary and secondary students history using award-winning classic and historic literature. She holds both an undergraduate degree in English from Simmons College, Boston as well as a graduate degree in children's literature.