This summer while babysitting three of my adorable grandsons, I read the oldest grandson Charlotte’s Web for the first time. He is a bright little guy for 7 years old, who loves Star Wars (he practically has all the movies memorized), action figures, Cars, Planes (both movies) and generally boyish stuff. I had some reservations as to how much he would enjoy the story of Fern, Wilber, and Charlotte, (there being no Jedi Warriors, Luke Skywalkers, or battles with light sabers). What will he think of this old-fashioned tale of barnyard animals, tender affection and lasting friendship?
I needn’t have worried. Even for a tiny 7 year-old Jedi warrior, this classic still strikes a chord. It was a joy to see him (not much of a cuddler) cuddle close and listen attentively to this sweet story. He asked all the right questions and we had a special connection for those precious few days. It is a memory I’ll treasure and I trust he will too.
So it was with delight that I heard about the publication today of Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet. You can hear the full broadcast here and I think you’ll find the collage illustrations enticing and enchanting! I’m so happy that E.B. White is getting some well-deserved attention. The enduring nature of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan and his contributions to other children’s writers make this a wonderful homage to a writer who should have won a Newbery Medal. The year Charlotte’s Web was published it lost the Newbery Medal to The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark–a book seldom read today. (It did garner a Newbery Honor). In The New York Times, Eudora Welty wrote of Charlotte’s Web, “As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done”. And the astounding sales (78 million copies) and the book’s translation into 23 languages proves that simple, tender, and old-fashioned stories can still capture the heart of a boy–even a Jedi warrior.
. . . 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.
While summer is so stealthily slipping away, I had to do yet one more summer read to encourage you to maybe slip this one in just before the last warm days of sun, surf, and sand are gone! This title is not as widely known as Wilson Rawls’ other beloved classic, Where the Red Fern Grows, but ranks as one of our family’s fondest read-aloud moments, which if you’ve been following this post, you’ll find are not so rare. But honestly, Summer of the Monkeys would definitely rank in the top ten (if you pressed me to list the top ten, which I hope you won’t!).
The beauty of Summer of the Monkeys lies in the novel’s humor mixed with the tender pathos of a coming-of-age story about young Jay Berry, who is crazy nuts about horses and can think of nothing but the ability to one day buy his very own. When a circus train collides with a railroad car near his Ozark home, a number of performing monkeys escape and resume life in the wild. The circus owners offer a reward to capture and return them to the circus and Jay Berry has his opportunity to earn the money that will make his equine dream come true. Jay’s raucous adventures with the irascible monkeys makes an entertaining family read-aloud and the heartwarming and inspiring ending had each of us choked up enough that we were having to keep passing the book from one to another in order to get through it! In a day when our children suffer little from wrenching poverty, and seldom have to be truly sacrificial in their daily lives, Jay Berry’s example becomes a poignant lesson about what is truly important in life. If you’ve read this beautifully crafted and heartfelt tale post a comment and tell us how your family responded!
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.