Something I encounter regularly in my children’s literature courses is the student who wants to attach a moral to folktales, or the student who insists on ascribing a lesson to kid’s books. I find it interesting that so many readers assume that children’s books necessarily carry a lesson. As parents, teachers, and readers we seem to want them to do just that.
I won’t rant about it here, but I will say this. Adults think, for the most part, they have a good idea of what childhood is about—mostly because they’ve been there and lived it. The problem is that your understanding of childhood changes once you get to the other side. And it’s never quite how you remember it. Nonetheless, most adults consider themselves to be an authority on something they aren’t—hence, books and stories that carry lessons for children.
This is not to suggest that books for kids don’t have lessons. Writers of the nineteenth century, especially, were interested in writing stories that carried a lesson for children. Try reading Maria Edgeworth’s the Parent’s Assistant. “Lazy Laurence” is a story rife with lessons—everything from being honest and industrious to not being lazy or not lying. Such an approach to children’s books and stories continues to this day. the Berenstain Bears, the Franklin books, and any number of books for kids have lessons at their heart. But not all. My question still stands—why do adults want to read all kid’s books this way?
If I pick up an adult book—let’s say Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I tried to read earlier this year (and yes, my reading has some serious gaps)—I don’t start reading it because I’m looking for a lesson. Don’t get yourself into debt with crazy old women? Get yourself into therapy before you kill someone? I could derive endless lessons from such a book, but the fact is that the psychology of Crime and Punishment is potent, and I wasn’t able to exist in the headspace of its main character. This tells me that I’m not ready to read this book.
What happens when I read a kid’s book? I’m no more looking for a lesson than I am when reading a book for adults. I first read Lord of the ringsat twelve. For years afterwards, I kept reading fantasy because I wanted to find a world that would overwhelm me as completely as Tolkien’s. It didn’t happen, at least not in the same way. That was a hard lesson for me to learn—that my own expectations sometimes determined my reading so completely that it pushed me to find something that wasn’t there. But that’s my reading pathology.
The kind of longing I experienced as a young reader was sometimes mixed with despair. I knew, but wasn’t able to articulate, my deep longing for something beyond myself, a world that made sense in a way my own world didn’t.
When I was ten years-old, I lost my sight in a car accident that also killed my cousin. I loved my cousin with a boy’s adoration that knows no bounds. He was blind, and when I visited him on his family’s farm, we walked, rode the old horse Taffy, and played cowboys with a gusto that only ended with bedtime.
In Tolkien, I found a world that made sense of itself. It began with The Hobbit—a diminutive fellow named Bilbo Baggins, who fell into an adventure and found a strength in himself he never knew he possessed. He discovered leadership, friendship, betrayal, and loss. And Bilbo’s grief over losing Thorin after the Battle of Five Armies was as real as if it had happened to me.
I spent years thinking I could make sense of my own life the way things made sense in books. As I read more widely, I found that often there’s no sense to be made of loss or grief, but the impulse to do so is part of being human, part of being alive. That’s why I began telling stories. It gave me the opportunity to make sense, in small ways, of myself and the worlds I encountered.
How then do I explain to students that they shouldn’t read kid’s books with a lesson in mind? Not sure, exactly. I get them to think about characters, about motivations, about patterns of action, of plot, of theme. I get them to talk about their experience of reading particular books—how they reacted, why they liked it, or why they hated it. Reading is always a process, and just reading a book once won’t give you everything you need from that book. You may not be ready to read it. You may not be able to enjoy it or take it in. And it’s not a question of taste; it’s about you and the book you want or don’t want to read.
Not being able to read a particular book isn’t a failing. The books I’m not able to read fully, or at all—remember Crime and Punishment?—doesn’t mean I’m a bad reader. Having a particular taste for certain books, whether it’s romance, crime fiction, or fantasy, means those books speak to you in particular ways that make sense to you. But take the time, now and then, to read something outside your ken. If you don’t like it, that’s probably a good thing. That book will give you something about yourself that nothing else can. If you want a lesson, then you’ll get it. The book you don’t want to read will tell you something about yourself—something you may not want to hear. Reading taste is the easy way to read. Because I’m mostly lazy, I default to my reading tastes. But what I like and don’t like says little or nothing about the books I encounter. I can’t stand oatmeal—and I mean can’t stand it. It’s not that I just don’t like it; I can’t swallow the stuff. But me not liking oatmeal doesn’t change the fact that it’s good for me, good for other people, and just a solid and healthy food. Books are like that—food for your soul. Taste something different sometimes. It may not suit your palate, but your palate is only one, and it’s not going to determine the pallets of anyone else, and the book won’t care if you can’t read it.
Read here the final paragraph of C. S. Lewis’’ review of Tolkien’s the Hobbit, from the Times Literary Supplement, 1937. It’s as much a comment on reading as it is an endorsement of his friend’s book. Lewis saw something in The Hobbit before most people did, something that he knew would endure, far beyond childhood, and farther beyond anyone’s particular reading taste:
“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grownups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”