|Francis Bacon once said that, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Comparing the quality of literature to that of food, one of humanity’s most elemental needs, reminds us that books are the essential nourishment of the mind. An infant is not born ready to eat fruits, meats, and vegetables immediately. They have to be slowly introduced to them – the right foods at the right times. So it is with literature. |
Our challenge as a school is to glean through the greatest literature and begin introducing it slowly, at the right time, strengthening the mind and ennobling the heart and intellect to grow into full maturity. It is a daunting task with numerous books of great literature before us. For this reason, and realizing the crucial role these choices will play in a student’s intellectual development, we have developed the following four principles to guide us. In the formation of these, we have relied on the wisdom of others who have struggled with this same issue, including many classical charter schools, preparatory schools, professors of children’s literature, and Core Knowledge’s E.D. Hirsch.
What makes great children’s literature?
Great children’s literature provides opportunity to observe truth, goodness, and beauty in the world.
In our vision to cultivate the ability to excel and desire to continuously pursue learning throughout our students’ lives, we must consider the implications of the literature they read, both now and in the future. Literature has the ability to provide experiences that can be in some sense, more influential than actual ones. It is for this reason that children who read about a great hero or a particularly evil villain remember not only the literary character, but accumulate ideas about the very definitions of heroism and evil. When a child recognizes the truths that Mr. Scrooge must face, the goodness of Beth March, the beauty of an Ugly Duckling- then he is ready to recognize their presence or absence in Hamlet, in Plato’s Republic, and in Crime and Punishment.
Great children’s literature delights a child by engaging his intellect, his imagination, and his empathy.
In our desire to produce great thinkers, we must never forget that the path to doing so is paved not only with treatises of philosophers and the documents of the founding fathers, but with stories that children enjoy and remember. C.S. Lewis believed “no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” As a medieval literature professor, the stories of dragons and kings continued to inspire both his writing, whether philosophy for adults or fantasy for children and adults alike. We acknowledge here that a child has been exposed to a steady diet of “underpants”, “goosebumps” and diaries of “wimpy kids”, may need some time to cultivate delight in something more; but we believe that our common humanity cannot help but respond to worthy ideas.
Great children’s literature establishes a common vocabulary and a storehouse of knowledge and experience that helps to produce a well-rounded and well-educated person.
An educated citizen must recognize when the emperor has no clothes, consider that all that glitters is not gold, and remember that little friends may prove great friends. Without a common vocabulary and commonality of ideas and experiences to draw upon, society suffers. This is why E.D. Hirsch’s work in establishing a core sequence for grades K-8 has been invaluable to so many classical schools. Mortimer Adler said great books are “the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it.” The foundation for this is laid in a child’s exposure to fable, myth, legend, tall tale, mystery, fantasy, and adventure.
Great children’s literature challenges the reader’s abilities and elicits reflection and consideration; this should be accomplished through books whose concepts are powerful, but able to be grasped.
We cannot believe that our list is complete in the sense that it will never change or that it represents the only valid approach to introducing literature. The books we study closely in the classroom, however, are selected with great care and consideration. There are many schools of thought regarding appropriate selections of children’s literature. Some balk at the idea of a child reading above grade level at all, citing frustration; others believe that the ability to read a text coincides with the ability to wrestle with its concepts. We have chosen to increase the challenge level of our teacher-guided literature studies during the school year intentionally, as well as to choose books that allow for reflection on great ideas and themes without providing the false impression that one has “conquered” a work before even being ready to wrestle with its ideas. While Hamlet may be read by a young child, few would argue that his struggle with mortality and revenge are ready to be grasped by youngsters. At a young age, perhaps, it is better to first observe loss in Charlotte’s Web and treachery in A Bargain for Francis. By rushing younger students into adult literature too hastily in an attempt to introduce all the world’s great books before one graduates high school, we not only fail to recall our vision to produce students who will be pursue learning throughout their lives, but we miss delightful and important children’s literature and lessons along the way. We have attempted, then, to introduce great children’s literature and to transition to heavier works wisely, so that they too, might be enjoyed and understood.
As I have reread these books in preparing the reading list, I am reminded that John Stuart Mill said that “for purposes of education” classical literature is superior because transmits to us the “wisdom of life.” We want to prepare our students to be wise – and to do that, we need to feed their minds with the proper food. It is a feast that is well worth the time and effort to prepare for it will provide our students with the nourishment needed to allow them to grow strong, intelligent, wise, and compassionate human beings.