Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

The Importance of Children’s Literature

By Miriam R. Kramer

Children’s literature is the early foundation for our imagination, understanding of others, and the way we approach the world. I can still remember my mother reading to me and thinking how badly I wanted to learn how to read myself. My father would say it was imperative to have an excellent vocabulary, and we would discuss interesting words. My grandmother, a teacher, taught me to read, and my grandfather, a historian, took me to the public library on a weekly basis every summer when I came to visit. I would enter endless wondrous worlds: ones that strongly echoed my own and others that were set in alternate universes but still rang true. So here are some recommendations to make children’s lives infinitely richer. I cannot list all my favorites in this amount of space, so I will suggest a few beloved old titles and some new ones that have crossed my path of late.

For very young readers, Dr. Seuss is always a great place to start. Dr. Seuss’s ABC: An Amazing Alphabet Book is a delight, like most of his colorful, whimsical works. I cannot think of a better way to learn the alphabet. The Cat in the Hat starts children learning the joys, rhymes, and rhythms of poetry on a basic level. Dr. Seuss makes serious points in a charming, seemingly nonsensical way, whether he is talking about the spirit of Christmas in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, or the importance of conserving the environment in The Lorax. He embodies Oscar Wilde’s quip: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

An adorable, classic work for children from four to six is Arnold Lobel’s Caldecott Honor book, Frog and Toad Are Friends. The book presents an excellent friendship between very different personalities. Frog and Toad enjoy each other, indulge and endure each other’s idiosyncrasies, and help each other when necessary.

For me, no greater adventures existed when I was young than C.S Lewis’s seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and subsequent The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In Narnia Lewis created a world tinged with Greek and Roman mythology along with a gorgeous and joyful Christian allegory, accessible and meaningful to those of any religious background. He and his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, were in a literary discussion group, the Inklings, together at Oxford University. When Tolkien, also an Oxford professor, wrote The Hobbit for his children, he began to craft a world that seemed as real as this one, with a history, mythology, geography, and detailed languages inspired by English, Welsh, and Norse influences. As a child, I found these books perhaps the most absorbing and beautiful of all the works on my shelf.

Lewis’s novels and The Hobbit are appropriate for readers of seven or over, while Tolkien’s follow-up to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, is a complex, gorgeously written, and often frighteningly dark trilogy: one that captivates mature pre-teens, teens, and their parents. It is profound and marvelous in its exploration of hope, despair, adventure, glory, the bittersweetness of the passage of time, and the importance of dear friends. Tolkien also has a wonderful gift for comic and profound verse. The movie versions are mostly excellent adaptations, but they are still, as we compulsive readers tend to say, not as good as the books.

Since 1997, the Harry Potter juggernaut, that appealing and all-encompassing series for children and adults, overshadowed a brilliant set of books for precocious children, pre-teens, and adults that was also published sequentially in the same general time frame. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, named after a phrase from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, comprises The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Critically acclaimed and the winners of multiple awards, they depict the clash and convergence of parallel and overlapping worlds that can be funhouse mirrors to our own. These novels are very accessible, however, because of their imperfect, irresistible child heroes, Lyra and Will; their adventures across the worlds; and complex but comprehensible adult humans, witches, and angels who struggle with the ideas of physics, religion, philosophy, good, and evil.

Pullman has created a trilogy that will inevitably come to share the status of the classic fantasy works I mentioned above, despite his ideas being condemned by the Catholic Church as veiled critiques of practices and philosophies in institutionalized Christianity. Some readers will want to ponder his fascinating ideas and metaphors, while others will simply accept the stories as a superb and exciting adventure series.

It can be difficult to get active youngsters to crack any books during the summer, but even nonreaders will be intrigued by stories of survival, adventure, and the coming of age that is often accompanied by painful emotional changes. Gary Paulsen’s Newbery Honor book, Hatchet, features a teenage boy named Brian whose parents are divorcing. When he flies in a bush plane to join his father for the summer in the Canadian wilderness, the pilot dies from a heart attack, and he must land the plane alone on an unknown lake. Furious at his parents’ split and armed only with a hatchet his mother gave him, Brian learns self-reliance, independence, and how to carve out an existence in the deep woods.

A similar adventure story approachable to nonreaders is close to my heart from childhood. A Newbery Medal winner, Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry, tells the tale of a twelve-year-old Polynesian boy named Mafatu. Mafatu is terrified of the sea despite his name, which means “Stout Heart.” Deeply ashamed of his fears and determined to show his father his worth, he sets out in an outrigger canoe accompanied only by his pet dog and albatross. He flourishes and survives, even on an uninhabited island visited by cannibals.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is a highly successful, lighthearted and humorous series of publications. Jeff Kinney’s story of a middle-school boy named Greg is a very funny, realistic work that will tickle young teens. Greg complains about and draws pictures of his classmates, silly girls who ignore him, annoying older and younger brothers, and his exasperating existence at school.

To end on a different note, I will mention a standout that I came across when I was eight or nine, although it can be read by pre-teens as well. While The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett remains better known, I prefer A Little Princess. It is the story of Sara, a wealthy, intelligent, and kind girl who attends a British Victorian boarding school. The headmistress exalts her as the star of the school because of her money and connections. When her beloved father, her only relative, dies in India and loses all his money, this iron-hearted head of the school turns her into a half-starved, overworked scullery maid and tutor who must earn her keep. Once called a little princess by jealous classmates and ignorant staff, the sensitive, proud Sara belongs nowhere. After her fall from this elevated status, she decides that she will act with grace, charity, and kindness as a “princess” should and would, no matter how little money she has or how many hardships she endures. While this description may sound precious or saccharine, the novel is anything but. Its resolution never fails to overcome me.

I hope you have found some books worthy of the children in your life. Enjoy every minute you share with them in absorbing a bit of magic.

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