Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Children’s Book Reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, recently wrote about the powerful influence books have on kids:
“[G]ood taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes.” (from her March 2013 speech entitled “The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books.”)
Gurdon wrote a previous article entitled “Darkness Too Visible” (definitely worth the read!) about the increasingly dark and violent currents that run through Young Adult (YA) books. Since this is Upbeat Monday, I won’t include some of the quotes from current award-winning YA fiction, but it’s gruesome, violent, disheartening and ugly.
Just like our kids need healthy, nutritious and life-sustaining food for their bodies, they need the same for their souls. They need to have the expectation that yes, life is rough sometimes, but life can be good if we are good. When my kids were young, we read to them a lot. Snuggled together in a comfy recliner, we read the entire Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Lord of the Rings, starting with The Hobbit by J. R.R. Tolkien and many others.
Do these books look through life via rose-colored lenses? Hardly! Orks, dragons and evil wizards; wolves, blizzards, scarlet fever and the blight of grasshoppers: these are real, potentially life-altering problems. (Especially the Orks!)
But countering all of the adversity in these stories is the courage to persevere and work through daily difficulty as well as the joy of friendship, loyalty, love and hope. (In fact, one of my daughters is looking for someone just like Samwise Gamgee to marry because he is such a faithful friend to Frodo. Oh, the power of books!)
However, Gurdon has her critics; those who believe that sexually explicit and violent YA novels are simply affirming what kids already live through. But I love her rebuttal:
“I…don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to-18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulphur in the stories they read?”
When my first child was 12, I took a parenting class in preparation for the dreaded teen years. I’m not sure I was able to apply all the principles, but I do remember one concept: the mast important role of parents is to give their kids ENCOURAGEMENT.
What does encouragement mean? It means to give courage! Our kids surely need courage today. When you choose books for your kids, ask yourself these three questions:
- Does this story encourage kids by giving them examples of courage, generosity and selflessness to inspire them?
- Is the main character (protagonist) basically good? I don’t mean perfect, but do they learn from their mistakes and have good motives?
- Does the good protagonist triumph over evil in the end? Is there a clear distinction between good and bad? This is important for kids. Their brains are more literal and cannot see the world in shades of gray as adults do.
Books with these three characteristics will encourage kids to be brave, to see the struggle between good and bad, and to want to be better themselves.
Re-Wiring the Brain
I’ll end with a few more great quotes from Gurdon’s speech:
“Maria Tatar, who teaches children’s literature at Harvard, describes books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Books, and Pinocchio as ‘setting minds into motion, renewing senses, and almost rewiring brains.’”
Let’s porn-proof our kids with beauty so they will recognize the stark contrast when they encounter ugliness. Let us fill their young minds with great stories that give them courage, a desire to be good, and a tender heart filled with compassion.
What books do you enjoy reading to and with your kids?