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Stories Will Save Our Souls, Part 4: What Should Children Read?

May 4, 2018 by

There are few things in this world more sacred and life-preserving than books. I believe that stories can indeed save our souls, and in this series I will explain why it is important to share them with others, especially children. Countless people have told me that being read to by a parent or friend was one of their happiest childhood memories. Every child deserves happiness, so what are the details of making this work in reality?

Stories open up an imaginative world unparalleled by any digital medium, and have the ability to teach moral values, ward off evil vices, and ultimately carry an element of humanity this real world cannot match. This blog post is part 4 in a series.

Our library is like the pantry of my childhood. My mother’s pantry, small but compact, housed the best of summer’s labors in beautiful sun-filtered jars; tall towers of red tomato juice, deep purple plums, auburn applesauce, and the seemingly endless cool green jars of sour pickles. Hung from the ceiling in bunches the faded herbs, still pungent. Mom resided over the pantry with a watchful eye – the occasional jar that bubbled with unwanted ferment was swiftly removed. My mother kept a cataloged count of her stock in a notebook tucked neatly on the side for reference. These shelves fed the family with a zest unmatched by purchased food.

The school librarian similarly has a noble but daunting duty – previewing books. As school librarian I am inundated with donations. The books arrive by the bag load with a cheerful “no pressure!” reminder from the donor. I know now what my mother felt during pickle season.

The good books I discover make the chore of previewing worthwhile. To find and accession a good library book that will be read by children for decades is an exalted vocation. A library, like the crowded pantry, has room only for the best. Bad books, like fermented tomato juice, are moved along briskly. Childhood is too short to waste on bad literature. So what then constitutes a good book?

A child reading a book

It is not easy to find the best children’s literature. The shelves in our little library are not exactly overflowing. Sheepishly, I remember my “Bobbsey Binge,” the time I gorged on a diet of Laura Lee Hope’s fast-paced mysteries. I adored beautiful Laura for writing such outstanding literature and often visited the local library to satisfy my cravings. I quickly picked clean Grantsville Public Library’s supply, and still hungry for more, I turned to inter-library loan requests from other Maryland libraries. There are seventy-two in the series, and I read them at a rapid pace except The Bobbsey Twins on Blueberry Island (10), which, though requested, never came.

My fourth-grade mind harbored a grudge against the librarians and the system that prevented me fulfillment. A few years later the betrayal cut deeper when I discovered that Laura was not the golden-haired writer of my dreams, but a boring syndicate – perhaps even men had contributed.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate titles (Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew to name a few) are not considered high quality literature, but they do at least provide a cracking plot. So too do modern favorites like John Flanagan and Brian Jacques. Children will only search the shelves and ask librarians for certain titles when the books have plenty of excitement. Young readers will not persevere with a boring book in hope of more action (as some adults do). Children are impatient for action, but when they find it, they are also extremely loyal.

Are action and excitement the only option for young readers? How do parents and teachers temper “cheap” thrillers with meaningful stories? It is important that young readers receive a good mix of both. Reading is similar to eating. It is good and fleetingly satisfying to snack on chips and soda. To grow strong, readers need three course meals. Eating only “high-carb” page-turners might be fun, but the long-term effects are not healthy. Parents might need to step in and choose some solid meals.

There are obvious poisons (Clostridium botulinum lurking in an unsealed jar) parents instinctively know to avoid: books that are slimy, crude, and irreverent; overtly violent and immoral; or involve the occult (this by no means condemns all fantasy or science fiction – more on this another time.) These toxic books won’t make it to the table in any caring household. Less clear is the subtle rot, not so discernable. Books that espouse agendas with adult themes, pushing ideas to children that are beyond their years – these are not so obvious. Still, parents who value a healthy childhood will be able to sniff the scent of decay and discard the bad before an outbreak of indigestion.

A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
—C.S. Lewis

My mother guarded her pantry and cooked outstanding meals, but sometimes she turned a blind eye to our between-meals intake. Mom understood that snacking was a happy and important part of childhood. As a child I appreciated the subtle flavors of gobstoppers and grape soda when consumed in tandem. Other people helped me diversify my eating habits. Pickles, served with a roast beef dinner, fulfilled more than my stomach. With each bite, the art of the pantry seemed to enter my very soul.

Writing well for children is truly an art – all that is good and wholesome from deep inside the author must shine out. When an author successfully writes an exciting and worthwhile plot, the book is worthy of the library shelf. My husband and I reserve the very best books for reading aloud, for these are the stories that glow like my mother’s produce. They are gourmet specials. Children like sugary snacks but they love a banquet.

Books that combine excitement with character and style are a gastronomic delight. They are a feast, rare finds to be read aloud, re-read, and savored. CS Lewis aptly wrote, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Well-written stories will illuminate and inspire adults as well.

The happiness of childhood should be protected. Let Barbara Kingsolver’s thought be a watchword: “Be careful what you give children, for sooner or later you are sure to get it back.”


Read other posts in this series here.

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About the author

Dori Moody holding a cat

Dori Moody

Dori Moody lives at the Danthonia Bruderhof in Australia. She and her husband, Henry, nurture four children, one cat, and...

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