Monday, March 16, 2015


Caroline enjoys being read to.  I regard this as a VERY good thing as (hopefully) it means not only that she will learn to read early and easily but also will learn to enjoy reading.  I was a "bookworm" from an early age, and, while I don't read as much as I used to, I still enjoy sitting down with a good book (usually electronic; what a fascinating modern world we live in).  I hope that she will learn to do the same.

But what - assuming that I have any say in the matter - ought she to read?  C.S. Lewis has some worthwhile things to say about what children do and ought to read.  He argues strongly against "children's books" as books for children:
I never met The Wind in the Willows(1) or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any less on that account.  I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story.  The good ones last.(2)
Clearly, there are books that, because of very simple language or ideas, are directed towards very young children.  But as the child grows, is it not natural for him to "put away childish things"?  But what sort of book is "childish"?  Lewis, of course, is well-known for his Narnia stories.  As these "childish" books?  Of course not; they may be (and are) read with appreciation by people of all ages.  And this, I think, is his point: a story may well be read and enjoyed by children that is NOT a "children's" book.  Further, he regards it as an error to approach the entire concept with the idea that children are some alien species that not only cannot appreciate "adult" literature but must be given nothing but simple little morality plays or utter pabulum to read.
The child as reader is neither to be patronised nor idolised: we talk to him as man to man.  But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle.(3)
All this is not to say that every book is appropriate for every child.  I do not say that the average seven year-old ought to be handed War and Peace or Catch-22 and told to get to it; this would likely only turn him into a confirmed book-hater by the age of eight!  I also think that there are topics (notably sex) that ought to be handled with care; I don't see what is to be gained by exposing children, even young teenagers, to explicit literature.  However, there ARE certain "adult" themes and ideas that are appropriate for children, even rather young ones.
Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things.  They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias.  His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can't bear to think of.  Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil.  If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second.  The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense.  there is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which I born to the Ogpu [sic] and the atomic bomb.  Since it is likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage... Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.(4)
Tom Sawyer and Injun Joe.  Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver.  Mowgli and Sher Khan.  Even Mr. Mole and the Terror of the Wild Wood.  These are "children's books" that treat their reader "as man to man", and not only give him pleasure for a lifetime, but also teach valuable lessons about honor and courage that are priceless.


(1) This is a book that I also profoundly enjoy.  I believe that I was in my teens when I discovered it, and you may believe that I deeply hope that Caroline comes to love it as I, Mr. Lewis, and millions of others have done.

(2) C.S. Lewis, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children" in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature (Orlando: Harcourt, 1982), 33. 

(3) Ibid., 42.

(4) Ibid., 39.


  1. Great thoughts! I love the Narnia series and recently reread The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I think great literature often has something for all ages. When you read it as a child, you pick up some of the book's themes. When you read it again as an adult, you pick up other, deeper themes because you approach the book with more life experience. I think it's wonderful that Caroline enjoys being read to! Are you keeping track of what you've read? (Goodreads?)

    1. I'm on Goodreads, but I don't use it. To be honest, I get a good bit of my literature through audiobooks these days. Currently making my way through "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". I have to wonder how it lasted as long as it did, given that the Romans killed each other off in job lots just about every time a new emperor put on the purple.

      Since you enjoy Lewis, have you read "The Screwtape Letters" or "Mere Christianity"? I found "Screwtape" to be extremely unsettling!