A waist-high stack of liquor boxes runs the length of my dining room wall. It’s quite a varied collection, as if we were hosting a party devoted to unlikely cocktail combinations. While I certainly wish we had an endless suppy of Grey Goose, Jagermeister, and Arrogant Bastard Ale, I’m afraid the labels are deceiving. For these boxes—kindly donated by our neighborhood liquor store—contain, alas, not bottles, but books.
Our little library is our most prized possession. When my husband and I got married, the mingling of our bookshelves was a ceremony nearly as sacred as the wedding itself. It took several hours simply to decide how to organize them: I preferred alphabetizing by author last name with separate bookcases, of course, for British and American Literature. Zach agreed to keep the continents distinct, but insisted on a reverse chronological ordering within each case.
This rather unconventional method required a tedious study of publication dates and probably my first true submission of will. (Such trials are typical of two newly wed English teachers, I hear.) But I now admit that it’s fitting to have Chaucer and Shakespeare on the lowest shelf, providing a foundation for the pages of Austen, Eliot, and Lewis stacked above them. World Literature got its own case, which we recently augmented with several books by Canadian author Michael D. O’Brien.
One of O’Brien’s books, A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, has prompted me to approach our inventory of children’s stories with a more critical eye. Landscape is a study on the shaping of a child’s imagination. More than that, it’s an exploration of how stories and their use of images and universal symbols shape a child’s spiritual sensitivity and moral compass. A father of six, O’Brien includes many anecdotes of his own children as he explains the development of his ideas about which stories are good for kids and which are harmful.
He uses the example of dragons to explain how modern culture has taken what used to be an unquestionable symbol of evil and has slowly turned it into a creature that is pitiable, a misunderstood victim of sorts. Drawing from Anglo-Saxon legends and traditional myths, O’Brien writes that “the well-nourished imagination knows that dragons are not frightening because of fangs, scales, and smoke pouring from nostrils. The imagination fed on truth knows that the serpent is a symbol of hatred and deceit, of evil knowledge and power without conscience” (37). But he notes that many popular books and movies for young adults subtly twist and undermine this symbol.
Landscape was published in 1998, just two years after the movie Dragonheart was released. The book series Eragon, along with other imitations, followed in the early 2000s, proving the cultural trend. While many parents praise such stories for exemplifying valor and compassion, or for simply getting kids to read, O’Brien remains cautious and critical about the misuse of this important symbol. Rather than encouraging sympathy for serpentine characters, he claims that “it is good that our children fear dragons, for in the fearing, they can learn to overcome fear with courage. Dragons cannot be tamed, and it is fatal to enter into dialogue with them. The old stories have taught us this” (37). Many new stories, however, are teaching children that all the old antagonists—including witches and vampires—are the true heroes.
As a teacher, I’ve seen the impact of misappropriated symbols on malnourished imaginations. A student’s reaction to evil in literature is a good gauge of the state of his soul. It is the child who sees no harm in taking sides with the dragon who cannot comprehend why Beowulf had to fight one, even though he wasn’t the warrior that he used to be. And it is that same child who, later, doesn’t shudder at Roger’s malicious violence at the end of Lord of the Flies. “Roger didn’t break any rules,” he argues. “He had to look after himself, like the kids in The Hunger Games.” Heaven help us. This child’s imagination is not an isolated part of his brain that operates only when consuming fiction: it forms his perception of the universe, and we have to share that universe with him.
O’Brien, a devout Catholic who writes from the perspective of a parent, as well as one who contributes to developing culture with his art, insists that “the purpose of dragons in literature, and of the fascination children have for them, is to arm the soul with an ever-developing discernment of spirits” (39). Landscape goes on to explore more subtle neopagan trends in modern children’s literature, and also to explain how the fundamentally Christian storytelling of Lewis and Tolkien counters it.
In the end, though, O’Brien shifts from explaining what poisons to avoid and instructs the reader in how to offer healthy fare for a child’s mind. In that vein, he includes a lengthy appendix with a suggested reading list for all ages, from picture books to adult classics. Many, sadly, are out of print, but there are enough current titles to keep any reader busy for quite a while.
With O’Brien’s cautions in mind, I’m being a little more judicious when packing the beer boxes with our children’s library. Several mediocre picture books have already hit the trash. And I suspect that The Borrowers will follow soon. But, in some cases, I have a strong fondness for familiar stories that runs counter to O’Brien’s opinions: he does not approve, for instance, of the Harry Potter series, which I thought was quite good. Don’t write O’Brien off as extremist, though, just because he’s opposed to the popular series. He has good reasons for his opinions that are worth considering. Since it will be some time before Sam moves beyond board books, I’m hanging on to The Sorcerer’s Stone for now. There will be time for more thoughtful analysis as he grows.
My responsibility for Sam’s moral development weighs heavily on me today. As O’Brien says, “The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand” (166). Perhaps it’s the gravity of this undertaking, or the stress of packing, or maybe just the heat, but it’s not even noon yet and I sure could use a drink…