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Children’s LiteratureAdmirers of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (of which I am one–it is, for me, Lewis’s most compelling work of non-fiction), will remember that the inciting incident of his argument is a school textbook he calls, in order to save its authors from embarrassment, The Green Book. The moral theory Lewis discovers lying like a snake in the grass between the lines of The Green Book is “emotivism,” the theory that all judgments of value are mere expressions of emotion, rather than responses that may be either true or false, good or bad, depending on how adequate they are to reality. Because judgments of value are only expressions of emotion, The Green Book’s authors conclude that all judgments of value are trivial. In contrast, Lewis defends a morality, and a theory of moral formation, rooted in what he calls the Tao–which is to say, an ethic based upon natural law.

One problem Lewis finds with The Green Book is that it misreads the whole situation of young people in our culture. As Lewis puts it, the authors “see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda…and they conclude that the best thing they can do is fortify the minds of young people against emotion.”

Yet Lewis contends that his own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.”

Here Lewis puts his finger on one of the greatest challenges to moral formation in our time. Ironically, though in one sense our culture is awash in sentiment, it is in a deeper sense unable to feel emotion–emotion, that is, as human beings are meant to feel it. The “slumber of cold vulgarity” is everywhere in evidence, especially in the young. We see it in the ghostly stares in the photos of young men whose last, flailing grasp for attention was a mad shooting spree before suicide; we see it in the benumbed sensibilia of boys assaulted by years of digital violence in movies, video games, and television shows; and we see it in the disaffected faces of young girls whose impoverished notion of femininity–inspired by legions of lewd advertisements and popular songs–exhorts them to wield immodesty like a weapon.

It is telling that at the meeting earlier this month of the Pontifical Council for Culture the theme was “emotional illiteracy” among younger generations. How, the Council asked, is it possible to restore the “emotive alphabet” of youth when young people have been trained only to feel the cheap reaction to the gross stimulus?

Lewis saw the problem clearly over sixty years ago. “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.”

But how to “irrigate deserts”? How to inculcate “just sentiments”? Lewis’s answer to this question is as ancient as it is ever new:

“We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’”

And what does this mean? It means that in order to inculcate “just emotion” reason requires the assistance of emotion itself, or at least a special cadre of emotions which Plato calls the “spirited element.” This is an umbrella term for that set of noble emotions concerned with defense of the right, the quest for the good, and fortitude in the face of danger.

The very emotions, that is, elicited by tales of adventure and heroism.

Children’s LiteratureWhich brings us back to the importance of books for children–though not simply (or even including) textbooks, but above all children’s literature. It is said that the years from approximately eight to twelve are the “golden age” of reading–the age in which a child’s love of books reaches its full flourishing. Publishers call children in this age range the “middle grade” demographic, and it is one of the choicest targets of their marketing efforts. Many of us fondly remember, even with a certain wistful ache, the impact that certain books had on us during those years.

What makes for the golden age of reading? Surely it has something to do with the child’s emerging ability to understand complex plots and complicated emotions. But it also has to do with the child’s growing desire to see and understand the world, to strike out (at least imaginatively) on his or her own, to have an adventure. In the golden age of reading, the child is now ready to have his or her “spirited element” formed by tales that manifest the nobility–and the excitement–of undertaking difficulties in defense of the good.

And it’s curious–middle grade literature often involves a character discovering a kind of “golden” world. This is most obviously the case in so-called “high fantasy,” such as we find in Lewis’s own children’s stories, Tolkien and Rowling. But golden worlds are also present in stories set squarely in this world. As long as the hero or heroine ultimately finds a place of haven, a place where he or she is called upon to grow in wisdom and courage, a place where he or she can truly love and be loved, then we can talk about that story as having a golden world.

Middle grade literature taps into our deepest longings. In showing us a golden world, it paints for us a picture of what we would hope to achieve in our own lives. And because our longing for a deeper happiness starts to become self-conscious just as we are ready for middle grade books, such stories tend to leave a burning impression upon the “spirited element,” more commonly known as the heart.

But the category of good children’s literature is a wild and various one. What books do you think belong to it?

Books mentioned in this essay are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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8 replies to this post
  1. A. Ransom’s _Swallows and Amazons_ books are a great forgotten series. “Better drowned than duffers” indeed.

    • Love the “Swallows and Amazons” books and read all we could get our hands on to our daughters when they were growing up! The Brits have lots of good “children’s” books and I put that in quotes because they’re just as enjoyable for adults, unless jaded by the tripe put out these days between too many covers. I also loved the Rosemary Sutcliff books about Roman Britain (and other places as well).


  2. I would recommend the books of Brian Jacques, especially his “Redwall” series, to those who like Beast-Fable fantasy, with Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” and Walter Wanegerin’s “Book of the Dun Cow” and “Book of Sorrows”. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories are perhaps above the modern reading level, but not to be neglected (and what’s “reading level,” anyway? Grab a dictionary!)

  3. Andy Buckram’s “Tin men” is an outstanding Scifi/Fantasy children’s book that teaches the reader the virtue’s of creativity and hard work in a positive, as well as entertaining, manner.

  4. I would proffer Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth”, a wonderful metaphor for the achievement of wisdom, as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” (his other works are great as well, though not children’s literature). These are two of the books with the most lasting impact from my childhood… I still re-read them from time to time.

  5. Loved this! Thank you! What a great reminder with school starting up soon. I read my daughters The Princess and the Goblin and then The Princess and Curdie, by George McDonald and found our later that Lewis had enjoyed these. I thought if kids are ever in a bind with the goblins of our world they could just think “what would Irene or Curdie do?” But what is also so wonderful about the classics is that the characters we learn to love make mistakes FOR us….Edmond in Narnia for example. Great article!

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