Toward An Ethics of Children’s Fiction

As parents, we all know we should be reading aloud to our children.  There are countless anthologies of children’s literature that tell us what to read to children. There are also many books, like Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook, that tell us why we ought to read to children.  But have you ever considered that perhaps you ought to read children’s literature to your children for your sake?

A neglected art form that would-be-good parents would do well to take up is children’s literature.  The best of children’s literature is not labeled “children’s” because of its dearth of rich language or lack of emotional appeal.  We call books “children’s literature” if the subject is children, just as Ansel Adams is a nature photographer because his subject is nature.  Through the lens of some very fine authors we can learn to see and respond to children rightly.  I warrant that the reading of a few samples of fine children’s literature will do more to assist a struggling parent than a dozen parenting books, and the reading of the former will be much more pleasant!  Consider the following passage from Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, where Roger’s mother has called him to come to her:

 “Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags, to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays. . . . Each crossing of the field brought him nearer to the farm.  The wind was against him, and he was tacking up against it to the farm, where at the gate his patient mother was awaiting him.  He could not run straight against the wind because he was a sailing vessel, a tea-clipper, the Cutty Sark.  His elder brother John had said only that morning that steam ships were just engines in tin boxes.  Sail was the thing, and so, though it took rather longer, Roger made his way up the field in broad tacks.”[1]

Upon reading this scene, I had to admit how often I have called to my own children and waited rather impatiently for them to come, whilst I remained oblivious to their creative exploits.  Granted, there are times when parents need children to quickly obey.  But even in these cases a passage like this helps me to consider that a child’s slow response may be something more than mere willfulness.  In some children’s literature, I find more explicit parenting helps.  For example, in Little Men Jo speaks of her “Sunday closet,” in which she keeps little treasures to inspire quiet rest on the Sabbath.  In particular, she keeps a book in which she records anecdotes from the week that affirm or call into question some aspect of a child’s character, and then shares those records with the children on Sundays to help them “learn lessons more important than any taught in school.”[2]  Sometimes when reading children’s literature, I am simply struck by a child’s rich depth of feeling, as in Maddie’s sense of remorse in The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes.  So whether I am needing renewed patience and energy to aide me in pruning out the vices in my boys, or whether I am needing to reflect on their flourishing virtues, I can often come away renewed as a parent after keeping company with some fine children’s authors.

[1] Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons (London: Red Fox, 2010), 15.
[2] Louisa May Alcott, Little Men, ebook #2788 from Project Guternberg, Chp. 3
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Allison Buras was a founder and now Dean of the Grammar School at Live Oak Classical School in Waco, Texas.  She is also pursuing a Master’s in Theological Studies from Truett Seminary.  She is married to Todd Buras, philosopher at Baylor University, and is the mother of three boys.

3 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hi Allison, thanks for this post, and for your thoughts on the positive contribution that children’s literature can make to parenting. As a parent, I certainly resonate with your reflections. I was wondering if you had any thoughts for people who are not parents. What are the reasons why adults without children of their own should read children’s literature?

  • Allison Buras says:

    Jim, though my thoughts were, as you noted, directed towards parents in particular, I certainly believe that adults, particularly those of the faith, ought to be concerned about and interested in our youth. If we are called to promote the kingdom of God, that includes relating to young people, whether through church, work settings, or simply the children of friends and family. So in that sense, adults who do not have children of their own have perhaps an even greater rationale for reading children’s literature in order to help them know and understand the young people in their lives more fully. Thank you for broadening the conversation!

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Allison, thanks for the comment. I certainly agree that non-parents can (and maybe should) be concerned to relate well to children. I suppose I was wondering if there are any reasons why you as an adult choose to read children’s literature beyond its capacity to help you relate to children. For example, I know a lot of adults who love Harry Potter, and I don’t think they enjoy it just because it helps them to understand children better. One might also point out that children’s literature is also entertaining for adults, but I imagine there are lots of other reasons why children’s literature is a genre worth reading for adults. One really great essay on the value of children’s literature for adults is JRR Tolkein’s “On Fairy Stories.” He offers several (in my opinion very persuasive) reasons why fantasy literature, in particular, is of great value to adults. Thanks again for you post!

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