Books for the young provide many things to the child; respite from daily troubles, education, enlightenment, adventures and so much more. As we grow older we begin to need things beyond what these “childrens” books can provide. We need clarity of thought and grown up, wisdom centered insightfulness for grown up problems. It would seem on the surface that what adults need most is distance from childhood. This is wrong. What those early books of our youth could provide through their simplicity; a broadness of perspective, wider horizons, greater depth of imaginative meaning, deeper insights and more fundamental truths we still need as adults. Children’s books are the foundations upon which we build the houses of our identity. As we grow older we add rooms, redesign, build up and tear down but always we remain firmly on that early foundation. It’s a healthy thing from time to time that we return to basics, to that childhood reading foundation. Sometimes we go back for a visit and sometimes, when we become emotionally damaged to effect repairs. But always that foundation remains.
I am soon to be a father so I think of my own foundation often and of the foundation which I hope to make for my child. This is much more important than the choice of simple reading material. Do I read Good Night Moon or Charlottes Webb and at what age is the Wind in the Willows appropriate. These are valid concerns but what I am most concerned with is the solidity of the foundation upon which the man or woman my as yet unborn child will build upon. This is I suppose something on an existential question. Then again, what is reading for and to children if not an exercise in metaphysics? The one thing I know for certain. I want my child to grow up surrounded by books, embracing them as companions, respecting them for what they contain and for what they offer. I can’t imagine a greater treat than to hear my child say Read me to sleep Daddy. That would be transcendental starshine, and a request not to be taken lightly, after all what is reading to a child if not employing the very real power of words. What are words? Ah, you think you know don’t you. Perhaps you do, and perhaps you don’t know as much as you think.
Words lead us to thoughts which words can not express. This is the paradox of language. Essayist and aphorist Karl Krauss once said “I have drawn from the well of language many a thought which I did not have and could not put into words.” Words are often only the symbols of emotion. And Krauss believed them to be expressions of thought itself, rather than ready made constructs to deliver ready made opinions. All to often in our drive to educate children we end up giving them just that, ready made opinions. This is a lazy habit by which we give children words without teaching them to really understand the power that words hold over the world and over the self.
What we must do is teach children how to find the well of words to which Karl Krauss was referring. Teach them to lower the bucket and draw from the source of words that are not so removed from the emotion behind them. We should not reduce and diminish words; rather we should strive to elevate them for the young. Oversimplification in writing is the bugbear of the intellect.
We have gone from…
“And by and by Christopher Robin came to an end of things, and he was silent, and he sat there, looking out over the world, just wishing it wouldn’t stop”. – Winnie the Pooh from The House at Pooh Corner.
“See Dick Run”
Samuel Blumfield in the victims of Dick and Jane is spot on when he says “The vast majority of American children are trapped within a system that is turning their brains into macaroni.” This is the system that arises when the power of words becomes diminished and simplified. This is never more a threat than with the rise of tweets and off the cuff face book comments. In the service of immediacy we further diminish the words we use without realizing how by so doing we diminish their ability to affect our lives in deeply profound ways. By reducing words we reduce thought itself and along with it imagination and contemplation.
Modern education, either through the school system or through the educational efforts of parents has done a great disservice to children by spoon feeding words to the impressionable minds according to a predetermined scale. There are even committees sponsored by the government and universities who gather together and dictate what words are to be made appropriate for this or that age group. This is a form of censorship, one which we opened ourselves and our children up to willingly.
Why should a child grow to value words when they are introduced to them in such a shortsighted fashion? Billy or Mollie, Jennifer and Peter can never develop a sense of the wonder words can deliver if those words to which they are introduced are easily grasped. We must expose children to words which are beyond their capacity to understand, as far beyond them as them the night time sky overhead. Children should reach ever higher, straining and sometimes failing to attain meaning out of the words they discover. It is the conflict which makes the foundation of our children strong and the houses of their future selves solid, safe and secure.
But we as adults must be patient and never lose sight of the goal which is nothing short of the creation of real, deep and profound wonderment in the mind of a child; The kind of wonder which can only be found by their being introduced to the magic of the unreachable and the knowledge that given persistence even that can be attained.