I just read a new collection from the late C. S. Lewis (of Chronicles of Narnia fame) entitled, On Writing (and Writers). I wanted to share some things he says about children’s literature. He starts:
“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.”
I was reminded of so many children’s stories that I have loved to read all my life, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamilo, many of the stories of Roald Dahl, and so many others.
And I tend to think Lewis is right. If a kid’s story can’t hold adult attention, it’s probably too sanitized and sentimental to do kids much good. Lewis says as much later in the chapter:
“Sentimentality is so apt to creep in if we write at length about children as seen by their elders. And the reality of childhood, as we all experience it, creeps out. For we all remember that our childhood as lived was immeasurably different from what our elders saw.”
I think he’s put his finger on what’s wrong with a lot of children’s stories: they are written “about children as seen by their elders.” It’s so easy to “talk down” to kids. But it’s not helpful.
As Lewis says, the way we all actually experienced childhood is very different from how grownups saw us. So good children’s literature—the kind that we adults can enjoy as much as the kids—brings several benefits:
- It makes reading to kids more pleasurable for us grownups.
- It lets both child and adult bond more over the story.
- It reminds us grownups what being a kid feels like.
- And it gives kids a more accurate picture of the world.
- All in all, it enriches this special moment together.
So the next time you’re reading to a youngster and find yourself completely bored, feel free to toss the book out and tell your young friend, “We deserve a better story!”
Their brains are worth it.