The superhero wound up reading the conclusion of A Tale of Despereaux with the younger two, and I’m not quite sure how it ended. They both seemed a bit underwhelmed—hmmm. They’ve picked up through Mom’s intentional role modeling to see a movie only after they’ve read the book. Though this wasn’t one of my favorites, I’m curious as to whether the same exact story and character development exists in the movie.
As I’m sinking my teeth into Carol Jago’s books on the value of classics for all children, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good book, well, a good book. With all due respect to the Newberry Honors committee, I’ve determined that a book that receives honors isn’t, in and of itself, a good selection for me. Though I liked Despereaux’s tale, I have to admit my annoyance with what seems to be a recurring theme in some literary works: children that are sorely abused and/or neglected. I remember during one of our first years of homeschooling, we read The Water Babies. I’d never heard of the book, but I’m always intrigued with a unique title. The fantasy of this book was amazing; I can still remember some of the images of the little hero’s travels and transformation from a chimney sweep’s apprentice to an angelic type of merman. Sadly, what I remember most is how he was always grimy, dirty, hungry and neglected. Maybe it’s my sensitivity as a mom, but I couldn’t help but reflect on this sad little boy as we met Despereaux’s Miggery Sow. (Does the movie include her? I wonder).
What makes me want to read a book again, and again, and again? I’ve decided that it’s not the fact that it’s listed as a classic. Over the years I’ve read a number of classics, thinking, “Who decided that this book is worth the first read, much less a revisit?” (Again, my apologies to those who live and die by classics lists). Again, early in my homeschooling journey, I had a conversation with a more seasoned homeschooling mom about a book that the oldest, then about 9, was really struggling to read—from the perspective of interest, not ability. It was killing me to listen, and putting her to sleep to read. But it’s a classic, I lamented to this dear soul, whom I now consider a mentor and friend—what should I do? This resulted in an interesting conversation about the fact that it’s okay for a book that’s considered to be a classic to others to be a sleeper for you. She spoke of books that she’d read with her son where the climax didn’t happen until the end of the book. She was very helpful in sharing techniques to keep longer, more difficult books interesting. You’d think some of this conversation would be intuitively obvious, but then again, when you take teaching into your own hands, some of the mental flips you agonize over can be mind-boggling if you tried to articulate it to someone. I struggled so much with the “have tos” of school then (and sometimes now)—it’s almost embarrassing.
I figured it out while reading Ms. Jago’s pleas for teachers to consider reading classics not just to the honors students and those well-heeled enough to afford private education. I want books that feed the mind and nourish the soul. I want the kids to be exposed to books that force them to think about who they are and make changes for the better. I want them to chew on the lessons that a book has to offer—not just in the moment, but for years to come. When I think about the best experiences we’ve had with books, some were rare and precious: we cheered, we laughed until we cried; at least once, I did cry. But those emotions didn’t always occur. What did happen—and it might not have manifested itself until later—is that the words were shaping the children’s thinking. If God’s Word sets this precedent, why shouldn’t we fully expect other books that are worth our attention to do the same?