In his truly wonderful book, The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior remarks that students need to read the thousand good books before they read the hundred great books. Otherwise in college such students may turn into well-read nihilists, excited by intellectual inquiry (without end or purpose), and contemptuous of moral good, very much aware of their own cleverness and insensitive to the presence of moral virtue in others and its absence in themselves.
Every student needs to experience the good before he gains an experience of the great. Of course students gain their most important experiences of the good in their homes, from their parents.
It would be best if parents held in their souls the measure of the good so clearly that they might judge the things proposed to their children. Probably John Senior thinks that they do — that is why he refuses to include a list of good books in his fine book. Parents are not always confident about their intuitions, but they should be.
If recalling your own childhood you remember books that made a difference to you, then look for those books. I remember the Babar books, especially the one about the young Babar, who loses his mother to a hunter, who wanders away to Paris (like all young men in French literature, and French life), is introduced to civilization (of which French bread and pastries are no small part) by a little old Parisian lady, and who returns to the jungle to found an elephant community. The picture of him losing his mother was painful and terrible. So was the picture of Uncle Cornelius turned green and dying by a mushroom. I had my mother tape that page shut and did not eat mushrooms for years. Is that an objection? Hardly. Babar, the old Babar, is a story of adversity and loss overcome. Babar is a founder-king, the source and defender of a whole community. Long live king Babar. Long live Celeste. May they be blessed with children. And in a later story they are. Cannons boom.
My point is that whatever was good in your own childhood will be good for your children.
A second point springs from it. For a while now children’s literature has been specialized, separated from family literature, and subjected to the pressures of commerce. Let’s peel off the layers of the present and proceed back in time.
Today, children’s literature is often vulgar, confused, and corrupt. Sometimes it is even sinister. The vices and disorders of the adult world, itself increasingly morally corrupt, are being advanced into childhood, insinuated in families, and pushed at children. And unfortunately, some of the literature written to combat this assault is weak, empty, sentimental, comfortable without being moral, as if good things can be had without being strong.
What are some books that made a difference to you?
On my short list of books I read before age ten which meant a lot to me, a list composed in the two minutes I have while waiting for my kids to finish their chores and return to me for the singing of hymns and folksongs:
Crimson Fairy Book (and all the colors)
The Plain Princess (My copy was part of a Reader’s Digest collection of Fairy Tales, which also had the story of Death and the Three Fools, which really made an impression).
What about you?