Friday, April 16, 2010

On books, for Sarah

Sarah asked in a previous comment:

"Please forgive me if I'm missing something key--there have been so many wonderful posts and I haven't read them as slowly as I wanted to. But if I may ask for a little clarification, what is the difference between a 'living' book and a book that is considered a 'classic'? Or a book that is simply of high quality, but lacking true meat? What are the qualities we should look to when evaluating books for our children?

"I usually put an audiobook on when I am in the car with my children. I spent the half hour to my parents house listening the the Francis audiobooks and wondering if it qualified as 'twaddle' or not. Also, my children are 6, 4, and a toddler. We enjoy many books together in the evenings, including The Boxcar Children, My Father's Dragon, etc. Again, twaddle? Classics, but not living? I'd appreciate any clarification you might have to offer!" "classic" I don't think you mean classical, right? In other words, something that is considered "classic literature" but not Herodotus? I don't know if there is one definitive list, although there are some children's classics that spring to mind, those that are usually included in sets of children's classic novels--the obvious ones, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood (in a literary version like Pyle's), Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, and the others of that type, along with fairy tales, Mother Goose, and some "classic" children's poetry like A Child's Garden of Verses. If we're talking about children's classics, of course a lot of the older ones weren't meant necessarily to be children's books, but were taken up by children anyway. And sometimes you wonder how certain books get put on a "children's classics" list--for instance, the much-maligned Great Illustrated Classics series (which I don't like either) includes abridged versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pride and Prejudice, neither of which I consider of any great interest to children still at the Heidi stage. (Although I do remember one of my preschoolers taking a great interest in "That grumpy man" (Mr. Darcy) when we watched P&P years ago.) Anyway, in that sense I think a "classic" is just an excellent book that has stood the test of time, and one that's probably well known. Something that you're missing out on if you never get around to reading.

Living books? I think that comes out of Charlotte Mason's stand against textbooks that were all dry facts, tables, lists, reigns of one king after another without any interesting details. Originally the only antidote to those that she could think of, at least for history, was to go back as far as possible to the medieval chroniclers, who, she felt, at least intended to tell a good story. Later in her school programmes she did include more books that were written for children, but she still looked for writing that did not talk either down to them or over their heads. Often that would mean a book maybe on birds that had been written by someone who actually spent a lot of time watching birds and could tell you all the interesting things about them--not just which species have certain kinds of beaks, but what they do with those beaks. I think the idea of "living books" leaves a lot of room for undiscovered treasures and newer books, ones that may not be considered classics but that are interesting, useful, written with good literary style, and that give you the sort of details that will help you remember what's being taught--the "meat," as you said. They might be fiction, but don't have to be.

Does that answer the question?


Sarah said...

Yes! That helps a lot.

Sebastian said...

An observation on the different series of books that are abridged versions of the classics. Some are cut down versions of kids books or at least books that would be interesting to kids (Heidi, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson).
But I think that some books end up being done because the market is readers who need to be familiar with the book but who aren't capable of reading the original. So books like the couple that Sarah mentioned, or Frankenstein or Cyrano de Bergerac (both of which I've read in graphic novel form). These books aren't trying to tempt precocious elementary students, but rather high schoolers who poor reading ability.