Building a Library

An expectant father has paid me the high honor of trusting my judgement and asking me what books he should buy and stock in his nursery for this children. And he hopes to have many (may God hear him!)

I will recommend some books, but I’d like to hear your recommendations as well, dear reader.

But first I will recommend that no matter what you read to your kids, dear fathers and fathers-to-be, that you just READ TO YOU KIDS!

I am in the habit of reading to my children every night, weekdays and weekends, except on days set aside for novel writing, when the wife reads to the kids. I have done it regularly as sunset every night since their infancy, and also told stories orally, the most successful of which is my version of Jack and the Beanstalk. (In my version, Jack owns a pressure suit, and so can endure the drop in pressure and temperature as he climbs to the stratosphere).

The upshot of it is, that my kids heard  all my favorites from when I was a child, including science fiction books and fantasies, that otherwise they never would have heard or read, and to this day I spend an hour each Sunday reading to them from the Bible, or from CS Lewis, or from GK Chesterton, or from Peter Kreeft. They are teenagers, but are bright teenagers, and none of this material is over their heads (except that the allusions and references of Chesterton I need to stop and explain. And the stopping and explaining usually turns into digressions, lectures, jokes and side material. Chesterton’s THE EVERLASTING MAN is being read so slowly, since I stop for a digression every paragraph, perhaps every line, so that we now call it THE EVERLASTING BOOK.

Making it an unbreakable habit to read is much more important than what you read.

That said, let me frame my recommendations in terms of what morals they teach.  For as ‘Wright’s Ninth Rule of Writing’ states, every story teaches a moral, whether intended by the author or not. Whatever the winning behavior is, whatever behavior in the tale leads to success, achieves the stated goal, that is the moral being taught and the example being presented.

First, for youngest children, I suggest pictures books with simple rhymes and tales.

My personal taste does not run to GOOD NIGHT MOON nor to THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR. I very much do not like Eric Carle’s compositions. I suggest finding older books, like THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD by Watty Piper. For one thing, in older books the little boys and girls get treats like knives and candy. I also recommend MOTHER GOOSE. Go with the classics.

Second, for children a little older, anywhere from toddlers to teens, I very, very strongly recommend anything by Dr Seuss.

Best of all, Dr. Seuss has simpler books like ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, BLUE FISH for little kids and simplest reading level, all the way up to his Bartholomew Cubbins stories. He covers the whole range of childhood reading.

So I recommend everything by Dr Seuss, except for THE BUTTER BATTLE BOOK, and THE LORAX, which I regard as grotesque propaganda, shameful, and reprehensible.

Dr Seuss is a genius, sparkling with wit and imagination, and, best of all, as a grown-up you will not get weary rereading and rereading him. (In case you do not know yet, children have much more stamina than grown-ups, and do not weary of hearing the same thing endlessly repeated.)

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The morals of Seuss are always simple and solid: don’t be as stubborn as the Zax, for example, but be as stubborn as Marco fishing at McElligot’s Pool. Always pick up after yourself as the Cat in the Hat. Be as true to your word as Horton the Elephant, but not as generous as Thidwick the Moose. If you err, as did King Derwin of Didd, say you’re sorry. Be imaginative. Be creative. Go beyond Z.

Be careful to pick up older copies, which have not suffered political correctness correction. For example, in TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET, the little boy, Marco, see a Chinaman, not a Chinese Man, eating with sticks.

For slightly older, let me recommend any of the Oz books by L Frank Baum, with the exception of the first one, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, which I think is inferior in quality. Skip that one and read MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ first, and get to Jack Pumpkinhead and Tip. The books are charming, endlessly inventive, but there is nothing in them to shock or scandalize child or parent. Dorothy never acts ‘edgy’ or even disrespectful.

The moral of Oz is one so often repeated in our day it has become overused and even corrupt, but, nonetheless, it is still a good one: judge men not by their outward appearances and oddities.

Because the book is in the public domain, do not be deceived, but double check to confirm that the version includes all the original illustrations by John R. Neill and his color plates. The copy I have has several pictures removed, either due to the expense of color printing, or because of political correctness.

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The Winnie-the-Pooh stories by A.A. Milne are a must-read for children, as are Alice’s adventures both in Wonderland and through the looking glass.

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In the same ‘must read’ category I put C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series.

Upon each rereading of Lewis, I am more and more impressed. There are depths beneath depths here, and humor, and courage, and the savoir of fresh baked bread, the beauty of silver stars, the boldness of two edged swords. There are beauties that will break your heart. But, it is most important, nay, it is crucial, to read them in the order written, NOT in chronological order. Some idiot at the publishing house decided to put numbers on the spines of the book in the internal chronology order, which spoils various surprises and ruins various effects. A HORSE AND HIS BOY is the fifth book, not the second, and THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW is the sixth, not the first.

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My personal favorite is VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, which I just finished reading to the kids yesterday (at the time of this writing). My life would be poorer if my five year old did not know about Reepicheep and his bravery and courtesy. Had they never seen the silvery sea at the edge of the world, overgrown with lilies, they would have missed a wonder. Since my children are Christians, they are delighted rather than disgusted to recognize Jesus dressed in a pantomime lion suit: and the points the author makes are both profound and very artfully inserted. At no point is there anything trite or trivial or condescending toward the younger reader.

The morals in Lewis work on several levels, both plain and subtle, and he deals with the kind of things most children’s books shy away from, such a treason and death.

Prydain is a solidly crafted series, and the heroes are shown as possessing the typical boyscout virtues of being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, and so on. (My kids love the gargling voice I do for Gurgi and the scatterbrained voice I do for Eilonwy.)

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I will also recommend a sadly overlooked gem of a book by Carol Kendall called THE GAMMAGE CUP. I had liked it as a child, but, upon rereading, I thought it a superior work of craftsmanship.

Again the theme hardly needs repeating in our modern times, but the book is a paean to non-conformity, but also a warning against complacency. Sometimes old enemies do appear again. In this book you can read about my hero and idol, Walter the Earl, the quixotic antiquarian of Slipper-on-the-Water. He is myself reincarnated as a Minnipin.

I reread this as an adult to my own children, and was surprised at its depth and characterization. There are scenes in the wilderness where the exiles are learning cooperation and self discipline, and our heroine Muggles unexpectedly finds herself in a leadership role; there are dreadful scenes when one of the group is captured by the goblins and poisoned; there are scenes of battle as martial and valiant as anything in a book by Robert E Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs; there is a romance so briefly mentioned yet so sweet that a child might miss the profundity of it.

I also read WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET by Eleanor Cameron to my kids, or tried to, since this was a book from my youth I liked as well. As it turned out, rereading it with adult eyes was a bit of a disappointment. It was like KRULL compared to STAR WARS. The characters are flat, the plot boring and unfocused, the stakes are low, and there is no moral to the story, no theme.

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My lovely and talented wife has read to them WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN and its sequel MOON OF GOMRATH. The scene where the children are trapped underground seeking to evade the Svarts was too scary for my boys, so we have not read all through.

Older yet, I enjoyed reading the short stories of Bertrand R. Brinley in THE MAD SCIENTIST’S CLUB.

These scientifically minded kids of the Club are slightly less honest than boyscouts, since they frankly are pranksters, and the grownups in the stories are usually comedy relief and figures of fun, but all stories them emphasize hard work and inventiveness, and the boys have an old fashioned decency I find refreshing.

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I was very pleasantly surprised that my boys at a young age could follow and understand both A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Dickens and TREASURE ISLAND by Stevenson.

I was disappointed that when I read them DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting, they seemed uninterested.

When they reached the age they could read for themselves, I continued to read to them at bedtime, it being nearly the only time I have to see them all day. My crowning moment as a Father was when I read to them A PRINCESS OF MARS, and so my boys have been exposed to science fiction, and will never be muggles again.

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The moral of A PRINCESS OF MARS, of course, is that true love conquers all; not even the wide abyss of interplanetary space can keep true hearts apart, nor death itself; and that you should kill anyone standing between you and your princess with a longsword or radium pistol.

And to keep your word, and to know that even men who seem to be monsters, like Tars Tarkas, can be faithful friends if treated kindly and nobly.

The children’s godfather, Uncle Bill, read to them the luminous THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S Beagle, a particular favorite of mine as it is the second fantasy book I ever bought with my own money as a child (The first was DREAM QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH by Lovecraft).

Every single line is quotable. The moral here is rather subtle, but poignant, which is that beauties and marvels that people have forgotten how to see walk yet among us on footsteps as delicate as a doe’s. The whole tale is about the dangers of despair and self-deception. The deeper message is that magic is wondrous, but cannot save anyone. That is what self sacrifice is for. That is what heroes are for.

And finally I will recommend one other book, this by Padraic Colum (whom sharped eyed readers will notice wrote a blurb for KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER) called THE KING OF IRELAND’S SON. And even sharper eyed reader will note that the illustrations are by Willy Pogany, who is a famous illustrator from the period.

Finally, let me ask my readers, any one who cares to comment, to recommend good, solid, non-politically correctified kids books?

 

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