No Need for a Virgil: On Adults Reading Children’s Lit

Favorite book
Flannel lap
Cat curled cozy in a nap
~Rhonda Gowler Greene,
At Grandma’s

When I was finishing up my nursing degree, I took a children’s literature course to fill an elective requirement. My colleagues chose more practical electives – medical Spanish, for instance, or healthcare informatics – but I signed up for kids’ lit precisely because it was decidedly impractical. As a nursing student, so much of my energy was taken up with acquiring important new skills and knowledge – in classroom, in clinical – that I relished the excuse to make time for escapist distraction.

Wonder of wonders, the class turned out even better than I’d hoped, for it was truly devoted to reading children’s books – not reading about them. Professor Brenner’s syllabus was blissfully free of juvenile literary theory, and there were no signs that we’d be subjected to ponderous academic speculation about hidden themes and archetypes. Instead, we got a reading list that included Lois Lenski and the Brothers Grimm, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling – and we dove in. Class meetings were glorious oases when we’d come together, share our thoughts and insights about what we’d read the week before, and deepen our mutual appreciation for the genre’s uncanny magic. It was my favorite class during nursing school, and especially since it was so easy to study at home. All I had to do was open an assigned text, welcome one of my young ones into my lap, and read aloud.

That class experience came to mind recently when I read Meghan Cox Gurdon’s WSJ review of Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joys of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. Gurdon writes that Wild Things is a parental “discursive encounter” with kids’ classics, a journey of sorts with the author as our Virgil, “both guide and wanderer.” Gurdon ends her review by recommending Handy’s book as “engaging and full of genuine feeling,” and I was almost tempted to track it down at the library – but I decided to give it a pass. I’m sure Mr. Handy has valuable things to say about the exceptional books he treats – including some of my own favorites, like Charlotte’s Web and Good Night Moon – but I couldn’t help thinking that my time would be better spent actually reading the books themselves. When it comes to children’s literature, I side with Prof. Brenner’s instincts: Go to the source!

But where to begin – which source? I have my own memories of books my mom read to me (for example, The Story of the Other Wise Man every Christmas), not to mention the ones I eagerly discovered and devoured on my own, but I already regularly revisit many of them, sometimes every year. “What to do, what to do,” I pondered – then a brainstorm. “Wait a minute – I have seven kids of my own, all voracious readers. I wonder what their childhood favorites are?” I decided to ask.

Of our seven children, only our two middle-schoolers still qualify (barely) as current purveyors of “children’s” literature. Their older siblings, now in college and high school, have moved on to more serious fare, but they’ve maintained strong connections with their reading histories. I frequently hear them talking about childhood favs, swapping title and author suggestions with each other, and sharing their bygone literary enthusiasms, especially older to younger.

I approached them all somewhat scientifically for my in-house survey. “Quick – without thinking about it,” I wrote them in emails (and in person to my youngest), “what’s your favorite childhood book?” They all responded readily, and the results surprised me. To begin with, only a couple selections from the amorphous “classics” category: C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle and Elizabeth Orton Jones’s Twig. Suzanne Collins’s Gregor the Overlander might just achieve that distinction in time, but it’s a bit too early to tell, and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myth has an unfair advantage in the classics department.

The other three on the list are nowhere near the classic stratosphere: Now We Can Have a Wedding by Judy Cox, At Grandma’s by Rhonda Gowler Greene, and The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. All three would be considered picture books for the youngest readers (or for their parents to read to them), and here’s the interesting thing: One of them was chosen by one of my oldest kids. (Which book and which kid will remain a closely guarded secret.)

Given that range and variety, I can only conclude that more went into their choices than simply the books’ contents – that is, there was something beyond text and pictures that appealed to them in a singularly memorable way. No doubt the circumstances in which the favorites were encountered – or repeatedly encountered, especially in the case of the read-to-me selections – played a role. Also, there must be a rhythm in their language or a captivating cadence (not to mention the illustrations) that hooked their young hearts beyond the mere thoughts expressed through the words themselves.

But I’m only guessing at all that because my survey didn’t extend to rationales. I’d toyed with following up my inquiries with a “why” question, but I’m glad I didn’t, for now I truly have a quest ahead of me, a seven-book road of discovery. I know that my children’s reported favorites are somehow landmarks for them, but I have no context or explanation. Consequently, I now have the privileged opportunity to trace some of their earliest literary steps and attempt to glimpse a stage of their inner development that I’d otherwise not have.

Here’s another thing: It’s only a single glimpse, and thus the quest is endless. I know this because of my eleven-year-old’s earnest attempt to address my survey question.

“My favorite?” Katharine asked. “It’s the one about a grandma and her grandson – but they’re dogs.” It sounded confusing, so she tried to go find it on the shelves.

After some time had lapsed and she hadn’t returned, I went to find her. She was perched on the back of an easy chair, absorbed in the open book on her lap – Just Like a Baby by Rebecca Bond. “I was looking for the dog one and found this,” she said. “It’s another one of my favorites.”

Favorite book, it turns out, is a malleable term, and so my list will not be static – a blessed gift! As the list expands, I’ll have endless excuses for taking refuge among its members.

Let the quest begin.
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