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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The Three Books I’m Going to Read Next

The medium is the message.
~ Marshall McLuhan

I toss that McLuhan quotation up there as if I understood what it means, but I’m no better off than the poor schlemiel in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that receives a severe public drubbing from McLuhan himself. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan tells the pedantic blowhard, and I’m just as guilty.

Still, I’m going out on a limb to draw on McLuhan’s famous line nonetheless because it relates to the series of events I’m about to lay out here.

It all started back in March when I came across a MercatorNet essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Buffalo’s Canisius College. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone” was the title, and, if you’re like me, you can pretty much predict what follows – no? Flummoxed? Here’s a hint in Reed’s sub-title: “Why should I be tethered to the rest of the world 24/7?” Ah, yes, my thoughts exactly – indeed, my words exactly, since I’ve said virtually the same thing to my family and friends, students and colleagues for years. The convenience and wired capabilities that make cellphones so attractive to the whole planet are the very characteristics that make the infernal devices abhorrent to me. “The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere,” Reed writes, and I frankly enjoy being in one place at one time. Present realities are plenty for my fractious brain to deal with; I’ve no desire to be constantly pulled in a myriad cyber directions.

After finishing Reed’s online essay, I acclaimed “Hear, hear!” to my computer, and I immediately posted the article to my Facebook feed.

Wait – Facebook feed, you ask? Computer? “Ah, yes,” you might be thinking, “another pseudo-Luddite hypocrite.”

I don’t think so, because I have no objection to making use of the internet and high tech as tools. In fact, as a nurse and nursing instructor, I’m required to be familiar with electronic medical records, and I depend on email as a primary means of communication. That’s what I especially appreciate about Reed’s piece: He wasn’t eschewing technology as such, but extreme iMobility. With the advent of smart phones, our use of technology is swiftly morphing into a dependency, and universal Wi-Fi connectivity is essentially becoming a necessity for day to day existence.

The same day I was pondering Reed’s essay, I read a book review by Stefan Beck in the Wall Street Journal that offered an alternative perspective on technology. The book is The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, and it traces the real-life story of one Christopher Knight who disappeared into the wilderness of Maine for some 30 years. He lived a jerry-rigged life of isolation – part recluse, part scavenger – and somehow he survived. Why, you ask? Here’s how Beck gets at the question: “For some, the temptation to cast off the strictures of civilization by fleeing indefinitely into the woods, the desert or the mountains is intoxicating.” Right – cast off the smart phones, tablet, and other assorted gizmos! Be free, be free! We have nothing to lose, as Marx and Co. might put it, but our electronic chains!

Later in Beck’s review, he notes that Christopher Knight’s story is also, “unexpectedly, a tribute to the joys of reading,” and that the de facto hermit “read everything he could get his hands on.” OK, I’m not ready to jettison all of Western civilization and decent brewed coffee, but I’m all about books and reading. I clicked on my local library’s website, found The Stranger in the Woods listing, and clicked the Reserve button. “Top of the ‘to read next’ pile,” I thought – check!

Then I noticed that my friend Shawn had responded to my Philip Reed anti-cellphone post with a follow-up: A New York Review of Books link to Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The title alone was enough to return to my library’s website and click that Reserve button again. (“This’ll be number two on the pile” – check, check!) Sax provides a guide to the throwback underbelly of our hyper-digitalized Zeitgeist, describing, for instance, the appeal of such quaint relics as vinyl LPs, old-fashioned board games, and actual paper-filled notebooks – the kind you write on with actual pens and pencils. He also talks about e-commerce vs. brick-and-mortar stores, e-learning vs. face-to-face instruction, and even virtual vs. manual labor.

Of course, Sax also addresses books in his book, along with bookstores, and he predicts a rosy future for the book trade. Plus, he delineates his own flirtation with e-books and his retreat back to a preference for the printed page. “I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print,” Sax writes, “but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger.” It’s the testimony of a rehabilitated tech enthusiast – just one of many scattered through Sax’s work. That’s why it’s so curious that McKibben’s review of The Revenge of Analog begins with this depressing avowal:

Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

Nonsense, and that leads me to the third book atop my “to-read” pile (check, check, check!) which I spotted when I made my way to library to pick up the other two: Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Again, the title alone was enough for me to grab it, but Gavin Francis’s review in The Guardian confirmed my choice. “Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University,” Francis writes, “and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in.” All I could think of was Russell Crowe’s riveting portrayal of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider. Alter’s revelations won’t have nearly the same impact I’m afraid, but maybe they should.

Anyway, I scurried home from the library with my three books and plopped them in a pile next to my bed. I was anxious to read them in hopes they’d enhance and expand my outlook on their common theme: The modern dilemma of coping with the avalanche of digital information and stimulation. Yes, the medium is the message, and it’s a disembodying, anti-incarnational message these days, and that by design it seems.

Such were my thoughts as I tuned into WSND on our analog radio with its bobby pin replacement antenna. Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” came on. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” goes the dominant melody line toward the end, echoing the old Shaker hymn and its promotion of downward mobility, lower tech, and simpler ways. It was a heartening moment of serendipity – I couldn’t have planned it better; the felicity was almost divine. After a succession of dire digital deliberations, the music’s message was heartening. “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

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