“…there is really nothing to be done. You see, I know him from of old.” And so Rat, in Kenneth Grahams’s The Wind In the Willows, resigns himself to Toad’s new mania, and we happy readers nod in agreement, for we too know him from of old. That is, if we have been one of the lucky ones. One of the lucky ones who met dear Toad years ago and who have never entirely quit his company. While there is a vast host of books written for children, many of which are a treasure for their intended audience, there is a particular type of children’s book that claims to be something more. I call it Ageless Children’s Literature. The books in this class are perfectly suited for children, and yet they satisfactorily captivate the adult reader. It is the type of book that one reads in childhood and carries in their heart into adulthood. The wisest place for these books, however, is not in one’s memory bank filed under childhood years, but a much more tangible place—one’s hands. The adult reader who has the pleasure of pulling Ageless Children’s Literature off the shelf for their own enjoyment, knows Toad of old and still to this day engages him in outrageous banter. Ageless Children’s Literature is meant for all of us, at all ages, and at all times.
What are the treasures in Ageless Children’s Literature? First I would call out the weight of language. Authors of Ageless Children’s Literature do not confine the vocabulary to that of a third or fourth or fifth grade classroom, but makes full use of all the words at hand. They are not afraid to use words that will challenge young readers. Indeed, these authors know that a particular word must be used because it is the right word. Such a view toward language allows authors like Kenneth Graham in The Wind in the Willows to write these happy lines:
In accordance with the kindly Badger’s injunctions, the two tired animals came down to breakfast very late next morning, and found a bright fire burning in the kitchen, and two young hedgehogs sitting on a bench at the table, eating oatmeal porridge out of wooden bowls.
Why should a writer hold back on the word accordance? It is a big word we want children to know. To understand accord is to experience its pleasant connotations of agreement and its gentle inducements to obedience. It is good for children to know that in this world accord has a place other than “the two nations signed an accord.” We need to use the word in a friendly, homey environment. Children need to see, and adults to be reminded, that an accordance is built at the smallest levels of community between friends. It is a word with a depth of goodness. Much better to say “in accordance with the kindly Badger’s injunctions” than to say “As Badger wished.” And these thoughts bring us to the big word at the end of the phrase—injunctions. Why do we want children to know this big word? Why is it right here? It is a firm, ordering-about word, isn’t it? It drapes Badger in that rough outward appearance that hangs onto him whimsically because Badger is also kindly. And because of this kindness, Badger can be the sort of character who issues injunctions and knows that they will be followed. We could say “As Badger wished” to simplify the vocabulary, but we would know much less about Badger. Indeed, we might even be undoing Badger with the word wished. One gets the feeling that the only thing Badger, properly situated in Kenneth Graham’s vocabulary, would wish would be for unpleasant neighbors to go away. Badger does not pronounce wishes. He pronounces injunctions. And if the children are to know Badger, they need to know that the word injunctions belongs to him. Adults are delighted to find the big word here also, for it assures them that, yes, this book really is meant for them too. Rather than yawning at a Badger who wishes, they will chuckle, perhaps with some self-recognition of a Badger who issues gruff injunctions.
So Ageless Children’s Literature will use all the vocabulary at its disposal, but it will also use all the ideas at its disposal. It gives depth to its subject and so offers insights its young readers may need to grow into before they can fully grasp them. This is why these books need to be revisited throughout childhood and are a delight to mull over in adulthood. Look at this example from The Hobbit, a book written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children:
“What has it got in its pocketses?” The sound came hissing louder and sharper, and as he looked towards it, to his alarm Bilbo now saw two small points of light peering at him. As suspicion grew in Gollum’s mind, the light of his eyes burned with a pale flame.
“What have you lost?” Bilbo persisted.
As children, we read this passage, or even better, hear it read aloud to us, and think we know the answer. The ring. As adults we are not so quick to answer, but we are like Bilbo. We persist in our questioning. What have you lost, Gollum? What have you lost? Your joy? Your goodness? Your community? Your understanding? What have you traded it for? What will happen to me if I follow you? Subconsciously these questions may be asked by children, but it is as adults that these questions rise to the surface, and if we dare to persist in reflection on the point, we grow wise.
There is also a truth and trust that Ageless Children’s Literature is couched in. There is an openness to Ageless Children’s Literature where characters are taken for who they are, and comfortably the reader is allowed to be who they are as well. In Rachel’s Field’s book of children’s literature, Calico Bush, Marguerite is a Catholic living with a Puritan family as an indentured servant. There are no other Catholics around, and the Puritan family does not hold with her popery. But Marguerite is who she is. She loves her rosary and the prayers she was taught. They are a part of her just like her French language. Now, there is the real chance that Marguerite will lose both her religion and her language in this setting. But the author never brings this to the forefront. Such unsettling conclusions, with a respectful eye to the development of its young readers, are not to be pushed in Ageless Children’s Literature. We are to observe, to know, and to gaze down the road and say perhaps it may work out this way or perhaps not. It leaves the reader to finish the story as one likes, and there is a security in that. As adults, we can be open and honest with ourselves about how the story could end in a way we do not like, and this challenges us to reflect on what good may come of a less-than-ideal situation. It helps us to be realistic knowing that often the story in real life is not the one we wish. It helps us to be patient in knowing that God’s ways are not our ways; yet, trusting that he will bring good out of everything. Adult fiction is not always so kind. In Rachel Field’s book All this and Heaven Too, her main character is upfront about having left her Catholic faith behind to embrace Protestantism. This we learn of just as she is taking a position with a French Catholic family. The issues, tensions, and defensive positions characters and readers fall into are squarely upon us. Not so in Ageless Children’s Literature. The same issues are handled with a much gentler hand that allows us all to approach the issue with a much more charitable heart.
Ageless Children’s Literature calls children to come higher into big words and big concepts with open hearts and minds. Such books gently and respectfully guide the young on this journey, and the journey is so satisfying that, in the end, as adults we can open a book of Ageless Children’s Literature, begin to read, and find that there are deep riches within and that it is good to be here. Shared literature is a shared culture and great good can come to the world when adults begin to discover and enjoy Ageless Children’s Literature as a journey profitable to their children as well as to themselves.