“if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.”
― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Ageless Children’s Literature is that happy place that doesn’t shy away from the world’s big bag of vocabulary; it uses just the right word, big or small. It is that literature that opens a door for a child to look out onto the front porch and for adults to look far down the road. It is that place that gently helps us to be charitable and to gracefully look at ideas that if more bluntly placed before us we would be tempted to not give any room. Briefly, these were some of the thoughts considered in the previous article “Ageless Children’s Literature: Books for All.” These points tell us what Ageless Children’s Literature is. Understanding why adults must read Ageless Children’s Literature is another matter.
It is the sanctification of our imaginations that we are after in picking up a book of Ageless Children’s Literature. Not only has the light of innocence in our culture been dangerously dimmed, but more worrisomely, we seem to be living in a culture not even remotely interested in living innocently. Why should we desire innocence? I think the simple answer is if we are not actively desiring innocence, we are defenseless against a host of vices that run counter to innocence. On the short list of oppositions you will find selfishness, immorality, corruption and depravity. Looking out into the culture it is easy enough to see the reality of this catalog. Yet, it is still possible to cultivate a growing desire for innocence and thereby strengthen our defenses against these ills. And if one wants to be innocent, if one wants an innocent world, one must cultivate an innocent imagination. Fortunately, this is not hard and, even better, it is delightful. For in entering a world for children, we travel innocent paths and are rewarded with an expanded sense of wonder at all that is good. Obviously though, to start down this path, we must first make ourselves small. We must humble ourselves enough to acknowledge that this literature is not just good for the children, it is good for us too. Then when we enter this world, humbly willing to submit ourselves to its lessons, wondrous things begin to happen. We start to leave many less savory perspectives behind. We begin to notice how good the ordinary world is. We grow bold in protecting this better place for our children and our culture. A brief look at Captain’s Courageous and “The Lamplighter” reveal some of the healing that awaits our personal and cultural imaginations if we adults can humble ourselves to become like little children in our reading tastes.
Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous is a book often lauded as a manual on how to raise a boy up to manhood. The key to making Harvey a man though, is to first make him a child, and to take him to a place where he knows nothing. For through indulgent parenting, Harvey has been rushed into a hollow, puffed-up image of maturity. He is neither a good child nor a good adult. It is only when he is thrown into the waters of the sea and days of an entirely new life that his course is corrected. He becomes a young man who not only knows the world through hard work and intimate connection, but he can embrace and delight in this world. Kipling reveals this transformation of Harvey’s understanding in a wonder-full passage describing a great cosmic joining of man, the sea, and sea creatures:
Then everybody shouted and tried to haul up his anchor to get among the school, and fouled his neighbour’s line and said what was in his heart, and dipped furiously with his dip-net, and shrieked cautions and advice to his companions, while the deep fizzed like freshly-opened soda-water, and cod, men, and whales together flung in upon the luckless bait. Harvey was nearly knocked overboard by the handle of Dan’s net. But in all the wild tumult he noticed, and never forgot, the wicked, set little eye—something like a circus-elephant’s eye—of a whale that drove along almost level with the water, and, so he said, winked at him.
Here in the midst of hard, invigorating, life-threatening work, Harvey finds himself in the heart of creation. He is taken up in the wonder of the teeming sea, the cod, the whales, and the exhilaration of man working in this marvelously created world. The whale, from the set of his eye, we can perceive as perhaps not so much wicked as determined. This life-threatening beast which imperils the boats and their lines—this circus-elephant of a whale who knows where he is, what he is about, and that he is a grand creature doing what he is meant to do—this whale winks at Harvey. It is that wink that conveys his comradeship with Harvey who has come to know where he is, what he is about, and who feels all the exhilaration of being a grand creature in the same world. In that brief moment, the wink of a whale’s eye, the world expands in a goodness of kinship and wonder which is breathtaking. This experience replaces in Harvey’s imagination the self-focused, posturing bravado of a spoiled young boy with a new vision of a broad and open world created with a magnificence too great to really grasp. This is a journey well worth the time of any reader. It is a journey that can put worthy and noble images in one’s mind and drive out the lesser fare, the dangerous fare, the corrupted fare of so much of what has been gathered into the imagination of the modern mind.
Poring through the musty tomes in used book stores, one is apt to find volumes of verse that decades ago were compiled for children. Thumbing through these poems opens yet another door for adult readers into a world of innocence. Perhaps along the depressing trails of post-modernism, many readers have learned to intuitively avoid poetry which often seems bleak and obtuse and the reading more a puzzling than a pleasant walk. Poetry we must remember though is song, words in rhythm, putting before us an image, a point to ponder, and even a story. In those compilations of children’s verse, adults too can rediscover the beauty of poetry, the jingle of syllables, and the joy of reflection on innocent points. These poems are often wading pools for the young and inviting depths for the adult.
Linger for a few moments over some of the poetry of Walter De La Mare’s from his Songs of Childhood. These are the first two stanzas of his poem “The Lamplighter”:
When the light of day declineth,
And a swift angel through the sky
Kindleth God’s tapers clear,
With ashen staff the lamplighter
Passeth along the darkling streets
To light our earthly lamps;
Lest, prowling in the darkness,
The thief should haunt with quiet tread,
Or men on evil errands set;
Or wayfarers be benighted;
Or neighbours bent from house to house
Should need a guiding torch.
A simple task of by-gone days, lighting the lamps for the people of the village, brings before us a hero. The lamplighter protects people from others who would do them harm and assists people making their way home in the dark. He does this all through the simple action of lighting a lamp. Indeed, in this action he is epically heroic, as indicated by the introduction of the angel who performs this same task among the stars. Our simple laborer is an angel to us all. What an image of goodness and protection. What gratitude we can develop for the one who would light our way, protect us from harm, or simply make our road less difficult. This is all said in a beautiful and simple way. Yet as adults we can recapture the innocence of looking at an otherwise dull and common laborer with appreciation and wonder. We can for a moment see him perhaps as God sees him. Coming to admire him, we may even find we mourn his replacement by the mechanical switch. But if we continue to ponder these thoughts, we may see that we too can be a lamplighter, and maybe that we are already in some ways lamplighters. Technology does not darken the way for those who actively seek and look to share goodness.
Are the children of our age innocent? Are the adults? Does our culture still have a place for innocence? If we desire innocence in our children, we must lead the way. We ourselves must first humble ourselves to know that we can learn in the small places of children’s literature and in that literary space we can sanctify our own imaginations. It is innocence and humility that will bring us to places of wonder and we will feel good and whole there. We will be glad we have made the journey. We will begin to see the world in a new and unselfish way and begin to form a stronger, healthier, imagination which is ready to hold it’s ground against all that is not innocent. That is why, we, as adults should read Ageless Children’s Literature. The protection of our children and the renewal of our culture are why we must read Ageless Children’s Literature.