One of the joys of home education is the kind of literature rich culture you can form as a family. The children read better quality books, and hear the old stories in all their rich colour, where real light casts shadows, and no one chokes on the sugar. So many ‘modern’ versions of these stories have been stripped of so much that they are a bland, sugary mush – almost unbearable to read.
I get the impression that while most home educators are using classic literature that other families are looking for it too, as some publishers (Usbornes for example) are publishing edited versions.
One of the things that strikes me about the classics is that their appeal to such a broad age range. They are not aimed at “grade 2” or Key Stage 1 or age 6 or whatever – they are simply stories to be read in families.
Our read alouds at the moment are The Fairy Land of Science by the wonderfully named Arabella Buckley and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Now, anyone who writes on the “fairyland” of anything is going to lean more to the romantic, but it is done with fine language and good science. There is no talking down to the children, nor stripping the language because otherwise the poor dears wouldn’t understand it. It is properly written and has fired up the children’s interest and conversation about all sorts of subjects.
The Jungle Book is a much darker tale than Mr. Disney would have had us believe. The language is harder and I admit I have transliterated the “thees” and “thous” at times to make things less dense. But that is about all I have done and the children love the story.
It occurs to me that if we want children to expand their vocabulary and language skills, we have to expose them to language that stretches them a little.
The Andrew Lang fairy stories are also well written and many of them are quite dark, confronting children’s terrors of the night with monsters, witches and other scary things.
These older stories will deal with things that most modern writers would never speak of in “children’s books”. Tomie dePaola stands out as an exception. He will talk about virtue, about God, and about death.
I do wonder why so many of the children’s classical stories have been sugarfied and blandified to a grey pulp fiction. Then when children reach the age of 8 or 9 the books that seem to be the cultural mainstay are really awful “how to be an obnoxious twit” kind of books, with an added dash of “because this is normal behaviour for children” cynicism. This is another moment to sigh with relief that my children are not in school. At least I can give them some real literature and what Charlotte Mason called “living books” and avoid what she called “twaddle”. Sadly I think she would have much harsher and more shocked words to describe what passes for children’s books these days.
Literature like any other media introduces a culture into the readers mind. Those books which are so popular and which I personally can’t stand, introduce the idea that children should not get on with or respect their parents, that especially fathers are pretty useless. The idea that children have no role in the adult world and are justified in treating adults as fools at best, and enemies at worst is set out for children to incultrate their lives. But these same stories avoid too much “life” as though that can’t be offered to children. In some ways I think the stories of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, The Ugly Duckling and the Jungle Book have more depth and reality to them, because they explore how we really are- they are, in fact, truthful. They speak across time and cultures of those truths we all carry with us, the natural law that is written on our souls.
I have always had the theory that the reason Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings remains so continually popular is because he was telling the truth. We can’t help but be attracted to something that has such a basis to them. It is the same with C S Lewis but in a different way.
I predict that in a hundred years children and young adults will still be reading Lewis, Tolkien and of course Chesterton (Fr Brown rules!) while Wilson, Pullman and probably even Rowling will have been forgotten.