“I just needed to read something beautiful.” I said it with a little sigh. It had been a rough few weeks and I was out to coffee with my friend, the mother of three kids in elementary and middle school, telling her about the book I’d devoured that afternoon.
She lit up. “Tell me the name again?” she said. “We need some beautiful books to read.”
My friend has mentioned to me multiple times her frustration with the books assigned to her kids for school. They’re not bad books, she says, but does every book have to be about some sad, tragic, awful thing? In one a kid is dealing with the death of a pet, in the next, with parents whose marriage is on the rocks, in the next, a difficult foster care situation.
The educational theory of critical pedagogy and its subset, critical literacy, are built around the importance of teaching students to develop the skills and responsibility to engage the culture and society around them, as well as providing the opportunity for a student to engage with varied worldviews. Reading books allows students to encounter the world and wrestle with the perspectives about it, and compare their own ideas to those they encounter in a story. Generally, engaging with these worldviews and with difficult issues in a story allows students evaluate and shape their own perspectives and the mindsets they will use throughout their lives in the safe context of the classroom. But I think my friend raises a good point—do all the books children read need to be about the hard, real stuff of life?
As tragedy after tragedy has struck the news cycle, I’ve heard more and more people talk about how they feel like they’re growing immune to it. “Oh, another shooting,” we think, when dozens of souls were just snuffed of life. I wonder if perhaps we might be fostering the same immunity sometimes, in the name of educating our children.
We talk a lot here at Story Warren about the value of stories that teach children evil is real and that it can be defeated. And those stories are valuable—if we split our reading plate into its various food-groups, they should take up a healthy percentage. But we can forget that beautiful books should be a portion of our meal, too. I sometimes think of them as the cleansing sherbet between courses. An acquaintance described them with a phrase her six-year-old friend coined: “deliciously kind.” They’re the stories that remind us of the world that ought to be.
In a session at Hutchmoot 2015 titled, “The Dark Side of Hope,” Jennifer Trafton noted that she wondered if she was of the last generation to read the Anne of Green Gables series as a standard. “From my conversations with the parents of tween girls and teen girls and with the girls themselves, I’ve begun to fear that my generation may be the last to have grown up with a shared love of Anne.” She related a story of teaching a class of nine girls and telling them she was going to be talking about Anne of Green Gables at the conference. Not a single girl in the room knew who Anne was. “I’m told that even the imaginative, book-loving daughters of my friends are no longer drawn to Prince Edward Island in their dreams the way we were. I don’t know why this is. It’s not as if these books were contemporary when we were growing up—they were always old-fashioned and that was part of their appeal—but I wonder what has taken their place. Will the girls of this generation and the next be given the things that I was given by Anne Shirley through other stories? Or is something being unretrievably lost if authors like Montgomery and Elizabeth Goudge and others like them fall out of fashion?”
The first books I think of when I want to go back to a beautiful story are the ones—like Anne—that I discovered between the ages of nine and fourteen, but when I think more deeply, I recognize that there was a regular portion of beauty in my book diet even from a young age. The diet included picture books full of lovely illustrations to those with delightful characters, lyrical prose, or stories which caught at some special part of the imagination and gave just a glimpse of something beyond the normal day-to-day experience.
One of my favorite books as a preschooler was titled Ann Can Fly. My mom never understood the appeal. Even I, as an adult going back to read it again, begin to wonder why it enthralled me so. But if I put on my memory of childhood and page through the book, I recognize the feeling I get as I read the story of a girl whose father flies her to camp in his private plane and offers her a chance to pilot the craft. She looks out over the landscape and sees the topography of the land below and I feel just like I do when I have a window seat on an airplane on a clear day, and I can watch the fields and forests and lakes and cities painted on the quilt of land far, far below.
It is hard to say exactly what makes a “beautiful” book. There’s not really a particular formula, and beautiful books can appear in many different genres. There may be some beautiful books on your list that are not on mine (see my mother’s dislike of Ann Can Fly). But books with lyrical prose, imaginative characters, lovely illustrations, and stories which give glimpses of a world beyond our own tend to land in the category. I would say that most of the books I call “beautiful” are books which help me glimpse the way things ought to be—the way they were in creation and will be in new creation.
Whatever books are your beautiful books, don’t forget to keep them in your diet; balanced properly with your portions of heroism, adventure, and even with those books that deal with the hard things of reality. On Wednesday, we’ll be back with the start of a beautiful book list for you. While you wait, sound off in the comments below and let us know about your favorite beautiful books.