Frequently, I am asked by parents in my library for a book on “character.” They want help in teaching their children about right and wrong, about virtue, about knowing how to make wise choices. Sometimes, they want a book specific to encouraging a certain character trait or overcoming a bad one, such as lying, or selfishness, or dealing with anger. Most often, they want some book that will impress their children with the need to respect and obey their parents.
Important as these are, taking a child to Sunday school, reading the Bible, surrounding them with good role models, and talking to them about becoming a moral person doesn’t always seem to be enough. And, it truly isn’t. Thankfully, our wise and good Heavenly Father endowed us with some special capacities that help us naturally learn to live as He intended us to do, namely, learning through story, and, essential to it, the gift of our imagination.
Stories are the way Jesus Himself taught. They are the sure-fire way to capture our attention. Our imagination then picks up an idea and runs with it – straight to the heart, where that idea lodges as a seed that can later bear fruit in our life, change our thinking, affect our actions.
The quickest way to inform and sharpen the conscience, is to let a child live inside a story for himself, listen and see with his mind’s eye how others think and feel and act. Without conscious awareness, children (not to mention their parents) test and absorb ideas as they think over the thoughts of others described within a story, and behavior and attitudes change in consequence. “Fiction,” Charlotte Mason said, “is one of our most valuable moral teachers.”
This is the power of story in our lives. The question is, which stories? The world is bursting with books. If you’re searching for which ones are best and didn’t grow up with a reading habit, the ubiquitous choices are baffling and overwhelming. Time to read is short, childhood is short. Which books are best?
Even books about books are abundant, and there are many excellent ones to guide parents. Probably because of how many parents ask me about books on character, I picked up one I didn’t know about at a book store last year called Books that Build Character by William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe (1994). I was familiar with one of the authors. It also appealed to me because it was mostly an extensive bibliography specific to various character traits and qualities.
The first portion of the book is five short chapters devoted to some basic principles of why books help develop children’s moral character, reasons for reading fiction, and specific guidelines to assist parents in discriminating between books that are written to influence our children by dishing out the author’s opinion from those that convey wisdom on issues through a good story – those that are “people-centered rather than problem-centered,” as the authors put it.
If you want a rich resource, I highly recommend this book as one of the most helpful guides for any parent, regardless of their knowledge or lack of knowledge of literature. Most of the book is a list of 300 of the best children’s stories and books, categorized by character qualities and noting reading levels for each. I think you’ll find it lives up to its subtitle: Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories.