You are holding on tighter than he is. The palm of your hand is sweaty when you finally let go of that foam-padded bike seat. The brightly painted bicycle wobbles, but this time it doesn’t fall down. That little head turns and flashes a toothy smile. You shout, “You’re doing it! You’re doing it!” Your child has passed a rite of passage—learning to ride his bike.
She comes to you with radiant eyes, face beaming as she shows off her new clothes. You kneel down to tie that still-white shoelace that has come undone. Then you help her put on her backpack before she heads off to school (whether that be across the hall or across town). It is the first day of school. She has passed a rite of passage—starting her formal education.
You stand watching that excited adolescent grin, those stormy eyes dark with clouds of doubt but flashing with lightning bolts of anticipation. Now comes the outstretched hand eagerly waiting… waiting for your car keys. In the other hand he holds that small piece of plastic, the one imprinted with his half-grown face on it, that someone somewhere says qualifies him to drive a car. Your stomach drops as you drop the keys and that hand catches them. You hold on tightly, trying not to pump the floor board like a brake while your child pulls onto the highway. He has passed a rite of passage—he has his driver’s license.
She is wearing a cap and gown. The tassel sways as she hugs her friends and family and triumphantly holds her diploma. You snap photos and they snap selfies. You cry and they laugh. Suddenly, flat-topped caps fly through the air like confetti and youthful voices explode in a chorus of shouts. Very soon she will be leaving home. She has passed a rite of passage—she has graduated from high school.
Though we live in an increasing secular world where the concepts of ritual, tradition, and spirituality are being left in the dust of antiquity, life itself cries for guideposts or monuments to mark the changes that come into our lives.
The first man to write extensively on cultural rites of passage, Arnold Van Gennep, states it quite clearly:
“The life of an individual in any society is a series of passages from one age to another and from one occupation to another. Wherever there are fine distinctions among age or occupational groups, progression from one group to the next is accompanied by special acts… such acts are enveloped in ceremonies.”
Sometimes groups can’t tell you how or when their ceremonies began, but they can tell you that they exist and have added depth to their lives. So, too, my wife and I could not tell you exactly how or when our literary rites of passage began, but we can tell you that they have added a beautiful element to our family’s life.
Our traditions, more properly called since they are not accompanied with ceremony, are simple. They are mile markers that are celebrated with books—books read aloud by my wife, myself, or both of us together. These books are chosen because they move us, because they celebrate life, because they encompass powerful and precious ideas. They are chosen because they are books that capture some moment or experience so completely we want their impressions intertwined with our children’s experiences at just the right time.
Before I tell about our specific traditions, I must make one point. It regards the opinions about when it is best for a particular book to be read, which is a topic that has and will be debated thousands of times over. Acknowledging this debate, I will offer one thought regarding specific ages for literary rites of passage:
A child may be given a crown to wear, but that does not mean he is ready to be a king.
Though a child can be read a story at a younger age, this is not the main concern. The question in fact should be, does he or she possess enough of life to deeply appreciate what he or she is being read? In the end, each child is different and may be prepared for these rites of passage at varying ages, therefore these suggestions are not laws set in stone, but simply inspiration by way of what has worked in our family.
The year or so before kindergarten at our house is gilded with the gold of innocence and wonder. We find that this is the perfect time to read all the stories of Beatrix Potter. Also, it seems that nothing personifies childhood better than The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. There is something so special about a window seat, a pre-schooler, and the sage wisdom of Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin. Thank you, A.A. Milne.
When one of our girls approaches her fifth birthday she begins to ask, “When are we goin’ to start the Laura and Mary books?” They ask, because they know. When a girl in our household turns five, it is celebrated with the Little House series. Every day at lunch the family reads a bit together. For the next six months to a year (however long it takes) our children experience the journey from the big woods in Wisconsin, to the little town of Desmet, all the while living the wonders alongside Laura and Mary.
Soon after, school days bring their own rewards. The first days of our girls’ educations are crowned by reading When We Were Six, also by A.A. Milne. It helps them to adjust to life outside the hundred-acre wood. At the nice round age of ten, they are read the Chronicles of Narnia. These are read low and slow, so they are savored. To us, nothing ushers in a new decade like a Lion, some witches, and children learning to act and think like kings and queens.
As the years pass and they begin to dip their toes into the water of adolescence they are offered Anne of Green Gables. Who better to grow up with than “Anne with an e” Shirley? When our preteens begin to consider the larger world outside their safe little shire, they are introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien, by way of The Hobbit.
Our oldest is just fourteen years old and beginning her own journey as a ‘little woman,’ so we are setting another rite by reading to her about Jo March and her sisters. It displays gently the pathway of maturity for a young woman while being wrapped in the warm mantle of home, love, and memory.
Besides the rites set by age, there are also rites brought on by specific events or experiences. We read Charlotte’s Web during times when loss is expected. (As missionaries, our children have to say goodbyes repeatedly). We read the Wingfeather Saga when it is time to wrestle anew with courage, duty, and sacrifice, when we desire them to be stirred to do hard things. When the times comes that they behold the darkness and those lost in it, we will read them the Shiloh series. From its pages they will be encouraged to sing the words of Hope and Truth into the night.
Someone wisely said, “Nothing will change your life more in the next five years than the people you meet and the books you read.” I cannot introduce my children to every good book, but I hope to introduce them to the right books at the right time. We are still in the midst of our journey and there are still great books we are yet to read to our children. There are even great books we are yet to discover. Good books are like crocuses in spring, you can never be sure when one will pop up.
We are looking to the future though, and want our children to be prepared to sail into their own adventures. As they do, we hope to add books that encourage them to launch out into the deep, books written by Austen, Dickens, the Brontës, Tolkien, and even Rowlings. Some for loving, some for knowing, some for wrestling, but all for growing. They need these literary traditions to grow and mark a way forward. They need these literary traditions to remember and mark places to come back to. They need books to recall their own rites of passage. Our hope is that they will spend their lives discovering new books and returning to their old favorites.
We know that as their lives move ever onward so will their possibilities. At each gateway and at each turning point, we pray they use these, their accumulated experiences guided by truth, to help them take the right path. We also pray that farther up and further in, with their own families, they will establish their own literary rites of passage.
The world is more than willing to sell us guideposts. I hope these ideas will inspire you to make your own. The rites a group chooses, the traditions that they pass on, are the revealed secrets of how they view existence. They are the open windows through which they look at the world. I pray that your windows are trimmed with the curtains of great books.
- The Hope of a Hero - February 20, 2023
- Incarnation: The Word made Flesh - December 19, 2022
- Gradual Emancipation: A Parent’s Sacrifice - November 28, 2022
“The rites a group chooses, the traditions that they pass on, are the revealed secrets of how they view existence.” What a gorgeous line!
John, I’d marked this piece to read, not realizing you’d mentioned the Shiloh Series. Thank you for that! It’s such an encouragement.
I find myself swept away by the beauty of your family’s literary rites of passage! I’ve never thought to pair certain books with certain experiences or birthdays. I’m catching up on all the books I didn’t read as a child, so maybe I’m experiencing these rites of passage along with my kids. 🙂
Thank you for this lovely piece!
John Sommer says
Helena, Thank you for your kind comments. Any time someone takes the time to read and comment on a piece of writing it is special. It is like a person sincerely complimenting my children. Your comments, though, are extra special since your books were used to challenge me with the idea of publishing a work of my own. I understand what you mean about ‘catching up’ – my wife was a reader, where I was not. I, like you, am also getting to ‘catch up’. Glad the article was helpful.
Thank you for reading.
Yes, yes, yes!! I could not agree more. I have books waiting in the wings for my kids, and it’s exciting when we are ready. Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time are two we’re enjoying this year for the first time together. My kids are in 6th and 7th grades. Worth the wait. Besides, there are so many beautiful books to experience on the journey to those landmarks.