Mitali Perkins is the author of many wonderful books for children ranging from picture books to young adult novels. But I first heard of her not through her books but through this article she wrote for Christianity Today in which she claims the classic books she read as a child paved the way for her to later accept Jesus. When I learned she’d be discussing these classic children’s novels in more depth in her new book, Steeped in Stories: Timeless Classics to Refresh Our Weary Souls, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.
Now for a quick detour through ancient Greece. Aristotle believed that every virtue was the mean, or mid-point, between two vices. Courage is the mean between fear and rashness. Generosity is the virtue between stinginess and wasteful extravagance. I imagine this as a swinging pendulum with truth in the center and error—which can often have a flavor of truth—on the extremes of either side. Too often, instead of seeking the truth that lies in the narrow middle, we swing wide in reaction against something. Dominant culture swings one way, so Christians react and swing the other, oblivious to the fact that the truth often gets passed by in the middle.
We live in a culture that’s quick to cancel anything it doesn’t agree with. Out with the old, in with the new, whether it’s fashion, technology, or morals. Of course, this causes an equally strong reaction in those who see the olden days through rose-colored glassed and would rather boycott the new.
We see this same cultural tug-of-war going on today about books, specifically older classics, many of which contain inherent racism or other “isms.” One side calls for us to cancel all such books. The other digs in their heels, saying they aren’t offended so you shouldn’t be either. But what if there is a middle road? One where we can read with open eyes that see injustice and open hearts to learn wisdom from the past? That’s exactly the path advocated by Mitali Perkins in her new book Steeped in Stories.
We’re often blinded by our cultural context, but Perkins has a unique perspective, seeing the world through a mix of pre-modern (through her traditional Bengali upbringing as an immigrant and the child of immigrants), modern (through the classic books she read as a young person that shaped her soul), and post-modern lenses (as a member of our present culture). She advocates that no one cultural viewpoint has a corner on the truth, but that seeing through multiple lenses can help us find both the flaws and the virtues in the present and the past.
Perkins takes seven classic novels as guides: Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Emily of Deep Valley, The Hobbit, Little Women, A Little Princess, and The Silver Chair. She walks us through the dominate vice and virtue examined by each story. She also delves into how each book treats the outsider. She shows us familiar novels with fresh eyes through a lens that is critical, yet full of love and respect for these mentor authors.
The end of each chapter includes discussion questions which could be addressed alone or as part of a book group. In fact, Perkins will be hosting an online book group to celebrate the launch of her book starting in September 2021. Although Steeped in Stories is aimed at encouraging adults to thoughtfully read the classics, Perkins does touch on how she handled the sensitive topics in each book when reading them to her adopted twin sons when they were young.
I was amazed at the number and variety of quotes Perkins included in this well-researched book. She quotes theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and more. I found myself underlining something on nearly every page.
I’m thankful that Perkins calls us back to the truth in the middle, Aristotle-style, neither throwing out the old books nor turning a blind eye to their faults. May we all grow in discernment and love as we read both the old and the new. I hope you’ll also give some of Perkins’s novels a try. I especially loved Forward Me Back to You (which I reviewed here) and You Bring the Distant Near.
This article first appeared on The Rabbit Room, along with a wealth of other holy-imagination-nourishing content.