C.S. Lewis and children’s literature

chronicles of narnia An imaginary dividing line has been created in literature, a line of longitude if you please. If we were talking about cartography we may call it the Prime Meridian … or if you prefer, you might decide to call this literary intersection the equator, the 0 degree line of latitude …whichever way you like to cut-up this analogy…some north to south and others east to west, a division is metaphorically visible. This literary line is more obvious when you enter a library or book store resembling a road where there are painted stripes we refer to as the median… However, one has to wonder why in our quest for good books there has been a division at all… making the signage “Children’s Section” like the highway indicator for the fast-food exit.

This imaginary line in writing has been created slowly like erosion over a mountain pass by a running stream…this ever expanding crevice has become a fissure that is widening with each passing decade starting round about the time the publishing industry found out that it could create a marketable and lucrative item, Children’s books. And so, here we have it… the 21st century where the glut of books written just for kids has flooded over into a hot bed of “products”. Yet, children are neither as gullible nor devoid of knowing when they are being conned; they enjoy a well written story. Let’s resurrect Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; I use these works as an example not because of the story lines or plots…for some would find them too ‘out-dated’ for their liking… but rather because they are beautifully written, well-crafted, and genuine in their allegiance to providing a laudable narrative… none of these authors looked down upon the younger reader as though they were perhaps not worthy of the best.

A delicious meal isn’t usually watered down for a child, for if it was then most of the flavors and taste that the cook intended would be lost, unless of course this cook was not very good. Literature fed to children aught be refined enough to satisfy the reading pallet of an adult; for they too are deserving.

However on a “most” positive note, within the multitude of books published every year there are excellent titles that offer quality writing and craftsmanship by the author… the quest for the buyer or borrower is to heed their selection as if shopping in a grocery store; one needs to know what we are ingesting. (As for the adult readers who like very spicy food, adult books are often written just for adults… while children’s books can be enjoyed by both parties; for who doesn’t like a good kid’s story)

c.s. lewis 2 I now turn today’s blog over again to the esteemed thinker: C.S. Lewis; author, scholar, and literary critic who gained international recognition for his array of popular and scholarly works. Let us take time out from our busy day to read a parcel of words from his essay, “On Juvenile Tastes” ….

“…Surely it would be less arrogant, and truer to the evidence to say that the peculiarity of child readers is that they are not peculiar. It is we who are peculiar. Fashions in literary taste come and goes among the adults…for children read only to enjoy. Of course their limited vocabulary and general ignorance make some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movements, and literary revolutions…
It follows that there are now two very different sorts of ‘writers for children’. The wrong sort believe that children are ‘a distinct race’. They carefully ‘make up’ the tastes of these odd creatures-like an anthropologist observing the habita of a savage tribe-or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the ‘distinct-race’. They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in. The right sort work from the common, universally human, ground that share with the children, and indeed with countless adults. They label their books “for Children’ because children are the only market now recognized for the books they, anyway, want to write…”

Esteemed thinker: C.S. Lewis

travel If you journey far from home either by car, train, plane, or bus…whatever mode of transportation you may elect to service, it can often be somewhat tedious. Tedious in the sense that unless the route is new and the sites are interesting, the many hours spent in transit from destination to destination can be…shall I say…downright boring. So, in order to ward off the doldrums, we devise methods of diversion from listening to the radio, downloading our favorite music, or borrowing a book on CD from the library. I often listen to a book that I have read before and have found that this audio method of a “reread” is quite entertaining; especially if the reader is animated and acts-out the character’s dialogue, making the author’s title come alive. Listening to someone else read offers a different perspective compared to your first encounter with the story; it is similar to being the passenger in a car on a road that you are familiar with. You see sights that you may have missed while behind the wheel since your focus has been redirected.

Children are delighted to listen to the rereading of a story, for it seems that youngsters never tire from hearing the same book over and over again; even though the adult tries to cajole with an offering of a newer or prettier text… yet we all know it is the grownup- reader who yearns for the change, not the young listener. Reading a book for a second time allows us to discover elements within the plot or quirks within the character in a way that we wonder, “how could I have missed that the first time around?” And then… it is simply fun to rediscover a book that you may have enjoyed years ago, perhaps the novel or story you were assigned to read for class where the teacher seemed to have tortured you rather than inviting you into the imaginary world of the author. (Now you can give it your personal attention without having to answer questions!)

C.S. Lewis And so, in today’s blog I introduce you to our esteemed thinker: Irish born, C.S. Lewis, ( Clive Staples Lewis: 1898–1963) 20th century intellect, Oxford professor, novelist, essayist, and literary critic. He gained popularity for his science fiction Space Trilogy and the Narnia fantasies for children and continues to be one of the most read authors to date. Some believe that his work, the Chronicles of Narnia, served as a model for our modern children’s literature such as A Series of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl, and Harry Potter. Regardless if one agrees with this connection or not, C.S. Lewis’s work holds a prominent place on a majority of children’s’ book lists.

Snipped from his essay, “On Stories” here is C.S. Lewis in his own words…..

“… As I have admitted, it is very difficult to tell in any given case whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader’s deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions. .. The nearest we can come to a test is by asking whether he often re-reads the same story. It is, of course, a good test for every reader of every kind of book. An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only… There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell, or *Tristam Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he “has read” them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter? …the re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain suprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood. …In the only sense that matters the surprise works well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us our on the edge of the cliff. So in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust has been given its sop and laid asleep, are at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst, which merely wants cold wetness… It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surpisingness of the *peripeteia.

* Tristam Shandy (1759) humorous English nine volume novel written by Laurence Sterne
* peripeteia: a sudden turn of events or an unexpected reversal, especially in a literary work