No Reader Worth His Salt

Another post from the Grownup Blog at

Miss Missy’s School Book I: A Pack of Farm Dogs Starts a School by Marica Bernstein.

Illustrated by Caroline Cooper. Old Schoolhouse Road Publishing.

For I need not remind such an audience as this that the neat sorting-out of books into age groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.

C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds (1947)

Ain’t it the truth?

Though this particular quote did not come from it, I recommend The Quotable Lewis (see bibliography, below) to all those who enjoy Lewis. Grouped by subject, it’s 600+ pages of well-considered thoughts on just about everything.

In the essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis takes issue with the attitude that “a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested· development.” His defense of his own love of fairy tales, especially, is “germaine” to his views on literature generally.

His argument has three prongs.

The first, a tu quoque–pointing out that his adversaries are engaging in just the behavior of which they accuse him.

Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. … But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. … When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

In the second, Lewis examines what is meant by “growth.” He claims “the modern view… involves a false conception of growth.” Growth for him is not what we have given up, but what we add to our lives as we become older. Thus, he can enjoy fairy tales as a grown man–perhaps even more so having added to the literature he loves the works of Tolstoy, Austen, and Trollope.

I think the third prong of his argument is the strongest. Citing Tolkien’s On Fairy-stories (1947), he disputes the strict association of fairy tales with childhood, calling it “local and accidental.” If you have read On Fairy-stories,

… you will know already that, in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children. It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses.

Commenting that many children do not like fairy tales, and many adults do, he suggests that those who do like them, like them for the same reason, but cannot say exactly what that reason is. He elaborates two theories, and adds his own perspective.

According to Tolkien the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed.

Jung, according to Lewis, believes when we read a good fairy tale our unconscious “Archetypes” are liberated and we thus, “Know thyself.”

Lewis’s own belief is that character is conveyed more succinctly in the “giants, dwarfs, and talking beasts” than is possible in a “novelistic presentation and to readers whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach.” He asks us to consider Mr. Badger from The Wind in the Willows:

that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.

Lewis eventually–as is his way–gets back ’round to “writing for children,” specifically how he writes for children, which has more to do with his attitude toward, and respect for them than writing. He ends with an anecdote summing up these feelings.

Once in a hotel dining-room I said, rather too loudly, ‘I loathe prunes.’ ‘So do I,’ came an unexpected six-year-old voice from another table. Sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of us thought it funny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities. Of the far higher and more difficult relations between child and parent or child and teacher, I say nothing. An author, as a mere author, is outside all that. He is not even an uncle. He is a freeman and an equal, like the postman, the butcher, and the dog next door.

Another children’s author, Hugh Lofting (Doctor Dolittle) has similar thoughts, and I’ve shared some of them at Writing Down to Kids.

“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (PDF)

Miss Missy’s School Book I: A Pack of Farm Dogs Starts a School by Marica Bernstein.

Illustrated by Caroline Cooper. Old Schoolhouse Road Publishing.

“Miss Missy’s School is a wonderful story with something for people of any age, making this a great book to read all together.” ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 

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Lewis, C.S. Of Other Worlds. 1947.

Martindale, Wayne, and Jerry Root, eds. The Quotable Lewis. Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 1963.

Tolkien, J.R.R. in Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Verlyn Flieger, and Douglas A. Anderson, eds. Harper Collins Publisher, London. 2008. (1947.) Expanded Edition with Commentary and Notes.