“The good ones last”

I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.

C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories

I think we can all agree that Lewis’s Narnia books are classics, can’t we? Do you think you’ll love reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 20 years from now as much as you did the first time you read it? [The word canon here means law or standard.]

First edition

Last week we talked about classic children’s books. And we started thinking about what classic books may have in common. Lewis doesn’t use the word, classic, but he is surely talking about them here. He thinks good children’s books should be enjoyed by grownups as much as they are by children. In his opinion, a children’s book that’s only enjoyed by children isn’t a very good children’s book! In other words, if you read a story as a kid, and you like it, and then read it years later and can’t remember why you liked it, it probably wasn’t such a good book to begin with.

Did you know that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were very good friends? As Lewis did, Tolkien thought very hard about what makes a good story– both the ones to read and the ones to write. He said,

It was in fairiy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of the things such as stone, and wood, and iron; trees and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.

J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

Tolkien thought that good stories make readers feel as if they themselves are in the story. By very carefully choosing the right words to tell the story, Tolkien was able to make us all see the wonder of Middle Earth– not just as outside observers, but as if we were walking through the Shire along side Frodo and his companions. [The word divined here means to perceive or detect.]

Hilda Grieder, the person I quote in the epigraph for Miss Missy’s School, is not famous. But she did have some interesting things to say in the chapter, “What is a Classic” (in The Book of Knowledge Vo. 1, 1954). She says a book becomes famous because it “makes a deep impression on readers’ hearts and minds. It helps them to understand life better, to think more about it, and to love it more.” She thinks children’s books become classics because “people find them truer, more original, and more delightful to read than others.”

Do you remember in Chapter VII of Miss Missy’s School when Gilbert reads Peter Rabbit to Aubrey and Little Tommy?

Thinking of Aubrey and Tommy’s reaction to Peter Rabbit, what is it about this book that fits the descriptions of a classic according to Lewis, Tolkien, and Grieder?

If you haven’t read Peter Rabbit since you were a little kid, why don’t you remember what you thought of it then, and go read it again!

What do you think now?

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