Recently my eye was briefly caught by one of those “50 books that build character” lists. I glanced at the bright, rather attention-deficit-disorder-augmenting covers and cheery titles and was confirmed in my hunch that you’d be wasting your money, and, more importantly, your precious time with your kids.
Dear Reader, it won’t work.
There are no shortcuts.
You don’t get character that way.
There is no program.
And the whole enterprise creates a loss of memory.
Because children’s books these days tend to be written with a message in mind, rather than to delight, people have forgotten what a children’s book should be!
Their first impulse, reading an old book, is to find the message, tearing off what they consider the hull (the artistic element) to try to discover the kernel (the character-building element). They are like paralyzed people looking at the ambulatory, wondering where the walking mechanism is hidden.
The imagination of these folks seems somehow one-dimensional, or missing altogether. They don’t seem to understand the workings of imagination at all, or its relationship to the soul (not to mention to art and morality).
They are little moralists who see that sin is the worst possible act (true).
They conclude, therefore, that the role of the adults is to assure that little human beings under their care are to be molded into sin-avoidance machines (untrue). They look at art as a way to accomplish this.
Don’t try to find the mechanism! (Remember the Emperor and the Nightingale?)
C. S. Lewis called George MacDonald “my master.” It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what he meant, but I think he admired MacDonald’s unity of message and form. He marveled at the beauty of George MacDonald’s works, even while recognizing their shortcomings. Ironically, for the purposes of this post, MacDonald did occasionally lapse into preaching. However, I personally think preaching is far better than moralizing! In other words, just come out and tell me that Jesus died for my sins. In any case, his children’s stories tell stories, which is the main point.
The stories are delightful. A good story contributes to the formation of the imaginative faculties it assumes already exist. It calls into being the moral universe it depicts as under siege. In the Curdie books (as they are affectionately referred to, despite having the princess as their main character), the choices the children face are the choices that build character, for better or for worse; but they don’t exist to build character. They exist because a story needs to be told.
I love the Curdie books; their magic works slowly and deeply. They are more than the sum of their parts: the world they depict is simple and mythological, yet imaginatively complete.
I do recommend asserting the rights of the collective memory when it comes to the last chapter of The Princess and Curdie, “The End,” shortening and softening it a bit for young children. It’s rather devastating as it stands, and I have no doubt that if this story were retold many times in the oral tradition of fairy tales, it would be dropped. For the child, it lacks hope.
Changing it seems justified by the rules of fairyland; specifically, that a story must have a happy ending. I think in this case MacDonald forgot whom he was writing for. You can let older kids read it for themselves as written, and then discuss it if they seem sad.
Other MacDonald books that you will love:
At the Back of the North Wind: This story unfolds as you go: don’t be impatient to understand it. You will.
The Wise Woman: Short stories, very mysterious and fantastical.
Sir Gibbie:This one had to be edited and abridged, as it was written in heavy Scots dialect. It’s for older children — ones who are used to MacDonald and know that he will not be afraid to show you Christ’s suffering in a child. Rather intense, be warned for your sensitive ones. But it has a happy ending, fear not.