Monday, June 9, 2008

The Fadiman Family and Books for Children...

I think Anne Fadiman is a wonderful writer. Whenever I'm in the mood to read something light, but smart, I often turn to the essays in her books, Ex Libris and At Large and at Small. The essays deal with all sorts of topics, from personal libraries to coffee to Coleridge to rafting in the Grand Canyon to ice cream to the treatment of books, and much more. Even the appearance of these books-- their size and the covers-- appeal to me. I highly recommend them.

Anne is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman of literary fame. The entire Fadiman family really has quite the academic reputation, and when reading Anne's essays, I discovered that they also seemed to be a very down to earth, cheerful family with an adventurous spirit and an appreciation of life. Anne and her brother lived the nice kind of childhood that I think all children should have. They explored and collected things from nature and brought the collected items into their home, creating their own, small natural history museum. They had time to read and daydream in the way of that almost-lost, old fashioned childhood. The entire family loved books and talked about them endlessly. In fact, it seems they talked all the time about everything. They played their own really smart, made-up games in the car and compulsively proofread menus in restaurants. I came to appreciate the Fadiman family through Anne's books.

Serendipity struck in the library yesterday afternoon. As I wandered the aisles and perused shelves randomly, I ran across on old book of essays by Clifton Fadiman, published in 1962, called, Enter, Conversing. Aha! I grabbed the book immediately and put it on top of my book pile without even looking through it. I knew I was going to like this one. I had met Clifton Fadiman in his daughter's books, and I already liked the man.

When Melissa and I arrived home from town, we sat at the counter together with cups of Mexican coffee, and we chatted, flipping through our library books and reading portions aloud. I found an essay by Clifton Fadiman on children's books called "Children, Books, and a List," and I quickly scanned it. It looked excellent, and I made a note to read through it later.

A love for children's books has never waned in our home. To my children, these books defy age-categorization, and this really is how it should be. A good book is a good book, period. And a special book rarely loses its initial appeal. That's why my college-age son, who loves to read Kierkegaard, Spencer, and Dostoevsky, can, with no embarrasment, request the Brambly Hedge Treasury for his birthday. Or why he will occasionally re-read Winnie the Pooh. Or will comment often on Wind in the Willows. Or why he will put the Swallows and Amazons books he does not yet own on his birthday wish-list. It's why Melissa can confidently give a nice copy of The Pink Motel to an adult Aimee for Christmas, and why Aimee will react with glee when she opens it. It's also why Melissa, upon finishing her Italo Calvino book, will, for her next book, choose Gone Away Lake, as she did this week. (The two books seem to have given her equal enjoyment, as she repeatedly read aloud and commented on passages from both.)

Earlier today, after Melissa described a scene to me from Gone Away Lake, she mentioned that the level of writing and vocabulary in the book would not be found in a modern children's book. She said that books written now talk down to children; they don't respect their intelligence. But the old books aren't like that. I absolutely agreed.

And so does Clifton Fadiman, who encourages us in his essay about children's books to "let a child read above himself." At the end of his essay, Fadiman offers a book list for children. As I scanned the list, I noticed that Fadiman's recommendations, which are purposely not divided into age categories, run quite a range, including authors such as Thackeray, Bemelmans, Dickens, Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, Baum, Austen, Barrie, Conrad, Nesbit, Tarkington, Milne, Hugo, Herge, and many others. A number of the recommended books would now be considered high school or college-level reading, supposedly too sophisticated or difficult for children to comprehend. But I think this is only true if we make it true.

Fadiman says, "if a book is good enough it makes hay of age levels." He quotes Sir Walter Scott as saying, "I am persuaded that both children and the lower class of readers hate books that are written down to their capacity. They love those that are composed for their olders and betters," and then Fadiman continues: "let the child read above his capacity. Ignore (obviously within reason) the neat age-level indications with which the experts provide us. The experts mean well, but they have never met your child, and you have... there is only one way to enlarge a rubber band and that is to stretch it."

J.R.R. Tolkien (an author who is on Fadiman's list of recommended books for children) said something similar in his letters. He explained that he did not write specifically for children or for any other particular person, but that children did seem to like his stories and he hoped it increased their vocabularies. In one letter, Tokien wrote, "... it would be a good thing if that great reverence which is due to children took the form of eschewing the tired and flabby cliches of adult life. But an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in the right context. A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one's age group. It comes from reading books above one." And in another letter: "I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies-- and alas! little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine and enlarge them."

But, by encouraging the reading of difficult books, Fadiman is not recommending imposing a reading program on a child. He encourages sensitivity: "Of course, one must use common sense; if the book is really so hard as to discourage the child, you simply point out how enjoyable it will be next year, and supply him with another book."

I'd also like to point out that Fadiman, who was a huge promoter of the Great Books, does not include classical works in his book list except for a few of what he considers wonderfully written versions of these works, by Padraic Colum and others. Maybe he was in the camp that thought the 1,000 good books led to the 100 great books and that the transition needn't be rushed.

In writing this, I don't mean to be insensitive about children who are late readers or who have reading struggles. This is not an exhortation to "notch up" their reading. A child reads a particular book when he is ready. I've known several children who haven't read until age 9 or 10, and suddenly, within a year, they often sailed by their earlier-reading age-mates. And those with learning struggles should never feel pressured to reach above their current level of ability. Mostly, it's parents who get disheartened, though. Please don't. God knows your child; he created him and will not leave him alone.

This is also not about impressing anyone. It's not about merely increasing a child's vocabulary or making him seem smart. It's not about pushing a child to excel. It's simply meant to encourage or allow a child to reach as children are often inclined to do when left to their own devices (contrary to popular opinion). Reaching leads to endless delights in reading.

My son and one of my daughters, both when age six, were seen reading books thought by casual observers to be meant for older children. Both times, I was taken aside and warned about pushing my kids or letting my pride want them to seem advanced. And I was then told by one (a public school teacher) that my children needed to have reached certain developmental benchmarks before he or she could really grasp the full meaning of the book (it was Beverly Cleary, for heaven's sake!). The other person (a more seasoned homeschool mom than I at the time) told me that, as homeschoolers, we all want our children to excel, but that I should let my children read picture books for as long as they want. I was really taken aback by both comments. I'd never given a moment's thought to whether my kids were reading above "grade-level" or not. They'd chosen the books themselves because they wanted to read them, and both of them were enjoying their books immensely.

And that, I think, is the point.