I can imagine what you pretty, young things are thinking, that all my blather about the older living books is nothing more than a grandmimi’s craving for washboards, butter churns, and corsets. Actually, none of those sound at all enticing!
Regardless of changing styles, however, there is something tremendous and timelessly valuable in the living books. It isn’t the “olderness” per se which makes them surpassingly worthy, but rather their inherent quality, which outlasts cultural moods, and will grab your kids’ attention!
Why? I should have seen sooner, because I knew that when the culture changes, everything therein changes, too. So, why did I originally assume that current public libraries would still stockpile Judeo-Christian-based books? Why didn’t I guess that youth publishing would also change? For, a book certainly reveals the author’s beliefs about God, truth, and what is worth learning. Even those which show a clinical cosmos express a powerful worldview, albeit empty and lifeless.
Hmm, a book also shows the author’s view of his human readers. If—like the prevailing culture currently—they wish to avoid the greater spiritual realm, and instead see humans as soulless, bio-chemical amalgamations, mere cerebra in need of data, their books will be factoid dispensers for the “MRI-able” gray matter. They will tend to dissect concepts and topics down to small and separate components which they feel are man-sized, and thus easily labeled, scanned, and manipulated. This reductionism promises human mastery.
While we know better (there is no life or truth or power or joy…or God there!), let’s examine a typical reductionist book, which likely bears a no-frills title like: “Bird.” Inside, you’ll see subdivided, dissected, component-content. Lest that division be missed, each separate two-page spread will almost certainly sport a black border, and separate titles, such as “Feathers” or “Beaks.” Now you can be sure there is no flow from one to the next! Within the borders, each two-page spread will assemble factoids. The text is so clinical that it must be partitioned into more tolerable bits. In light of the lack of textual interest, large photos or computer graphics (all machine-made) dominate, apparently with the plan of exciting retinal stimulation. It reads like a newspaper.
Ah, “scientific,” modern books! So glossy, fresh off China’s conveyor belts. Grandma is impressed, and tries to convince the birthday boy to be excited. But most kids back away, as if saying, à la Hans Christian Andersen, that the emperor has no clothes! I stand in libraries filled with such books now, deserts strewn with shiny pulp, impotent to draw, shape, and inspire. I grieve for the kids who won’t experience anything different, and for the librarians who sorrow over the disinterest, who’ve told me that kids ask for books only if needing data on an assigned topic, or a hit movie spawns a paperback spin-off. I want to cry, “No wonder! The books are gasping for breath!”
How can each generation—our own kids, even—get beyond their own self-oriented lives and thoughts if they can’t (vicariously) get their newborn sister over the Rocky Mountains after both parents die on the Oregon Trail, as did the Sager orphans? How can they discover the vivacity of learning beyond passive, cerebral fact-retention? How can kids actually become heroes & heroines of character, discovery, and servant-leadership without something more than Google-able data? Einstein said not to focus on learning that which can be looked up, but to instead focus on that which cannot. That brainiac is telling us what Scripture says too (Ruth Beechick notes that it never mentions the brain alone): that the heart is the seat of learning. So, we seek first our children’s hearts, and then the brain, which follows!
When I was younger, youth literature did have a richer, more Judeo-Christian view of both children/teens and learning. Wahoo, the heart of readers was thus treasured and pursued, not avoided and denied! The authors hunted those hearts with worthy characters who grabbed the very core of their readers, inspiring them to such immersion in the topic that knowledge was lapped up too…effortlessly…and for life.
This was done by speaking the language of the heart: narrative. Always, humans respond to story, even—maybe especially—when the topic is highest truth! Jesus used narrative in His unforgettable parables, and the Old Testament is not a theological treatise, as much as a view of God at work through the lives of His people. Instead of dispensing data mechanically and impersonally, “living” authors draw readers into their love and value for the topic through narrative, just as we do when conveying orally.
Amazingly, whether the topic was Fibonacci numbers, ocean currents, or the Battle of Actium, truly great writing grabbed young readers in the earlier Golden Age of Youth Literature, when such narrative books were the norm, and publishers esteemed the humanness of their readers (ala the Judeo-Christian ethic) through creamy paper, generous spacing, and….drumroll, please…breathtaking, hand-made, evocative, artistic illustrations. Ah, a living book! Even the topics covered were of admirable breadth and depth. That high-water mark has not been matched, so we rescue and read.
Of course, the living appellation is more than apt, for it is not just the nature of the book, but also the outcome in the reader which is alive. I’ve watched it for 22 years! The kids are, at first, afraid of living books, when they see many words and equate them with sterile misery. I ask them to trust me once…and then I enjoy their animated responses upon return. They often hop from foot to foot while excitedly relating all they’ve learned, or hand me a drawing. The content, the seed, has borne fruitful life in them, and will not go fallow ever. Instead, a life-long interest and care has been birthed!
No wonder someone said that living books “capture attention, secure interest”….and “arouse something noble in the heart of the reader, without any effort on the part of the teacher or the taught!” Sign me up!
Having Liz and her family discover living books at my library was very meaningful. Now they pass the wealth to others. You will have the same joy with your children, and with those to whom you may lend.
In closing, let me tell you about a wonderful young man, new to our library, who had not yet discovered a love for reading. A couple weeks later, his mother delightedly told me of her husband’s wonderment, that this son was now waiting for him after work, eager to ebulliently share all that had been discovered in his living books.
Dad then made his own discovery, the same which Liz and I were privileged to make long ago. “Honey,” he said to his wife, “you told me that you’d found good books in Michelle’s library. How nice, I thought. But I couldn’t imagine books so completely different that, by their very nature, they would light such a fire in our son!”
What he said….
© 2017 Michelle Howard Miller