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Empty frigates

Children should experience and learn to love literature before they learn to dissect it

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Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the airport terminal waiting to board a flight, or perhaps you’ve just taken a seat on a city bus. Across from you sits a woman reading a book. You tilt your head to scan the title (you’re always curious about what people are reading), and suddenly your heart skips a beat. It’s your favorite! Customary reserve takes a back seat as you gasp, “I love that book!” She looks up, eyes suddenly alight. “So do I!”

The next few minutes might strike bemused observers as a long-lost-relative reunion or charismatic revival service: sentences stampeding, hands fluttering, swoony sighs. It’s the meeting of two book lovers. Rare in person, but they meet continually online, over exclamation-studded reader reviews and blog reminiscences of lonely childhoods transformed by Jane Eyre or Robin Hood. They are living portraits of the Emily Dickinson poem: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away; / Nor any coursers like a page / Of prancing poetry. …”

Anyone who has ever been shaken by a story, transported by a poem, or inspired by a well-written history fits my definition of “book lover.” C.S. Lewis (who as a boy experienced something like the scene I described in the first paragraph), understood this. Throughout his life he was vulnerable to stirring sagas and well-turned stanzas, a phenomenon he explored in An Experiment in Criticism. Not everyone is a book lover; Lewis suspected they were rare, but even a barely literate day laborer might find something to feed his soul in King Solomon’s Mines or “The Raven.”

It’s very odd, when you think about it. We come equipped with the capacity to enter a story, get to know fictional characters, and imagine ourselves beside them. Though it has no obvious practical value, the capacity is so deeply human it forms the bedrock of “the humanities.” After centuries of thrilling crowds and stirring hearts, literature became an academic subject—and some critics believe that’s the worst thing that ever happened to it.

“Literature” as subject is the study of literary craft. Craft is involved in every form of art, and learning about perspective and composition (for example) can help us understand a painting. But it can also distract us from the experience of just standing and looking. “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender,” Lewis wrote. “Look. Listen. Receive.” It makes sense to teach literature from a critical perspective in college, after students have read and liked dozens of books. But the younger the child, the less she’ll gain from character arcs and compare-and-contrast. In fact, too much of this could harm a child’s appreciation for literature in general, like poking at a live lab specimen until it’s dead.

The new Common Core standards appear to make a bad method much worse. Instead of reading lots of novels and stories, students are exposed to “texts,” which they are then taught to dissect. Fiction and poetry go in the same hopper with informative essays and tracts. The fourth- or fifth-grader can’t just read; critical exercises bar his way to the story and its potential “to take us lands away.” If books are frigates, children should be allowed to step aboard and experience the journey, not make detailed diagrams of the rigging. Curriculum writers don’t seem to understand the main problem with standard educational theory, at least since John Dewey: The child is not a soul, but a brain. Brains don’t need experience; they only need facts.

If your child’s summer reading list came with worksheets, ditch them if you can. Just let the kids read, and continue to read to them—lots of books, and all kinds of books. They don’t have to finish every one they start; literary tastes are as individual as fingerprints and take time to develop. The cost is low, the value high. Take it from Emily Dickinson: “How frugal is the chariot / That bears the human soul.”

Email jcheaney@wng.org

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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