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Category Archives: Children’s Literature

The Chronicles of Prydain: A Disappointment

The_Chronicles_of_Prydain_(book_cover_collage)

I picked up the Chronicles of Prydain on a whim. I knew they had won several Newberry awards, so I thought they ought to be good. I started the first book and read it to the end. It seemed mediocre to me. I thought that the rest of the series was probably better. So I picked up the second book, which had won a Newberry Honor. Blah, I decided. I tried the third book. I liked it a bit more–it had stronger plotting–so I tried the fourth. Blah again. Well, I decided, the fifth was the Newberry Medal winner, so it had to be extremely good. I read it, finished it, and have spend the last few days irritated at Lloyd Alexander.

On one hand, I feel a bit guilty. The Prydain Chronicles have won medals. They have a lot of diehard fans, including one of my younger brothers. And I don’t like them. At the moment, I feel like a book heretic. But I haven’t changed my mind.

On the other, I can write a long list of the things to dislike. Eilonwy’s chatter is annoying, which makes it hard for me to consider her a strong heroine, even if she does love adventure. The dialogue often seems stilted, especially Taran’s. The plots are often loose at best, and frequently problems are solved by deus ex machina. The characters are underdeveloped. Some things don’t make sense–why would Dallben, Taran’s guardian, let Taran go off on a wild goose chase to find his parents when Dallben already knows what happened to them? If he wants Taran to develop more as a person, he could tell Taran the truth and then ship him off to wander.

I don’t want to be too hard on Lloyd Alexander, largely because of the fact that he wrote the series nearly fifty years ago. There weren’t nearly so many Dark Lords populating the fantasy scene back in those days, or orphan boys with secret destinies being raised on farms by old enchanters. Things that now appear as cliches were fairly new. So far as I’m aware, almost no one–Tolkien’s Hobbit being the exception that comes to mind–had written epic fantasy for children until Alexander came along. If I had lived fifty years ago, perhaps I would have been as impressed by Alexander as the Newberry Committee.

But I think a major part of the problem is that Alexander wrote his fantasy strictly for children. Many people who read the series as children seem to have retained their fondness for it after growing up. But adults who come to the series for the first time often have a different experience. Some people would argue that that is not a weakness–children’s books and adults’ books are separate categories. I disagree. And I have C.S. Lewis on my side. Lewis believed that high quality children’s books should be able to appeal to both children and adults. Good books should grow with their readers. If only children can enjoy a book, then it is not really worth being read by anyone.

Two authors come into my mind when I think of fantasies with which to compare the Chronicles of Prydain. One is The Lord of the Rings–a book to which the Prydain series seems to owe many of its themes. Even its ending seems like a poor (not to mention abrupt, disappointing, and rather strange) copy of Tolkien’s conclusion. The other is the Harry Potter series, which was written decades later and also owes a debt to The Lord of the Rings. All three series include a hero of humble origins who has an important calling, as well as a Dark Lord of sorts. I love The Lord of the Rings. I like Harry Potter (although I wish that he would stop lying to his friends and teachers, and also that J. K. Rowling’s writing style were better). Both series, however, seem more inventive than the Chronicles of Prydain–despite the fact that Tolkien’s work is decades old and that Rowling borrowed some major ideas from him. However “low-brow” Rowling is, many adults are able to appreciate her books, despite not having read them as children. And Tolkien has certainly grown with me since I first read him as a teenager. Prydain–not so much.

My final word? The Chronicles of Prydain are okay. Just okay. Many kids will like them. But I can think of many other children’s fantasy authors that I would sooner recommend.

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Posted by on March 25, 2015 in Children's Literature, Fantasy

 

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The Wingfeather Saga: A Wonderful Surprise

Warning: Don’t go into the forest. Don’t go, even if the thwaps in your garden are driving you insane. It won’t be a very enjoyable walk. And you had better hope you don’t run into a horned hound. Or worse, a toothy cow.

On the other hand, if you think toothy cows sound interesting, you might want to give The Wingfeather Saga a try. A series of four books by Andrew Peterson, it chronicles the adventures of three siblings: Janner, Kalmar (“Tink”), and Leeli. In a world filled with dangerous animals, the three face a greater danger. The Fangs of Dang, nasty lizards who rule their hometown of Glipwood, think that their family is hiding a secret—the location of the Jewels of Anniera. The three children do not know what the Jewels are, or where they are located—but when the Fangs come, sent to their continent, Skree, by Gnag the Nameless himself, they know how to do the most important thing. Run.

On-the-Edge-of-the-Dark-Sea-of-Darkness-195x300The Wingfeather Saga is Andrew Peterson’s first series of books. It is not, however, his first experience with writing—I became familiar with him as a songwriter before I learned that he was writing a fantasy series. A lot of his older music doesn’t really interest me—generally speaking, it sounds like CCM as usual. His most recent album, Light for the Lost Boy, is a different story. It’s more evocative, more imaginative. A couple songs sound more like his past songwriting, but the majority of the songs are a full level above any of his previous work.

Maybe Peterson found his second wind. In any case, his songwriting experience means that when he includes songs in his series, they actually sound like songs. I cringe to think of some of the sad attempts at balladry that I’ve come across in the fantasy novels I’ve read. Understanding the rhythm in poetry never seemed difficult to me growing up—maybe it was the product of my musical education. But a creative writing class in my undergraduate days taught me that even if rhythm isn’t that difficult, it’s at least more difficult for some than others. Anyway, ballads aren’t easy to write. But Peterson could easily put the songs in his Wingfeather Saga to music; all are all well-written, and some are frankly beautiful.

Aside from songs? The Wingfeather Saga melds gentle humor (I loved the “footnotes,” especially in book 1) with some very serious themes—themes so serious that my local library classified the final book as young adult. The series is really not aimed at the young adult market, although teenagers (and some adults) may enjoy reading it. It’s been compared to The Lord of the Rings, but I think that’s pretty inaccurate. Similarities to LotR mainly consist of an evil enemy who uses evil monsters and the fact that the book is fantasy. In other words—not much. Being aimed at children, it’s more comparable with the Narnian Chronicles, but without an Aslan-substitute. Thank God! It’s one of the first Christian-themed fantasies that I’ve read that haven’t either tried to force an incarnation of Christ into the story or included explicit theological discussions. Aslan is wonderful, but I recall reading that one of Lewis’s friends had been considering a similar story, with Christ incarnated as a tiger. When he saw Lewis’s story, he scrapped his plan. Overkill kills.

Tolkien wrote that there was only one incarnation of Christ, and therefore he did not even intend for any of his “good” characters to be Christ-figures, let alone actual incarnations of Christ. In this regard, Peterson follows Tolkien. He includes a “Maker” who is active, but mainly behind the scenes. Peterson’s “Maker” is more obviously involved than was Tolkien’s “Eru,” but most of the time it isn’t in-your-face. A non-Christian wouldn’t be able to read this series without realizing that the Maker is, in fact, God—as some have been able to read Lewis without realizing that Aslan is a “supposal” about Christ. But Christian readers who dislike preachy fiction can relax. Peterson does not preach. He sings. And that is what makes him so unusual.

Tolkien was Catholic. Lewis was an Anglo-Catholic. Both are favorite authors of Peterson’s, which, for an evangelical, is not extremely unusual. Finding an evangelical who also likes George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton—as Peterson does—is rarer. And one who admires Thomas Merton? Practically unheard of. But Merton, too, numbers among Peterson’s favorite authors. Yet Peterson is a pastor’s son, raised, as he puts it, in the “nondenominational denomination.” As far as I know, Peterson hasn’t changed “denominations.” He clearly remains an evangelical Protestant. And that makes him extremely unusual. Evangelicals with vivid imaginations who like both G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton have a tendency to end up in the high church somewhere. Yet Peterson apparently hasn’t—and his fantasy world seems as Protestant to me as Tolkien’s is Catholic. His world is vivid with an appreciation of ancient truth—the sort of viewpoint I associate with the high church. But Peterson’s concept of ancient truth seems lifted more from Genesis than from a continuous church tradition.

Beginnings, in the Wingfeather Saga, are a big deal. There are multiple characters with close ties to past ages of Peterson’s fantasy world—even an ancient rebel (an amalgam of Cain and Nimrod?) called Ouster Will, whose death was shockingly close to the time the story takes place. (For the record, I love Ouster Will’s name. It’s perfect on so many different levels.) Where Tolkien drew largely on pagan mythologies for his own fantasies, shaping them according to his liking and the influence of Catholic tradition, Peterson seems to have internalized Tolkien’s characterization of Christianity as “true myth.” Lewis did that, of course—Narnia resulted—but his focus was more on the New Testament. But Peterson has discovered the “true myth” of the Old Testament. The Annierans are a chosen people, exiled from their homeland. And the genesis of the world was not so long ago.

What about problems? Well, the Wingfeather Saga isn’t Narnia—although a child might not notice the difference. The writing style is good, but there are places where we are told a bit too much about Janner’s feelings through his thoughts, rather than seeing him act. Those were the places where I got squirmy. Also, the serious themes of the later books don’t always meld easily with the lingering thwaps and diggles.

In general, however? Wingfeather’s series is better than average for fantasy, and worlds beyond most Christian fantasy attempts. Start with book 1, and don’t skip around in any of the books. I found out about a couple characters’ deaths too early because I assumed that this was a nice kids’ fantasy series where nobody important dies.

The Wingfeather Saga is definitely a nice kids’ fantasy series. But it’s also a tale that Peterson tells in deadly earnest, toothy cows notwithstanding. Naming a single theme for the story is difficult—as it should be. But if I were to pick only one, I think it would be salvation.

A costly salvation, without an awkward Aslan-substitute in sight.

 
 

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When Depressing Stories Aren’t

A folk musician once remarked that no celebration of British traditional music is complete without a song of tragedy in which everybody dies. If you suffered through “Sir Patrick Spens” (or, worse, “The Twa Corbies”) during your high school days, then you know exactly what I mean. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that there were only two kinds of ballads: “sad ballads about broken hearts and cheerful ballads about broken heads.” He was basically right.

I have a reputation, at least within my family, of listening to depressing music. It’s rather odd, since I don’t consider myself a particularly angsty person. I test as an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs indicator and have been accused (falsely) of lacking emotions altogether. But most of my favorite folk songs are the sad ones. Why is it that some people, myself included, feel almost uplifted by music that should be depressing.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis might be a partial explanation. In Poetics, he argued that tragedies were beneficial because they produced a cleansing effect in those who watched them. To put it another way, sad songs or stories or dramas allow us to get in touch with emotions that we cannot safely express much of the time. We don’t have to be genuinely angsty to experience those emotions, because we feel them in direct relation to what we are listening to, reading, or watching. No need to start dressing like a goth and writing poems about your death. You feel the emotions—then comes the climax—the problems resolve—and you relax.

Aristotle’s theory of catharsis isn’t the greatest justification for the existence of tragedy, as C. S. Lewis pointed out. But it does explain why some of us listen to depressing things and don’t end up depressed. Still, it’s more an effect than a cause. (Who goes to a bookshelf saying, “I feel like having some catharsis today”?)

TheHappyPrinceOscar Wilde, I suspect, had less interest in catharsis than in beauty. Most of his fairy stories end with at least one death. Probably his most famous fairy story is “The Selfish Giant,” which has been made into a children’s book. Yes, Wilde meant his stories, sad endings and all, for children. His sons, specifically, when Wilde grew tired of playing with them. But Wilde put his own hunger for beauty into the stories to the extent that he once cried when telling “The Selfish Giant” to his sons Cyril and Vyvyan. When Cyril wanted to know why, his father said that truly beautiful things always made him cry.

Sometimes Wilde’s love of beauty can carry him away—in his collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories, the descriptions are always beautiful but sometimes become too long. Generally speaking, I think that adults will probably get more out of Wilde’s fairy stories than many children will, although my ten-year-old brother enjoyed having the book read to him.

Happy_princeMy favorite of the stories is probably the one for which the volume was titled. “The Happy Prince” is such a good story that any single theme I might assign it falls short. Self-sacrifice? Loss of innocence? The need for compassion? The Happy Prince was once a great noble who lived a life without sorrow. But after his death, his spirit resides in a golden statue made to resemble him, from which he sees all the sorrows of the city he once ruled. He begs a swallow who is traveling south to begin removing some of the gems and precious metals from his statue of a body in order to alleviate some of the suffering. The swallow complies, and many of the townsfolk find relief from their poverty. But in the mean time the Happy Prince is rendered blind and ugly, and the swallow dies from the approaching winter. The Mayor orders the stripped statue to be melted down and has the swallow thrown into a dust heap. The heart of the Happy Prince, which broke when the bird died, will not melt, so the Mayor has it, too, thrown away. The story ends with these two paragraphs:

“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”

The wonderful thing about fairy stories is that they might be tragic, but only on rare occasions are they tragedies. The Happy Prince chooses sorrow and finds joy. And maybe that’s the point of a lot of fairy stories. They’re about finding wholeness in brokenness—the moment when the young Fisherman’s lost soul reenters his shattered heart.

Whatever might be said about depressing art in general, I think there’s a good deal to be said for art that, in the same stroke, can help us understand both sadness and joy.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Children's Literature

 

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Fantasy and Mixing Genres

I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. The very idea of fairies (or vampires, or whatever) hanging out in some sort of London underworld makes me begin groaning (if alone) or grimacing (if not alone). The only explanation that I can come up with is something to do with the atmosphere—I don’t typically enjoy urban fiction anyway, and adding supernatural creatures to the cement environments I hate adds an additional annoyance factor. So perhaps it isn’t terribly surprising that I do like stories that bridge the gap between fantasy and historical fiction.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is one such book. It is seems set in the 19th century England (although that isn’t entirely clear) and centers around a story of medieval family conflict. The heroine, Maria Merryweather, has to find a way to right the wrongs of her ancestor, Sir Wrolf, in order "Virgin and Unicorn," Domenico Zampierifor peace to come to her family manor. Some of the story’s elements are realistic, if a little idealized. Others are possible by stretching reality, while a few are simply fantastic.

C. S. Lewis observed that one of the distinguishers of pure Story, as opposed to the novel, is a focus on atmosphere that envelops both the plot and characters, rather than the other way around. And The Little White Horse has a very strong atmosphere. In fact, coming away from the story, one of the main things I remember is the color—silver and black (and, well, pink).

My main criticism of the book is, in fact, that the atmosphere may be too strong—that the story would be more like a fairy tale if its fairy tale qualities weren’t so carefully protected. Most fairy tales are much less fairy tale-ish than might be expected. Often they are more realistic than we would prefer—the versions we are more familiar with have often been divested of some of their more jarring elements so they can be told to children. That isn’t to say that good fairy tales are jarring, but that there is a delicate balance between “faery” elements and realistic elements. The Little White Horse gives a bit too much dominance to the faery.

The Perilous Gard (written by another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Marie Pope) is a story similar in that it bridges a gap between history and fantasy. Also like The Little White Horse, it includes a love story of sorts. Granted, it is, I think, intended for slightly older readers; but I’m also inclined to think that it better succeeds in balancing the faery and realistic elements.

Of course, it helps the story is partially an explanation of where English fairy legends came from in the first place. But its atmosphere is at least as strong as that of The Little White Horse, although different—more caves and candles than sunlight and moonlight. Still, it isn’t every author who can create a story about violent elf-like pagans hiding in the backwoods of medieval England.

I suppose The Little White Horse rather shows why J.R.R. Tolkien so hated allegory. To protect the atmosphere, the story invokes so much symbolism that it likely produces groans in some readers.

I didn’t groan. And if it isn’t every story that can make violent elf-like pagans come alive, it also isn’t every story that can make an eccentric dwarf seem quite realistic. Or that can pass off a lion as a dog. Or that can come up with a credible ending without killing someone. The Little White Horse has its faults. I would not call it great. But it was very, very good.

 
 

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C. S. Lewis, Creator of…Boxen?

C. S. Lewis is perhaps most famous for his Chronicles of Narnia, but Narnia was not his first foray into fantasy. His first imaginative world was called…Boxen.

Not a very imaginative name, perhaps, but Lewis had plenty of excuse–he was only a child when he and his older brother, “Warnie,” made up the imaginary country, a fusion of Lewis’s “Animal-Land” and Warnie’s “India” (which had very little in common with the real India). Boxen had little in common with Narnia except that it was also populated with talking animals. Lewis. writing of Animal-land and Boxen later in his life, said that “Animal-land had nothing to do with Narnia except the anthropomorphic beasts. Animal-land, by its whole quality, excluded the least hint of wonder.”

My own brief forays into fiction as a child were as prosaic as Lewis’s. Maybe it takes a while to really develop a taste for fairy tales. As a child I thought that the reading book excerpt of The Wind in the Willows was boring–boring! Thankfully, I rediscovered the book in college.

I recently found a Christianity Today article that touched on Boxen, which I knew about from reading Surprised by Joy. What I didn’t know–and on which the article enlightened me–that one of Lewis’s friends called that particular book “Surpressed by Jack” because of all the things he left out.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in Children's Literature

 

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The Life of the World

When I was in early elementary school, I liked dandelions—or at least I thought my mother did. In our backyard—the same yard where the grass stubbornly refused to grow, the yard where a new crop of rocks appeared every spring, no matter how many we collected and threw into the gravel part of the driveway—dandelions grew by dozens. Or perhaps hundreds. In any case, there were too many for me to bother counting. I picked them, though—two or three big dandelion flowers at a time. I would take them inside and give them to my mother, who inevitably put them in little glass cups by the kitchen sink, where they wilted and died. She always said thank you.

As I grew older, I slowly learned that dandelions are considered weeds. When you’re being forced to dig dandelions out of garden beds (those roots! uggh), you’re less likely to view them kindly. I also have certain grim memories of a boring and slightly distasteful children’s book with the main character—a lion—was named Dandy Lion. Ha. Ha.

A few days ago I finished reading The Chestnut King, the conclusion to the 100 Cupboards trilogy by N.D. Wilson. I read the first two books in the series last January (I’ve re-read them several times since then), but I wasn’t able to get the third book from the library until this summer. As I read it, I thought about dandelions. And I  realized, oddly, that I will never see them in the same way again. That’s not what I would typically carry away from a fantasy series.

Wilson tells the story of Henry York, born in another world and transported to Kansas by accident as a baby. Adopted by a pair of smothering but distant parents, Henry is protected from real life until his parents are kidnapped while traveling in South America. He returns to Kansas to stay with his Uncle Frank and Aunt Dotty. Henry doesn’t know his true background. But he does know that he likes Uncle Frank’s house better than his usual boarding schools and nannies. And in that house is something special—cupboards in the attic, portals to other worlds.

Henry does not know it, but he is a seventh son, destined to understand the world’s inner life and to merge its green strength with his own. And when he sees the inside of a dandelion burning with life, his own life will never be the same. He will find his first home and his true family. And he will also find an old evil, deathless—unless Henry, through the life that is in him, can become its death.

Why dandelions? Wilson argues that people tend to ignore the ordinary magic of our own world. Dandelions multiply, and no one tends to pay a great deal of attention (except a few people chagrined about the state of their gardens).  Dandelions are alive, and life is inherently magic. It comes directly from God, beyond our control or even our understanding.

Dandelions intruded into my prayers the other night. I was tired, emotionally and spiritually, and I told God that I needed some of Henry’s dandelion life. There’s some part of me that thinks it’s artistically bad to pray using metaphors from children’s fantasy novels, but I doubt that God (or Wilson, who is Reformed) minded. In any case, my mind turned from life in dandelions to life in something else—the Resurrection.

I’ve read, in passing, that the early church placed a greater emphasis on the Resurrection than the modern church does. And I typically do not think of it very often, aside from at Easter. I know what Christ’s suffering and death mean for me—how they affect my daily life. I participate in His death every time I take Communion. But the Resurrection is hardly mentioned between Easters, and I forget it. I have hardly thought about what it means.

Christ lives. He is the Life of the World. And I live, truly live, by drawing on that life. Henry becomes strong by relying on the strength of others, and particularly the life he sees blazing in one Kansas dandelion. But it is Christ’s life that is enlivening the world even now—his life that made dandelions, and his resurrected life that promises to resurrect dandelions, and the rest of creation. He is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Renewer. That is the promise of the Resurrection.

There’s a song I’ve seen in hymnbooks, but have never sung—“Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.” It’s true enough, but incomplete. A better title might be “Jesus Lives, and So Do I.” Christ lives—now. His life turned death on its head. I don’t have the life of dandelions to draw on, but I do have the life of Christ, which pulses through the world—and through me.

 
 

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Liking “Kid Books”

I was waiting for one of my sophomore classes to begin, my nose in an E. Nesbit story, when another student plopped down next to me.

“What are you reading?”

“A kid book,” I said. “It’s hard to get through anything more complicated in the middle of a semester.”

The other student smiled. “I like kid books.”

Incidentally, so do I, although I didn’t read most of my favorites until I was at least in high school. And it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I discovered E. Nesbit. I have C.S. Lewis to thank for that discovery. Considering that Lewis didn’t discover The Wind in the Willows until he was in his twenties, I suppose I shouldn’t feel so guilty.

Unfortunately, I seem to suffer from a perpetually guilty conscience, at least so far as my reading isconcerned. Such as the fact that I didn’t read all of The Chronicles of Narnia until high school. Or E. Nesbit and The Wind in the Willows until my sophomore year of college. I still haven’t finished Treasure Island, and that doesn’t even begin to cover my [real, in this case] guiltiness over The Lord of the Rings.

My confession goes something like this. I had always associated The Lord of the Rings with video gaming. And I hate video games. As a result, I didn’t touch the series until my senior year of high school. By that point, I had read enough C.S. Lewis to find out that he was friends with J.R.R. Tolkien. I figured that anyone who was friends with Lewis must not be a video gamer, so I decided to read part of The Lord of the Rings for one of my senior book reports.

I picked the wrong part. Partly I blame the library; but my ignorance was the greater culprit. I looked in the children’s section for the first part of LOTR, not realizing that it was more likely to be found in the young adult section. The only part of LOTR in the children’s section was The Return of the King. So I took it home and read it.

Yes, I know that I wasn’t supposed to do that. Unlike Frodo, I don’t believe I’ll have permanent scars from the experience–but it was quite an experience.

But after all, LOTR isn’t really a children’s book, although many children enjoy reading it. According to Tolkien’s friend Lewis, however, that fact is actually a good thing. “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children,” he argued, “is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Some of the books that I read when I was actually a child definitely fall under Lewis’s ban. They weren’t really worth reading when I was a child, and they’re certainly not worth reading now. At the same time, some of the “kid books” I’ve discovered after my “kid” days were over are more valuable to me than they could have been when I was younger.

Take the story that Lewis neglected for so long, The Wind in the Willows. I disliked most books about animals when I was a child. There was one book about a cat that I read more than once, but I think my main reason was because the cat ran away, got beaten up, and caught (I think) pneumonia. The Wind in the Willows doesn’t have quite that level of pathos. But it is far funnier, as well as more poetic, than my childhood’s volume about the wandering feline. When I was in elementary school, I had no intention of sympathizing with a Rat, a Mole, a Toad, or anything with four legs and fur. Now I consider the Water Rat something of a kindred spirit. My tastes have grown.

When I start feeling guilty about some of the stories that I didn’t read until I was technically too old for them, I remember Lewis’s comments about good children’s stories. I console myself with knowing that I have developed a greater appreciation for quality children’s literature. And I reach for another E. Nesbit book.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2012 in Children's Literature

 

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