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Children Deserve Better Books
Commentary: Why We Should Not Let Our Children Read Garbage
A recent New York Times article complained about a wave of supposedly overly sensitive parents wanting to ban perfectly acceptable books in public libraries. Of course, many of the books are not acceptable at all. The Times describes one of them as “a sex education book” and another as a “graphic novel intended for inclusive discussions around sexuality [that] depicts nudity.” But besides these obviously inappropriate books are another class of books, ostensibly for children, with titles like My Butt Is So Noisy, I Broke My Butt, Freddy the Farting Snowman, and Gary the Goose and His Gas on the Loose among others.
Following the discussion, I couldn’t help but think of a book fair at my school last spring. I remember book fairs when I was young. The books there were not literary masterpieces, but many were harmless or were at least interesting stories. The Boxcar Children was a favorite of mine, and my mother bought for me nearly every one she could find. Last year, when my school hosted a book fair, I stopped by one day out of curiosity and was struck by how bad the books were. Not that they were obviously offensive, but they were bland, boring, with terrible blocklike illustrations reminiscent of many low budget cable cartoons (unfortunately) designed for children.
When the communications director at our local library system complained about banning some of those books and insisted that a book about a farting goose was not grooming children, I couldn’t help but think that that was an extraordinarily low bar to set for a children’s book: “At least it’s not grooming your children!”
More offensive is that the book (Gary the Goose is simply bland and vapid, with ugly illustrations, its entertainment value dependent on bathroom jokes. It (and too many other modern “children’s books” like it) offer nothing of value: no good story, no admirable characters, no beauty, nothing to develop virtue or goodness. One can’t but ask: are these the best they have to offer our children? And why?
Our library communications director was wrong. The book about the farting goose was grooming our children. It grooms them to accept the ugly, the bland, and the vapid as good and humorous. It grooms them to accept literature and entertainment without beauty, without good art and illustrations, good people, or any moral formation. It grooms them to lower their sights (literally), to accept the bland, the crude, and the ugly instead of the good, the true, and beautiful.
But beautiful options exist in classic children’s literature: delightfully illustrated versions of fairy tales like Snow White by Charles Santore, Puss in Boots by Jerry Pinkney, Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow by Robert Souci and E.B. Lewis, among many others. Paul Galdone’s versions of classic fairy and nursery tales are very good. Many of Jan Brett’s stories are very good and wonderfully illustrated. Martha’s Hodge’s versions of The Kitchen Knight and St. George and the Dragon are splendid. William Bennet’s Children’s Book of Virtues and his other children’s books contain many excellent stories and illustrations.
With books like these and many others available, why a book about a farting goose? Why do people writing, publishing, and buying these books want to groom our children to accept mediocrity? Why deny them access to the good, true, and beautiful?
Good books like those above (and many others) do not merely entertain children: they form them. A man who has seen once the promise of beauty does not easily go back to the ugly. A child who has grown accustomed to the good and beautiful does not easily go back to the bland, ugly, and mediocre.
Furthermore, good classic stories teach not only beauty, but virtue. The Three Little Pigs tells children that laziness has consequences. Sloth is not only a sin, it is dangerous. Little Red Riding Hood teaches children to obey their parents; Robin Hood teaches courage; Cinderella teaches exaltavit humiles; Snow White warns against envy and jealousy, and Bennett’s Book of Virtues teaches, well, virtue.
These types of stories form character, that is to say, moral character– the kind of person one is. They form children to admire the virtues, despise the vices, and desire beauty and goodness. Why does the modern world not want that? With so many options, why groom children to be crude, mediocre, and empty-headed?
Why is mediocrity ever desired? Why do students at school get angry at the one student who excels? Why do some students complain, “you’re making the rest of us look bad”? Goodness condemns mediocrity, not necessarily by any word it speaks, but by its very existence. I can’t help but think that beautiful children’s books and the children formed by them are a challenge to the moral mediocrity of our modern world. Fulton Sheen once commented on our world’s hatred of beauty and goodness, saying “only the grays live.”
And there is something just as important as moral formation: the supernatural element. If good children’s literature forms children for the good, the true, and the beautiful, of which God is the highest Good, Truth, and Beauty, then we must see bad children’s literature as ultimately works of hell. Such works are determined not to allow children a glimpse of the virtue, goodness, and beauty which directs them toward heaven and helps them live a holy life
As parents, as educators, as human beings, our task is not to allow the ugly, the bland, and the mediocre to dominate our lives: not in literature, art, popular entertainment, or even architecture. And here, not in children’s books. Our children deserve better than crudeness and mediocrity. It is our task to see that they get it.