Reading Children’s Stories

In continuing our group of entries on reading, you might assume–and correctly–that Lewis has something to say about stories for children, especially given the Narnia series and secondarily (I think) the space trilogy. In Of Other Worlds, he gives us three ways of writing for children in an essay aptly titled, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” His reasons for writing such stories square up with reading them as well, so here we go.

First, he throws a punch about qualifying such stories: I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” Lewis says. “The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.” I tend to agree though commercially we find nearly everything compartmentalized, audience analyzed and meta-tagged to note and attract niche groups today. His comment is a call for fewer genres and more good writing, both of which is far from the world we know now. 

1. A tu quoque, or we would say, a hypocrisy

Lewis argues that it’s wrongheaded when critics label a book as “adult” in an effort to approve its place on the bookshelf. The quality of the storytelling is what should matter. We can imagine two businessmen of similar age sitting in the airport. One is reading Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the other is reading King’s The Outsider. The most we can say, perhaps, is that one is behind in his reading and one is ahead, but because the first is reading a children’s book and the other an adult one should not qualify for whether the writing is good or bad.  

2. A false conception of growth

“Arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things,” Lewis says. “I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next.” Isn’t this true? Our innocence of childhood is added on by the experience of adulthood. We don’t leave anything behind, but the one informs the other and back again. So our reading of Grimm can and should inform Vonnegut and Vonnegut Shakespeare, and back again. Lewis quips, “if to drop parcels and to leave stations behind were the essence and virtue of growth, why should we stop at the adult? Why should not senile be equally a term of approval? Why are we not to be congratulated on losing our teeth and hair?”

3. The fantasy story is not for children

Lewis cites Tolkien in declaring that fairy tales were “accidentally” associated with children, having, “gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses.” In reality, it’s in the fantasy literature that we find a sense of sub-creating a world and the tales that inhabit it that both reveal and delight. And, Lewis does also admit that he is accenting the fantasy story because he finds it more compelling than the straight stories. “The fantasies did not deceive me,” he says, “the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.” 

I like how Lewis ends this essay. He says, “Once in a hotel dining-room I said, rather too loudly, ‘I loathe prunes.’ ‘So do I,’ came an unexpected six-year-old voice from another table. Sympathy was instantaneous. Neither of us thought it funny. We both knew that prunes are far too nasty to be funny. That is the proper meeting between man and child as independent personalities. Of the far higher and more difficult relations between child and parent or child and teacher, I say nothing. An author, as a mere author, is outside all that. He is not even an uncle. He is a freeman and an equal, like the postman, the butcher, and the dog next door.”

It’s refreshing to hear from Lewis on reading and writing especially in an era when any canon of literature seems in disarray due to some form of snobbery. And, I think that’s one way we can use the points above. If it’s not children’s literature, it might be some other discriminatory term that suggests we should value this work of art or literature “just because.” That thinking is of the same mind as the argument above. Rather, we should use more honest approaches to qualify the art itself.


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