Transport: Seeing With a Myriad of Eyes

WILLIAM KILPATRICK, GREGORY WOLFE, AND SUZANNE M. WOLFE

Like travel books broaden the mind. They give us a bigger picture of the world and its inhabitants. One result is that we become better judges of character. By meeting certain character types in stories we are better prepared for the day when we will meet that type in person.

In The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain writes, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness ... broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one's little corner of earth."

It's the same with books. Like travel they broaden the mind. They give us a bigger picture of the world and its inhabitants. While sitting safely at home we get to meet people in different lands and different centuries. We can have the sensation of experiencing life at sea with the crew of the Pequod or the dangers of battle along with The Shining Company, or we can share the fervor of love felt by Romeo and Juliet. Most important, we get to meet people of different types. One result is that we become better judges of character. By meeting certain character types in stories we are better prepared for the day when we will meet that type in person. A young reader who has met Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows is less likely to be taken in by that peculiar blend of recklessness and charisma when he encounters it in a real person. An adolescent girl who has read Jane Austen is better prepared for the fact that dashing and handsome young men often turn out to be liars and fakes. A reader who has encountered Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities will have grasped the unpleasant but important knowledge that some people in this world are thoroughly ruthless. A young person who reads widely gets more than the pleasure of plot and setting; he or she gets an introductory course in character studies.

But acquaintance with a wide variety of "types," important as it is, is only the beginning. With some of the characters we meet in stories, we form a much deeper relationship than acquaintance. We enter imaginatively into their lives. We form a bond of empathy and even identity. And psychologists tell us that no other factor is more crucial to moral development than empathy. The ability to see and feel things as others see and feel them is the key that unlocks our prison house of self-absorption.

Even so it's not an easy thing to do. Children see things from their own perspective, and it takes quite a bit of doing to get them to see things from the point of view of their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends. Even as we grow older it's difficult to get inside the minds of others. For one thing we have our own preoccupations; for another, people don't always let us in.

Reading affords us the opportunity to do what we often can't do in life, to become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others. The sustained involvement with a character in a story enlarges our sympathies and gives us those "broad, wholesome, charitable views" that are the reward both of travel and of reading. In Reading for the Love of It, the Canadian author Michele Landsberg provides a description of her own experience as a young reader:

I was inside those children who stepped back through the magic arch into ancient Egypt, shivering their shiver of apprehension and excitement. And nobody knew (except perhaps my librarian) that while I plodded dutifully to school ... I was secretly living a hundred other lives.

This secret sharing is not simply the sharing of adventures, but also of ideas, emotions, loyalties, and principles. It's a shared testing of strength and resolve. For the reader it can be an experience of self-discovery of the kind that occurs only in intimate conversation. Why? Because reading certain books is a form of intimate conversation.

You can see that book traveling not only gives us perspective on others but also on ourselves. C. S. Lewis wrote:

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

At one and the same time reading carries us out to others and becomes the mirror by which we discover ourselves more fully, exactly because we have escaped self-concern.

Parents should be aware, however, that while reading is a potentially enlarging experience, it can also have an opposite effect. Many books for children seem to be designed to introduce them to the world of mass marketing rather than to the wider world. Of the twenty best-selling paperback children's books of 1990, almost all were "product" books: nine spin-offs of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, four Baby-Sitters Club books, and two books about the New Kids on the Block.

Such books do have their defenders. One authority even recommends "junky" and "trashy" literature for children as the best route to developing an avid love of reading. Reading has so many benefits, it is argued, that we should be encouraged by any sign of a reading interest — even if it's only on cereal boxes and in comic books. "As long as they're reading something" is the phrase we use to express this faith in reading.

Of course, there is something to this view. And there is something to the related idea that, once started on the reading road, children will almost automatically move on to better books, that they will soon enough graduate from trash to Tolstoy, Sometimes they do. Moreover, comic books, horror stories, mysteries, romances, fantasy, and other types of "drugstore" literature often have a sound moral structure. By and large the child who reads is better off than the child who only watches television, even if much of that child's reading consists of comics, thrillers, and serials.

But the idea can be carried too far. If — as all the adventure stories suggest — life is full of traps and pitfalls, why shouldn't books be also? One of the traps of mass-market stories is that they encourage youngsters to become fixated at the level of what might be termed "mall culture" — that is, a level of concern that doesn't go beyond changing fashions in clothes, lifestyles, and language.

How do you deal with such fixations? An attitude of "I appreciate the fact that you're reading, but I think you're underestimating yourself" may help to push a child more quickly through this phase. Of course, we tend to think that children who have been exposed to very good literature early on will be more immune to the attractions of "mall" literature.

Another way of handling the problem is to suggest a book in the same genre, only something richer and deeper and truer to life. If your child is hooked on the Baby-Sitters Club at a particular stage in her life it might be fairly futile to try and substitute Little Women, but The Saturdays might be just the ticket. The doctrine of the all-wise inner child says that such nudging is not necessary, that your child will move on to better stuff when she is ready. But don't count on it. Children can choose only from the alternatives that are available, and unless you provide some assistance they may never know what some of those alternatives are.

Sooner or later your child will come across a genre that encourages especially narrow self-preoccupation. As we all know, the early teen years are a time of introspection and rumination, and there is an entire literature devoted to ensuring that no emotional scab remains unpicked. This is the genre known as the realistic problem novel for young adults — although the readers of these stories are actually in the age range of nine through fourteen. The problem novel may range from stories about acne and unpopularity to stories about divorce, AIDS, and anorexia. The intent of such books is mainly therapeutic: to help a child with a similar problem learn self-acceptance, to let him know that there are other children just like him, with problems and concerns just like his.

Some of these stories, it is true, are thoughtful, well-crafted treatments of the difficulties that confront today's young people. But there are some serious drawbacks to this problem approach. One is the problem of what might be called a trendy didacticism. As Judith Saltman observes in her introduction to The Riverside Anthology of Children's Literature, many of the writers in this genre "see books as cures to be prescribed for a given sociological, political, or emotional problem." The problem with so much of this literature, which wants to give children "proper" attitudes about divorce, sex, war, and gender, is the problem that inevitably arises when writers are more interested in messages than in writing: "Some of this determinedly progressive fiction for youth has an eerily Victorian ring to it" writes Michele Landsberg. "Didacticism clangs on every page like an iron bell, heavy, clumsy, reverberant with good intentions:'

A second drawback to books in the problem novel genre is that they often don't allow for much moral growth. In these books self-acceptance rather than moral growth is the badge of maturity. For example, the characters in stories like Judy Blume's Blubber and Then Again Maybe I Won't aren't particularly nice kids. They bully and intimidate other children and make fun of their parents, but there is no suggestion they should mend their ways. The reader is supposed to accept them as they are and, presumably, if the reader shares some of the same faults, he can accept those, too. Children in these stories ruminate about their problem situations, but there is no real soul searching.

For a contrast, look at the children in Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a Newbery Medal novel about an African-American family living in the South in the 1930s. Stacey Logan knows he shouldn't be at the Wallace store; he has promised his mother that he won't go near that place of gambling and violence. But his score with T. J. has to be settled. When Mr. Morrison, a family friend, finds the boys fighting, Stacey is sure that he is in deep trouble. But Mr. Morrison says he won't tell Stacey's mother. The story is told by Stacey's sister Cassie.

Stacey stared long and hard at Mr. Morrison.
"How come, Mr. Morrison?" he asked. "How come you ain't gonna tell Mama?"
Mr. Morrison slowed Jack as we turned into the road leading home. "'Cause I'm leaving it up to you to tell her."
. . . Stacey nodded thoughtfully and wound the handkerchief tighter around his wounded hand. His face was not scarred, so if he could just figure out a way to explain the bruises on his hand to Mama without lying he was in the clear, for Mr. Morrison had not said that he had to tell her. But for some reason I could not understand he said, "All right, Mr. Morrison, I'll tell her."

It is clear that Stacey experiences a real moral struggle, as his response indicates. This soul struggling, this sense that we all have an obligation to work on improving our characters, was very strongly felt in our culture in the era depicted in Taylor's novel. But it seems now to be on the wane. Young people today tend to find fault with systems and institutions but not with themselves. A colleague of ours once asked his college philosophy class to write an essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil, but found that most of his students were unable to complete the assignment. The reason? "We haven't done anything wrong," they told him. And apparently they meant this quite sincerely. This attitude probably had more to do with psychology texts they had read in college than with books they read as children, but the problem novel, with its heavy overlay of psychology, doesn't do much to counter such attitudes.

Perhaps the main trouble with literature intended as therapy is that there is no self-forgetfulness, no room to stand back and get a larger view. As a result it is questionable whether such stories work even on the therapeutic level. Stepping back into ancient Greece may be a healthier step than stepping across the street to meet a boy or girl just like oneself. As the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has pointed out, fantasy and fairy tales are more useful than realistic stories when it comes to working on inner problems. Why? Because fantasy provides necessary distance. For example, a child whose parents are going through a divorce doesn't necessarily want to read a realistic novel about some other child with divorcing parents. Such difficulties are sometimes better handled by turning to myth or fantasy. A mother of a ten-year-old boy tells this story about his struggle with cancer: "At first he was very upbeat, but after several painful treatments his optimism faded. We were afraid that he was ready to give up. We were really afraid for his life. Then he came upon the story of the labors of Hercules in a book of myths, and he read it and re-read it, and it seemed to give him back his spirit." The story about Hercules allowed the boy to transcend his fears and to cast his personal struggle on a mythic level. He was probably fortunate that some well-meaning adult didn't hand him a book about a boy with cancer. That sort of thing often serves only to increase the depression.

We sometimes forget that the first gift of a story is transport. The story takes us somewhere. More important, it takes us out of ourselves. To enter a story we must leave ourselves behind, and this, it may be argued, is precisely what is needed to get a proper perspective on ourselves. The willingness to let go of self-concern is a requisite for both moral health and mental health. Here's a sample of literary transport:

I take up my pen and go back to the time when my father kept the "Admiral Benbow" Inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.
I remember him as if it were yesterday.

With these words Robert Louis Stevenson draws us headlong into the world of Treasure Island. He does it so swiftly and surely we have no time to bid farewell to our concerns of the moment. They simply vanish. And the Admiral Benbow Inn becomes more solid than the room we sit in. Were we preoccupied with bills to be paid or assignments to be done? That can be ignored for now. A strong arm with a long reach has pulled us into the midst of more pressing matters.

Many people in the business of writing and recommending children's books, many of them with the best of intentions, seem set on removing this element of transport. Let's hope they don't succeed. The danger facing children's literature does not come from the ogres and villains that haunt the pages of fairy tales and adventure stories; the danger lies, rather, in the continued proliferation of normless books that cater to anxiety and self-absorption, and have nothing to teach about life except, perhaps, that whatever happens is okay. The danger is not that such books lead to a life of crime, but to a life of boredom, selfishness, and limited horizons.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of stories of another sort: books that challenge, thrill, and excite, and awaken young readers to the potential drama of life, especially to the drama of a life lived in obedience to the highest ideals. Such books have something better to offer than therapeutic reassurance. Like true friends they encourage us to be our best selves.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kilpatrick, William, & Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe. "Transport: Seeing With Myriad Eyes." Chapter 3 in Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), 38-45.

Reprinted by permission of William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe.

THE AUTHOR

William K. Kilpatrick is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston College and the author of four previous books, including , Great Lessons in Virtue and Character: A Treasury of Classic Animal Stories, Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values Through Stories and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. His areas of interest include: the use of stories in moral development; psychology and literature; and character education. William Kilpatrick is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe created The Golden Key, an award-winning children's book catalogue, Climb High, Climb Far : Inspiration for Life's Challenges from the World's Great Moral Traditions and Circle of Grace: Praying with and for Your Children

Copyright 1994 William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe


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