Selecting and Sharing Good Books: Some Guidelines

WILLIAM KILPATRICK, GREGORY WOLFE, AND SUZANNE M. WOLFE

Because of space limitations, there are many good books that couldn’t be included in our guide. For those who want to go beyond the list here are some suggestions for choosing books that build character.


Because of space limitations, there are many good books that couldn't be included in our guide. For those who want to go beyond the list here are some suggestions for choosing books that build character.

Think back to stories that had a positive impact on you when you were growing up. There's a good chance the same story will have a similar effect on your child.

Choose books that are in keeping with your own values. Don't choose a book simply on the basis of its reputation. Reading the book yourself is the only sure way of knowing if it reflects your outlook on life.

Try to distinguish between issues and virtues. Many contemporary children's books focus on trendy issues rather than character development. You should be looking for books that reinforce courage, responsibility, and perseverance rather than books that offer prepackaged opinions on divorce, euthanasia, and the like. You want your child to acquire strengths of character before he acquires a lot of secondhand opinions. It's one thing to have an opinion on an issue such as immigration, and quite another to develop a habit of helping those you have an opportunity to help. Having enlightened opinions is no substitute for having character.

Of course, there are good books for children that do deal with contemporary issues, but the issues are integrated with the characters, setting, and plot. Good books are people centered, not problem centered. The characters are real. We are gladdened by their victories and saddened by their sufferings. They are not there just to teach a lesson. The author has an interesting story to tell, not a message to convey. In short, you don't feel he or she has designs on your child.

Context is crucial. Character-building books are not simply about good people doing good things. Moral books may deal with immoral behavior. The question is not whether unethical behavior is present but how it is presented. The hero or heroine of a story may well give way to temptation, but a good book will show the real costs of such a choice. In the Arthurian legend, for example, the adultery of Launcelot and Guinevere leads to awful consequences both for themselves and for many others. So does Arthur's own earlier indiscretion. It's not a matter of preaching at the reader but of showing him how certain behaviors work themselves out over the course of time.

Of course, the story can't do all the work. The reader has to sort things out and draw conclusions. This is easy enough with a simple story such as Peter Rabbit but not so easy when it comes to plots requiring more mature judgments. So parents need to ask some hard questions. Are the consequences of an undesirable action clear to any reader? Or only to a more sophisticated reader? Will your child be able to make the proper distinctions? In the last analysis it's a judgment call. Perhaps the most important question is this: How well do you know your child?

Context is also crucial in making judgments about rough language. Many contemporary authors use "street" language to give an authentic flavor to their stories. You need to weigh the redeeming elements of the story against the coarsening effect of overexposure to vulgar language. Is the language truly necessary to the story? Or is it there just for shock value or to demonstrate the author's hipness? A few vulgar expressions here and there may add a certain realism to a story, but too many may simply have a desensitizing effect.

Allow some room for growth. Although you want to be careful about books that are way over your child's level, it's legitimate to challenge her with books that are somewhat above her level. After all, one of the reasons we read is to extend ourselves. Children also need to involve themselves in life more deeply as they grow. A good story will often force the reader to struggle with the protagonist through trials and difficult decisions. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, the story won't let you go without extracting some commitment. So look for stories that open up new possibilities and stretch the imagination. At the same time be wary of stories that focus exclusively on narrow teen or preteen preoccupations, or those that offer nothing more than the therapeutic reassurance that everything is okay.

How do you determine which books will help your youngster grow? A simple rule of thumb is to look for books in which the main character grows. As your child becomes involved with the protagonist, he vicariously shares in that character's development.

But don't always look for steady growth in stories. In fact, the prelude to growth is often some sort of fall. A fall from grace. A falling short of the mark. Well-known examples are Peter's denial to the servant girl, Boromir's defection to the wrong side in The Lord of the Rings, Pip's ingratitude in Great Expectations, Jim Nightshade's bargain with the evil Mr. Dark in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Some sort of revelation (not necessarily religious) may be required, however, before the protagonist realizes how far he has fallen. Although the norms are there for everyone to see, sometimes a dramatic incident is needed for us to see them. Consequently, the revelation often comes in the form of an accident, an illness, or some other misfortune. It can be the experience of losing one's nerve in a crisis — as happens in Lord Jim. It can be an experience of hitting rock bottom — the experience of the prodigal son. Ironically, the revelation might come in the form of an actual physical fall: Ivan Ilyich falls off a stepladder; Louisa falls off the "Cobb" in Jane Austen's Persuasion, the spoiled boy in Captains Courageous falls off an ocean liner.

As a result of his troubles the protagonist learns something important. It can be a revelation of self-discovery as, for example, when Pip's illness leads him to see himself for the crass social climber he has become. Or it can be a revelation of another's character as, for example, when a young lady in a Jane Austen novel discovers the essentially worthless nature of an attractive and dashing young man.

How about the reader? One of the great possibilities of the story form is that he may also experience a recognition. The hard knock that the protagonist receives may startle him into awareness too. It's common knowledge that in life as well as in stories, it often takes such hard knocks to wake us up. Our life goes on in its accustomed patterns, we become blind to what is really important, and suddenly something strikes us with the force of a revelation, and we are compelled to see. Perhaps a family man is arrested for drunk driving, or perhaps a young woman develops cancer, or perhaps a son or daughter is discovered to be using drugs. When things like this happen we may find ourselves wondering, as Ivan Ilyich does, whether we have spent our lives attending to the wrong things, and whether we have not missed the real thing altogether. A good story can provide some of this jolt while saving us the trouble of having to experience a real catastrophe. And it may better prepare us for those times when real tragedy does strike.

The same holds true for younger readers. Just as a child learns from real experiences, he can also learn from vicarious ones — and far more safely. Through books he can experience revelations that might not come to him until much later in the normal course of events: revelations of fear, of failure, of love, of understanding. What's more, reading provides a sort of mental rehearsal for the time when he encounters these experiences firsthand.

Here are some practical suggestions for sharing books with children:

Try to set aside some time each day for storytelling.

Recommended reading levels are only a rough guide. Parents need to develop a feel for what will work with their own children. Since there are so many good books available there's no reason to try to force a particular book on a child. This is doubly true for classics. They can be introduced too early or in the wrong way, spoiling a child's taste for them later on. Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona series, relates, "When I was a child, a relative gave me Ivanhoe to grow into. I was so disappointed that I still have not grown into it."

Keep in mind that children can understand and enjoy listening to stories that are above their actual reading level.

For very small children the main thing is to hear stories that are rhythmic and repetitive. It's the sound of the language that counts the most at this stage.

Be aware that myths, fairy tales, and folktales come in many versions — versions that range from the sublime to the abysmal. For example, you wouldn't think that a fine story like "Rumpelstiltskin" could be rolled out flat as a pancake, but it has been done. Another factor in choosing a version of a book is the quality of the illustrations. While illustrations are not all important, they do make a difference; look for editions with illustrations that do justice to the text rather than trivialize it.

When reading aloud choose stories that you, yourself, like. Reading should be enjoyable for everyone involved.

Practice when possible. Good stories deserve a good reading. Read the story yourself before reading it to your children. That way you'll have a better idea of its plot and rhythm and bumpy spots.

Be expressive. Learn when to slow down, when to speed up, when to pause. Create suspense by lowering your voice, create a dramatic effect by raising it. You might try changing your voice to fit each character. Don't be concerned that you lack the vocalization skills of a professional actor; children constitute a forgiving and enthusiastic audience.

It is important to set the right mood when reading aloud. Allow time for your children to settle down. If you're reading from a picture book you might spend some time talking about the book's cover. Ask your children what they think the story will be about. If it's a chapter in a novel, you might want to follow Jim Trelease's advice and ask, "Let's see — where did we leave off yesterday?" or "What's happened so far?"

Don't be tempted to explain the "moral" of the story. Let the book speak for itself. Family reading time should not be confused with a class in textual interpretation. On the other hand, it's fine if a story leads to conversation. Occasionally it might be appropriate to ask a question or two about a character's actions or motivations. But don't overdo it. It's better questions come spontaneously from your child.

Read-aloud time should be balanced with silent reading time. Even pre-readers should have time alone with picture books. Try instituting a practice of silent reading time for the whole family. Instead of gathering around the television at night make the bookcase the focus of attention.

Middle to older readers can continue to participate in read-alouds and should even be encouraged on occasion to take on the role of reader to their younger siblings, but most of their reading will be done independently. This is the age for them to make their own discoveries and, therefore, adults should avoid pushing books at them. If you've made a practice of reading aloud from exciting and imaginative books when your children were younger, if you've helped them develop the habit of regular trips to the library, and if your house is well stocked with books of all kinds, you've already given them the preparation they need to make good choices. At this stage it's a mistake to inundate children with piles of books they "ought" to read. "Here's one you might enjoy" or "I came across another interesting science fiction book" is a much better way to spark an interest. From time to time you might also make a gift of a book about a subject that you know is of special interest to a child. But perhaps the best advertisement for a book is your own obvious delight in it. If your older child sees that you are absorbed and entertained by a particular novel, it's a good bet that he or she will want to find out more about it.

The list that follows focuses on stories with a moral theme. This is not to suggest that this is the only kind of book children should read. There are all types of books and all kinds of reasons to read them: for suspense, for humor, for the beauty of the language, for the pleasure of wordplay and nonsense rhymes. There is no discernible moral in Good Night Moon, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The Jumblies, or The Cremation of Sam McGee, but it would be a shame to deprive your child of the pleasure they bring.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kilpatrick, William, & Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe. "Selecting and Sharing Good Books: Some Guidelines." Chapter 5 in Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), 55-60.

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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