On a shelf in my office sits Collier's Junior Classics, a ten-volume collection of children's stories from authors both famous and forgotten, from all places and all times. My parents bought this collection when my sister was born, and now I read from this collection to my daughter, and maybe one day she'll read from one of these books to her child. Even just glancing at the spines recalls to mind the wonderment of youth:
The introduction printed at the beginning of each volume by series editor Margaret Martignoni is timeless. It is, firstly, as magnificent a defense of the value of children's literature--or literature in general--as I've ever read. But then it lays out, in unshakable language, the qualities that great children's literature must possess. Martignoni had been, among other things, a public librarian in Brooklyn, and her work on this series is a reminder of a time when the importance of libraries and librarians were still widely understood (I may be biased here, since I am married to a wonderful librarian.)
Martignoni begins her introduction by explaining the importance of literature for children:
We are children only once, and then only for a few brief years. But these are the most impressionable years of a lifetime. Never again will the world and everything in it be so eternally new, so filled with wonder. Never again will physical, mental, spiritual growth be so natural and unavoidable. During these years, habits become ingrained, tastes are developed, personality takes form. The child's whole being is geared towards learning. He instinctively reaches out for truth and, having no prejudices, seizes upon that which is good, just, beautiful. For these reasons, a child deserves what Walter de la Mare has called "only the rarest kind of best."
And then she lays out her criteria for great children's literature:
What do we mean by "best" in a book for children? Best books reflect universal truths with clarity and artistry. Such books reveal that man is essentially good and that life is infinitely worth living. They do not deny the existence of evil, but rather emphasize man's thrilling struggle against evil through faith, courage, and perseverance. They awaken the young reader's imagination, call forth his laughter as well as his tears, help him to understand and to love his fellow man. The reading of such books constitutes a rich heritage of experience which is every child's birthright.
As I've often said in my reviews of children's movies, it's easy to fall into the trap of rating films and books for children on the basis of what they lack--do they avoid bloodshed, vulgarity, and uncomfortable sexual innuendo? But we should start by asking what these stories have to offer: not what bad things they avoid, but what good things they do. A great book can do more than improve a child's vocabulary and reading comprehension. A great book can make its reader a better person. Great stories connect people with each other and with their inner selves. They explain the history and necessity of civilization better than any textbook could, and help children take their places within that civilization.
If you are a parent, teacher, or other adult with children under your care, what book have you given those children that could meet Martignoni's definition of "best"?