When I dropped off several 'books on CD' at the library last weekend, I took my usual amble through the children's book section. Why? Because there are certain books that have timeless lessons for the grown-up children who read them long ago. Funny enough, these same books are often banned or the subject of controversy. I've started a list below of children's books that fall into this category--the teaching books that make kids think well beyond their own world:
Danny the Champion of the World - by Roald Dahl - an ideal portrayal of childhood adventure, inventive pranks, and father/son relations
The Pushcart War - by Jean Merrill - a thoroughly enjoyable David vs. Goliath story where business competitive stands in for class conflict
Island of the Blue Dolphins - by Scott O'Dell - reassuringly addresses a great fear of all children - 'What would happen if I was left all alone?'
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH- by Robert C. O'Brien - a terrific rescue story that teaches the values of creativity and volunteerism
Bridge to Terabithia - by Katherine Patterson - so often banned for a few bad words, but what other book pulls a child in so many new directions?
Where the Red Fern Grows - by Wilson Rawls - a classic for any animal lovers, but also a great lesson for youth faced with responsibility
A Separate Peace - by John Knowles - a sophomore-year favorite that reveals the depth of jealousy and competition among even friends
The Twenty-One Balloons - by William Pene du Bois - an old-fashioned European adventure that strands its characters on a rumbling Krakatoa volcano
The Mad Scientists' Club - by Bertrand Brinley - an ensemble cast of small town geeks prove to readers that it's okay to be a little nerdy
The Great Brain - by John D. Fitzgerald - as the younger brother to a great brain, the charm of this series easily captured the reality of kids at play
The Westing Game - by Ellen Raskin - before the arrival of Lost and CSI, this twisting narrative taught kids that all is not what it appears
Tom Swift - by Victor Appleton - Cold-War era simplicity and machines that always work don't detract from the wonder that this series imparts
Whenever I want to remember what writing is all about (which is often, as my days are filled with endless rounds of editing), I turn to two essays by George Orwell. The first is rather transparently titled, "Why I Write," and mixes Orwell's account of his own affair with words and ideas with an accurate appraisal of why people chose this career. Their motivations, he states, are: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose. What instrument do you and I play in this media quartet? The second essay, "Politics and the English Language," is a more difficult read, but also a more useful tool for writers interested in both style and substance. In this essay Orwell mixes advice such as "Never use a long word where a short one will do," together with the warning that "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." He loves words but also places them at arm's length because of their power. In the 57 years since his death Orwell has been claimed by both conservatives and liberals--but he can always, and should always, be claimed by writers who love their craft.
There's not much to watch on TV these days that doesn't leave me with a guilty feeling. Guilty that I could be doing something more meaningful... like eating paint chips. But then there's PBS. On the past two Monday nights The American Experience has run portions of the intensely moving civil rights documentary, "Eyes on the Prize." Now that icons like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King are no longer with us, their voices can only come from archival interviews and footage of the actual events. And on Monday nights they, and dozens of other leaders from peaceful battlefields like Selma, Nashville, Birmingham, and Albany, GA, are able to say their history aloud on PBS. Already it feels like ancient history, especially with the outdated suits with thin ties, frilly hats, and classic cars that roll through the footage. What isn't lost is the shock of the hatred and violence that occasionally spills across the screen. Would you kick someone hard in the spine just because they wanted to order food at a lunch counter in Nashville? Watch this show and you'll know that many people would, and did. You'll see their bodies snarled in hatred and stare disbelieving that this once happened. Not even "once, long ago," by "once, 45 years ago." Some day the civil rights era will get the "Greatest Generation" treatment - perhaps in a few more years when people realize that the soldiers in this third American revolution are vanishing into the grave. And even then, "Eyes in the Prize" will be just as powerful to watch and learn from.