In his text Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, C. S. Lewis writes of fairy stories that “it would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what.” It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods (29) because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a “special kind of longing” (30). Fiction, Lewis asserted, often triggered an “inconsolable longing,” (from the German word “sehnsucht”), a deep and heartfelt yearning for some truth, some beauty, some recollection of home just out of our reach. It comes as no surprise that in Lewis’s own works of fiction, then, his characters were always stumbling through magical wardrobes and paintings and puddles, and, upon their re-entrance into this world, were forever changed and craving a return. Fiction, at its best, can illustrate what is possible by showing us what is beautiful.
My professional life as an English teacher and literacy specialist would be deeply impoverished without fiction, and it comes as no surprise to me when my students find more truth resonating in novels than in news broadcasts. My personal life is filled with books and characters who feel more like friends than some humans I have known all my life; indeed, the lessons I’ve gleaned from Eliza Bennett, Sam Gamgee, and Lucy Pevensie (among countless others) help make me who I am today. I named my first daughter after Lucy Pevensie, in the hopes that my own child will be filled with the faith, kindness, truthfulness, and love as her namesake. I watch my elder daughter grow in her love of stories; some days she is Little Red Riding Hood. Today she insisted that we call her Dorothy, and her baby sister got to play Scarecrow. We are working through The Wizard of Oz for the second time now, and she is practicing her courage, and cleverness, and love at home, because really, there’s no other place like it.
Given this context, you can imagine my delight upon reading E. Stephen Burnett’s “How to Ruin Your Child’s Reading.” Burnett provides five easy steps to destroy a child’s love of literature by sucking all the joy out of reading, making it a chore and a punishment reserved for children. It almost feels like most of the early-childhood scholarship I have read take Burnett’s satire at face value, lamenting the time that reading takes and the challenge of conveying every strategy and moral until there is no room left for the love of stories. It would be so easy for parents to follow suit, to adopt a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do attitude of enforcing reading without being active readers, or to require children to read materials that parents would never choose or enjoy. Burnett critiques what we too often expect of literacy education—“Parents should focus only on running their own child-assembly lines”—and asks us to reconsider the world of fiction that can be blissful and achingly beautiful. Now that’s a story worth sticking to.