A favorite college professor of mine often remarked, “Life is short, and books are long (and plentiful).” This was his playful way of lamenting that there are so many wonderful books “out there,” but not nearly enough time to read them all, or even make a substantial dent. One must prioritize. For many people, one way to prioritize is to identify those books that have stood the test of time, had the greatest impact, and become classics.
Many children, however, do not spend enough time with the literature written or adapted for them before diving into adult works. The “Great Books” for adults are embraced while completely glossing over the “Great Books” for children and young adults.
With that in mind, Cheri Blomquist wrote Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them (Ignatius Press, 2021). Here Blomquist dives deeply into children’s and young adult literature, identifying those that have made the greatest impact throughout Western history, as well as taking a critical look at more recent (and sometimes controversial) titles. In addition to discussing such classics as The Chronicles of Narnia and To Kill a Mockingbird, Blomquist also turns her eye to the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Hunger Games, and more.
Blomquist recently spoke with Catholic World Report about her book, the Great Books, and how these works can benefit people of all ages.
CWR: How did the book come about?
Cheri Blomquist: Years ago, during a time when I was both teaching classes and homeschooling my children, I became concerned about the number of literature courses that taught major adult classics to students in their early teens—and not just two or three classics but many of them in a single year. These programs would have challenged even me as an adult with an English degree, yet these teens were expected to not only comprehend them but also to discuss and analyze them. Why, I wondered, were they being rushed through this difficult literature? And why such mature selections, when there were already so many good yet challenging ones written at their level, like Treasure Island and The Yearling?
Then one day I began reading a history of children’s literature written by Professor Seth Lerer and faced a new question. If there is a canon of so-called “Great Books,” which is filled with the works of Western civilization’s most important thinkers and storytellers, what were the “great books” in the world of children? With Lerer’s book as my foundation, I soon found myself on a quest that I eventually wanted to share with others.
CWR: Why the “Great Books”?
Blomquist: The Western canon known as the “Great Books” has also been referred to as the “Great Conversation.” Our civilization’s greatest literary lights absorbed the ideas of those who came before them and then built on them with their own contributions. To read and discuss the “Great Books” and what I have termed the “children’s great books” is to participate in this ongoing conversation. It is also, at least in part, to educate ourselves in the history, ideas, and culture of our own civilization with all its virtues and vices and all its successes and failures. This gives us a way to meaningfully consider what is most important to us, where we’ve been, and where we might be headed.
This doesn’t mean that other literature is not worth reading. Some of the books I value most are not classics at all and are actually contemporary. But the “Great Books” and the “children’s great books” immerse us in the center of the “Great Conversation” of the ages, a conversation in which we may someday have something to contribute.
CWR: Does it matter what kids read?
Blomquist: I have heard for many years the assertion among educators and librarians that what matters most in literary education is getting children to read real books. It doesn’t matter much what books they read. In fact, these experts continue, children should be left to make their own selections with minimal adult input. That perspective has always bothered me, because reading a formulaic kid’s series is not the same kind of experience as reading an artful tale like Heidi or The Phantom Tollbooth. One is mind candy, and the other is food for the mind, imagination, and heart.
I do understand what the proponents of this idea are getting at. Technology has captured so much of our kids’ attention since the 1970s that I think many of us feel we must do whatever is necessary just to keep kids reading at all. However, ideas and words have power, and what we receive into our minds does not float off into a void. I know from personal experience that it can affect us profoundly, often cumulatively and without our realizing it.
Winning the battle against social media and television may be important, but it is not more important than the intentional formation of our children’s minds and hearts. Children should often be allowed the delight of choosing their own books but, as with movies and music, not without some guidance.
CWR: Did you intend for your book to be utilized as a resource for teachers and homeschoolers?
Blomquist: The book did not start out as an educational resource; in fact, I didn’t even think of including part 2 until I was finished with the rough draft of the annotated book list. I simply wanted to inform classics-minded parents about the most important children’s literature according to literary history, so that they could better guide their children’s reading. But I had also long mulled over the idea of developing a secondary-level study guide based on Mortimer Adler’s college-level classic How to Read a Book. I realized that if I added such a guide to the book, it might be more useful to educators, especially homeschool parents and students who preferred independent study.
CWR: How can these juvenile classics prepare students for the more mature classics they will encounter later?
Blomquist: One of the important lessons that my research taught me was that children’s classics and adult classics are not as distinct from each other as we might think. In fact, they are often even related in ways we don’t realize. First, many of the classic tales we consider “children’s literature” were initially written or compiled for an adult audience—the Robin Hood legends and many fairy tales, for example. Even The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is widely assumed to be a children’s novel, but it was actually published for adults and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939.
Then there are some books that are still considered “adult,” such as The Iliad and To Kill a Mockingbird, yet have played a powerful role in the literary experience of young people. When children and teens spend time with the literary “greats,” they will almost certainly read a few adult books without even knowing it.
Second, some of the “children’s great books” had a major influence upon not only children and Western culture, but also on the authors of adult literature. We must remember that these authors were once children themselves, and many of them read some of the same literature that our children read today. Sometimes they even make connections to their childhood reading in their books through allusions or direct references. For example, Tolkien often alludes to Norse mythology in his epic The Lord of the Rings. A rich exposure to the books children have embraced throughout history, then, can help prepare readers for the adult classics they will read later.
CWR: What sort of benefits do these books have in and of themselves?
Blomquist: I am fortunate to have a mother who loves children’s literature. She reads adult literature, too, but even at 80, she still rereads her favorite children’s novels without embarrassment. Her perspective has always been that children’s literature is just as worthy of attention as adult literature is, and it’s often better. In other words, children’s literature doesn’t exist just to give the young something to read until they are old enough for adult classics. It is worth reading for its own sake.
As any children’s literature lover will tell you, the tales and poems we often consider beneath us can be just as influential, beautiful, and profound as any adult literature. That they are simpler does not make them any less artful or influential. Consider The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis and Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne. Although these books were both written specifically for children, both have been examined and discussed by scholars and literary buffs for decades. Winnie-the-Pooh has even inspired spin-off books for adults, like The Tao of Pooh. And both books have had a meaningful impact on Western culture.
CWR: Are these juvenile classics worthwhile for even adults to read?
Blomquist: Absolutely! I am not going to pretend that an adult is going to have the same kind of experience reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit or Ramona the Pest as he will reading Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield. But the benefit of reading easy classics after we grow out of them is that we can enjoy them more fully. For example, we can laugh at Ramona Quimby’s antics with a different kind of appreciation than children can, and we can examine the craftsmanship of Beatrix Potter’s simple tales and exquisite artwork in a more nuanced way than children can.
Good children’s literature is no less art than good adult literature, and the liberating truth is that even though we grow into more complex vocabulary, themes, and storylines, we never grow out of great art!
CWR: What do you hope readers will get from the book?
Blomquist: I hope that Before Austen Comes Aesop will be a valuable resource to everyone who loves literature and wants to pass on the best of it to our precious children. This can include educators, homeschool parents, librarians, students, and even adults who missed out on a rich literary experience during their own childhoods. I also hope to help students and parents understand the basic principles of literature appreciation, so that they can experience it with as much depth as they wish through independent study.
But more than anything, I want to celebrate the rich treasure trove of literature that has delighted children and impacted Western culture throughout the centuries. The “children’s great books”—and the many other beloved classics that I include in the book—are important literature in their own right and deserve to be honored as such.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Blomquist: Some of the books and tales in the “great books” list may understandably raise a few eyebrows, so a word of caution is important. By calling these books the “children’s great books,” I do not mean by “great” that every book is wonderful and not to be missed. On the contrary, the list contains some books that may be disturbing and offensive to many readers. I must emphasize here that the “children’s great books” are not recommendations. The list was compiled through research based on objective criteria. Although I had to make judgment calls at times, I did not follow my preferences. In fact, some books were difficult to include because I strongly disliked them, and other books were difficult not to include because I loved them.
The purpose of the “children’s great books” list is to provide information and insight, not my opinion or values-based guidance. I used the term “great” in the sense that the adult “Great Books” canon does. The word has more to do with these books’ unique contribution to “the Great Conversation.” It refers to their literary artistry and craftsmanship, their role in literary history, and their impact on young people and Western culture. Even the most offensive books on the list meet these criteria, which is why parents must take an active role in helping their children and teens select literature to read.
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