What should be on our bookshelves?
With what do you want to fill your child’s brain? What kinds of things do you want your children to be thinking about, dreaming of, reflecting on, or trying to figure out? For me, it’s always the same: I want my kids to be offered as much of the world’s goodness, nobility, truth and beauty as possible. So I hope my bookshelves reflect that.
I found a quote that I plan on writing a whole essay on soon for Soul Gardening… but in the meantime, I’ll share the gist of it here:
“Let nothing be in your homes that is not useful or that you do not find to be beautiful.”
Let that sink in my friends. This is slowly changing my world and it affects every. single. aspect of that beautiful, evocative word: home. Not just stuff like knick-knacks or furniture… but wardrobes, kitchenware, jewelry, toys, and books!
As I’ve been reflecting on this quote, I thought it would be a good, seasonal time to go through my bookshelves again to begin culling out the items that do not fit this definition. In so doing, I realize that there are a few categories of books that might help me to make some choices:
- Useful-Beautiful books. This would include non-fiction titles like Paul Revere’s Ride which exposes a child to history, excellent poetry, and lovely illustrations all at once. It also includes fiction books that teach a subtle character lesson or virtue that you want to cultivate in your child, e.g. The Empty Pot which offers a lesson in honesty, the Chinese culture, and superb art. I would also classify certain Reader books in this category like: The Frog and Toad series which feature the talented author/illustrator, Arnold Lobel. Reader books are especially difficult to find in this category since so many of them are dull or uninspired. Useful and Beautiful books should always be collected and treasured more than any other type.
- Useful-Unremarkable books. These include many titles for homeschoolers. I have noticed that the popular publisher Usborne Books has a ton of titles in this category. They offer good information for children, are interesting to read… but usually feature uninspiring illustrations. Don’t get me wrong; I love our Usborne Time Traveler but there is nothing aesthetically superior here.
- Useful-Ugly books. The beginning reader books fill out this category more than any other. For some reason, writers and publishers think simple text needs to necessarily equate to banal story lines… if there’s a story at all. Parents may do well to wonder if their child’s resistance to reading has to do with the quality of what they ‘re offered. Indeed, what child would ever WANT to learn to read when the stuff they’re reading is dull as dirt?! I’d also include heavily commercialized literature in this category like this (*shudder*) or this (*blech*).
- Beautiful books. These are books that delight you or your child (preferably both) and are simultaneously original, inspiring, or clever. There are hundreds of books in this category but one that comes immediately to my mind (which captures the whole trifecta of “original, inspiring and clever”) is from my all-time favorite author illustrator, Doris Burn: Andrew Henry’s Meadow. Now “beautiful books” need not always be serious or beautifully illustrated per se. Character development defines beauty (as in the case of the dignified animals in most of William Steig’s books, e.g., Doctor De Soto). Clever rhymes define beauty (like the fun A House is a House for Me) and of course inspiring art–even without text– defines beauty a la Tuesday style… These types of stories will be the things your children remember well into adulthood. They will influence play, dreams, and creative thinking. They will teach children to foster an appreciation for good, beautiful and wholesome literature. Yes, Beautiful books should live in abundance on your shelves.
- Unremarkable books. Most of the parents I know– and whose bookshelves I’ve chanced to peruse– have books of only this type and the type I’ll be mentioning next. Occasionally, parents fill their shelves with these books and have a few Beautiful books scattered in there. They’re on the right track! Unremarkable books have lived in my shelves off and on for my whole parenting career. These are books which are essentially harmless, have mediocre art and/or story lines and which children generally like. But there is nothing that really resonates “beauty” or “delight” in them. We get a lot of unremarkable books from the library that seem to interest the children, like Library Mouse, or The Magic Hat. You may find yourself protesting at what I’d consider an “unremarkable book.” That’s okay. This is my blog. And your mileage may vary on when Beautiful ends and Unremarkable begins… I’ll not deny that some books of this sort are “good books.” But once you get a taste of “excellent books”… good books simply won’t suffice anymore. If it’s all you’ve got, stick with ’em… “good” or “unremarkable” books are better than no books! But do try to improve your collection over time.
- Ugly books. There is no excuse for ugly books on anyone’s shelves. Most American parents have ugly books on their shelves. These books are the lowest in both art and text. They are often banal, commercialized or even offensive. You may feel conflicted because your children LIKE these books! Well, my kids like Oreos and Cotton Candy. I’m certainly not going to feed them these things often if I can help it. They’ll soon learn that the “beautiful books” are even sweeter than these ones. And one day, you’ll be at your little downtown library and your nine year old will come up to you with an exquisite book and say excitedly: “Mom, look at these illustrations! Aren’t they awesome?” And you’ll let out a gentle, contented sigh as you delight in knowing that you’ve raised a discerning child who can recognize goodness when he sees it. Believe me the psychology of this goes far beyond books and art… So anyway, get rid of all your ugly books! Go to the Goodwill and buy a few unremarkable books at least! And if you don’t have any money, get rid of your ugly books anyway and get a free library card; begin enjoying some quality literature.
So these are the general categories of children’s literature. Have an abundance of Beautiful-Useful books. Have an abundance of Useful-Unremarkable books. Have an abundance of Beautiful books. And then the real estate space on your shelf needs to be closely monitored. I grudgingly have to allow for a small space to Unremarkable books that were gifts to the kids which I feel guilty getting rid of just yet. I don’t however, ever feel guilty about getting rid of any gifted ugly books. I’m the mom and I refuse to be guilted into making bad choices for my kids.
I am currently culling out Unremarkable books. I never have Ugly books and I never have Useful-Ugly books. They just aren’t worth my space. I’ve finally gotten to a point in my home library where I can be more and more discerning about what we are keeping. Since I now have a healthy number of children’s books, I can now start getting rid of whatever has been falling to the bottom of the totem pole. A few years ago, I couldn’t get rid of them because I didn’t have much of a selection. Now, I only want to keep the best of the best. I do presently allow books which I personally consider to be Unremarkable because my children like them so much (e.g. many books in the Lyle, Lyle Crocodile series) but I suspect that with time and the addition of more truly exquisite books, these will eventually leave the home too. It is better to have a small collection of quality books than a large mixed-bag collection. The bonus to this is that when you are exclusive with owning only a modest number of the best books possible, your appreciation for what you have deepens (I’ve found this to be true of the types of toys we allow in the house too). And thankfully, with time and and patience and a bit of money here and there… you can have a superb home library which will be loved by every family member. It’ll be so worth it to look at your bookshelves and think that every title on there is either useful and/or beautiful.