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Meghan Cox Gurdon writes reviews of children's books for the Wall Street Journal. I know this because I once heard her give a dynamic lecture on "the wisdom of the Oompa-Loompas" that I will never forget. She used the Oompa Loompa poem/song for "Mike Teavee" in Roald Dahl's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as a starting point for addressing the dangers of cutting off a child's imagination through, for instance, TV. [Scroll to the bottom of this post for some juicy tidbits quoted from this poem! I couldn't fit them in up here, but they were too good not to quote.] In her lecture, Meghan Cox Gurdon spoke about the need to foster a child's imagination, not kill it. And one of the most important ways of fostering a child's imagination is through reading books--both on their own, and as a family.
Ever since hearing her speak in person, I've always tried to take note of her reviews of children's books in the WSJ. But it wasn't until recently that I took a real interest in what she had to say. Here's why: I was a middle child. Growing up, there was always a steady stream of books available for me to read. My parents must have acquired books for my older siblings as they reached new developmental stages, so by the time I was old enough to read, there was already a vast library to choose from. When I was finished with one book, I would sit in front of the towering shelves and look at the spines, all neatly arranged, trying to decide which to start on next. The question never was whether I would start another book. It was always, simply, which? I can remember fingering certain volumes, intrigued by their covers, just waiting for the time when their wonders would be accessible to me.
Recently, it dawned on me that it is one of my responsibilities, as a parent, to provide the opportunity for such wishful waiting to my own children. I want them to grow up with that same sense of eager anticipation.
But how? I suppose it must be done by beginning to acquire books! By building a children's library. Not just of books that are age-appropriate now, but also of books that are just ahead my eldest daughter's ability. Books that can sit on the shelf and call out to her. Books she can aspire to. That way, there will never be a lag in her reading. It will always be: "That was good! What is next?"
It was in the name of fostering such a spirit that I read a recent review by Megan Cox Gurdon--and then took action. I promptly signed into Amazon and ordered not one, but five books! Two copies of one, and three of another. (The extra copies are going to be Christmas gifts.) Her review was of new books for children this Christmas season. Because it became painfully apparent to me after reading Maria's beautiful post on preparing for Christmas that I had a pathetic library of seasonal children's books, I felt the urgency for the situation to be remedied.
The two books I ordered from Meghan Cox Curdon's review were Nativity and The Christmas Story, and they both just arrived in the mail.
I'm going to start with The Christmas Story [Deluxe Edition]. Here's the basic idea: the book is put out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It features the text of the King James Bible from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, set alongside paintings from the Metropolitan's collection.
From the review: "In this picture book, the full King James account unfurls alongside a dozen sensitive and delicate 15th- and 16th-century pictures, most from Italy and the Netherlands."
My thoughts: This book is truly lovely. I wasn't sure what to expect...whether it'd be more of a children's picture book, or more of a coffee-table style book. I think it falls somewhere in between. The [Deluxe Editions] book's cover is red fabric with gold lettering and a decorative boarder, which gives it that special feeling you'd expect of a coffee table tome. The paintings are beautifully reproduced. But at 24 pages, it's a slime volume, and that, combined with the way in which the paintings and biblical language are paired, make it all accessible to a child. The book is not stuffy. Its arrangement works to bring to life the story of the Nativity, with all its wonder and mystery and majesty.
Next up is a book called Nativity, by Cynthia Rylant. Its style is like its title: simple.
Meghan Cox Gurdon writes: "Setting scant phrases from the King James Bible against her bright, spare paintings, Ms. Rylant evokes feelings of calm and awe."
My thoughts: I kind of love how this book just jumps right in with the opening line: "And there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." Without any introduction, all of a sudden you are there, whisked away from your couch at home and plopped down right in the middle of the action. I love that this children's book preserves the language of the King James Bible, a language so beautifully rhythmic and ornate. I love how it doesn't attempt to water down the wording, but through careful selections, makes it both comprehensible and uplifting to a child's intellect and imagination. This ostensibly simple book closes with Jesus as a grown man, speaking the Beatitudes. For such a simple children's book, there is a lot to ponder.
I'm excited to gift these books this Christmas, and I'm excited to share them with my own daughters too, on this journey of building up a children's library for them. I don't know exactly what it will look like, but reading Meghan Cox Gurdon's review of Christmas books and thinking about that Oompa Loompa lecture she delivered years ago has set me on a new path towards making reading a priority in my home. And I suppose this, like many things, should probably start with myself. I don't think I've finished a book since I wrote this blog post on The Grapes of Wrath. That's shocking!
Another shocking thing: I remember when listening to Meghan Cox Gurdon's lecture years ago, I was SHOCKED at the quotations she was pulling from the Oompa Loompas. I couldn't believe that the book really said such things. As you know from above, I don't yet have a very robust library of children's literature, so I can't open up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and quote from the Oompa Loompa poem myself. But using the assistance of the people over at RoaldDahlFans.com who typed these poems up, I was able to revisit the shocking poem on Mike Teavee. And now I'm going to close by sharing with you a few juicy lines:
“The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set–
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink–
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
THEY…USED…TO…READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!"