Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Review: The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature

Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature by Mitchell Kalpakgian

I saw this book at Amongst Lovely Things and knew I had to read it. Along with Tending the Heart of Virtue, this book provides evidence for the importance of sharing a particular kind of children's literature with children. The author, Mitchell Kalpakgian, draws examples from a small number of books (twelve, including Andersen's fairy tales, Burnett's The Secret Garden, Hawthorne's A Wonder Book, and MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind) to show how the deepest truths of human life can be found in and nourished by children's stories.

The book reads like a series of essays rather than a coherent whole. In fact, you could easily read one or a few of the chapters individually without confusion. Kalpakgian explores the mysteries of life, wishes, luck, goodness, truth, beauty, children, play, friendship, home, nature, divine providence, and stories. The chapter on nature seemed the least coherent to me, though perhaps I just didn't have enough time to spend on it. I enjoyed the chapters on wishes and luck the most. Before reading them, I had not thought much about how the depictions of wishes and luck in fairy tales might reflect reality.
True wishes are unwavering and constant; they do not disappear. True wishes are answered as a result of good deeds. Their realization often comes as a consequence of effort, suffering, and sacrifice...Genuine desires seek happiness only in moral ways and do not seek satisfaction through devious, dishonest methods.
The final chapter, "The Loss of Mystery and the Loss of Childhood," is completely different from the others. In it, the author argues that our modern society devalues everything he has unearthed from children's literature in the previous chapters, all inevitably stemming from our failure to protect life in the womb. I would not say I disagree with the author's assertions in this chapter, but it all seemed a little overwrought to me.
In short, children's classics are pro-life, pro-family, and pro-God. All of life is sacred, magical, and mysterious, and every aspect of the world is full of poetry, adventure, and romance. Goodness, truth, and beauty abound in infinite supply.
My main problem with the last chapter is that someone who was merely interested in the concept of children's literature as a source of the greatest mysteries of life might just dismiss the whole book after reading the last chapter, even if the previous ones were intriguing. A belief in a Christian God is an important part of every chapter, though, so perhaps I am mistaken and no one like that would ever get so far in the book.

Overall, this book is a good resource for those who are interested in sharing truth, beauty, and goodness with children through literature. The author gives clear examples of how specific stories and books reveal aspects of reality in ways children can contemplate without oversimplification. He also shows how they can lay a foundation of respect for families, home-life, and children. Though only twelve books are used as examples, it is possible to extrapolate the patterns to discern similar themes in other books and stories.

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