Since you are reading this article there is a good chance you love and teach children. It is probable that you appreciate Andrew Kern’s definition of classical education as “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences.”
A similar definition by Russell Kirk tells us that the moral imagination is “an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” In fact, to teach is to develop the moral imagination or as C.S. Lewis describes it: “the ordering of the affections.”
One of the most effective tools for developing the moral imagination is great literature. Reading wonderful literature rouses our students to think great thoughts and great thoughts inspire them to do great things. Books change our students because ideas do.
The current trend – to just get children reading no matter what kind of material we have to throw at them – is dangerous and our sons are especially vulnerable. Much of the literature aimed at young boys comes under the heading “gross-out.” But Thomas Spence of the Wall Street Journal recently suggested that we not appeal to our sons’ basest instincts; rather we should motivate our boys with the concept of honor. Honor motivates boys and it is not a bad ideal for girls either.
Literature clothes honor and makes it compelling to our children. Who doesn’t want to be brave after meeting the mouse Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? The sad truth, however, is that in our quest for easy answers we often mistake moralism for the moral imagination. Moralism is a kind of legalism. It cleans the outside of the cup while leaving the inside dirty which allows us to feel smug and self-satisfied.
Our goal, as teachers, is not to produce self-righteous prigs like another of our old friends from Dawn Treader, Eustace Scrubb – a boy C.S. Lewis describes as not having read the right sorts of books – but rather to motivate our children by examples of true depth of character, whether that character is in the real man Stonewall Jackson or the fictional Hobbit Frodo. When we read of these admirable spirits we don’t feel smug, we feel challenged and even ashamed. We question our own motives and behaviors. In the best cases, we repent.
Books that fuel the imagination don’t have to be imaginary. A talking dog does not necessarily fuel anything while many historical events are highly combustible to the imagination; biographies can be dangerously flammable. Almost any true children’s classic will work on the imagination as long as it is not a Victorian-era book. I am always highly suspect of any list that promotes Victorian moralism as character-building, which is precisely what it is not. Would you call a feeding-tube meal nourishing and delicious?
The following is a list of the books our family has found inspirational, bidding us to go further up and further in. These are the books my older boys insist the little boys and their sister not miss. Be careful, I sometimes think I let the boys glean too much inspiration; my two oldest sons are thriving in dangerous careers.
I have tried to concentrate on books you may have overlooked; as a consequence I have left out many beloved friends. I didn’t even mention The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, Little House in the Big Woods, or Farmer Giles of Ham but I know you love them too. I didn’t get a chance to warn you not to intrude on a book while reading out loud; let it work its own magic. This list represents many happy days for me with a group of ever-growing boys and a pretty little girl. I hope it will provide inspiration as you endeavor to lead your students to the table of worthy ideas.
- Men of Iron, Otto of the Silver Hand and others by Howard Pyle. By others I mean search the highways and byways and find anything you can by Pyle. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you have been missing. My son James claims Men of Iron as his favorite childhood book.
- The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle. This book far surpasses Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes using the criteria stated above. It creates a longing for the deepest streams of honor when read with Doyle’s Sir Nigel and Sir Gerhard books. These are my husband’s favorite books.
- The Adventures of Richard Hannay by John Buchan. Although none of us agree on which of Buchan’s books we like the best, we all agree his books make our top 10 list. I love Mr. Standfast the best but the boys usually pick Greenmantle.
- The Railway Children or any book by E Nesbit. You cannot go wrong with Nesbit. CS Lewis read her books as a child. What further proof do you need that she passes the imaginative literature test?
- The Black Fox of Lorne and others by Marguerite de Angeli. These are great books for middle school students.
- Little Britches or Father and I were Ranchers by Ralph Moody. Absolutely not to be missed under any circumstances. Beat yourself with reeds if you have failed to read at least one of these out loud in your class or family.
- Madelaine Takes Command by Esther C Brill. Here is a book for girls which boys will love also. This true story illustrates all the qualities of true femininity and humble leadership in time of need.
- Rolf and the Viking Bow and others by Allen French. French is another author whose extra works often get overlooked. You will not be sad you searched for some of his other titles.
- Stalky and Co and others by Rudyard Kipling. Don’t forget to read Kipling’s poems. He had an excellent ear for meter and a robust mood. At the top of the imaginative literature list would have to be his excellent stories of India: The Jungle Book and Just so Stories.
- The Marsh King by Walter C Hodges. King Alfred!! Need I say more?
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. Highly imaginative realistic and fantastic stories of the kind of childhood we all wish we could have had and we can have when we open the pages of these books.
- The Sugar Creek Gang by Paul Hutchens (older version only.) It is true these books may not deserve to sit on a list with the likes of John Buchan and Howard Pyle but as a mother I can testify that they did more to instill manliness in my sons at a young age than almost any other books I can think of. They inspire without preaching.
- Mythology. I would be remiss if I did not mention that children love mythology and some of our best literature has come from the tales of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen. Rosemary Sutcliffe, Howard Pyle, Tolkien, Nathaniel Hawthorne and many, many more authors have plied their writing skills on these tales. The pathos alone is worth the ride.
- Penrod by Booth Tarkington. Hilariously funny books. Penrod is something of a bad boy with a good heart. Consider these books medicine for the soul.
- Scaramouche and all others by Rafael Sabatini. Warning: all of my children acted a little silly for a while after reading Scaramouche; they fancy themselves French actors for several months. Old Hollywood turned Sabatini books into those great Errol Flynn Swashbucklers.