Meghan Cox Gurdon
Imagination, Perspective, and Empathy.
As folklorist Sybil Marshall observed, “It seems that mankind is born with an avid appetite for details of other lives beside the one his small span of corporeal existence grants to him; it is as though he seizes from his earliest years upon this way of enlarging the bounds of his own life.” Something special happens when this fictional transport takes place in the intimate setting of a read-aloud. The listener enters a cycle of thought, imagination, and practical behavior that can have surprising and even profound ramifications.
In literature, we are freed from physical constraints and from the orthodoxies of our time and place. We meet characters we would never encounter in the real world. In a vicarious way, we experience life through them, and one result is an expansion of emotional understanding. As Britain’s former children’s laureate Chris Riddell said, “A good book is an empathy machine.” Complicated and mysterious things happen inside people when we give them time to listen.
To C. S. Lewis, time spent in what he called “fairyland” “stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his actual reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
“We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud,” Russell Baker writes in his beautiful memoir, Growing Up.
Children get a wider perspective when they’re tugged out of the here and now for a little while each day. In an enchanted hour, we can read them stories of the real and imagined past. With picture-book biographies we can acquaint them with people we want them to know. With any luck, our children will come to appreciate that the people of generations past were as full of life, intelligence, wisdom, and promise as they are, and impelled by the same half-understood desires and impulses; that those departed souls were as good and bad and indifferent as people who walk the earth today.
So it goes. Youth is inattentive. It thinks itself something fresh, full of energy, spirit, and insight. It feels that no one has ever cared so much, felt with such intensity, or realized truth with such exquisite clarity. It prepares for a future that is unique in its grandeur and meaning. Youth may have no idea it is wreathed in ghosts, informed by ghosts, held up on the shoulders of ghosts. When we read aloud from the literature of the past – and all literature is the literature of the past – and when we share artistic traditions, we are not merely giving children stories and pictures to enjoy. We’re also inviting a measure of humility, gently correcting youth’s eternal temptation to arrogance.
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