Thursday, June 15, 2017

Childhood Chapters - Favorite books with my sons

One of my favorite parts of parenting is reading books to my sons, especially before bedtime. Early on, because it was easier to split the duties, my wife put our youngest to bed and I started putting our oldest, Xander to sleep. The routine was established quickly: brush teeth, read books, tell stories with the lights off, then sleep. It's worked for years now.

Over that time, we've read many books, both modern and classic, such as the Warriors series (about cat societies living alongside the human world), Little House on the Prairie, and Rabbit Hill. In this post, though, I'm going to talk about four books that have really stood out to both of us, that we've returned to time and again, as well as think a little about why that might be. Perhaps some of what I'll say might resonate with those of you who've read to your children, or remember reading books growing up. Here they are, in no particular order:

1.) Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Even though it's for the movie version, I just like the picture above. Below is the actual cover of the edition we have.

I purchased this book for fifty cents at a library sale in Evanston, Illinois. It is an absolute epic (and I don't use that word lightly) of a story, worthy of inclusion in lists of Great Books if I have anything to say about it (for more on Great Books, check out my earlier post). It tells the story of a group of rabbits forced to abandon their warren and the trials and adventures they endure during the search for a new home. (You could say that it's a version of Virgil's Aeneid, just with rabbits.) The characters are incredibly well-defined, with positives and negatives to each, and they have to work together and pool their talents to survive. Most impressive to me, Adams creates parts of a rabbit language and a complex rabbit folklore surrounding their ancestor El Ahrairah, whose tales take up whole chapters and connect to the main plot in fascinating ways. When I recently talked to Xander and asked him why he liked it, he said that it was because of when we'd read it: we'd just moved from Wisconsin so I could start my job at Saint Joseph's College, and he identified with the rabbits having to move from a place they enjoyed to start a new life.

2.) The Martian Tales Trilogy, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Admittedly, this is not an obvious choice for reading with your young child, but before you call the authorities, it has some points in its favor. First, Burroughs uses some very polished phrases of speech, so it's a good vocabulary builder. Besides, it's just plain fun, with armies and intrigues and monsters and battles. Telling the story of John Carter's adventures with the various societies of beings on Mars (or "Barsoom," as the populace calls it), it does also show its early 20th century context with some questionable gender stereotypes. Those are good opportunities for discussion with your children. Plus, since it was one of the influences on George Lucas, after reading it various aspects of Star Wars made much more sense.

3.) The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

We read these books early, largely because I wanted to make sure my sons had the chance to form their own mental images of the scenery and characters before seeing the films. It was very interesting to hear how differently they had pictured certain things! Xander said he liked most the magic and mystery of the stories, how the littlest people (the Hobbits) make the biggest difference, and that even if the good is at the greatest disadvantage, it can still overcome.

4.) Redwall, by Brian Jacques

Brian Jacques wrote almost two dozen of these books about Redwall Abbey, its Mossflower wood, and the surrounding lands populated by talking, civilized mice, otters, squirrels, and other animals. (If you are interested in more about Jacques and a list of his books, there's a website detailing all those things.) Invariably, these good animals are imperiled by "bad" animals, who represent those creatures often labeled so by humans (rats, weasels, foxes, etc.). Jacques is good at creating characters you can root for, though, and just about every book has a riddle to solve that takes some thought to unravel. Xander's explanation for why he liked it was simple enough: "It combines my two favorite things - animals and fighting!"

Thinking it over, there are some interesting commonalities between the four books, and I wonder if that is partly why we've enjoyed them particularly. First, they are all set in very detailed but also purely imaginative worlds rather than realistic places or situations. This fosters a level of escapism that can actually help you work through your real-life worries, as Xander seemed to intimate with Watership Down.

Second, in all these books, the heroes have to work together in order to succeed. There is no one character who does it all on his/her own. Whether it's the rabbit group of Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and others in Watership Down, or the Fellowship in the Lord of The Rings, or John Carter and Tars Tarkas in The Martian Tales, or Matthias, Skipper, Candace, and others in Redwall, each book is very good at showing characters using their unique, individual talents to help the group. Though they don't always get along, at the end of the day, each of these groups looks out for one another and no one is left alienated. Everyone has something they can contribute just based on who they are.

Finally, on that same point, good does not overcome evil in these four tales because it is necessarily stronger; in fact, the forces of good are numerically and martially weaker in each book. Evil fails because those forces work against each other and seem incapable of the cooperation of the good characters. Sauron and Saruman don't exactly coordinate well and Orcs are constantly killing each other to move up in the world. Similarly, stoats and weasels and rats kill almost as many of each other as mice when they besiege Redwall Abbey. Good is good because it embraces an attitude of "Let's work together" rather than "I'm better than you."

So, there you have it, our top four chapter far. But I'd be remiss if I left out the very, very first book I read as a father:

If you can look at the picture below, of a big round bear conversing with a tiny mole, and remain unmoved, I worry for the state of your humanity.

Next time, perhaps a different list of books: my favorite books to teach to students as a professor. Until then, take care!

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