Children’s books: why would a senior citizen like me be reading them? And yet I recently read several at quite a clip. This is because a Xaverian brother named Leonard, who teaches reading at a Jesuit middle school near my parish, lent me half a dozen. Leonard often tells me about them during breakfast following the early weekday Mass I celebrate for the brothers’ community where he lives. Not that such reading material is foreign to me. Years ago, I too taught reading at the same middle school where Brother Leonard is now on staff, and I even guided sixth graders through E. B. White’s classic, Charlotte’s Web, a parable on the theme of the last shall be first. The smallest of a litter of pigs is transformed by the devotion of a little farm girl and by the supportive friendship of a wise spider named Charlotte into a champion hog. The twin themes of friendship and finding value in what is seemingly valueless—dark examples can be seen in the many people marginalized by today’s dominant culture—is complemented by the parallel theme of self-giving, in this case through the generosity of the spider. The themes coalesce as a story with a message applicable to young and old alike. A friend in her 80’s recently told me, in fact, of her delight upon receiving Charlotte’s Web as a recent Christmas present.
The best of the various books Brother Leonard lent me holds its own against Charlotte’s Web—namely, Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie. It too deals with a girl; but now, instead of a pig and a spider, her companion is an abandoned dog. The dog, named after the southern grocery store chain where the girl found it, has the gift of winning hearts through its smile. And as the dog and the girl move among various isolated and unhappy people in the small Florida town where they live—including her lonely father, whose wife ran away years before—they become key players in a story that focuses on the life-restoring aspects of community, along with the need to respect and accept the differences that exist among diverse human beings.
The book’s final scene is a party held at the home of a reclusive woman, whom some in the town had mistakenly regarded as a witch. At the celebration, each begins to recognize the unique gifts of the others and their shared need for one another. A moral lesson? Yes, but a well-told story with an important but unobtrusive moral, like this one or the moral of Charlotte’s Web, is welcome not only to a septuagenarian like me but, I hope, also to the students in Brother Leonard’s class.
In my own young-reader days, few works of this caliber were available. The Hardy Boys failed to interest me, nor did The Wizard of Oz, which my grandmother used to read at my bedside when I was sick. As a Christmas present, a great aunt once gave me a book called Indians of the Pueblo. The first few chapters were as much as I could struggle through. There was no real story. Most of my early reading time therefore moved in the direction of comic books. That substandard level of reading lasted until I was 14, when the new school I began to attend gave us a summer reading list that included Oliver Twist. With that novel of Dickens began my ongoing love for Victorian novels, which continues to the present.
Young people today may be unaware of how fortunate they are in having books like Charlotte’s Web and Because of Winn Dixie—books that not only hold the reader’s interest but also impart a lesson in human values. This lesson may include focusing on the hard reality that sorrow is an inevitable part of any life, whether privileged or marginalized. In Because of Winn Dixie, this point is made through the taste of a locally made candy offered to visitors by the local librarian, whose ancestor invented it. The lozenge has a flavor of both sweetness and sadness. The characters, on tasting them, recognize not only the lozenges’ sweetness—that is part of life too—but their own particular source of sorrow as well, stemming from painful events earlier in their lives.
One morning this past winter, Brother Leonard told me that the author of Because of Winn Dixie was in town, and would appear at a book signing event at a local bookstore. He attended it with several students, and the next day showed me a snapshot he had taken of them standing with the diminutive Ms. DiCamillo. It was a proud moment for them, and she herself—a youngish-looking woman in her early 40’s—appeared pleased. Best of all, Brother Leonard gave me an autographed copy of her book. It is a book I hope to hold on to and reread.