I was a Campfire Girl back in the Dark Ages.
Our little rag-tag group would descend on Camp Bluewater in the forests of northern Minnesota, swim in that clear, cold lake, and sing our Wohelo song together to the strumming of a guitar:
Wohelo for work.
Wohelo for health.
Wohelo, wohelo, wohelo for love!
I have truly not thought about this for decades, but now discover that sure enough, it is lodged in my memory! Any other Bluebirds or Campfire Girls out there?
We also often sang an old folksong in a round:
Make new friends
But keep the old
One is silver
And the other gold.
I remember as a kid trying to parse out which of my friends were silver and which were gold. Gold sounded better. Were the old friends or the new friends, supposedly gold? It was a source of some mystification.
Today I want to talk about a preference towards reading old vs. new books. If we think of books as friends — which I do! — then making new friends but keeping the old is a way of gathering treasure.
One of my conscious decisions at Orange Marmalade has been to include both old classics and fresh-on-the-shelves titles in my reviews. I recognize that many of us lean in one direction or another in this regard.
Many parents and grandparents are only aware of what’s current.
It’s what their kids’ friends are reading, what Amazon tells them “readers like you” are buying, what’s at the top of the bestseller lists, what’s on the end-cap at the bookstore.
It’s the next book in a long, popular series, or the first in a new series by the same, popular author.
Stumbling upon older titles in any of these ways is unlikely, and with the number of current options available, ferreting out an old book seems unnecessary, or even a bit out-of-touch.
A second group of parents and grandparents heavily favor old titles, books they perhaps read and loved as a child.
They may travel in circles where nearly everyone is reading classics and are less aware of what’s newly published.
It is overwhelming to sort through dozens and dozens of new titles in any given year and have a clue as to which ones to spend time or money on. Every one of them has a blurb declaring it to be brilliant, and many are said to be “instant classics.” (Do not get me going on this.)
For some, prejudice towards the old becomes quite strong, a bias that morphs from old-is-better to old-is-only.
I’m proposing that reading only new or old books means we are missing out. If we are aware of this, we can work at recovering some balance.
Today I’d like to suggest that…
If you tilt towards the old, you make a conscious effort to read some newer titles.
If you gravitate towards the contemporary, you dip into some classics.
If your kids are assigned only contemporary literature in school, try choosing an older novel to read aloud together.
If, on the other hand, their school assigns exclusively classic literature, open the doors to broader reading at home.
Here’s what we stand to gain by this:
When we read what’s old…
…we strike a rich lode of great literature, literature so masterful it has stood the test of time, sometimes years, sometimes decades, sometimes more than a century, remaining relevant and immensely enjoyable.
…we meet some folks who have endeared themselves to generations, both authors and their characters. I’m thinking of the masterful prose of Ursula LeGuin, E.B. White, Leon Garfield, the turns of phrase I linger over when I read their work. I’m thinking of the beloved Mole and Ratty, Pooh and Piglet, those ridiculous Bastables, feisty Mary Lennox and earth-loving Dickon, and those adventurous Swallows and Amazons, all everlastingly welcome acquaintances. My life and the lives of my children would be paler and poorer without having met them.
…we dismantle negative stereotypes that say, “Classics are for snobs. They’re outdated. Irrelevant. Their manners are quaint and their speech is fusty.” True, not every old book is equally readable, but coaxing children into appreciating the gems among older books will gift them with unexpected delights now and open the door to lifelong explorations. These characters’ lives and stories, wrestlings and sorrows, flaws and heroics, are timelessly human, and what a wonderful notion to have seep into our hearts. The human condition, vast and complex as it is, is also one of abiding similarity. In many profound ways, there is nothing new under the sun.
…we hear voices of different eras. In our efforts to hear from current voices — also of critical importance — we are remiss if we lose key voices from days past. We can learn from their position, not despite but because of their distance from us. In his introduction to On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis writes:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books… To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
I love the disarming warmth of Eleanor Estes, the gentle perceptiveness of Meindert DeJong, the goofy predicaments of Beverly Cleary. I find healing through older approaches to human dilemmas and sorrows. The assumptions of closeness to the natural world, unrestricted freedom to roam, pace of life, community of neighbors, are explored differently in vintage titles. Older voices enrich our lives.
…we fortify ourselves through the expansive vocabulary and complex sentence structures more common in older literature. These sometimes tricky elements serve to expand our expressive range. A gradual, discerning introduction of older books can build a child’s vocabulary nearly effortlessly, increasing their ability to manage difficult texts in the future, discern subtle gradations of meaning, understand one another and our world. Agility in language is empowering.
On the flip side, when we read what’s new…
…once again, we encounter troves of great literature. I’ve had such pleasure discovering gems appearing year to year from the current batch of children’s authors, stories with piercing insight, moral courage, and oodles of creativity, cleverness, and wit. Enormously-talented authors and illustrators are producing extraordinary literature, crafting characters I’ve fallen in love with, telling age-old stories with fresh perspectives, voices, and storytelling mechanisms.
…we meet countless, rich characters. Where would we be without Harry Potter and the vast contingent of friends and foes gifted to us by J.K. Rowling? Likewise, my heart has been lifted by Holling Hoodhood, Kate DiCamillo’s Three Rancheros, dear Dani, animal-loving Lulu, and the effervescently nerve-jangling Dory Fantasmagory. My soul has been deepened by encountering a boy named Langston, a Syrian refugee named Reema, and brave Naomi Leon.
…most critically, we hear from authors who aren’t White. Hearing diverse voices, meeting diverse characters helps alleviate crippling, insular misunderstandings of our world. Not only are negative stereotypes overtly and tacitly introduced and reinforced in many older books, but numerous rich, invaluable perspectives are utterly absent. Entire communities of people have been marginalized from the publication world over the centuries of print, which means that lists of Classics lack voices from races, cultures, and experiences we and our children need to hear. If we’re not actively seeking them out, we probably won’t even notice this paucity in what we read. If for no other reason than this, contemporary literature belongs in our children’s reading lives.
…we experience only past generations’ modes of confronting life’s messiness.
There is a honeyed nostalgia in some of the classic books I love, and a dose of honey is a sweet thing.
Many of these stories present a lovely, amiable version of life, of children’s lives. Characters like Henry Huggins, Homer Price, the Walkers, and the Pyes with their ornithological father, humor us, entertain us, gladden us with their joyful adventures and gumball-size troubles. Although some children, ie. the Bastables, those Happy Orphelines, Pippi Longstocking, Streatfeild’s Fossil girls, have one or both parents missing from the picture, the emotions of loss often do not figure prominently into the story.
Beginning in the 1970s, the harsher realities of children’s lives began to appear in storylines — abuse, addiction, incarcerated parents, mental illness, divorce, war. Contemporary, realistic fiction now includes children facing all manner of brokenness in their households and communities, and facing it head on.
For those of us whose fortunate childhoods are exempt from searing pain, reading these stories teaches us empathy and opens our eyes to the experiences of others in our world.
For many children who do experience turmoil in their lives, seeing themselves represented in a book offers profound validation and camaraderie. For others, gentler stories bring healing and restoration, a warm escape. Both are valid.
… we adventure into newer elements of style, voice, plot construction, that are imaginative and enriching. There are exciting, genre-busting works being created, thrumming novels in verse, brilliant graphic novels and illustrated novels, plots popping about from voice to voice, place to place, in and out of worlds and times, from magic to realism and back again, that require a lithe dexterity in the reader. Children who dive into the current literary world absorb innovative and imaginative approaches to thinking, reading, and writing.
And so, Dear Readers!
If you find yourself listing heavily to one side or the other of the new-old fulcrum, perhaps this year you might adjust the weights a bit.
Inevitably the unfamiliar is not going to read just like the books we’re used to. Things might feel strange and wobbly. Even if we give it an honest try, we will run up against titles that just don’t work for us. But with effort we will certainly discover new favorites as well!
I wish you joy in 2020 as you mine the riches of children’s literature, the silver and gold, the new and the old.
For help finding vintage and classic titles, see my list here.
Contemporary titles are sprinkled into all my fiction lists at the top of the blog.
Later this week, I’ve got five more fiction titles, a zesty mixture of new and old for a wide age range, so stay tuned!