Today is part two of my interview with author Sarah Clarkson. At 29, Sarah has already written two books, Journeys of Faithfulness: Stories of Faith for Young Christian Women and Read for the Heart: Whole Books for Whole-Hearted Families. She also writes a beautiful blog, Thoroughly Alive, which I highly suggest you subscribe to via email or your blog reader. Her posts always leave me longing for goodness and beauty and for that to which goodness and beauty point—our good and beautiful God.
Last week, Sarah talked about the synchronicities in her life that led her to write Read for the Heart, a book about children’s books and the crucial role of reading and story in a child’s life. Today, she answers my questions about her own story-formation.
KCI: Can you tell my readers a bit about your history as a reader and how the stories you read as a child formed you into the person you are today?
SC: My mom made a decision when my siblings and I were tiny that probably changed our lives. In great need of a moment of afternoon quiet herself, she set a choice before us once we learned how to read. Every afternoon, we could either take an hour-long nap… or read. Which do you think we squirmy children chose?
Thus, at a very young age, I was established in the habit of prolonged, daily reading. Both of my parents had done a great deal of research into childhood education and had decided early on to make books a staple in our home. My reading history really begins with the gift my parents gave me in a house toppling with books. We read aloud in the mornings and evenings, we had baskets of luminous picture books, shelves crammed with historical fiction and classics, art tomes on the settle, magazines on the coffee table… books everywhere a child could turn. I read voraciously. I read daily. And it is a habit that has formed my whole education and life.
It was only when I spent a glorious semester at Oxford that I realized that the reading habits I had formed would serve me for the rest of my life. Most of what I did at Oxford was to read, think, and then write about what I’d read. Reading and thinking well, I realized, was a large part of what it meant to have a great education, one I had access to regardless of my circumstances or location.
Another aspect of childhood reading that I realize deeply shaped me is the fact that some of my first favorite books were read aloud with my mom. We read Little House on the Prairie, The Girl of the Limberlost, Little Women, and others aloud together, savoring the stories, delighting in the characters. I think this really shaped me to approach books with delight, to conceive of stories as something that made for deep fellowship and lasting enjoyment. That was probably the point at which I began to understand that stories were gifts – to be savored and then given to those you love.
The stories I read when I was a child truly formed the imagination that I bear as an adult. Books were constant companions to me, and each day they were forming the way I looked at the world. The reason I was so upset by that flight attendant not knowing who Anne of Green Gables was didn’t have to do with her lack of literary knowledge, it really was about the way of seeing the world that Anne offers her readers. Anne taught me to wonder, to venture into my backyard and find it a place of constant delight. I am passionate about getting parents to get good books into the hands of their children because I deeply believe that what you read shapes the person you become.
I think for me, I would sum it up by saying that books taught me to perceive my own life as a story. With Anne and Frodo and Lucy Pevensie and Rat and Mole as my companions, I understood that my own choices had consequences. I understood that the narrative of my life would one day be told and I could be the heroine, or the villain. Which would I choose? The books I read formed my choice.
Some literacy specialists believe that it’s more important that kids read than what they read. You clearly disagree. Why is the content and literary quality of children’s books so important?
SC: We are all story-formed souls. We live within the story of our own lives and are shaped by the stories of others, and by the stories we read. Each story that a child encounters, each image conjured by their imagination, each character encountered, each landscape imagined does two things. First, it forms their expectation of the world. What is required of a person? What does it mean to be heroic? What is beautiful? What actions are good and what do those look like? What is evil? What is the consequence of choice?
Every story a child reads provides the answers to these fundamental questions about the nature and goal of life. There is no such thing as a neutral story. Stories always communicate, and they speak in the powerful language of image. In a story, abstract ideas like good and evil are enfleshed in the actions of characters, the beauty of landscapes, the choices and consequences of each person in the story. Stories communicate a certain idea of what it means to be human and what ought to be desired and fought for in the world. Thus, it matters immensely what children read because every story that they encounter helps them to answer those fundamental questions concerning who they will be and what they ought to become.
But the second thing that stories do is that they help to form an interior world. We live in a world of such activity, such constant outward expression, such all-immersing technology that it is easy to forget the life of the mind, the inner world of the soul. Children especially are increasingly caught up in the distraction of technology, and in the cultural push toward minute-by-minute entertainment. In the midst of all of this, the imagination gets entirely neglected. Children aren’t given the time to imagine stories, to make-believe, to create. Creativity requires free time, space, silence, even boredom. But it also requires a rich interior world, a mind stocked with imagined landscapes, with possibility.
A good book provides not only a space of quiet and thoughtfulness in which to encounter language and imagined worlds, but also the nourishment necessary to a healthy imagination. Stories create spaces within a child’s heart and soul, spaces in which they can wonder and imagine, spaces from which they create. It’s vital to remember then, that what a child reads directly shapes this inner world, this inner person from which the child looks out upon the world. What sort of stories will best shape the inner world of a child? That’s the question I feel must be asked.
And that’s the question Sarah both asks and tries to answer in Read for the Heart. Next week, she’ll share how she decided which books to include and which books she wishes she’d included. Plus: her top ten desert island books for kids. (Be forewarned: she cheats. 🙂 )