Archives For Children

Misnaming Kids

August 21, 2014 — 6 Comments

baby namesWhy do they do it? I’m sure they considered it witty. They may have laughed as they inscribed his name on the birth certificate of their newborn son. (I doubt he shared the humor of the moment.)

Let’s think about this for just a moment. If your family name was Lemon, a totally respectable and not uncommon name, would you give your child a first name that is also a citrus?

That’s what I encountered as I completed the current issue of the military chaplaincy journal that I edit. One of the American Civil War chaplains I mentioned in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy bore the striking name “Orange V. Lemon.”

Really? Yes, really.

It reminded me of a quaint Canadian television series that my dad used to enjoy, The Red Green Show. His parents should have known that one color in a person’s name is sufficient.

Still, the temptation to be silly is irresistible to some people. Years ago I knew an attorney whose last name was Cain. Her parents had named her Candy, of course. Peculiar names are so common today, of course, that there are myriads of internet repositories for them.

Names are more important than many of us realize. I’ve written in the past about how my wife and I followed the biblical example of choosing our children’s names based on their meanings.

Even if that approach doesn’t appeal to a parents, there are an almost unlimited number of options that would not subject their children to unwanted attention.

Fortunately, when we get older, we have some control over what we are called. I was “Robbie” in my childhood, and graduated to “Rob” as soon as I could. “Robert’s” always been fine with me, since it’s my given name and what I expect someone I’ve never met to call me. “Bob,” however, is not okay. There’s nothing wrong with “Bob,” except that I’ve never been one. And when someone greets me as such it projects a very false familiarity.

Curiously, I recall reading in the Oxford dictionary of names that more primitive nicknames for Robert included Hob, Dob and Nob. So I suppose I should count my blessings when addressed as Bob.

C.S. Lewis chose his own name. Many people are surprised when they learn that he went by the name of Jack. How, they wonder, could one get “Jack” out of “Clive Staples?” Good question.

Lewis was not enamored with the name Clive. When he was only four, he decided to use the name of a pet dog that had been killed by an early motorist. The pet’s name was a human-friend designation, “Jacksie.” His brother Warren relates the event thusly, in his 1966 collection of Lewis’ letters.

Then, in the course of one holiday, my brother made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking “Clive”, and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.” He stuck to this next day and thereafter, refusing to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack. So to his family and his intimate friends, he was Jack for life: and Jack he will be for the rest of this book.

It’s fascinating that Lewis’ family acquiesced to his demand, but it took. One small consequence, of course, is that this gifted writer is known today as “C.S.” rather than by his full names.

As for faithful Orange, I don’t know if he adopted any other name during his lifetime. He may have been quite content. It certainly did not prevent him from enjoying a meaningful life. He became a Methodist pastor and served as chaplain with the 36th Indiana Infantry.

Volcano Hurricane

August 7, 2014 — 6 Comments

volcanoVolcano hurricane. An epic disaster film! No sharks, but copious amounts of lava flung by gale force winds across the globe. And all from the mind of a six year old boy.

Imaginations are great. They are one of the most precious gifts of God (which makes it all the more tragic when the human imagination is diverted towards carnal ends).

The minds of young boys, thankfully, have yet to turn to such lamentable matters. Their innocence shields them from the worst of human corruption. They, instead, are consumed with thoughts of spiders and other things that creep out girls . . . and especially their moms.

Our almost-seven-year-old grandson was here for the weekend with his family. We had a wonderful time. We had actually found the ideal book to include as part of his birthday celebration: How to Convince Your Parents You Can Care for a Pet Tarantula. Perfect.

Young male imaginations seem to revolve around things that shock—and also things that gross others out.

Our kids have trained their own children well. For example, they always excuse themselves when they experience flatulence. It’s a natural experience, of course, and as we mature, adults learn to ignore potentially embarrassing moments related to it. That’s part of becoming “civilized.”

Six year olds . . . not so much. Our grandson properly excuses himself, but he typically does so in the midst of enthusiastic laughter. It’s as though he relishes just how uncultured the moment seems.

During this particular visit, he leaped into my lap in a semi-ninja attack. As we wrestled, there was a minor explosion. Not quite volcanic, but close enough. He apologized, amidst great hilarity. “Sorry about my little gas,” he added.

And here’s where I made the mistake. I reinforced his innate boyhood grossness by saying, “little! . . . that sounded like it was a buffalo!”

Not quite the right thing to say, since it simply encouraged the precocious guy. But what I can say . . . time may change a boy into a man, but in most of us . . . somewhere deep in the recesses of our psyches . . . that boyhood irreverence lingers.

Not that I enjoy the crass “body humor” that pervades so much comedy (on tv and film). I steadfastly avoid it. It insults my mind and viewing it constitutes a total waste of time. Still, with my grandson wrapped in my arms, laughing away, it all seemed so genuine and innocently funny.

Of course, I recognize one needed to be there—and probably to also be related by bloodline to the participants—to find any humor in the moment. But it certainly seemed funny to us.

C.S. Lewis and Children

I was thinking about that moment as I sat down to write this post. I intended to focus on the amazing imaginations of children, and my grandson’s current preoccupation with gigantic volcanoes.

But whim or muse redirected the column. In the end, it turns out to be a reflection on the simple pleasure that we adults experience when we interact with kids. Especially when they are children who are precious to us.

I wish that C.S. Lewis had been able to experience that joy. He wasn’t. His awkwardness with children is well known. Most attribute it to the early passing of his mother, and the emotional distance his father maintained from his sons.

In a 1935 letter he wrote to a close friend, “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.”

In The Abolition of Man he was even more forthcoming, sharing that, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself.”

So, Lewis recognized his discomfort with children as a shortcoming. It was something he wished could be dispelled. Unfortunately, we can’t simply wish (or pray) away our ingrained personality traits. We’re lucky if we can tame them or reshape them.

We work hard to strengthen our positive traits and the wise deny nourishment to their weaker qualities. People often use the analogy of wearing off one’s rough edges, and that’s an apt image.

Lewis’ reticence with children makes his creation of Narnia all the more wondrous. The Chronicles of Narnia have captivated the hearts and imaginations of innumerable children, and adults alike. Certainly Lewis was correct when he wrote the following in “On Stories.”

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.

With his marriage, late in life, Lewis became a step-father. He did the very best he could, but was conscious of just how ill-equipped he was to raise Douglas and David. Both became successful men. Doug shares his parents’ love of Christ, and helps direct the course of various Lewisian projects today.

Allow me to close with another evidence of the greatness of C.S. Lewis. He was able to rise far above his innate uneasiness with children. In fact, his fabled correspondence included many children who had written to him seeking his attention. In 1951 he wrote to one of them, saying:

I am glad you all liked The Lion. A number of mothers, and still more, schoolmistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it. I think it frightens some adults, but v[ery] few children.

Lewis did not disappoint the many children who wrote to him during those terribly busy years. Nor do his writings disappoint us today. Unlike the transience of youthful volcano hurricanes, Lewis’ legacy will forever remain alive in the imaginations of child and adult alike.

Face to Face with God

October 28, 2013 — 14 Comments

Jesus with animalsA recent letter to the editor of Lutheran Witness includes a delightful example of the wondrous glory of childhood simplicity.

When our four-year-old son . . . saw a bird outside the window, he commented “I wish I were a bird with wings so I could fly up to heaven and talk to Jesus.” [His parents] asked what he would say to Jesus if he were a bird. His simple reply . . . “Tweet, tweet.”

How gloriously innocent. So unpretentious and joyously pure. I think this captures the essence of what Jesus was referring to when he said “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4, ESV).

C.S. Lewis discussed the innocence of children in his essay “The Abolition of Man.” He is discussing the monolithic power of society, or government, in reshaping what it means to be human. God preserve us from those who would redefine and eradicate the very qualities of humanity Jesus praised.

Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. . . . But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. . . .

Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau,” and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

When you and I stand in the presence of God, our adult words will vary. We’ll all drop to our knees—some in adoration, others perhaps in fear—but what will we say?

I can imagine some of the words that will come to our lips.

“Thank you.”

“Why did you allow . . ?”

“I love you.”

“I despise you because . . ?”

“Hallelujah.”

Or, perhaps, “Why did you delay so long?”*

I suspect we will probably be speechless. Certainly, at first. There’s a song that captures well the mystery that awaits us when we find ourselves face to face with our Creator. It’s more in spirit with the response of the young child who simply tweeted out his greeting to God.

Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel?

Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?

Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?

Will I sing ‘Hallelujah!’? Will I be able to speak at all?

I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

We used to sing this song at chapel services in southwest Asia. I have often thought it would be very meaningful to record this song in my own voice, to be played at my own funeral (should the Lord tarry).

That’s not nearly as morbid as some might think. It’s a song of praise, awe and wonder, in my rendition I would end it with the words “I no longer imagine,” for my faith in God will have given way to sight.

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* The answer to that question is actually found in the Scriptures. From the third chapter of Peter’s second epistle:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Writing Life Scripts

September 13, 2013 — 9 Comments

ben hurI was shaped by the heroic religious films of the 1950s and 60s. The powerful messages of epic movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe planted within my young Christian heart an awareness of nobility and radical self-sacrifice.

About twenty years ago, I spent a year doing graduate work in education. One of my Educational Psychology classes was taught by a professor who was a devotee of Transactional Analysis. I don’t recall too much about TA, aside from one of its principles that resonated with me.

It’s a concept called Life Scripts. Without going into great detail, it is an often subconscious notion of how we “think” our lives will or should play out. It’s adjusted throughout our lives, but the basic theme is established when we are quite young.*

A recent article says “script is broadly understood as a series of decisions, formed as coping strategies in childhood, which continue to shape the life course outside of awareness.”**

It was only as an adult that I realized just how significant an impression these virtuous stories made on me. I recalled the countless times I lay in bed at night rehearsing the story of The Robe. I was the unbelieving Roman soldier, converted by the gentle witness of the wrongfully persecuted Christians.*** Ultimately, I took my stand with them, defending them and voluntarily laying down my life for Christ.

That same plot line still echoes through my mind and soul.

I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to such positive influences while my self identity was being shaped. And I pray for children today whose parents allow them to be exposed (at terribly vulnerable ages!) to violent, fearful and morally ambiguous influences.

Those precious minds and hearts are scarred by the vulgarity and immorality that are endemic in modern cinema, television and music. May God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis lived during the era when the virtuous dramas such as those named above were at the peak of their influence.

In a diary entry from the mid-1920s, he mentions Quo Vadis in passing. He is describing his weekend schedule.

Saturday 22 April: Got up about 6.30 and did the same jobs as yesterday. Was settled to work by 9.5 o’clock and put in an excellent morning . . . Sheila Gonner—jolly child—came to tea. Dorothy is to come back tomorrow: so we shall no longer be servantless. At her request I lent her my crib to Tacitus’ History for her sister Rose— I wonder what makes her imagine that she would like it? Possibly early Christian novels of the Quo Vadis type. Worked again after tea, and from supper till ten o’clock, finishing Herodotus. The last few pages of the IXth Book I now read for the first time, having got tired of it on my first reading . . .

I find this diary passage intriguing, in the way that Lewis posits a reader’s potential interest in classical literature as arising from their exposure to ancient Rome via contemporary novels. That’s precisely where my own lifelong fascination with the Roman empire was born.

If you’ve never seen these three movies, I commend them to you. I would also encourage you to consider reading one or all of the novels. They are available for free download in various digital formats.

Quo Vadis

Ben Hur

The Robe

_____

* I’m a pastor and historian, not a psychologist, so I don’t pretend to understand all of the implications. Because of that, I don’t endorse TA as a fully valid theory. What’s more, in our fallen world it’s obvious that many early “life scripts” can be based on wounds inflicted on neglected or abused children. In such cases, particularly where the scripts are destructive, we are not “destined” to live out a tragedy. By the grace of God, even the saddest of stories can be redeemed and “rewritten” into tales of hope and wonder.

** From “Script or Scripture?” by Jo Stuthridge in Life Scripts edited by Richard Erskine (Karnac Books, 2010).

*** It didn’t hurt that the main Christian disciple in the film was the lovely and chaste Diana, played by the British actress Jean Simmons. But that’s another story, and it’s important to note that these life scripts are pre-pubescent creations, so they are motivated by much deeper impulses than hormones. As the previously footnoted quotation referred to them, they are fundamentally “coping strategies” for survival in the calm (or frequently turbulent) world in which children find themselves.

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

_____

The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.

Reading to Children

August 5, 2013 — 10 Comments

grandparent readingAs a father whose military service required extended separations from my children, I wish technology had been about three decades more advanced than it was while I was in uniform.

As a grandfather who has most of his grandkids living hours away, I’m grateful to be alive during an era when we can still nurture close relationships despite geographic separation.

There are many wonderful ways to keep in touch across the miles. And, a new program adds a wonderful touch to the time proven joy of reading to our children. It’s called Kindoma, and more about it momentarily.

It’s a little known secret that there are few—very few—activities children love more than reading with a loved one. It’s not just about the book, it’s also about relationships and bonding.

C.S. Lewis had an interesting relationship with children. As a bachelor academic, he was not around them all that much. And when he wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943—before becoming a step-father—Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.”

Eight years earlier, at the modest age of thirty-seven, he wrote to a good friend, “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” Lewis isn’t alone in possessing this unfortunate trait, which from my observation [political incorrectness alert] is more common among men than women. Of course, in our increasingly equalitarian culture it does seem that character flaw is becoming a bit more gender-balanced.

Then there is the fact that many of us who dearly love our young progeny, enjoy the children of our friends, and hold genuine compassion for young ones suffering in any variety of miserable conditions . . . do not particularly seek out the company of children. From my personal perspective, I feel like I “expend” all of my (admittedly finite) kid-patience with my own kin and the offspring of my friends. I don’t have a surplus left after spending a significant amount of time with the (precious) little ones.

And, like Lewis, “I recognize this as a defect in myself.”

At the same time as I admire teachers who can pour themselves into little ones, and I am absolutely dumbfounded by people who prefer working with young teenagers, I recognize that the world works well when some of us are better equipped to work with adults also . . . so the entire spectrum of learners is served.

Recognizing our own prejudices is a prerequisite to suppressing or evicting them. Lewis, of course, was extremely concerned about children and their upbringing, particularly their education.

Returning to the subject of how to nurture relationships with children through the intercontinental reading of books, technology has made the miraculous possible.

Kindoma is novel in the sense that it allows you to read the book together (either the child or the adult can be the actual “reader”) while you actually turn the pages of the etext together! So you get the genuine experience of reading together.

The creator of the program holds a PhD in Computer Science. So he’s not merely an idea guy (like me) who comes up with a slew of amazing concepts but doesn’t have the scientific skill to make them reality.

The program is currently available for ipod and ipad. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before it is ported to other operating systems. Since I still use “regular” desk and lap-top computers, I haven’t experimented with it myself. The app itself is free. I’m unsure about their revenue stream, whether it will come from ads, or purchase of access to a specific library, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

The brief link below offers an introduction to the tool. I hope that you will use it if applicable to your situation, and pass it on to others you know who might benefit from it. (In the meantime, I’m thinking about approaching my wife about us making that ipad purchase I’ve been pondering.)

What Children Read

August 1, 2013 — 14 Comments

young readerI recently reread C.S. Lewis’ brief essay, “On Juvenile Tastes.” In it he ponders two basic questions.

First, what do children prefer to read? And second, why do they evidence that preference?

Lewis set the stage by discussing the state of children’s literature in 1958, which was of course, more than half a century ago. Nevertheless, like most of Lewis’ observations, there is much that is timeless about his argument.

Not long ago I saw in some periodical the statement that “Children are a distinct race”. Something like this seems to be assumed today by many who write, and still more who criticise, what are called children’s books or ‘juveniles’. Children are regarded as being at any rate a distinct literary species, and the production of books that cater for their supposedly odd and alien taste has become an industry; almost a heavy one.

It seems little has changed during the intervening decades. If anything, this concept has become much more deeply entrenched. No one can doubt that the publication of “juvenile” literature has expanded dramatically. (To maintain the entrenchment allusion, we might say it has “exploded.”)

Lewis, however, does not accept the notion that children have unique—in his picturesque words “odd and alien”—literary interests. His first argument is that their preferences are by no means monolithic.

This theory does not seem to me to be borne out by the facts. For one thing, there is no literary taste common to all children. We find among them all the same types as among ourselves. Many of them, like many of us, never read when they can find any other entertainment. Some of them choose quiet, realistic, “slice-of-life” books . . . Some like fantasies and marvels . . . Some care for little but books of information, and so do some adults. Some of them, like some of us, are omnivorous. Silly children prefer success stories about school life as silly adults like success stories about grown-up life.

So, in Lewis’ opinion, we witness great difference in the tastes of children, as well as adults. He attributes changing literary emphases to human nature, rather than chronological considerations. The difference enters with children’s focus on enjoying literature, which provides them immunity to literary fads.

Surely it would be less arrogant, and truer to the evidence, to say that the peculiarity of child readers is that they are not peculiar. It is we who are peculiar. Fashions in literary taste come and go among the adults, and every period has its own shibboleths. These, when good, do not improve the taste of children, and, when bad, do not corrupt it; for children read only to enjoy.

Of course their limited vocabulary and general ignorance make some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movements, and literary revolutions.

Lewis’ critique of the publishing arena follows. Since these literary phases fade in and out, it is here where contemporary literary critics may fairly evaluate things differently.

This has one curious result. When the literary Establishment—the approved canon of taste—is so extremely jejune and narrow as it is today, much has to be addressed in the first instance to children if it is to get printed at all. Those who have a story to tell must appeal to the audience that still cares for storytelling.

The literary world of today is little interested in the narrative art as such; it is preoccupied with technical novelties and with ‘ideas’, by which it means not literary, but social or psychological, ideas. The ideas (in the literary sense) on which Miss Norton’s The Borrowers or Mr. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are built would not need to be embodied in “juveniles” at most periods.

Lewis ends his essay by contrasting two disparate approaches to the production of so-called children’s literature. I suspect the two general categories still hold true for most. However, having only dabbled in writing for children, I’m by no means an authority on the subject. As for the creator of Narnia . . . I’m persuaded he possesses the credibility to speak with some modest influence.

It follows that there are now two very different sorts of “writers for children”. The wrong sort believe that children are “a distinct race”. They carefully “make up” the tastes of these odd creatures—like an anthropologist observing the habits of a savage tribe—or even the tastes of a clearly defined age-group within a particular social class within the “distinct race”. They dish up not what they like themselves but what that race is supposed to like. Educational and moral, as well as commercial, motives may come in.

The right sort work from the common, universally human, ground they share with the children, and indeed with countless adults. They label their books ‘For Children’ because children are the only market now recognised for the books they, anyway, want to write.

Right or wrong, like Lewis I cast my lot with those who write for children from their shared humanity with them. After all, they may be slightly less mature than most grown-ups, but they are not truly “alien” (even if they occasionally behave that way).

A Narnian Madlib

July 23, 2013 — 9 Comments

EVO-WWI-064-01060I got to savor one of the joys of being a grandpa today, watching over two of my five lovely granddaughters while their parents traveled to an important business meeting.

Naturally, we had fun playing, drawing, tossing a ball for their German shepherd, building things, cleaning up their room (not quite so “fun”) and—since it’s summer—playing with water balloons (extremely fun, even though I got drenched).

We also did a madlib, one of those “phrasal templates” popularized by Roger Price and Leonard Stern in the 1950s. These simple word games are entertaining and educational. And, even for novice writers, they’re not too challenging to compose. After all, the stories themselves are by nature brief and rather superficial.

Today I even set my granddaughters in front of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls so I could write a short scene from Narnia for them. You’ll find it below.

I had forgotten how much fun we had with madlibs when our own children were young. We made many up on the spur of the moment, and laughed at the silly combinations of word that resulted. The process, as most readers know, involves randomly selecting a series of words for inclusion in the narrative. With a lack of imagination, the readings can fall a bit flat, but typically you end up with some (accidentally) witty wordplay.

One of the benefits of madlibs is how they can be used more than once. While the outline of the story remains the same, of course, the choices made by readers generate amazing diversity.

Most madlibs are admittedly rather juvenile. That’s because they are written for juveniles. They rely on providing specific types of words, such as nouns or adjectives. Theoretically, you could devise a madlib as complex or sophisticated as you desire. For example, an entertaining tale certainly could doubtless be woven by including random selections for the following word choices.

____________ prime number

____________ copular verb

____________ Napoleonic regimental commander

____________ homograph

____________ life stage of a butterfly (other than larva or pupa)

____________ ditransitive verb

____________ type of psychosis

____________ infielder for 1874 Chicago White Stockings

____________ gerund

____________ rare earth mineral

____________ monotransitive verb

____________ early kabbalist (other than Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa)

____________ type of arachnid with blue coloration

____________ free predictive

____________ reciprocal pronoun

____________ chemical process (other than esterification)

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the story accompanying this worthy list, but if you should write it, I’d love to read it.

There are a number of fan sites online that generate madlibs. I won’t recommend any since the ones I’ve glanced at today are merely advertising collections for sale. (I also found the examples I experimented with to be rather feeble . . . even weaker than the story I wrote today in a single hour.)

You will search in vain if you’re seeking a C.S. Lewis reference to madlibs. However, he was a master wordsmith, who recognized well their power, and greatly loved humor. The following passage, from “Prudery and Philology,”
refers to the versatility and weight of language, and includes a valuable caution.

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own
proper powers and limitations.

The brief tale below is not pretentious, so you need not fear it exceeding its limitation. It simply is what it is . . . one grandfather’s passing literary adventure with his grandchildren.

It you like “Sharpbeak’s Narnian Adventure,” you’re welcome to download a PDF copy of the story I’ve appended to the end of the column. It’s 100% free, and I’m not trying to sell a collection of madlibs after hooking you. Besides, if I was trying to make a profit off of anything including the word “Narnian,” I have no doubt lawyers would be descending upon me in droves.

The Words You Will Need

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ something  you drink

____________ color

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ meal time

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ plural noun

____________ plural noun

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ food

____________ food

____________ food

____________ place

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ place

____________ number

____________ plural relative

____________ verb

____________ adjective

____________ plural monster

The Story Into Which You Insert Your Words

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a/an ____________, young eagle named Sharpbeak decided to set out for an adventure. A wise ____________ climbed his ____________ tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s ____________ nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of ____________?”

As the two friends watched the sun set over the ____________ mountains, the eagle said ____________, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His ____________ companion warned him, “Beware of the ____________ giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for ____________ or even for a snack. Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also ____________ dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate ____________ visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a ____________ burst of their ___________ flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of ____________ and ____________.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my ____________ adventure.”

“Oh,” added Sharpbeak’s friend, “I wouldn’t advise you to fly over the ____________ ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a/an ____________ island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid ____________ to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said Sharpbeak, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the ____________ stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. All I have to offer you to eat is ____________ and ____________.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this ____________ for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my ____________, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing ____________ and ___________ rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a ____________ with my ____________ ____________. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and ____________.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the ____________ eagle soared off to begin his adventure. Sharpbeak would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and ____________ along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Epilogue

Those of you curious about how my granddaughters’ story turned out, should read on.

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a big, young eagle decided to go off for an adventure. A wise deer climbed his pink tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s fuzzy nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of juice?

As the two friends watched the sun set over the blue mountains, the eagle said roughly, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His wide companion warned him, “Beware of the cold giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for breakfast or even for a snack.” Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also hairy dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate old visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a soft burst of their speedy flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of trash cans and flowers.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my fun adventure.”

“Oh,” added his friend, “and I wouldn’t advise you to fly out over the heavy ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a dark island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid bunny to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said the eagle, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the watery stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. “All I have to offer you to eat is noodles and cheese.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this snack bar for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my fairgrounds, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing bravely and messy rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a playground with my ten sisters. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and dance.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the brown eagle soared off to begin his adventure. He would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and dinosaurs along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Downloadable Version

Here’s the story. On the PDF, it is preceded by a list of the type of words required to fill in the various blanks.

Narnian Madlib

The Power of Names

June 10, 2013 — 19 Comments

babyC.S. Lewis was a man who recognized the power of a name. In fact, that awareness made the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of the most memorable in all of Christian literature: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Names are used, of course, for identification. Throughout history, different countries have had different naming conventions. A rather common one featured the giving of a personal name to a child, with the patronym added to distinguish between individuals of the same name.

This led to distinctions such as James ben Zebedee of the Christian gospels or Leifr Eiríksson the first millennium explorer of North America. Hearkening back to my own Scandinavian roots, I favor the innovative example Ole Olson, or more commonly Ole Olsen. (The only problem with this name was that it failed to distinguish one Ole from the thousands of other Ole Olsons who dotted the steep coastlines of the Viking fjords.)

God too reveals the importance of names. In the Gospel according to Matthew we read:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21).

In one of the most powerful prophecies ever recorded, we hear various titles—in essence, names—of the Messiah Jesus.

For to us a child is born,

   to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

    and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

                                                             (Isaiah 9:6).

The reason that names are on my mind is because recent research has revealed that in America (well, California precisely, and assuming that data can be applied to the entire country) . . . the choice of baby names can even evidence the political leanings of the parents. Now, we’re not talking about parents who name their children directly in honor of a particular politician; it’s much more subtle than that.

Here are a couple of interesting facts gleaned from the study.

The results revealed that overall, the less educated the parent, the more likely they were to give their child either an uncommon name (meaning fewer than 20 children got the same name that year in California), or a unique name (meaning only one child got that name in 2004 in California). When parents had less than a college education, there were no major ideological differences in naming choice.

However, among college-educated whites, politics made a difference. College-educated moms and dads in the most liberal neighborhoods were twice as likely as college-educated parents in the most conservative neighborhoods to give their kids an uncommon name. Educated conservatives were more likely to favor popular names, which were defined as names in the top 100 in California that year.

The sounds of liberal and conservative names varied, too. For both boys and girls, liberals tended to pick more feminine-sounding choices, such as Liam, Ely and Leila names that include lots of L sounds and soft-A endings, including popular choices Ella and Sophia. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to pick names with more masculine-sounding Ks, Bs, Ds and Ts, such as Kurt.

Beware of the temptation of attempting to jump aboard a naming fad. “Unique baby names can sometimes grate, however. In 2011 . . . an informal survey of hated baby names found that Nevaeh, or ‘heaven’ spelled backward, was the most commonly cited as a hated name. The name was invented in the 1990s and became the 31st most popular in the United States in 2007.”

My wife and I are surely in a minority. We chose the names for all three of our children based upon their meanings . . . a practice quite common in the Scriptures.

C.S. Lewis knew well the power of a name.

Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.

At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. . . . Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer. (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

It comes as no surprise to any Narnian sojourner that the very name of Aslan should so move his followers. After all, we too understand Who the great Lion is. For, as he once said to Lucy and Edmund, when asked if he was here in our world as well,

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

parentsThere are a variety of reasons for expressing affection and care for one’s parents. Many feel gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made while providing for them. Others treasure memories of never doubting their parents’ love for them. Some enjoyed less idyllic childhoods, but honor their parents out of a sense of duty.

C.S. Lewis described the last type of family in The Four Loves. Rather than giving cause for their children to appreciate them, some parents raise obstacles to their affections.

We hear a great deal about the rudeness of the rising generation. I am an oldster myself and might be expected to take the oldsters’ side, but in fact I have been far more impressed by the bad manners of parents to children than by those of children to parents.

Who has not been the embarrassed guest at family meals where the father or mother treated their grown-up offspring with an incivility which, offered to any other young people, would simply have terminated the acquaintance?

Dogmatic assertions of matters which the children understand and their elders don’t, ruthless interruptions, flat contradictions, ridicule of things the young take seriously—sometimes of their religion—insulting references to their friends, all provide an easy answer to the question “Why are they always out? Why do they like every house better than their home?” Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?

Yes, there are several reasons for honoring our parents, even when they have not “earned” that respect. And now we can add another incentive to do so—because you might be sued in court if you do not honor them! While this statute has not arrived in the Western world, it is a relatively new law in the world’s most populous nation.

The recently revised law requires that adult children visit their parents “often” . . . without defining the specific frequency. Apparently, too many children have become preoccupied with their own concerns. (Shades of Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle.”)

Traditional Chinese culture is renowned for the value it places on revering elders in general, and parents specifically. In the Analects of the philosopher Confucius, an entire section is devoted to “filial piety.”

58. Confucius said: “When at home, a young man should serve his parents; when away from home, he should be respectful to his elders. He should always be earnest and truthful, express love to all, and follow men of virtue. Then, if he has the time and energy, he should study literature and the arts.” [1.6]

71. Confucius said: “When your father is alive, obey him. When your father has passed on, live as he did. If you do so for [at least] three years after your father’s death, then you are a true son.” [1.11]

72. Tzu Lu asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said: “Nowadays filial piety means being able to support your parents. But we support even our horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference between the two kinds of support?” [2.7]

73. Tzu Hsia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “What matters is the expression you show on your face. ‘Filial piety’ doesn’t mean merely doing physical tasks for your parents, or merely providing them with food and wine.” [2.8]

74. Confucius said: “In serving your parents, you may disagree with them from time to time and seek to correct them gently. But if they will not go along with you, you must continue to respect and serve them without complaining.” [4.18]

75. Confucius said: “Never ignore your parents’ ages, which are both a source of joy (because they are still living) and a source of anxiety (because their deaths are coming nearer).” [4.21]

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, also demands respect for one’s parents. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12, ESV). And from the Letter to the Church in Ephesus: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”

It is challenging to discern what it means to honor a parent who does not merit gratitude. Indeed, destructive (abusive) parents may well disqualify themselves from receiving honor, since they tacitly reject the very essence of what it means to be a mother or father.

Aside from these extreme cases, where only a biological relationship exists, we must be honest. None of our parents are perfect. But then the corollary is also true—none of their children are, either. It is in these common, shaded cases where our own character is tested.

C.S. Lewis lost his mother at a young age. His father remained distant, and sent his sons to distant boarding schools. During the First World War, Lewis was severely wounded and shipped from the front lines to a London hospital where he recuperated. While a patient he wrote the following to his father in Ireland.

Wherever I am I know that you will come and see me. You know I have some difficulty in talking of the greatest things; it is the fault of our generation and of the English schools. But at least you will believe that I was never before so eager to cling to every bit of our old home life and to see you.

I know I have often been far from what I should be in my relation to you, and have undervalued an affection and generosity which an experience of “other people’s parents” has shown me in a new light. But, please God, I shall do better in the future. Come and see me, I am homesick, that is the long and the short of it.

Sadly, Lewis’ father did not make the trip to visit his son at the hospital. Such is the nature of real life relationships . . . and such is the reason why honoring our parents sometimes needs to assume the form of a law, or even a Commandment.

May it not be so in your family. If your parents still live, I pray God will grant you great joy in honoring them. And, if you have children, I pray that the Lord will fill them with well-deserved affection for you.

_____

If you have never heard the song “Cats in the Cradle,” you owe it to yourself to ponder its powerful message today. You can view it here.