Archives For Children’s Literature

C.S. Lewis loved rabbits. His affection for the cuddly rodents went all the way back to his childhood. And it continued through the whole of his life. In fact, you can read about “C.S. Lewis as an Advocate for Animals” at a Humane Society link below.*

Despite this affection, rabbits do not feature prominently in The Chronicles of Narnia. They are among the “statues” turned to stone by the Witch. In the description of Aslan breathing life back into them, it says, “then [Aslan] pounced on a tall stone dryad which stood beyond the dwarf, turned rapidly aside to deal with a stone rabbit on his right, and rushed on to two centaurs” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Rabbits helped spread the word about an impending attack on Archenland in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta urges the animals to spread the word.

“Oughtn’t your High King to be told?”

“Certain sure, something ought to be done about it,” said the Hedgehog. “But you see I’m just on my way to bed for a good day’s sleep. Hullo, neighbor!”

The last words were addressed to an immense biscuit-colored rabbit whose head had just popped up from somewhere beside the path. The Hedgehog immediately told the Rabbit what it had just learned from Shasta.

The Rabbit agreed that this was very remarkable news and that somebody ought to tell someone about it with a view to doing something. And so it went on. Every few minutes they were joined by other creatures, some from the branches overhead and some from little underground houses at their feet, till the party consisted of five rabbits, a squirrel, two magpies, a goat-foot faun, and a mouse, who all talked at the same time and all agreed with the Hedgehog.

For the truth was that in that golden age when the Witch and the Winter had gone and Peter the High King ruled at Cair Paravel, the smaller woodland people of Narnia were so safe and happy that they were getting a little careless.

In The Last Battle we see a clear contrast between the types of animals which populate Narnia. Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is leading the children toward their destiny.

First, he had given Jill some practice in archery and found that, though not up to Narnian standards, she was really not too bad.

Indeed she had succeeded in shooting a rabbit (not a Talking rabbit, of course: there are lots of the ordinary kind about in Western Narnia) and it was already skinned, cleaned, and hanging up.

Back to the Beginning

When he was a child, beginning at age eight, Lewis began writing stories about “Animal Land.” His brother Warnie, several years older, joined him in composing stories inspired in part by their reading of the words of Beatrix Potter.

Animal Land is clearly the product of young children—children with wonderful imaginations—but children nonetheless. These various works have been published by Lewis’ stepson in a collection called Boxen. As Douglas Gresham writes, “In developing the world of Boxen, Jack appropriated the ‘dressed animals’ of Beatrix Potter and that part of their fictional world they called ‘Animal-Land,’ while Warnie (whose interests were always a touch more prosaic than Jack’s) made his half ‘India.’”

The world was thoroughly thought out, complete with maps and a historic chronology.

Animal-land is divided into 13 provinces. Bear-land, Wolf-land, Squirrel-land, Mouse-land, Rabbit-land, Pig-land, Bird-land, Horse-land, Fox-land, Land of Typical Animals, Insect-land, Rat-land, With the island of Piscia, or Fishland. . . . Rabbit-land is the first provence in learning and art.

Rabbits feature prominently in Boxen. The very first element is a script, entitled “The King’s Ring (A Comedy).” The introduction is delightfully childlike: “Interesting carictars. Famous ones. For instance, Sir Big, a world-famed gentleman. A very good choreus and nice scenry. (Slight comic tints in and out threw it.)”

The two protagonists are King Bunny, whose ring is stolen, and Sir Peter Mouse, his “knight in waiting” who aids him in finding it. It is filled with silly dialog, despite the serious plot. For example:

KING BUNNY: Tell Sir Goose to tell Sir Big to tell Mr Gold Fish to tell Gollywog to tell Mr Icthus-oress to tell Dorimie to tell the sailors to take Hit [the villain] away.

In his autobiography, Lewis wrote of his childhood home. “Here my first stories were written, and illustrated, with enormous satisfaction. They were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights-in-armour.’

Drawing Pleasure from Real Life Rabbits

Lewis’ correspondence includes passing references to rabbits, always expressed in an approving way. For instance, in 1947 he mentions enjoying a memorable event during a boring time. “I wonder how you are all getting on? Nothing much has happened to me except that I saw a rabbit yawn. I suppose people who keep tame ones have seen it often but this was a wild rabbit and I thought it a very curious sight. It was a very bored triangular yawn in the middle of a long hot afternoon.”

During WWII, he penned a curious comment about rabbits recently added to his home.

We are keeping rabbits at the Kilns now, in addition to the hens! But they are very much nicer. As I passed the enclosure in which all the young ones are the other evening, I saw they had all got into a box which happened to be lying there.

They were all standing (or sitting) up on their hind legs and all facing in the same direction: so that they looked exactly as if they were conducting some kind of evening service—the box looked just like a pew.

While the rabbits were almost certainly present to supplement food rations during the war, they were not treated as commodities. Lewis appreciated them in the way he respected other creatures designed by God’s hand. Thus, he had what my wife and I would consider to be a well-rounded family—including one or more members of the non-human variety.

Lewis described this diverse household in a 1943 letter to June Flewett,⁑ one of the children evacuated to his home during the war.

Bruce [Lewis’ dog] behaved with great lack of fortitude during the thunderstorm last night and two of the rabbits made it an excuse for absenting themselves without leave. Pushkin [his cat] behaved better, but not well. In fact there is a general lack of keenness and discipline among the four-footed members of the household which I deplore.

One more story about an actual rabbit with which the great author developed an ongoing relationship.

In a 1942 letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, he says, “I am establishing quite a friendship with one of the rabbits which we now keep along with the deer in Magdalen grove. It was done by the discovery that he relishes chestnut leaves which grow too high for his reach. He doesn’t yet allow me any familiarities but he comes and eats from my hand.”

Lewis continues to describe his new friend, and adds a keen theological observation. “But oh!, the great lollipop eyes and the twitching velvet nose! How does [God] come to create both this and the scorpion?”

Later that same year, Lewis updates the Anglican nun on the status of his animal-friend.

The Rabbit and I have quarrelled. I don’t know why, unless I gave him something that disagreed with him. At any rate, he has cut me dead several times lately—so fair and so fickle! Life is full of disappointments.”

At that time he shared his disappointment with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. “Did I tell you in my last letter that I’d struck up quite an acquaintance (almost a friendship) with a rabbit in Magdalen Grove who used to come and eat leaves from my hand? Alas, I must have given something that disagreed with him, for he disappeared for about 10 days, and since his reappearance has refused to look at me.”

It may be that same rabbit, or one of its kin, renewed its relationship with Lewis, because he referred to a similar experience in two 1944 letters to other children.

I live in a College here: a college is something rather like a castle and also like a church. It stands just beside a bridge  over a river. At the back of the part I live in there is a nice grove of Trees. There are a lot of Rabbits there. One very old rabbit is so tame that it will run after me and take things out of my hand. I call her Baroness Bisket because she is a kind of biscuit colour.

It’s not easy, nor is it usually relevant, to determine a bunny’s gender. So, Lewis may be excused for writing the following to the second young correspondent, six months earlier.

I am getting to be quite friends with an old Rabbit who lives in the Wood at Magdalen. I pick leaves off the trees for him because he can’t reach up to the branches and he eats them out of my hand. One day he stood up on his hind legs and put his front paws against me, he was so greedy. I wrote this about it:

A funny old man had a habit
Of giving a leaf to a rabbit.
At first it was shy
But then, by and by,
It got rude and would stand up to grab it.

But it’s a very nice Rabbit all the same: I call him ‘Baron Biscuit.’

Like C.S. Lewis, I adore rabbits. Years ago we had an indoor bunny, appropriately named “Sweetheart.” In her youth she acted like the cartoon character Ricochet Rabbit, pinging from place to place. In her senior years she settled down and was contented to be a cuddly lap bunny. I add my own “thank you” to Lewis’ for these precious parts of God’s creation.


* The Humane Society pdf is available here.

⁑ June Flewett is regarded as the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles, and grew up to become an actress and theater director. C.S. Lewis paid for her tuition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When she and her two sisters were sent from London to the Kilns, her favorite author was C.S. Lewis. Ironically, it was a while before she learned that he and their host were one and the same.

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).

C.S. Lewis’ Lion

December 9, 2011 — 2 Comments

The Chronicles of Narnia rank among the finest children’s literature ever written. And the introduction of the noble Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a wondrous highlight of the series.

In 1951, Lewis wrote a letter to some fans of his “new” book. He said:

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 very few children.

As usual, the Oxford don was astute. There are those who have considered some of the themes in The Chronicles to be overly mature for some children. But that is a more insidious reason for some objections leveled against the books. More on that momentarily.

The stories are admired by many secular readers, and they are beloved by Christian readers of all ages. Some liberal readers object to what they consider to be “dated” (i.e. traditional) attitudes in the books. Honest literary critics recognize that literature written more than a half century ago would reflect the mores of their era and provenance. Lewis’ skepticism about “public” schools (i.e. in American parlance, “private” academies) is one such example.

But behind some objections to Lewis’ children’s books lies a more sinister agenda. Some secularists believe that only their own agnostic faith should be promoted, and they object to any expression of Christianity in the public forum. Some such activists have even advocated that The Chronicles barred from schools because they recognize that Aslan has a “different name” in our world.

Fortunately, The Chronicles of Narnia overflow with so much intrinsic merit that only the most cynical object to them. They are popular today, and that is likely to remain true in the foreseeable future. They have translated well to digital, audio and cinematic formats. But, for most of us, the soft caress of the printed page remains the medium of choice . . . when we cross through the wardrobe door into this land of awe.