Before Austen Comes Aesop:
The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them
by cheri blomquist
ignatius, 272 pages, $17.95
I begin with my conclusion: If you are reading this review, then you should probably own this book. This is especially true if you know or care about any children or teenagers. Every parent is aware of the innumerable guides that explain how to raise children, to feed and clothe them, to protect them from the evils of screen time, pornography, and much else. But not many books offer both parents and children something like a treasure map or the possibility of an adventure. This one does.
It isn’t that the book itself is a great read. Before Austen Comes Aesop functions primarily as a manual—something like a Michelin travel guide, pointing out the most important places to visit, with star ratings and possible routes for the tourist. In the first half, Cheri Blomquist matter-of-factly sets out the major periods of children’s literature, from ancient Greece through the late twentieth century, and provides lists of the most notable works in each period. These are not necessarily Blomquist’s personal favorites, but rather the books that have been most influential in Western culture. In the second half of the book, she proposes three “reading adventures” that range from the leisurely to the scholarly, depending on a child’s age and level of interest.
All of this might sound rather mundane: a how-to manual, a travel guide, a list of books. But Blomquist’s animating idea is that the now nearly century-old “Great Books” project is just as appropriate for children (even little ones) as for college students and adults. If we believe that there is something vital about apprehending, in Matthew Arnold’s famous formulation, “the best that is known and thought,” then why not begin early? The Very Hungry Caterpillar might not compare with Homer, but it is, after all, a story of death and rebirth in which toddlers can take delight.
I admit that my first impression of Blomquist’s book was not so positive. Upon beginning it, I was transported back to E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Published in 1987, Cultural Literacy set out the “5,000 essential names, phrases, dates and concepts” that Hirsch considered crucial for living in contemporary America. Lamenting the lack of foundational education for students in the 1980s, he argued that basic information (his list covered everything from amortization to Zionism) would help people better understand cultural references and navigate social and professional life. If children had missed cultural knowledge, then give it to them in a book. Every academic overachiever will find it gratifying to peruse this list and check off familiar names and concepts. At the same time, the book is daunting in the way a dictionary would be if you felt that literacy required memorizing its contents. For those with little background knowledge, lists like these can be downright discouraging.
I mention this because list-making is an activity fraught with difficulty. Sometimes a list holds out the illusory promise that its completion will yield mastery of an activity: the ten best exercises for peak fitness! Alternatively, we might feel that something is so daunting—the list so very, very long—that we should not even begin. Blomquist, to her credit, strikes a balance between overconfidence and despair, arguing that immersion in the “children’s great books” is the best way to approach what we normally think of as the adult great books curriculum. It doesn’t make much sense, after all, to jump straight into Plato and Milton in college if a person does not already have a habit of reading. This habit is best cultivated in childhood, when the mind is pliable and we remember things easily.
But a habit of reading in childhood isn’t important only as a prolegomenon, like an extended warmup for an important race. It is, actually, the thing itself. Many parents remark that bedtime reading is one of their most treasured memories of raising children. This is in part because it allows parents to introduce children to the world we all inhabit, to guide them in discovering plants and animals, people, mysteries, and absurdities. When a child cries out in amazement that something in “real life” has echoed events in a book, we see the expansion of that child’s moral world, the discernment of patterns, and the identification of characteristic personality types. Ramona Quimby’s desire to pull Susan’s enticing “boing-boing” curls, for example, is probably the kind of desire that has been shared by all first-graders at all times.
In this kind of reading, learning is a thoroughgoing delight, not a duty, and it answers a direct need of our nature. Children, as every parent knows, are decidedly not utilitarians. When they walk, they are as interested in the bugs on the ground as in arriving at the destination; eating and getting dressed are alike games. Reading, similarly, is never for something else. In their natural state, children do not read to gather information for a test or to build up their debate skills. Instead they approach books with a “negative capability” that few adults possess. They do not mind—and even enjoy—the mysteries, the circuitous routes, the nonsense words, and the inconsistencies.
In remarking on Edward Gibbon’s sickly childhood, the English essayist Walter Bagehot makes a compelling case for exactly this kind of childhood reading. Gibbon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and even the arch-utilitarian himself, Jeremy Bentham, all had habits of “desultory reading,” which meant that at young ages they read widely in sources that were probably much too advanced for them. Nowadays such an endeavor would be difficult, both because adults are so keen to curate children’s reading and because so much more is written for young readers. But these famous eighteenth-century child readers apprehended the infinite, the whole of things, even before they could understand, categorize, or classify. “Youth,” wrote Bagehot, “has a principle of consolidation; we begin with the whole. Small sciences are the labors of our manhood; but the round universe is the plaything of the boy. His fresh mind shoots out vaguely and crudely into the infinite and eternal.”
Something like this is the adventure that Blomquist advocates for children and teenagers and, indirectly, for their parents too: Read widely in works that are delightful and strange, ancient and modern. Enjoy the text and pictures of Maurice Sendak and Arnold Lobel, Beatrix Potter and Tomie dePaola. Think of it all not as another burdensome project to be completed but as an activity characterized by enjoyment, amusement, and delight. In acquiring this culture of reading, we may begin to perceive the world “through an imagination already charged with the passionate responses of the great artists,” as the English author John Cowper Powys wrote. We then see the world not only through the filter provided by our own experience but as “double-dyed,” our vision enhanced and deepened by story and images.
All of these ideas support Blomquist’s contention that there is such a thing as the “children’s great books” and that the benefits and joys of liberal education need not wait until adulthood. Yet her list is still daunting, and in our pragmatic, achievement-oriented times a parent might need some assurance that the list is not really a checklist, not really a set of hurdles to be jumped in preparing children to be competitive in taking the SAT, attending a prestigious college, or securing a good job.
A. G. Sertillanges offered precisely this assurance. In The Intellectual Life (1921), the French philosopher reminded his readers that although too little reading does no one any good, neither does excessive, undisciplined reading. No doubt Bagehot was right to recommend wide reading for children, who are just learning their way around the world. But adults face a somewhat different set of perils: reading as a curious kind of sloth, a thinking that we can say nothing of consequence until we have read that one last book. Or reading as gluttony: “the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food,” writes Sertillanges, “the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort.” How much better it is, as we all know deep down, to read and inwardly digest a few profound books than to have superficial knowledge of many. Sertillanges gives us leave to do just that.
This vital preservation of “interior silence” allows time for reflection on what we have read. If we gorge ourselves on intellectual junk food, then we are unlikely to find time for the walks with children where we can actually see that the spiderweb does look like Charlotte’s web, or the rabbit tracks are just like Peter’s. We need leisure to entertain questions about why the children were left alone all day in The Cat in the Hat or how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom when he was digging the basement for the town hall. More seriously, this literary education may cause children to wonder about things like why money exists, and why the goods of life cannot be free; or whether the family dog will be waiting for us in heaven; or why people we love have to die.
And therefore: The book lists in Before Austen Comes Aesop are to be approached with a discerning palate. They are a wonderful resource, not a checklist; an inspiration for reading the children’s great books with the children and teenagers in our lives. We can hope that those we love might be those “happy first” early readers who see books not as repositories of facts, figures, and information but as purveyors of “the mystic associations and the progress of the whole,” in Bagehot’s memorable words.
Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the Honors Program at Baylor University.
Image by Victoria Borodinova via Creative Commons. Image cropped.