June 29, 2019

What Makes Great Children's Literature Great?



When it comes to reading great children’s literature, I’m making up for lost time. I was not a voracious reader as a child, and my parents, though interested in our education, left it up to the schools my siblings and I attended. They read to us at home when we were younger, but it did not endure as we became more active outside. We enjoyed the happy luxury of being young at a time when children could safely roam the countryside with friends for hours.

I am now a parent, homeschooling my own daughter and enjoying the equally happy luxury of introducing her - and myself - to many works of great children’s literature. Led by other parents who have trodden the path before me, I have the pleasure and responsibility of curating my child’s literary world. And it is an immense and delightful world.


Children’s literature may be written-off at first glance as not serious literature. It resides in the more colorful and potentially sticky section of libraries, which adults have outgrown. But, it only takes a moment of reflection to realize there is more to it than its entertainment value or ability to lull a toddler to sleep.

What makes it literature?

The word literature can refer to anything from leaflets and printed matter to all the works written for others to read. Among his definitions, Webster includes, “Writings in prose or verse, especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” I think we can all agree on this.  Mainly, I’m thinking about novels here.

Likewise, when I think of literature for children, I think primarily of longer fiction and exclude those shorter books that are meant for reading through in one sitting.  However, there are always exceptions, as we shall see.

What makes it great?

Literature, to be great, whether written for juvenile readers or for adults, must be well constructed. The writing must be good, not just technically, but crafted with a clarity of expression that elicits image, action and emotion in mind of the reader. It must be enjoyable to read and continue to please upon repeated readings.

A truly great work of literary art will draw the reader into the world of the story, rather than leaving him as an observer. The story involves a complexity that makes this world and its inhabitants believable and multi-dimensional. This world must reveal organic unity, so that it not only makes logical sense, but involve multiple layers, nuance and even surprise.

Jørgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Girl Reading, c.1900

It will invite the reader to grapple with universal human problems, ideas, feelings, and experiences. Ultimately, great literature (and great art of any kind) puts the reader in contact with the good, the true, and the beautiful, even if it has to be teased out through contemplation.

What makes it children’s?

This may seem obvious because we generally know when a work is for children, as opposed to adults. But when you try to put a finger on it, you’ll find there’s more to it than just bright pictures or happy tales about kids. Just as I did, all the book-loving parents I consulted, had to make a second attempt at this distinction. Much discussion helped us focus on those things that truly matter in distinguishing a work as children’s, versus general, literature.

It is often the case that a book written for children will have children as the protagonists. But, they may also be animals, as in “Charlotte’s Web,” “Black Beauty,” or “Wind in the Willows.” Characters might also include mythical creatures, as is the case in The Chronicles of Narnia. What is crucial is that human adults are not the primary actors and the story world is not the real-life world of adult concerns.

John Tenniel illustration (Public domain)

I might mention, as a contrast, a book whose protagonist is a child, but is decidedly not a work of children’s literature: Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” The point of view is that of the boy, Oliver, but the world is one of adult issues.

Another thing that distinguishes children’s literature from adults’ is that, while it must contain enough complexity to be interesting, it will be scaled down to the developmental level of the target audience without being trite. The themes should never be about matters inappropriate for children. The vocabulary may be more accessible to younger readers. This is somewhat relative, however, as may be noticed when older children’s classics are considered alongside even adult books of today!

While a great work will usually bring about growth in the young reader, those that become favorites are not pedantic nor didactic.  The author gets down to the eye level with the child reader. What child would wish to open a book just to find another adult telling them what he must do and think? Children want to have adventures, contemplate great thoughts, and yes, be entertained – just as adults do. These are all possible in a truly good children’s book.

Can children’s literature be great?

The greatness of some children’s books is apparent at the time of publication, but it is only confirmed over time. As the reader grows older, the book still speaks to her. It stands up to many readings (a mercy when parents are called on to read it again and again to children), remaining fresh and enjoyable each time. The title will remain beloved over many generations. A book that contemplates perennial human issues will always speak to us.

Some works of children’s fiction that have remained universally beloved over time include Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” The “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  “The Jungle Book” and “Captains Courageous” by Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” “The Hobbit,” and Hans Christian Anderson’s stories.  The list could go on and on.  And on.

Though I originally limited my definition of children’s literature to novels, several books and authors demanded exception.  A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” is truly a poetic, philosophical work that touches even adults with wonder.  Robert McCloskey combined his illustrations and stories in picture books (“Blueberries for Sal,” “One Morning in Maine,” and others) that tenderly capture very real moments of childhood, and seal them in the hearts of the children and adults who have read them.

Another anomaly among great children’s books is the series of Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. The characters include talking animals as well as people. The writing is masterful. The plots are dizzyingly complex. The missing element is that there is a complete lack of grappling with big ideas.  Yet, I can’t bring myself to drop them from the list. What they lack in philosophy, they make up for in comic genius. Brooks is the P.G. Wodehouse of children’s literature.



Time will tell.

Not every book that makes a splash at the time of publication will endure.  I consulted the list of all Newbery Medal winners (from the first in 1922) and noted that I was not familiar with the majority.  They may have spoken to the voting committee of their time, but failed to remain in the hearts of readers over the long haul.

A better indication of the best children’s books is parents who grew up with them looking forward to reading them to their children, not only to share them with the child, but to enjoy them again themselves. Great books never really get old, and, in fact, can be enjoyed by adults even without sharing them with children.

The parents I canvassed on this question, described those books they would consider great, or classics, using phrases such as, “perennially interesting,” “made a big impact,” “stood the test of time,” and “get more from it with each reading.” It is much the same with adult classics, but all the more remarkable that they can be both formative for a child and also meaningful to an adult.

Popularity isn’t always reliable.

There are some books that endure and are enjoyed readily by children for several generations, but are not particularly great. These often come in long series of non-sequential books, like the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Children mysteries or the Famous Five series. The writing is simply not the stuff of greatness. They are not bad, but they are merely formulaic entertainment. A fun read. They don’t hold up because of their greatness, but because children with voracious reading appetites must be fed books continually!

Other good books sometimes fall into neglect as well. They may go out of fashion for a time and become hard to find. I am astonished by the number of wonderful books I have discovered through friends that I had never heard of! The Swallows and Amazons series is an example. First published in England in 1930, it has remained a favorite in the U.K., but did not have as big an impact in the U.S. until recently.

The Future of great children’s literature.

There is no reason to worry that the output of truly great children’s literature will come to an end.  There are many promising new authors whose books meet the qualifications and are gaining a following among children and their parents.  Kate de Camillo, as an example, has been writing books since 2000. Her stories, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” and “The Tale of Despereaux” are just two of her moving novels.

Another new author within the same timeframe is Grace Lin.  Her series, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” is a masterful feat of story-telling. Woven through with Chinese Folklore, and elegantly written, her books seem to be from a former era. Her illustrations are worthy of framing.  I suspect they will have a lasting impact as well.

I’ll close with the words of a wise, book-loving friend who contributed to the discussion distilled here “Great books become a part of who the child is and of the scaffolding which helps the child understand his or her world, to grapple with human nature, and divine nature, and the big, important questions that children are just beginning to be aware of.

Walter Firle "Story Time" 1912


April 26, 2019

Do YOU Want To Be a Happier Parent? Have I Got a Book for You!



Raising children isn’t as easy as it looks in those soft-focus magazine and television ads. I think it might be some kind of ruse designed to bamboozle us into peopling the earth (and buying all the products for it). Actual children are messy, unreasonable, and they’re around for such a long time!  It turns out it takes more than absorbent paper towel and animal shaped multi-vitamins to raise good kids! It takes happy, loving parents.

It’s the rare parents, however, who don’t admit they’re in over their heads upon the arrival of their first bundle of joy. To get through this extreme sport known as parenting, it is essential to seek out the commiseration and encouragement of fellow parents-in-the-trenches to compare scars, swap tactics, and share a whole mess of humorous anecdotes.  And also to remind us what our goal is in this crazy endeavor: eternal happiness for the whole family.



I have the just the thing for you! I recently read Betsy Kerekes’ new book, Be a Happier Parent or Laugh Trying. You may know Betsy from her humorous blog, Parenting is Funny, or from the two books she co-wrote with Jennifer Roeback Morse, 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage and 101 Tips for Marrying the Right Person. Betsy is flying solo this time - and she was tipsy when she wrote this book too! (It contains more tips than the apron of the prettiest bar maid at Oktoberfest.)

It's clear that she’s a happy, fun person (Betsy, not the bar maid), who followed the advice from her previous books. It's not that she comes across as the perfect wife and mom, nor is she preachy and didactic. In fact, many of the pro tips that pack this slim volume were gleaned from her myriad mom friends.  She shares her struggles and successes with a healthy dose of humility and humor.  Well, maybe it’s more a gluttonous dose of humor – because, it’s huge.

I guarantee, by a few chapters in, you will feel like you’re sitting in her kitchen, enjoying coffee with the author, sharing parenting stories, while your children play (or bicker) with hers nearby. The writing is conversational and encouraging.

We can all use a little more encouragement these days when it’s so easy to feel like a failure if you can’t keep up with the “perfect” example of those moms we see on television, blogs, and magazines. You know, the examples they save to show the public for our emulation – even though hey probably don’t live up to it either. Betsy is refreshingly real. While she does give examples from her own successful experiences, she shares her failures as well. She never comes across as superciliously saying, “Just do it like I do; it’s so easy!” This is not an instruction manual.

Each of the ten chapters is headed with an inspiring quotation from a saint. It’s just one of the things that make apparent Betsy’s goal of not merely curating a fun-filled family environment, but of helping us to build a happy family in the truest sense. Aristotle names happiness as our ultimate goal and virtue as the means to get there. Kerekes leads us through various ways to grow in virtue as a parent and help our kids do so as well, and always with the purpose of reaching our true end of eternal happiness – as well as daily happiness gleaned from a loving, peaceful household.



There are chapters that focus on having fun, dealing with tears (yours as well as your kids’), discipline, the frustration of trying to keep an orderly house, teenagers, matters of faith, and gaining help from the saints. She shares a couple of additional essays on the heartbreak of infertility and the loss of children. As a mother raising four kids, she has experienced her share of all of these topics.  Her irrepressibly positive attitude has carried her through difficulties and is uplifting to read.

There is a good deal of wisdom behind her cheery words.  In the pages of this little book, you will learn the housekeeping secret of “The Magic Chair” and of allowing angry kids slam doors. Betsy comes across as sort of a phlegmatic version of Mary Poppins steeped in Saint John Paul II’s teaching of respect for the dignity of the human person.

With the approach of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, this is a book to consider getting for yourself, your spouse, and anyone who has or is contemplating having kids any time in the future. You can even give it to your parish priest, because he can see from the pulpit the parents who might benefit from such a book.

It may take more than animal shaped multi-vitamins and absorbent paper towel to raise real life kids. This little book will give you a spiritual multi-vitamin pick-me-up to face your family with a renewed sense of happiness and humor.



Be a Happier Parent or Laugh Trying (Our Sunday Visitor)
By Betsy Kerekes


April 2, 2019

The Waking Beauty Around Me: A Photo Essay



There are times I wish I could hibernate like the chipmunks.  Those times are called Winter.  I know many people love the brutal brumal season - but part of me drifts off to slumber with the bleak, cold, somnolent, natural world.





I don't even reside where the Winter is harsh.  It's not the snow; that's pretty!  Besides, here in the South snow signals a play day.  No slogging to work over slushy roads or slipping on icy sidewalks here.




It's the dreary absence of greenery and visible life that brings on this seasonal torpor.

That is why I love what I love about Spring.  Verdant Spring.  The wakening world around me rouses and blinks.  The warming sun resuscitates nature as she breathes and pulses anew with life.  Vitality is restored to our surrounding woods and fields.  The trees are atwitter with avian friends marrying and home-making.




Creation reveals the full pallate of the Artist, stroke by stroke.  First the daffodils emerge, trumpeting, "Wake up! The time has arrived!"




Looking down, the greening ground unsheaths individual blades, answering the call of rain and sun.  Clover waves its resemblence to its triune Creator.





The green swath becomes the canvas sky on which tiny stars are painted.





And firework thistles explode.





The silent earth, thawing, releases a choir of peepers, hidden in the wetland.





Puddle ducks dabble in the abundant mud.




Marshy streams of sky on earth reflect the sun-blue heavens above.





Looking up, trees stretch their empty limbs toward the brightening, scattering clouds.





Sap rises. Limbs limber, warm up, and sprout!





Finger branches tingle with bursting life.  The return of the leaves!





And my little neighbor wakes to come celebrate with me once again.





Happy Spring, my small friend!




All photos and words by Susannah Pearce


March 13, 2019

Only the Heart Sees Rightly


They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes this is true. A picture comes in handy when seeking a suspect in a crime. If all they posted on the “Most Wanted” board at the post office was a thousand words describing the ne’er-do-well, it would be significantly less likely to be noticed. The concepts of Geometry would be really difficult to grasp without pictures. There is a reason Ikea assembly instructions are mainly laid out in pictures.

But, while it may be true in these cases that a picture is worth a great many words, it is not merely a matter of bookkeeping (1 picture = 1,000 words). There are times when only words will do. It is, in fact, mildly ironic that the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, gets across a point in seven succinct words that would be difficult to make with a picture!

Anyone who has looked through an old family photo album knows the frustration of turning over a photograph in the hope of finding the subjects of the snapshot identified, and finding it blank. How then can we make sense of the picture without the words?

Writing the Picture

A well written passage in a good work of literature that describes scenery can convey something more about the place than can be captured in many photographs. I have never been to Norway, but reading Norwegian author Sigrid Undset’s novels, set in her native country, has made me long to go to this land where the breathtaking and dramatic landscape has shaped the history and cultural character of the people.

Willa Cather has done the same for Santa Fe, New Mexico in her brilliant work, “Death Comes for the Archbishop”. If I am ever fortunate enough to visit, I will feel a familiarity and connection with these places because the authors have invited me into their love for them.


Santa Fe landscape.  Photo by Janelle Ortega


Poems too can convey vivid images that a picture could not capture. Take, for instance, William Wordsworth’s poem, “Daffodils.”

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

In a mere 153 words, the poet conjures up in the reader’s mind more than simply an image of some daffodils - more even than the whole scene he saw. He seems to magically offer to the reader the happy feeling the scene brought about in him. With words, he causes a spring breeze to cool the reader’s cheek. No wonder his name is Wordsworth!


Photo by Susannah Pearce

Poetry consists of words - with a weird magic, much like the way an optical illusion boggles the visual senses. Or a great work of art transcends a mere diagram of the same scene. What gives them this mysterious quality?

I think the answer is found in the most memorable passage of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s strange and beautiful novella, “The Little Prince”: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

A Wise Fox

These wise words were said to the little prince by the fox that had asked the prince to tame him – and was now, as a result, sad to have to say good-bye. What is essential is the relationship – the ritual and care - that had transformed them both when the fox had been tamed by the boy.

It gives a deep quality to their vision, by which they see each other differently than they see all other boys and all other foxes. It is the mutual caretaking of what lies between the two that sparks to life something that did not previously exist in either.

Paage from "The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Photo by Susannah Pearce


Transformed by a Spark

This spark of life also transforms words from description into poetry. The scene inspires the poet, whose careful attention and work “tames the scene”, giving it a meaning it did not previously possess when it was not his. The poet becomes responsible for the version of the scene, which captured his imagination and he translated onto paper.

It can be the same with a painting. The exact rendering and balanced composition in a work of art is not the only thing that makes it an object of beauty. It is often wrongly said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – as if beauty is merely an opinion. In reality, beauty is, in a way, in the heart of the beholder. And what is in the heart of the beholder is a recognition of the beauty that actually exists in the thing. The appreciation of this objective beauty makes the artist more than he was – and he makes the scene into a new thing – his thing - on canvas.

Delight in Beauty

An artist or poet then invites the beholder of his work to share in this weird magic. It is felt by the reader or viewer as delight – a sort of tickle deep in the heart. That is what good poetry and great art do. They enfold the observer in the embrace of the original relationship and the beauty recognized.

That there is in us the capacity for delight is itself a bit of magic. Why should our hearts tickle at the sight of, the memory of, or another person’s account of beauty? What beautiful relationship are we being enfolded into? Where does this magic come from?

"Mother and Chile" By Emile Levy (1826 - 1890) (Public Domain)

We do not create it ourselves. Think of a mother delighting in her baby. She smiles at him and her smile causes the delighted baby to smile, which increases her delight in him. All of creation resounds with the creation and cultivation of a divine poet. The Poet of perfection.

Words well composed are sometimes worth a great deal more than a picture. They allow us to participate in the poetry of creation



This article was first published on The Epoch Times.




August 13, 2018

The Lady Vanishes: The Great Value of Invisible Motherhood

Years ago, we were watching a 1946, black and white movie co-starring a talented young actress.  Someone recognized her from one other movie, and commented that she seemed to have just disappeared after that.  It's not an unusual comment, but that time, the word "disappeared" bothered me and set me thinking about how our superficial culture values visibility.  Disappeared?  The assumption is that since audiences never saw her on the silver screen again, it was clear that her career as an actress had fizzled.  She had failed in Hollywood.  She was a nobody.  Poor girl.

But, as a new wife and mother myself, that attitude of our culture wasn’t good enough for me.  I suggested that the actress hadn’t failed; she had likely achieved what was, for her, a better and sought after position, for which she happily traded the fun of her acting stint and hope of future riches.  She probably got married and raised a family.  She had weighed her options and chose the better portion – for her.  While it’s true that some actresses of that time were able to do both, the 1940s and ‘50s were a time when being what is now called a “stay-at-home mother” was seen as the norm.  Hollywood often made women choose between stardom and motherhood through violent end to pregnancy.*  Hollywood has never been kind to women.

Our society tells us we must be seen succeeding to matter.  This supposed scandal of invisibility reveals not only a grossly self-centered sense of importance in the viewer – if I can’t see you, you don’t really matter – but also the lie that our own most important audience is that of our peers.  Naturally we come across this in the celebrity culture; being noticed is what celebrity is all about.  But celebrity based on ethereal appearance, momentary popularity, outrageous behavior is not what really gives us importance – or dignity.  It is a lie to believe that we are important only to the extent that others admire us for how we appear or what we do.  Our human dignity does reside in an image, but it lies in the fact that we are made in the image of God.  And He is our most important audience.

This great source of dignity surpasses our visibility to our peers.  The dignity of each human person is to be respected, whether that person is a movie star, a stay at home mother, a billionaire, a person living on the street, a sports hero, a prison inmate, a monk, or the tiniest child hidden in a womb.


Mother Dolores Hart now and as rising starlet
You may have seen articles about women who gave up everything to be a nun.  Dolores Hart, for instance, acted opposite Elvis Presley and was his first screen kiss, but followed God's call to a Benedictine Abbey.  We love to hear stories about what they gave up.  Why is it always that they “gave up everything” or “threw it all away”?  It’s really more like they quit a very public, superficial job to receive everything.  They sold all they had to buy a pearl of great price.


And a person following the will of God in his or her life, aspires to a far, far greater goal than the person who merely “follows her dream!”  Hard work toward a goal is admirable of course, but the prize of mere glory and celebrity rather lacks luster compared with the crown of glory given by God to one who has lived a life of self-sacrificial love for the good of others.  Sometimes, when the latter is the goal, the former accompanies it.  Just think of Mother Theresa who became famous and beloved even though she did not seek celebrity.


 There is great dignity in being a mother that transcends visible glory.  Or, maybe “eludes it” would be more accurate.  It’s not glamorous.  It’s generally hidden.  It’s often lonely, isolated, monotonous, and difficult.  You could say the same about climbing Mt. Everest – or any great endeavor.  But, in the glamour-seeking world “out there,” devoting one’s life to one’s children is not awarded the same glory as those great endeavors.  We have all heard - or maybe used - the phrase, “just a mother.”

When I lived in a university community amongst professors and their families, I would often see mothers of young children and big families, whose previous accomplishments were unseen in their current context.  Unless you knew them, you wouldn't know that the mom patiently pacing the sidewalk with her newest walking baby was a pharmacist.  That lady piling her crew into the minivan had been a smart, D.C. attorney.  The woman pushing two cherubs on the swings had starred in an opera in Italy.  Now, they were anonymous moms.

Even though the role of mother is highly sought after by many women and dreamt of by many doll-toting little girls, the actual job does entail a good deal of tedium and hiddenness.  Often, the world doesn’t even want to see this job happening.  At least, that is the experience of many mothers when they take a gaggle of children to the grocery store, cope with a screaming toddler at Mass, or nurse a baby in public.

Mothers would do well to meditate on the greatest event in time and space, the Annunciation, for inspiration and aspiration.  While the greatest event ever, it was among the most hidden.  On the human scene, Mary was something of a nobody.  But, in reality, she was The Woman, anticipated from the beginning of history.  The Angel Gabriel appeared to her with the announcement that changed human destiny – and awaited her assent.  The Incarnation of God occurred in a hidden womb in a private room without an audience, without a press release, without even a Selfie taken of the event!  Mary told no one.  She sought no celebrity.  God handled the publicity.

 Fra Angelico's Annunciation


There is another film that gets this right, but it didn't come out of Hollywood.  Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 English made film, The Lady Vanishes, presents to us an unassuming woman, overlooked and seemingly insignificant, doing great work in secret.  The film's young leading lady embarks on a train journey where she befriends a dowdy older lady, Mrs. Froy, a governess and music lover, who vanishes almost without a trace.  The young woman is the only one who remembers her because the older lady did her a kindness and accompanied her.  Mrs. Froy was not significant enough in appearance for any of the other passengers to even remember (or they had reasons not to).  Perhaps the hit to the head the young lady had suffered was causing her to hallucinate?  Only the attractive leading man came to believe her, and in the end, she was vindicated.  It turns out the older, unassuming woman was a spy!  She was the target of intrigue because she carried the coded, top secret message across enemy lines and delivered it, once again, to the good guys, saving the day.  (I didn’t bother with a spoiler alert because this film has been around since 1938 and if you haven’t seen it by now, it’s your own fault.) 

Mrs. Froy in a scene from the 1938 The Lady Vanishes


The unassuming job you mothers are doing in the isolation of your home, with little adulation, apart from flowers and burnt breakfast every Mother’s Day, is important.  The little secrets you are protecting and caring for may be what saves the day.  So, it's no wonder your apparent worth is being attacked!  You certainly have a good model in the Blessed Virgin Mary.  If God has called you to motherhood, you are not giving up everything worthwhile, you are choosing the better portion and it will not be taken away from you.