The Atmosphere of Books

CM and Atmosphere

For close to a year I’ve been meeting monthly with a group of moms to talk about Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas.  I don’t know why I haven’t written more about it here, because after each discussion my mind is overflowing with things to talk about!  The group has been so helpful as my family heads towards homeschooling, but lately I’ve also been mulling over how Charlotte’s ideas apply to the Aslan’s Library project.  That is, what would she have to say about theological literature for children?  I’ve written a little about that topic in the past, but I’d like to get into a regular habit of doing so now that she’s on my mind nearly all the time.

Charlotte Mason had a lot to say about beauty and about truth, the two main factors that Sarah and I take into consideration when we’re reviewing books for the blog.  She wanted children to be exposed to and surrounded by things that are truly beautiful.  Instead of plastering our classrooms and homes with visual twaddle, she would have us fill them with literature and art that capture the best of what the world has to offer.  She also wanted children to engage with ideas – the meaty, substantive ideas that are behind those great books and works of art.  In fact, education for her was all about helping children build relationships with knowledge and learning to feed their minds on true ideas.

In her books, Charlotte prescribes three “instruments” that educators should use.  The first is what she calls atmosphere, and as I was recently reading in Towards a Philosophy of Education I was struck by how widely this particular concept could be applied.  At first blush, atmosphere sounds like it’s all about ambiance, the intangibles of home or school environments.  I think it’s actually much more than that, as indicated by the following excerpts from chapter 6:

No artificial element should be introduced, no sprinkling with rose-water, softening with cushions.  Children must face life as it is… We may not keep them in glass cases; if we do, they develop in succulence and softness and will not become plants of renown… Teaching may be so watered down and sweetened, teachers may be so suave and condescending, as to bring about a condition of intellectual feebleness and moral softness.

As my daughter grows I find myself, with increasing frequency, coming up against the question of what kind of books I want to read with her.  With babies it’s so easy: there aren’t many inappropriate board books out there!  But as we move up, age-wise, in the world of children’s literature, at times I find myself tempted to shelter her more than I should.  As we read through piles of library books each week, there are some that I find myself disliking because they aren’t written well or artfully illustrated, but others I find challenging simply because they introduce ideas that I would rather not explore quite yet.

Many times, of course, that feeling of hesitancy is to be trusted.  There are things like developmental appropriateness to be considered.  We obviously need to be sensitive to our children’s particular fears and sensitivities.  We must keep in mind that books and ideas have real consequences.  And yet…  I think that Charlotte Mason would say that we don’t do our children any favors by giving them books – particularly theological books – that are dripping with syrup.  God’s world is full of intensely hard things and intensely incredible things – to everything there is a season.  What’s more, this reality doesn’t just exist somewhere beyond our front doors, because every human being is both made in God’s image and fallen.  If we think our kids don’t know that already, we’re probably kidding ourselves.

Now, just because we’re committed to telling our children the truth about God and the world doesn’t mean that we need to tell our preschoolers all about whatever the latest horrific news story is this week.  Neither do we need to feel compelled to explain to them that, for some, the problem of evil is a stumbling block to faith in a loving God.  We can tell our children the truth without giving them all of the scary details or confusing them needlessly.  But you know what?  Even though I want my children to pay attention to the books we read, I don’t need to cringe when a book character says something that I really hope my daughter never says or to verbally edit when we come across an uncomfortable theological concept.  There’s no need to avoid reading them books that portray God and the world just as they are.  As Charlotte Mason implores us, let’s allow our children to live in the actual atmosphere of the world instead of trying to conjure up a rose-colored alternate reality for them to inhabit.

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6 thoughts on “The Atmosphere of Books

    • Thanks for the link to that post, Graham. There’s much good food for thought there. “By bringing these topics into the open light of Scripture, we keep them from being taboo with our children.” Yes!

  1. If Digory hadn’t struck the bell and Edmund hadn’t craved Turkish delight, there would have been no need for Aslan. Even though Eustace starts off as a bit of a crank with some theologically foolish ideas, we appreciate his journey all the more because of who he was before meeting Aslan. Our children are going to be better equipped to bump up against the ideas of the world if they have already learned to think deeply through living books and grand conversations.

  2. I’m so glad I’ve now discovered your blog – what a wonderful project! You are so right about books for young readers being innocent. I’ve seen that my older daughters have developed a discernment about books and they quickly reject those “shlocky” books that have become the average popular novels! My greatest challenge is to keep the great books coming in!

    • Hi Nadene! I totally agree about keeping a flow of good books moving through the house – it’s a challenge, but also one of my very favorite things to do. 🙂

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