Beauty, Books/Wide Reading, Homeschooling, Philosophy, Reading
Comments 11

The Danger of Safe Reading by Liz Cottrill

Convincing families to venture into the world of living books as the heart and soul of their children’s education has had some challenges, but there is one challenge I can honestly say we were not prepared for. Evidently there is a deep mistrust of books, especially if they are not included on some well-known book list. The unknown content potentially holds ideas children’s minds and hearts are not prepared for, can’t cope with. The desire is to keep life as free from unpleasantness as possible as long as possible.

Let me share three little stories from my life and library as examples, true ones about true children who read about some true things in the lives of make-believe people in the pages of fictional children’s literature.

When I was a child, I was caught unaware by a major life event when my parents divorced and remarried. Strange to imagine in these times, I knew no other child in my neighborhood or school to have this experience. I had this monumental life change going on and not a person to confide in about my fears or anxieties, nor would I probably have had the least idea how to articulate them if there had been. At random one day I started reading a book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Only in retrospect do I now realize how that book relieved my burden. I had nothing in common with Francie, had never heard of Brooklyn, knew nothing of tenement life amongst German and Irish immigrants, but entering into her world, empathizing with her struggles to cope with conflicting family loyalties and loss, I was enlightened, gained understanding.

Many, many years later we adopted a child with physical and emotional trauma. He didn’t speak English until he was five, and though we knew there had been unthinkable emotional injury, we knew nothing about his first two years of life. Consequently, he was very hyperactive and uncontrollable. I battled for six months to get him to sit still in my lap to have one page of a picture book read to him. When he was around five, I attempted our first “chapter book,” Here’s a Penny by Carolyn Haywood. As usual, he was restless, playing with Legos, and seemingly paying no attention. The story was about a little adopted boy and I had not read it before, but knew the author’s books were sweet and light. I found in the first chapter that Penny was being challenged by a little friend of his. Patsy was jealous that Penny was going to get to have a kitten while she could not. In the story she taunts him on the way to school and almost before I knew what I was reading aloud she said, “Well, least I’m really truly my parents’ child. You’re not ’cause you’re ‘dopted.” I was horrified, but also realized that my son was sitting in rigid motionless attention. Bravely I read on about Penny’s horrible day at school, choking back tears, wishing only to run home as soon as possible after school to burst in on his mother and tell her all about it: “Mother, Patsy says I’m not really truly your little boy.” And the loving mother in the story gathers her heartbroken son to her and consoles, “Do you know what makes a little boy really and truly his parents’ child? It is the love the mother has for her little boy.”

At this point in the story my son spit out through gritted teeth: “So there, Patsy!”

Then a few years after that one of those unforeseen disasters you read about in books happened in our little community, to a mother in our library, a friend in my church. This mother of nine children from ten months to 13 years, this intelligent, vivacious, energetic inspiration to anyone who knew her was driving home one stormy night when a tree fell, crushing her to death. Certainly it is impossible for me to convey the shock we received, the drowning grief, the inadequacy of the arms that tried to surround those little ones in their real life nightmare. Our family was privileged to share in their misery and went
several days a week for several months to help them learn how to carry on without Mommy.

What could Emily and I think of to do in those long afternoons after school lessons and chores were over in that cold, dark winter, but to find a book to read aloud? We read Heidi, and they were not particularly interested – not at first, but within three chapters even the restless boys and demanding toddlers were sitting round the table in rapt attention. They did not talk much about it, but always begged to read Heidi again. Heidi was alone in the world, unwanted by a selfish aunt, dumped on the doorstep of a bitter old man, an orphan. Her stint in Frankfurt is one of the most poignant descriptions of loneliness I know. That charming, delightful tale has a blissfully happy ending.

How could this minister to children whose lives had been so brutally altered? Couldn’t even this well tied up little unrealistic tale wound them? From another perspective, couldn’t the idea that good things still come along after miseries encourage them? Don’t the happy endings (so absent in most modern children’s literature) shine a beam of hope into despairing hearts? The fact is, bad things do happen to good little children and they are always unexpected. Stories containing misery and misfortune can help them cope. When a mother in our library wailed one day, “Why does somebody always have to die?”
Emily said, “Of course they do. It is the crucial act in the plot of God’s story too.”

We do not give our children books to pacify them or entertain them, but to enrich and feed them. They naturally learn to accept difficulties and the reality that life is beautiful and full of wonder, as well as sown with inexplicable pain and misfortune. It is vital to prepare them for these eventualities by   allowing them to “practice” through story. Their stories instruct them, enlighten, equip, and supply them with a wider range of knowledge than the circle of life around them affords, and books are their best teachers.

I admit that it can be a fearful thing to let our children face the dangers of life, to wrestle with the unanswerable questions, even in literature, but we are not to be afraid for them when God has provided a better teacher than us; the Holy Spirit is their true instructor, and their books simply one of His lessons, summed up in Mason’s last principle of education:

20. We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.

© 2013 by Liz Cottrill


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Heather Johnson says

    Thank you for sharing your insights into why troubling parts of books are good. Are there issues in books that you still avoid sharing with children and teens? I’d rather have the suffering in a book and not in a child’s life but some books seem too much. Ex the modern stories written for Highschool with drugs sex and gang violence. Thoughts?

    • Heather,
      There are many criteria for worthwhile books. The question isn’t so
      much the particular issues that are addressed in the story as much as
      the literary truth, beauty and goodness that prevail. Reading classic
      literature for young people is preferable because those qualities
      thrust those books above the mediocre choices and have endured to
      become classics because of their shining qualities. There are enough
      tried and true books out there to keep you reading for years.

  2. Vicki says

    Thanks for ministering to my heart, Liz. This is so timely! We will soon be fostering or adopting from foster care within the year and I am reading everything I can get my hands on regarding caring for children with histories of emotional/physical abuse. The Holy Spirit led me to Charlotte Mason while homeschooling my biological children many years ago and I am inspired to now revisit her 6 volumes in preparation for our new children.

    • Vicki,
      I hope you find as much joy reading old and well-loved stories to your
      new children as you did the first time around and think you will find
      that children have the same basic needs no matter what their
      experience in life.

  3. Karen says

    This post truly touched my heart. Thank you for sharing your story with us, the tears are still blurring my eyes. We are all avid readers and have discussed that there is always sadness before the joy that makes a great story.

    • Karen,
      Thank you for your encouraging comments. Indeed, the threads of
      sorrow make the whole tapestry of our life more beautiful.


    The principle works for Adults too, even to read a children’s book can
    bring healing , comfort, love and joy.

    • Bonnie,

      I will always be reading children’s books in addition to my other
      reading as I still find the most profound insights and life lessons
      for my own problems in them.

  5. Lani M Dingman Siciliano says

    But there is a reason still to, if not mistrust some books, then to consider carefully what books, what issues, and when you are putting them into the hands, and minds, of a child. Most award winning books for children and teens today contain difficult issues. Not all are well written in my opinion or would be considered living books. I think there is a still a quality missing from your description as to how to choose those most worthy books.

    • Lani,
      Choosing worthy living books is one of our greatest educational
      responsibilities as we endeavor to educate by the CM method. It was
      not the scope of this blog to describe all the qualities of a living
      book, but rather, to encourage parents not to consider only
      superficial, pain-free reading to fit that criteria. I wholeheartedly
      agree that the vast majority of books written in our lifetime are not
      only NOT living books, but not good literature and certainly not
      worthy to feed our precious children. I write and speak extensively
      on the subject of qualifications of valuable living books and have
      spent the last ten years building a library of such books, which I
      described in my previous CLUSA blog, July, 2012. As I stated in my
      opening paragraph this time, convincing families to use living books
      is a challenge, but building trust to use even those most treasured
      representatives of classic living literature was the motive in
      addressing that specific issue. Just as I pointed out in closing, the
      Holy Spirit will lead and teach our children through the living words
      written by other minds full of living ideas, so parents also must
      trust God’s guidance in selecting books that truly exemplify truth,
      beauty, and goodness, in short, meet the criteria of Phil. 4:8. I
      have many examples and more thorough descriptions of living literature
      at our website. Thank you so much for voicing your concern and may
      God always give you great discernment as you serve Him in guiding your
      young disciples.

  6. Pingback: “Open Source” Education | Letters from Nebby

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