How can we help children to grow in their Catholic faith through their reading? What resources and guidance can we offer to parents and teachers? Last year, Robert Mixa had a fascinating discussion with Ashley Canter, a Catholic convert, mother of five, and blogger at The Family Bookshelf about how secular literature can complement Catholic catechesis. I decided to follow up with Ashley to go deeper into this subject, and I gained abundant further insights into the value of thoughtfully reading literature in the homeschool environment (and lots of specific titles that she recommended!).
Holly Ordway: You’ve been writing for your blog for several years now, and things have changed as your children have grown. What has this shift in the reading landscape shown you about the sorts of books children need?
Ashley Canter: Our library grows along with the children, but really, it has changed very little. I have always insisted on books with a timeless quality, and now that my babies are not so any longer, I am grateful for the consistent themes in our reading materials. Some books they have grown into, some they have grown out of, but the basic messages and literary standards have remained constant, from board books to the classics. Many of them have been on the shelves—and used—for years. Because we began with elegant writing and thoughtful storytelling, it has been a seamless progression from picture books to the more intricate fiction we read today.
It has been beautiful to watch this continuation in my eldest. Growing up on an organic farm, she is fascinated by books like Harmony by the Prince of Wales, which is part ecological and part philosophical. She is ready to start fitting together the pieces of these more complicated reading puzzles because, from her infancy, we have sought books for education and enlightenment as well as entertainment. She doesn’t even have to think about the notion that reading engages our hearts and souls as well as our minds. So at nearly thirteen years old, she will also happily volunteer to read Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius to her youngest sibling, encouraging her littlest sister to “do something to make the world more beautiful.” The more advanced books that she reads now, like Harmony, are an extension of that picture book she loved as a small child, and the picture book is lovely enough that a reader of any age can soak up goodness from its pages.
As we select family read-alouds for an increasingly mature group, I’ve found that the best books will enchant each listener at his or her own level of comprehension, and the stories that appeal to everyone are certainly the ones I most appreciate. My older listeners like trying new material (S.D. Smith’s excellent series The Green Ember was a huge hit), but they also delight in revisiting beloved stories from their younger days, even as the little ones hear them for the first time. C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is a definite model for this, and most people understandably can relate to it. If the writing is solid and the content is rooted in verity, we will keep reading it until the pages fall out.
Interestingly, mythology and folklore also remain favorites. Each of the children pursued the playful wisdom of these from an early age. There is something mysteriously reassuring about finding answers to questions—even fictional answers—and knowing that people have been asking these questions since the beginning of time. It is the beginning of that awareness that there is something more, some code of values corresponding to every human desire, and someone who made it all. When a story sets out to explore the universality of this quest for truth—especially when it does so without pretension—the result is usually a book we will reach for again and again.
You’ve just finished up the first year of homeschooling for your family. Were there any surprises for you in terms of their reading?
I was hugely surprised by how much my middle-grade readers didn’t understand what they were reading. They read incessantly and have an active vocabulary, so it did not occur to me that they might not be catching the themes and attitudes that good writing implies but does not always explicitly state. While they recognized and made sense of the words they were reading, followed the plots, and eagerly sought literature with advanced grammar and sentence structure, they were missing a great deal of the character development that is expressed through mood or tone. How a character evolved over the course of the story, and the shifting dynamics between characters as gleaned from details like body language and subtle changes in response, were getting quite lost.
Without such rich texture, my readers were flying through as many books as they could check out from the library, but not really savoring any of them. I slowed them down by returning to shorter stories with simple plots and unmistakable character development, such as Marguerite de Angeli’s A Door in the Wall and Natalie Savage Carlson’s The Family Under the Bridge. I asked for detailed summaries of every chapter they read, and wrote notes in the margins prompting them to reach deeper: How did the characters change? How did they respond to one another? Why would they act that way? Did you expect them to say that? What do you think will happen?
As you might imagine, this was not a popular measure. At first, I received half-hearted regurgitations of the plot, but by the end of the year, these had become vigorous responses that demonstrated nuanced understanding of much-loved characters and plots. At last, by spring, my readers were ready to fall in love with Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Robin Hood of Roger Lancelyn Green’s rendering.
To further enrich the experience, we also practiced reading short passages aloud. My children are convinced that I “do voices” marvelously when we read aloud, and I am not going to disenchant them. So, relying on our strong family habit of reading out loud together, I would ask them to choose a conversation or description that they enjoyed and encourage them to read it as an actress would. How does the sunlight feel? How would this character express that? How did they feel at first, and how do they feel now? How is the character changing in response to this encounter? At first, my junior thespians felt awkward, but then they began to express the magic happening behind the words on those treasured pages.
Now we continue to discuss the progress of their reading over a cup of cocoa, and save more advanced questions for our writing projects. My students can read increasingly complex literature that delves deeply into human nature, and they not only understand it but ponder it and engage with it. (My second child can tell you precisely why she thinks Homer’s Paris is “a real swine.”) From a standpoint of catechesis, we’re in a wonderful spot: my children constantly encounter the need for salvation in a safe way, through stories; and they can reflect and respond to it without the pressure of enduring it directly. But I find that continually applying the brakes and asking questions about what lies behind the words they are reading remains a key part of our progress, both academic and personal. Taking the time to ensure quality of reading is well worth it and providing the right support has absolutely brought the great books to life for my ten-year-old and twelve-year-old.
While I affirm the value of a direct exposition of the faith where it’s appropriate, an over-earnest attempt to do this all the time leads to bad literature and forced interpretations, which in turn can undermine the very truths we’re aiming to share. Would you speak to this in terms of your experiences teaching your children?
As parents, we have a natural desire to protect our children from dangerous influences. Obviously, this is not only right but necessary in a fallen world. However, I think we need to resist the temptation to present our students exclusively with our own worldview. When we isolate ourselves, we lose our ability to encounter and evangelize—not only the world but our own children. The problems with teaching from a distinctly secular platform should not be underrated. However, I’ve also come across Christian curriculum guides in the last year promoting “information” that is biased to the point of being factually incorrect, not to mention troubling. Thankfully, we do have some very good resources for teaching our faith, which can be balanced with some of the better secular materials to present students with a more complete image. I would encourage parents to be creative in mixing the resources they choose and not to be afraid to challenge and question their own preferences. After all, even if we don’t, our children are going to.
I find that such broadness is desirable in reading both for school and for pleasure. Among my own children, my second daughter is particularly annoyed by clumsy didactics and poor storytelling. She tends to prefer entirely secular literature because she loves rich sagas and epic poetry. Early in the school year, I blindly followed some recommended reading lists, and she struggled with a few historical novels that were quite poorly done; and she knew they were poorly done because she’s read many good books and possesses enough historical awareness to sense when an author is missing the mark. These titles were overtly pushing a Christian worldview, but doing it badly (not to mention doing little else). That’s a shame because couching the Gospel in a flimsy story or faulty scholarship makes it seem weak and undesirable. Any child who is old enough to start asking questions is old enough to spot that, and they need more to develop an authentic faith. Just as God made everything, so we as Christians have a responsibility to seek excellence in every field. Our work should be good enough to stand in the public sphere. I would like to see more books that are not written for an entirely Catholic audience, but breathtaking literature and accurate teaching materials that can captivate the world and show everyone a reflection of God’s goodness.
Any other high points or low points that led to insight from this new homeschool adventure for The Family Bookshelf?
Our Morning Gather time has been by far the greatest blessing. After finishing chores, we begin each morning by snuggling up together on the couch with tea and biscuits. We say our morning prayers, take turns reading the daily lessons posted on the USCCB website, and make time to cultivate loveliness before commencing our other studies. We read a poem, listen to and learn about a piece of music, and study a new piece of art each week. Sometimes we read an essay from famous naturalist Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and we always have a series to read aloud. This time is precious, and it’s the anchor for everything else we do.
Other efforts have met with less success; some of the curriculum resources I was most excited about turned out to be a terrible fit for us. So I learned another key lesson early on: if it isn’t working, don’t waste time on it! The needs of every family, parent, and child are completely different and always changing. I’ve learned to be flexible and focus on what is needed, not what I wanted to do. Reading, however, is absolutely key. We read much more non-fiction than we used to, but the confidence in reading and the desire to explore that we cultivated early on with those endless hours of story time now serves each of my students in pursuing their studies each and every day. I am blessed to be their teacher, and I’m fascinated to see what God has prepared for each of them.