The Four Pillars

December 2, 2012

This newsletter, as promised, will share with you what I consider to be the four pillars of Western Civilization for young children. They include the complete works of Beatrix Potter, the four Pooh books by A.A. Milne, A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. 

Let's begin with the woman who is considered the greatest illustrator for children of all time. Beatrix Potter began writing in 1893. Her first book was originally a letter to the child of her former governess. Several years after writing this letter, she contacted the family to see if they had saved it; indeed, they had. Beatrix decided to publish it privately. The book was such a success that publisher Frederick Warne purchased the rights in 1902. The little book that started it all, which has been translated into twelve languages, was of course, Peter Rabbit. In 1903 the Tailor of Gloucester (Beatrix' and my favorite) was published. Eighteen more books followed over the next ten years. In an interview, Beatrix said of her style, "My usual way of writing is to scribble and cut out and write again and again, the shorter and plainer the better. And read the Bible (unrevised version and the Old Testament) if I feel my style wants chastening." Beatrix based her stories on actual pets that she and her brother collected in their childhood and into their adult lives. Her animals are merely "people in fur." They never do anything supernatural or magical. Her observations of human nature have never been surpassed; she was a modern-day Aesop. Some of my other favorites in her repertoire are The Tale of Two Bad Mice, The Roly-Poly Pudding, and The Pie and Patty Pan. Using extremely large words, Beatrix never talked down to children. Every child and adult must be exposed to all of her little books if they are to be a civilized and educated person. Even the literary giant, C.S. Lewis, was known to refer to Beatrix Potter's characters in his correspondence, assuming all well-read people had a working knowledge of her works! 

Now onto the writer who is called "The Poet Laureate of Childhood." Robert Louis Stevenson spent his childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of a prosperous family. Sadly, he had chronically weak lungs and as a result spent much of his childhood in bed. Alison "Cummy" Cummings, his beloved nanny to whom these poems are dedicated, often read him the Bible. She was the closest and most loving relationship of his youth. He originally published A Child's Garden of Verses under the title The Penny Whistle in 1885. It remains one of the most beloved children's books of all time. Some of my favorite poems that any three year old can memorize with you are My Shadow, The Land of Counterpane, Whole Duty of Children, and The Land of Nod. Children love to memorize and recite poetry and it is good to remember that poety is easier to memorize than prose! Be sure to look for the edition illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. Every child should have the pleasure of growing up being read these poems in their parent's arms. 

Nearly forty years later, the books of British author A.A. Milne would become the next pillar in every well-read child's literary experience. Milne was a successful writer for Punch Magazine, the British humor magazine similar to our New Yorker. He is best remembered for little books that he wrote for and about his only child, Christopher Robin. In 1924, about forty years after Stevenson wrote A Child's Garden of Verses, Milne wrote his first book for children, a series of poems entitled When We Were Very Young. He followed that very successful book three years later with another book of poetry entitled Now We Are Six. These are some of the most well-loved poems for children ever written. With the profit from When We Were Very Young, Milne and his wife bought a country home which was featured in his next two books Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. These books are the retelling of Christopher Robin's actual playtimes involving his stuffed animals and the forest surrounding their country home.  You can visit Christopher Robin's woods in England or even go to the New York City Public Library  and see his real stuffed animals . The reason these books are considered collegiate best-sellers is reflected in Milne's heart when he said, "I was never more serious than when I was writing for the nursery." Please avoid the Walt Disney versions of these delightful and profound books and read the real unabridged versions with your children. You will enjoy them as much as they do!


Our final pillar was written by Kenneth Grahame, who was also born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His ancestry is rooted in the 12th Century Monarch, Robert the Bruce. Kenneth's mother grew up on the same street as Robert Louis Stevenson. Tragically, when Kenneth was five years old, his mother died. Because his father was an alcoholic, he was raised by his maternal grandmother in Berkshire. She lived in a very old, run-down house on the Thames River where he was allowed to run wild. This was the happiest part of his childhood. In his adulthood, he was forced, under family pressure, to enter the Bank of England as a clerk. There he rose to one of the top three positions in the bank at the age of 39, the youngest ever to hold that position. He did not marry until the age of 40. He and his wife were blessed with an only child named Alistair, born in 1900, they nick-named him "Mouse." Alistair was blind in one eye and had very poor vision in the other. He was raised by his nannies. At one point, when his father was trying to encourage him to go away to the seashore with his nanny, he promised to send him a story every day. Alistair's nanny kept those stories his father sent to him and they were later published as Wind in the Willows. One of the best-selling children's books of all times, it has been illustrated by many artists but the definitive version is the work of Ernest Shepherd, the illustrator of Pooh.  I love the story of Ernest Shepherd visiting Kenneth Grahame in his later years. He went out to see the river and the woods around his property where the animals of the book lived. Kenneth Grahame told Shepherd to be kind in illustrating the book and said, "I love these little people." Rarely has a book been more aptly illustrated. 

C.S. Lewis is often quoted as saying that "no book is worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally, and often far more, worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond." How true that is in the case of these four great children's authors works. You may delight in the reading of these books even more than your little ones! 

Happy Reading!

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