Let me paint you a horrifying picture. At nearly any local library, seemingly so wholesome and edifying, sliding sneakily under the sightline of the discerning parent, within temptingly easy reach of little, impressionable hands, just out in the open, you’ll find books like Huckleberry Finn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, A Wrinkle in Time, and with increasingly alarming regularity, The Harry Potter series

I realized, standing in my local library, grieved at the state of things, this gross display of postmodern license, that perhaps we really should ban more books these days! And not because the production of twaddle has made any particular advance on previous generations. People actually make very little progress, even downward. 

It’s just that none of these Gen-Z twerps know what they have. In my day, you had to turn the vacuum on to fool the adults into thinking chores were getting done and crawl into a literal square foot of hidden space between a bookshelf and a chair to read any good books. 

If I grabbed one of these little nerds today in the children’s section of the library, I doubt they could even tell me what the last “good” book they read was, much less what made it “good.” And we wonder why reading comprehension is a struggle for kids these days… What happened to risky reading? Our children just consume whatever comes readily to hand and blink at us when we ask them about themes or quality. Kids can’t tell the difference between good and available. 

I’m not even saying we should ban bad books. We should restrict the hard, good, wondrous books. And I’m not for advocating for sheltering children from dark, complex stories. On the contrary, I suggest plunging kids into their own moral dilemmas in their quest for forbidden books. 

Making all good books permissible has the same ironically virtue-dulling effect as safe, didactic stories. The safe stories are all about consequences in an insultingly simple binary of good and evil. In adulthood, I’ve never had to choose between the light and the dark, just a legion shades of gray. Permission is no guarantee of goodness. We need to teach kids how to break rules. Kids will arrive one day at the edge of the map knowing only that there be monsters there but not how to deal with them. What do we do in foggy places with hard choices? What’s worth a risk when no one, or the wrong person, is telling you what to do? How do you choose between two goods or two evils, between shades of gray in the foggy land beyond the binary map of obvious good and bad, of allowed and forbidden? 

All this talk of “consequences” and blind obedience feeds self-interest and the value of self-preservation above all else. The unexamined pursuit of rewards and the fear of punishment dulls this instinct to see beyond oneself, dulls the ability to see the false treasures for what they are and identify the good, beauty, and truth worth suffering, rebelling, and dying for. 

Fantasy literature always seems to crawl under the collars of censors like hair-cut clippings. It’s rebellious and doubting by nature. In fantasy stories we find models of questioning, risk and doubt, the virtues necessary for the edge of the map. 

For example, take the Fay—tall creatures luring children with hollow promises into strange worlds which swallow up youth and innocence. 

I find it very hard to imagine that adults wrote such stories. The idea for towering beings of incomprehensible might could only derive from the mind of someone who lives in a world of knee-caps and conversations happening far above your head. Adults lie to children all the time. If we were to be honest, the existence of a fair world of prompt consequences is just as whimsical as a fat man in crimson pajamas passing judgement on toddlers’ behavior via the distribution of toys. Rarely does an act of kindness bring wealth or love. And justice rides a slow, blind horse—mostly, it seems, in the wrong direction. 

The real world is a bit of a Fairy Wild, full of exceptions, deceptions, and authority figures who betray. We do kids a grave disservice by drawing permission as the line between good and bad. We would do better to prompt them to discern when to do the right thing that’s against the rules. 

Rest assured, children do think on this level. Every rascal in the act of mischief devotes half their energy to the shenanigan and the other half to crafting a good excuse for when they get caught. This is the goal! That process of discernment that justifies action and claims sanctuary in higher (at least supposedly) ends. 

The excuse will take the shape, I think, of what they value enough to damn the consequences. Or maybe even more interestingly, what they think you, the adult, value enough to pardon them. 

What if we cultivated the delicate organ of moral suspicion that asks “why” and “but if” of houses made of candy and strangers in the woods? 

If you are going to the edge of the map, you will be better served by seizing what you know to be true than by stupidly accepting what you have been given.

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    So the takeaway I’m getting here is “read more fantasy books.” Cool. I can do that.

    In all seriousness, though, this is a beautiful post, from start to finish. A lot to digest here and delight in. Thanks.


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