A Feature Review of
Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children’s Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls
Reviewed by Erin Feldman
What people read often shapes how they view, understand, and interact with the world. If they read books that feature characters who look like them, they begin to assume the rest of the world must look and act like them, too. The opposite also holds true. If people read books with characters unlike them, they learn that the world is not homogenous, nor is it comprised of people who look, think, feel, and act like them. So goes part of Mitali Perkins’s argument in Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children’s Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls. She suggests people need to “steep” themselves in a variety of good books—specifically children’s novels—that act as mirrors and windows (26). She says:
Both are needed: stories as mirrors of some of our identities and stories as windows into unfamiliar ones. But a story, by nature, is an invitation to become skilled in crossing borders via the imagination. In a literate utopia, empowered children will read freely and widely, consuming stories from the past and in the present. They will develop the capacity to see flaws and begin discerning an answer to that essentially human question, What is good? (26)
Perkins’s final statement about identifying flaws and perceiving the good informs the entire book. In the introduction, she says:
I’m hoping for several outcomes from our time together. First, we’ll once again let ourselves fall openly and unashamedly in love with children’s literature. Second, we’ll discover (or rediscover) seven classics from former time periods that may help us resist demoralizing patterns pressed upon us by our own era. Third, we’ll be better equipped to engage critically with stories around issues like race, culture, and power. And fourth, thanks to a slow read of these seven novels, we’ll be inspired to pursue virtue—specifically, the cardinal virtues of prudence, wisdom, justice, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. (11)
But accomplishing any of those goals requires overcoming barriers. Perkins does, beginning with objections about reading children’s literature. Perkins cites four common reasons adults scorn children’s literature—and swiftly dismantles them. (One can almost hear her saying, “Pish-tosh! Don’t be silly,” as she pours a cup of tea for her reader.) To begin, “some people look down on children’s books as a lesser literary genre than books for adults” (4). Perkins counters, “To me, the opposite often seems true. Some “grown-up” award-winning novels seem self-indulgent—written to display the author’s intellectual prowess, mastery of language, and depth of thought. Children see right through that kind of pretension” (4).
Perkins continues swaying the reader toward her viewpoint, citing literary giants like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But quoting such authors, as well-respected as they may be, presents a different issue altogether: what to do with, as Perkins says, “dead white authors that promote racism or any other narrow-minded, power-based views of life?” (12) Again, Perkins provides an answer, one both temperate and prudent. She examines the different ways educators, librarians, and other individuals relate to problematic books. For example, some people argue such books should be excised from the canon. Perkin responds:
I’ve noticed that protests try to limit the circulation of only a few classics with issues, while other problematic books continue to reach children without any objection. … If we remove a few books from circulation because of race, culture, or colonialism, why not all of them? … I’ve visited countries where governments have done that; it doesn’t lead to human flourishing.
There has to be a better way. (19–20)
Perkins defines that better way as reading widely and reading critically. As she points out, all books are flawed. They are the products of their environments (23–24). The only option, she argues, is to “provide children with a multitude of stories told by a wide range of voices” (25).
The reader may agree with Perkins’s perspective, but still wonder why they, as an adult, ought to spend their time revisiting classic children’s books. Perkins seems to expect the question. In the second chapter of Steeped in Stories, she offers two compelling motivations for revisiting children’s classics. One “is to develop the critical thinking necessary to shepherd the next generation” (31). The second “is to move forward with humility in our own formation. … good stories from the past can refresh and shape our tired souls, especially when we are hobbled by our divisive and despondent age” (32).
Perkins then illustrates her two grounds for reading children’s literature with seven classics: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Emily of Deep Valley, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess, and C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. With each book, Perkins examines a particular vice and its corresponding virtue. Anne of Green Gables, for instance, serves as a primer in rigidity and love. Heidi teaches the reader about faith versus alienation. And The Silver Chair offers the wisdom of prudence as opposed to the folly of rashness.
As Perkins invites readers into the simple pleasure of reading a good book—she would despair if readers selected these seven children’s novels to “mine” them for “truths”—she also demonstrates how these “old” books connect with current moments and movements in society. Heidi, for instance, reveals how faith in God and faith in people work against alienation and loneliness—two maladies that afflict society today. Little Women asks readers to reconsider the virtue of temperance, which “to most denizens of modern-day culture … seems like an outdated joy-killer” (135). But, as Perkins convincingly notes, “The problem is that chasing after luxury, desperately pursuing success, and expressing our emotions without self-denial results in a life marked by restlessness, envy, and discontent. … In Little Women, we see that practicing temperance doesn’t lead to a narrow life marked by sanctimony and legalism but instead to a wholesome life of love and peace” (135–136).
Perkins makes similar cases for each of her chosen books, illuminating why they succor the soul and illuminate what is good. At the same time, she interrogates her selected, prized books and their beloved authors, whom she refers to as “aunts” and “uncles.” She begins that process with Anne of Green Gables, “Here’s an important question to help us become more astute at critiquing xenophobia in a novel: Is a negative view of the stranger embedded in the “bones of the book,” stemming from the author’s own belief, or is it expressed by a flawed character in the story?” (49)
Perkins continues asking hard questions throughout the book—not even Uncle John Ronald (Tolkien) or Uncle Jack (Lewis) escape her probing—culminating in a chapter that contains eight questions readers can use to evaluate any text, present or past. As Perkins says, “… if we’re blessed to find a few books that we read again and again—stories full of virtue in which we steep our souls—it’s a worthwhile practice to reflect unflinchingly on their flaws as well” (213).
Perkins doesn’t end her book with that critical examination. She instead concludes with forgiveness. In choosing such an ending, Perkins illustrates how to read not only critically but also charitably. She says:
This necessary work of forgiving those who formed us is challenging, but maturity comes with a capacity to see nuance. Like people from our own past, stories written long ago are not “all good” or “all bad” but a mix of both. If we can accept this, we’re invited to revisit classic books periodically, as we do with elderly relatives who love us. We take our tea to the front porch, where a dead author is waiting in a rocking chair. We listen to that auntie’s or uncle’s story again. Now we can see how their eras shaped them, how they were biased and mistaken, and also that their wisdom might help us resist our own era’s crushing and molding of the soul. (216)
Essentially, Perkins embodies her seven virtues—love, faith, hope, courage, temperance, justice, and prudence—in her approach to reading. She simultaneously invites readers of all ages to do the same. “Come,” she says, “steep your soul in a good book. Look into it, as a mirror or window. And above all, forgive. See the good and the bad, and forgive.”