Colin Greer & Herbert Kohl's Bedtime Stories
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A Call To Character: A Family Treasury; by Colin Greer & Herbert Kohl; HarperCollins, 1995 Perhaps no one has better captured the pitfalls of deliberately using fiction to inculcate moral values than Saki did in The Story Teller . Trapped in a train compartment with three small children and an annoyed bachelor, the children's aunt tells an "unenterprising and deplorably uninteresting story about a little girl who was good, and made friends with every one on account of her goodness, and was finally saved from a mad bull by a number of rescuers who admired her moral character." The children respond quite sensibly to this moral force feeding, keeping just enough interest alive to ask the very moral question, "Wouldn't they have saved her if she hadn't been so good?" The bachelor intervenes. He catches the children's attention by describing his heroine, Bertha, as "horribly good"-- "the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt's tales of infant life." Details such as a garden containing dozens of little pigs--and no flowers--whet the children's appetite. By the end of the story they are out-and-out thrilled, as Bertha's spotless white pinafore and the clanking of her medals for obedience, good conduct, and punctuality attract the attention of a ravenous wolf, who devours her. "It is the most beautiful story that I ever heard," the older girl avers. Yet Saki's warning has not deterred either publishers or the book-buying public, at least not recently. Former Education Secretary William Bennett's The Book of Virtues , subtitled "A Treasury of Great Moral Stories," topped the New York Times bestseller list and has spawned a sequel and a picture-book version. Stacks of all three line the aisles of the major chain bookstores, awaiting holiday purchasers. Obviously, a lot of people are hoping they can use literature to teach their children about values and virtues. Like The Book of Virtues , A Call to Character presents a sampling from children's literature grouped according to specific values that each selection illustrates or suggests. Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl accept Bennett's basic premise--that reading together in families can have a tremendous impact on children's moral development--while disagreeing with many of his ideas about how such development occurs. Bennett writes of virtue nostalgically, as a fading glory of a sadly regretted past. Greer and Kohl, by contrast, use their commentary and selections to help families consider what it means to be a moral person now. They know that many families are working to reach that goal, and instead of losing themselves in a fog of Victorian sentimentality, they have sought out many contemporary writers who have something to say on the topic. In addition, while Bennett explicitly looks for virtue in the classics of Western civilization, Greer and Kohl include stories and poems from across time and throughout the world, creating a vivid sense of how much unites us in our efforts to love and be loved, to be kind and generous without sacrificing ourselves beyond recognition, and to balance our hopes as individuals against our responsibilities to our families, our communities, and our world. Finally, Greer and Kohl emphasize that children develop moral sense by talking and thinking about their experiences, about their feelings, and about the consequences for themselves and for others of various actions. Fiction can contribute to this process by allowing them to imagine their way into characters and situations outside their direct experience. Such thinking implies that literature must interest children and spark their curiosity before it can have any moral impact. Greer and Kohl have clearly chosen their selections with this thought in mind. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of leafing through their book is rediscovering just how lively, witty, complex, and poignant the best children's literature is. Bennett's individualistic assumptions lead him to take a much more didactic position that implies that children can learn "moral verities" directly from the content of his stories, without the intermediary of discussion or reflection on personal experience. From this perspective, Bennett slips easily into the error of the aunt in Saki's story, pushing an abstract virtue and ignoring how people really get along. As just one example, imagine how believable the average third grader would find this stanza by Robert Louis Stevenson, which comes from the poem that introduces Bennett's chapter on self-discipline: But the unkind and the unruly, And the sort who eat unduly, They must never hope for glory-- Theirs is quite a different story! Sure. And pigs have wings. Greer and Kohl seem to have a much clearer notion of what it's like to be a child today, and their selections, unlike Bennett's, consistently reflect ways that people actually live, have lived, or imagine living, even as they leave kids free to develop their own impressions of those people and their lives. Which may just allow children the hope that virtue can be something real and worth working for rather than just a convenient fiction designed by adults to keep them under control. For, of course, even The Story Teller is ultimately a moral tale. It reminds us of the hypocrisy inherent in trying to pass off a lecture as entertainment, of the vanity often masked in public displays of virtue, and of the folly of forgetting that children have minds and observations of their own about how and when the world feels good or evil. The delightful selections that Greer and Kohl have collected respect the morality of The Story Teller , even as their book invites children and parents to imagine, together, what it really does mean to be good.