Epic literature comes in unexpected packages. We forget that all the rules of the greatest books also apply to children’s literature, so-called…and that children need great literature.
“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play,” says Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass trilogy, an epic tale that straddles literary boundaries. Remember another journeyer, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are? He is an Odysseus and the journey from home to foreign lands and back to a restored kingdom matches all the trials and triumphs of Homer’s epic poem.
Stories deliver us to ourselves—sometimes to neglected or undetected parts of ourselves. The other day, I shared a couple of my favorite Great Books with 8th graders. I read them Not a Box, and Weslandia, two deceptively simple stories with epic themes: respecting your imagination, and following your unique path of exploration and individuality. They were intended as prompts for my 8th graders, working on their own epic literature, short autobiographical squibs they were posting on a special bulletin board. Reading great books, however simple, begets great writing, unleashing the imagination to inhabit memories of the inventive moments, playful scenes, and pathway choices to our own worlds of ingenuity and creativity.
Sometimes this is thinking inside the box—a cardboard box. It is making a rocket ship, an apartment building, a robot, ship or hot air balloon gondola from humble materials. Creativity is making adaptations, new things, solutions and fresh possibilities. “If you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music,” says Pullman, “the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.” The mind needs nourishing stories.
I’m thinking of sharing the sequels, like Not a Stick. Spoiler alert: it involves dragon taming. Odysseus lives, sometimes in simple declarative sentences accompanied by crayon illustrations.