In C.S. Lewis’ classic book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he introduces the unfortunate character of Eustace, whom he describes in the first line of the book, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Eustace, quite to his chagrin, finds himself in another world – the world of Narnia – and on a quest to the end of the world aboard a ship called the Dawn Treader. In one of his misadventures on this voyage, Eustace sneaks away from the crew while on an island and finds himself at the bottom of a cliff in the presence of something unknown. Lewis recounts:
Something was crawling. Worse still, something was coming out [of the cave]. Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books. The thing that came out of the cave was something he had never even imagined – a long lead-colored snout, dull red eyes, no feathers or fur, a long lithe body that trailed on the ground, legs whose elbows went up higher than its back like a spider’s, cruel claws, bat’s wings that made a rasping noise on the stones, yards of tail. And the two little lines of smoke were coming from its two nostrils. He never said the word Dragon to himself. Nor would it have made things any better if he had. (pp 75-6)
Eustace had read none of the right books to prepare him for adventure. Indeed, he had read none of the right books to inspire the courage and honor that his adventure required. Rather, “He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools” (p9).
Eustace is the foil of Lewis himself, who says,
“I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of the wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child land books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.” (pp 211, About the Author)
Lewis, in turn, has bequeathed to us some of finest children’s fantasy in the English language, the kind that ennobles and inspires. The question for us as parents, and particularly as fathers, is whether we are raising children to be like Eustace or Lewis. Do we share books together that quicken the imagination, celebrate honor and inspire action? We may not have resources to line the walls of every room (and cistern!) with books, but in virtually every town and city there is a library filled with books for the borrowing.
If you’re wondering where to begin, I can suggest no better book in print than Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life, the second half of which is an annotated bibliography of great books for children, organized by age and topic. The author, Gladys Hunt, also keeps a blog by the same title, and she has graciously made the book list available online through Tumblon.
Graham Scharf is a father of two, and co-founder of Tumblon.com. He blogs at Essential Questions and produces a podcast series for parents of young children (and is currently re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia with his five-year-old). You can follow him on Twitter @tumblondad.