Episode 315 | Children's Great Books: Embracing the Wonder (Janice Campbell with Cheri Blomquist)
Homeschoolers have a lot of things to cover — does it make sense to spend time reading children’s classics? Join us in a conversation with author and homeschool mom Cheri Blomquist to learn how children’s literature fits into a whole-hearted curriculum, and how you can encourage thoughtful reading without ruining a great story.
Cheri Blomquist is a freelance author and teacher with a degree in both English education and Bible. As both a parent and tutorial teacher, she has been part of the homeschool community since 2005. Two of her four daughters are grown up, one is a college sophomore, and one is a high school senior. Her 7th-grade son is currently homeschooled. She currently lives near Chattanooga, Tennessee with her family.
Janice Campbell, a lifelong reader and writer, loves to introduce students to great books and beautiful writing. She holds an English degree from Mary Baldwin College, and is the graduated homeschool mom of four sons. You’ll find more about reading, writing, planning, and education from a Charlotte Mason/Classical perspective at her websites, EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.
Before Austen Comes Aesop by Cheri Blomquist
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
What’s in It? The Concerned Parent’s Guide to Young Adult Literature
Cheri Blomquist | Website
Janice Campbell | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Website
Homeschooling.mom | Instagram | Website
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Janice Campbell Hello and welcome to the Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Janice Campbell, and I am one of many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is Homeschool Solutions, we do not pretend to have the answer to every question related to homeschooling. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ, that you may seek his counsel as you train your children in the way they should go. We are so glad you have joined us for today's conversation. Before we start the episode, I would like to thank the sponsor of the Homeschool Solutions Show, Medishare. Medishare is an affordable and biblical health care alternative. Find out more about their ongoing support of homeschooling families just like ours at MyChristianCare.org. And now on to today's show.
Janice Campbell Hi, I'm Janice Campbell, and today I'm here with Cheri Blomquist to talk about books, reading, and homeschooling. Cheri is the author of Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children's Great Books and How to Experience Them. She's also written Maria von Trapp and Her Musical Family. As soon as I picked up Before Austen Comes Aesop, I knew I wanted to have Cheri on the show, not just because we have very similar perspectives on the value and necessity of children's literature, but also because she offers a practical overview of how to encounter children's literature in ways that won't spoil the wonder of the stories. Welcome to the show, Cheri.
Cheri Blomquist Thank you for having me.
Janice Campbell Can you tell us a little bit about the life journey that led you through homeschooling and into writing this book?
Cheri Blomquist Oh, wow. I assume you want me start at homeschooling, not my whole life, or I could be here for a long time. I started homeschooling in 2005 my two oldest of five children. They were in first and second grades. I was a very reluctant homeschool mom. I didn't want to homeschool, didn't know how to homeschool. I didn't know anything about the homeschool market or anything, but I felt compelled to jump into it very quickly after I saw the local public school in the district I'd recently moved to. I was so disillusioned with it. Up to that point, I was not against public education, but this school was extremely, extremely large for elementary school, and I did not want my kids to become a number. I was just like, "I can't do it. I can't put them in this school." So two weeks before school was to start, I jumped into homeschooling. Didn't know what I was doing. Over the next year, I really fell in love with homeschooling. I kind of became a curriculum junkie. I just realized how huge the market was, and I started looking into everything. Over time, I encountered the classical method of education. I just had many different experiences talking to people, and I gained a really rich understanding of homeschooling and the market over time. One of the things that I saw that concerned me as I progressed and I became a teacher for a tutorial and just in my observations over the years, I became concerned with the way some programs seemed to advocate for students to study adult literature before they had really fully matured enough to fully understand it. Before they were really grown out of the wonderful children's literature that is one of our Western civilization's greatest treasures. And it really bothered me to the point that finally maybe in 2014 or 2015, I wanted know what are the best books for children? What are the greatest books for children? We have these great books of Western civilization: Milton, Chaucer, Plato, Aristotle, all these books. We want our children to have this rich education in all this literature. But what about the books that undergird all of those, which is children's literature? Because all those writers were once children themselves. They all grew up and took in ideas over time that allowed them to become writers themselves. They probably, I don't know, but most of them, those great writers probably grew up in the children's literature of their time, whether it was folk tales or fairy tales or nursery rhymes, or King Arthur or Robin Hood or whoever it was. I wanted to know, well, there's got to be a great books counterpart for the great books. And I wanted to know what those were. I actually started it for myself as a personal project, and I thought, "You know, I'll put a document up on my website for people to buy, some self-published a little booklet." I'll let other parents who are interested buy if off my website or something. It just kind of took on a life of its own. It just grew and grew and grew. I thought, "Well, I've got a big book. I'm going to really have to get serious about self-publishing this." And then it was accepted kind of through a weird fluke of events. Ignatius got a hold of it and wanted to publish it. I wasn't even thinking about submitting it to them. I wasn't going to submit it to anybody. I was just going to self-publish it. So it just kind of happened, and here we go.
Janice Campbell That's a wonderful book story. I love it. It seems like all the best projects I've ever done have started with just curiosity and that desire to know and surely there's something. So it's fun to hear about that. You touched a little bit on how there's a constant temptation for people to jump over children's literature straight into adult literature. I've been talking about that at conferences for years. It's just like encouraging parents to enjoy the age the kids are and really give them the riches of the literary tradition. Why do you think there is that impulse to just jump over it?
Cheri Blomquist I think a lot of parents really anxious to give their kids the best education possible. And they have it in their grasp to do that. They don't have to submit to a local school. They can do what they want. We want to give our children the very best, and we want to prepare them for college. We want to give them the riches, the great books, and have them read all the good books, the classics. I feel like many parents feel that, "Well, my kid can read this. Other kids are doing it. If we can, we should, because we've got to get in as much as possible before college so that they're ready." Maybe that's part of the mindset. That's what I've felt in listening to other parents and in my reading. I think there's a strong sense, a strong—not a prejudice so much, because many of us love children's literature, you know, families would read literature at night in our bedtimes and everything—so I don't know if prejudice is the right word—but there's maybe a sense that children's literature isn't real literature. It's a bridge to the real literature. And so children's literature is what we read when our children are too young for the other literature. We read it until they can make that leap over the bridge. But after that, you know, we've got to be done with the children's literature. We've got to move on to bigger and better stuff: Austen and Shakespeare and Dickens and all that, which are really, really good and profoundly important in our culture, but we don't realize how important children's literature also is and how much adult literature has been embraced by children over the over the centuries.
Janice Campbell You're absolutely right. One of the things that I've observed in reading biographies of some of the writers that I've enjoyed—C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton and different ones—is how much they value the fairy stories, how much they value the children's literature, and how much that led to the development of all of their faculties of understanding. Making time for this kind of literature—Johnny Tremain and Alice in Wonderland or whatever—is so important. But you know, I hear from parents sometimes they can see a point in reading something historical—like Johnny Tremain, a historical fiction—but they don't see a point in reading Alice in Wonderland. I'm sure you've probably heard some of the same things when you're around others. What would you tell those parents? Should they read the nonsensical things? Should they read Alice in Wonderland or things that are not true—Chronicles of Narnia or something like that?
Cheri Blomquist Well, I'm an advocate of reading in all genres because I have eclectic interests anyway. I like to read all different kinds of things, except for science fiction. I'm not so much into science fiction. But I am curious and interested in all different sorts of things, and I want my kids—and I don't know if I'll succeed—but I want my kids to have an interest in lots of different things. To expose our children to different genres of literature gives them a different way to examine literature and to experience literature. It gives them different kinds of ideas. Because when you read Johnny Tremain compared to Alice in Wonderland, you're going to have two totally different kinds of experiences. Not just two different experiences— two kinds of experiences. Because with Alice in Wonderland, you're dealing with conundrums, and language wordplay, and the ridiculous juxtaposed with realism and the agony of maturing and growing up that Alice herself goes through in Wonderland. We may not realize—and I certainly didn't before I researched—how important some of these books like Alice in Wonderland are. Alice in Wonderland has had a huge influence in Western civilization. It doesn't matter if it's nonsense. It has impacted all kinds of literature, all kinds of the other arts. It is had a huge influence, and there's a reason for that. If we expose our children to different genres, we allow them to experience different kinds of things instead of limiting them just to the real world. Because there's a lot of reality in that nonsense, in that fantasy. Like in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, you can draw truths from that that are maybe harder to see or less accessible in more realistic writing. Like Johnny Tremain, there's lots of maybe moral lessons to draw from it. When we read fantasy, we can draw different things from it. We can go deeper, perhaps because it's fantasy. Sounds maybe a little paradoxical, but that is the way it works. I want children to be exposed to all kinds of things.
Janice Campbell Yes. I experienced that as a as a reader when I was young. I was a voracious reader. I grew up with my grandparents, and they didn't have a television. We read lots and lots. We constantly were in older books and pulling things in. You're right that sometimes viewing something through the lens of a different place, time, and world—such as the The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Hobbit, or any of those other delightful books—it can expand our tool chest for understanding our own world, as well as just being delightful. It tells the truth, whether it's telling the facts about your current town or whatever. So much of education outside the homeschooling community has become so utilitarian. It seems like a great loss, and it seems like one of the reasons, perhaps, that kids are not reading as much children's literature as they used to. It's not useful. Do you think that might be a factor?
Cheri Blomquist You mean in the fact that children aren't reading as much? I don't know. I feel like technology has had the larger influence more than genre. I do some book reviewing. I've been in a bookseller. So I've seen how the book world has worked in the modern times in the past decade or so. There's still a lot of fantasy being written. I've read some of it not too long ago. And some of it is still really good. It's just different. Different ideas. But I feel like the main problem has been the technology, the social media, because I saw that happen with my own children. I gave them phones and they stopped reading. I have five children and with all four of them, I saw them all stop reading. I don't think that's a coincidence. A couple of them come back to reading. But I did see a marked difference, and I regret doing that for myself. That doesn't mean it'll happen to every kid, but I think you're fortunate that you grew up without TV. I grew up with TV, and I watched a ton of TV, but I also read a lot. So I don't know if it really hurt my reading or anything. But the fact that you grew up with just books was probably a rich gift that you didn't know at the time. Sometimes I wonder if I had just not done this and this and this with my kids, maybe they would have been more voracious readers themselves. That makes me a little sad because I can't go back and undo that. But that is something I've noticed.
Janice Campbell That's an interesting observation because even as an adult, I find it challenging sometimes. In the course of running a business, in the course of researching and writing, I can be on screens a whole lot. It tends to eat up my reading time. And then reading time diminishes. And then you only have snippets of time and you think, "Is it worth picking up a book? Do I want to start a book? Oh, it's so hard." And your reading time diminishes. You have to be so purposeful about keeping some.
Cheri Blomquist I have always been a reader to the point where I cannot not have a book. I mean, I can't just not have a book I'm reading. But I don't read as much as I used to. I do now because I have to for different reasons. I don't read recreationally as much as I used to, but I still always have maybe two or three books going for like right before bed, or maybe while I'm eating my lunch or whatever, because that's just part of the way I work. I just can't. But I have other people I know who they just don't read at all because they're too busy. You know, it's just life takes over. We have to be intentional.
Janice Campbell Yeah, I've learned finally to take time in the morning for reading. That's my nonfiction reading time over breakfast, usually. And then in the evening, it's my fiction time if I'm going to get to read. I usually have a book going for— something nonfiction going, something I'm studying. And then I have maybe an adult book like a classic. And then I have a very light book, which is usually a kid's book, because I do love children's literature still.
Cheri Blomquist Still a lot better than some adult literature. We don't realize how great some of these children's books are. My mother is 80 some years old, and she's still reading children's literature on purpose. I mean, she'll read some adult, but it's like these books are good, she'll read them over and over and over. She's the one that taught me this is real literature. It's just as much worth reading as adult literature. Doesn't matter how old you are, you can still enjoy Peter Rabbit when you're 65. Who says you can't? You'll see Beatrix Potter's illustrations in richer detail, and you'll appreciate them more. You'll laugh over Peter's antics because you've raised kids. You just don't grow out of children's literature. You know, I read Goodnight Moon and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to my children. I enjoyed it as much as they did. I'm not going to lie. You know, there's no shame in enjoying children's literature, and there's no shame in recognizing that it is just as much literature as any other adult literature. That's not to say I'm comparing it with Shakespeare or Chaucer, Aristotle. You know, different things. But at the same time, they both are valuable in their own ways. I really owe that to my mom. She's the one that fed me children's books like they were candy. I grew up on and the things that she gave me, most of which were classics. I'm just so grateful for that. She didn't make me grow up too soon and make me put away these toys and books and things before I was ready. It was a very wonderful gift in that way.
Janice Campbell It sounds like it. It reminds me of the poem, the first line of which is, "I had a mother who read to me."
Cheri Blomquist Yeah, I know what you're talking about.
Janice Campbell What a gift. And you know, those books, they go with us through the rest of life. It gives us things to read to our children because I know that I kept my childhood books and shared them with my children, and now my grandchildren are reading them. That is one of the sweetest things that you can pass down is good books.
Cheri Blomquist "Oh, let's read Winnie the Pooh together. I love this story. You're going to love it, too."
Janice Campbell It's one of the best ways to introduce literature. If you as a parent are not a reader, you can ease into reading more for yourself by reading to your children, learning to enjoy the really, really great children's books. And then moving on from there if you want to, but you don't absolutely have to. So when you're starting a child on a children's book, if you want to introduce a book to a child, say Winnie the Pooh or something a little older, do you give them an introduction first or do you just hand it to them and say, "Would you enjoy reading this book?"
Cheri Blomquist Well, I have to think back to my mom, and she didn't do either one. She didn't ask me if I wanted to read it. She didn't explain anything. She just handed it to me and said, "Read this." I was young enough where I didn't have access to a library or anything like that of my own. So I did. I just experienced it without any introduction. I do think there are a few books where it would have been good if she'd explained a few things to me. For example, she tried to read Anne of Green Gables with me when I was, maybe 11 or 12 or something. I was still a child and young enough for her to read to me, and I didn't like it. I didn't understand. It is now one of my favorite books, and I could watch the PBS movie all day, you know, all eight hours, and be perfectly happy. But back then, I didn't understand who this old person Marilla and Matthew were, and I didn't understand what was happening or what they were talking about the beginning. And so I was bored. And if she had just helped me understand a little bit, I think I would have had the scaffolding I needed to move forward with Anne's story. I guess it kind of depends on the story. My favorite book is too simple for my mother to need to explain it. So I think it really depends on the book.
Janice Campbell Right. And probably the child's reading background as well. Because if a child is a voracious reader and just going through things like popcorn, they're going to circle back because there's never enough books if you're a voracious reader, and so you circle back, at least in your home when you're young.
Cheri Blomquist Yeah. My mom taught me to read when I was very young as well, and that made a big difference, too, I think, in my reading experiences. But yes, as far as handing a book to a kid and explaining it, I think it really depends on the book.
Janice Campbell Yeah. I've always been cautious about too much previewing or explaining or introducing, because I don't know if you're familiar with the work of Charlotte Mason, the British educator. She talked about parents talking too much or teachers talking too much. The child's hungry for the book and wanting to read a story and getting too much talking dilutes the joy of the story.
Cheri Blomquist I think maybe where it's most valuable is when it's historical fiction like Anne of Green Gables, where it's firmly anchored in a certain period of time, in a certain location with a certain lifestyle. This farming community on Prince Edward Island— a little bit of context can help anchor the kid. I think the books I struggled with the most were ones where I didn't understand the context. And so I was lost from the beginning. That I think could be really useful. But something like Alice in Wonderland, you can say, "Well, this is about a little girl live in England," but beyond that, what is really needed?
Janice Campbell Just join the adventure for things like that. Go through the rabbit hole or through the wardrobe.
Cheri Blomquist This is a mystery to all of us going down this rabbit hole; there's nothing I can explain.
Janice Campbell I definitely like that. Letting kids just dip in and get familiar on their own. Anyone who's been around me for any amount of time, with me talking about literature and stuff, knows what I think about dissecting literature with comprehension questions and that kind of thing. But how do you feel about comprehension questions and workbooks like that?
Cheri Blomquist I think they have their value, but I think the value is limited. We learn on a hierarchy. I appreciate Bloom's taxonomy of learning where we grow from knowledge to understanding to application and analysis and so on. I think comprehension questions can help us focus on the different elements of literature so that we can grasp the important parts of a work of literature. But I feel like maybe if they're overdone, then they— I know that in school I had a ton of comprehension questions, and it kind of ruined the delight of reading books in school for me. Not that I don't think they're important because if you don't talk about them, a lot of kids maybe just don't understand what's happening, and they maybe lose some important things that they need to know. But I think that they can be overkill and that could be the end goal is these comprehension questions where really the end goal may be more discussion and analysis and unpacking the big ideas behind it and maybe examining the beauty of the work, not just what it's about. So I'm kind of on the fence with that one.
Janice Campbell Good thoughts because they are challenging and sometimes you can help kids figure out some things about the book, but honestly, so many times the story is beaten into just a pulp of what happened and when. You lose the why's. You lose the the charm, the wonder, the beauty, or sometimes you even lose the meaning in all the forest of what. And you know, one thing I've observed with students is that they very often will—if presented with a list of comprehension questions—they just turn the story into Trivial Pursuit, and they never see the whole story arc.
Cheri Blomquist I don't know about you, but in school, one of my big study strategies would be answering the question while I read the book. It could be history, science, literature, whatever. But my goal was to answer those questions and get an A on the assignment. My goal was not to appreciate and love the literature. In fact, probably a bunch of books in school I didn't like at all. Like The Good Earth in ninth grade. I really like that book now, but back in ninth grade, I was just trying to get an A. And I didn't understand it very well, didn't enjoy it very well. My goal was answering the comprehension questions so I could get my A. And that's not what we want. We're not after an academic pull here, so much as an artistic experience, from where I sit. I want kids to experience this literature and view it as art and something that we can learn from in a deeper, more profound way and grow from. Those comprehension questions should serve that purpose, not be the end goal. And we can make it too academic and make it so dry that the artistic beauty is lost. And then all our kids see is a grade. And that's a mistake.
Janice Campbell It's a tragedy, really, because literature can give us insight. It can open windows into what is virtue, what is truth, goodness and beauty, and how is justice enacted and what happens when there is injustice? It opens the door to all of these bigger questions in life. If you short-circuit it by focusing on what, to the exclusion of these bigger questions, the whole point of the joy of literature almost is lost that, you know, and it doesn't have to be big, long discussions. It can be just a conversation right at the end of a book. Or why do you think a character did this? Do you think he should have done that? Just inviting input from your child. Conversation, for me, about books has been one of the most educational things that I could do with my kids.
Cheri Blomquist Kids can come up with some really insightful ideas. My son sometimes surprises me with his questions, not necessarily about literature but just about anything. Kids think; they notice things; they observe. Some of their questions can be very, very deep and interesting. If we allow that to happen, rather than make the comprehension or even the literary analysis exercises where we write papers about it—those are all good, but if we don't invite our children to talk about the books and to ask those questions, and we examine some of these things that rise in the story, then we lose a major reason we enjoy art in the first place. I don't mean just literature— any kind of art. You can beat it to death, like you said, with the academics and never really get to the reason we pursue art in the first place which is that discussion and growth and thinking about the deeper questions of life and all those things that make us human.
Janice Campbell For sure. Reading through your book—which I've really enjoyed—I can tell that we advocate very similar ways of approaching children's literature, and I love that you've called it The Scholarly Adventure. Can you talk a little bit about how you work through The Scholarly Adventure with, let's say, elementary students, especially? I think that's where parents start wondering, "Should we be doing so many things?" What can parents be doing?
Cheri Blomquist Well, The Scholarly Adventure was my attempt to distill for parents the fundamentals of literary study and the fundamentals of reading well. I didn't want to just use my own experience as a teacher. I wanted to use a top expert. So I used Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book as my base, as well as Bloom's taxonomy for how we learn as well as what I know about teaching as an English teacher. I tried to distill their wisdom—especially Adler's wisdom in how we read actively—to fully experience a work. I tried to put those in concrete steps for parents to use to help their children progress in literary study in an academically acceptable way, but also a way that would be meaningful. It's not exactly a mystery how English teachers teach English—the annotations, and understanding the Freytag Pyramid, or understanding a story arc, in literary analysis, how to respond to literature—these are things that teachers have been using for decades and decades. They're nothing new. But if you have not taught English before, it can seem like a mystery. "How do I help my child? How do we teach literature to my child? How do you teach it?" I tried to make it so that parents could see how English teachers in general will teach a book and what they can do to help their children experience these books in an academic way. They could do it independently if they're older or a parent can help them. The elementary Scholarly Adventure, I kept it simpler, of course. The elementary kids can certainly discuss. Like I said, they can have amazing ideas about books that maybe we adults would miss. But I don't really encourage the literary analysis essay; they're not ready for that. So the secondary Scholarly Adventure that's just more expanded into higher level thinking. Of course, an independent study can be used not just with a novel, it can also be used with history or science or philosophy or whatever you're going to read. These are just how to read a book in general and how to study it. It can be applied to a number of different kinds of books, which is hopefully helpful to parents who maybe like a more independent approach to their homeschool and hopefully will help students prepare for maybe group classes that they might have to go into later. They'll have these skills in their in their toolbelt, so to speak, so that when a teacher says, "You're going to write a literary analysis essay about whatever," then they will know how to do it. That's another goal that I have through to those steps is to help prepare students for other teachers, maybe in the future. So kind of both.
Janice Campbell Yeah, I appreciate that because I have the Excellence in Literature curriculum, which is grades 8-12 where we go through the higher level learning of literature. But this is the foundation that I've always recommended is doing a slow read. Taking your time, taking notes, annotating your books, whatever, and just taking joy in the process and teaching your kids the different ways of using graphic organizers, whatever. But I appreciate the way you have outlined it very, very succinctly in your book.
Cheri Blomquist I think it's important, too, that parents understand that this is a way to do it. They can remove a step. They can add something else that they might think of. I'm not going to think of everything. I do my best, but maybe a parent will have an idea that would be great for their student to try. They can mix up steps if they see that it would be beneficial. This is not set in stone. You, as an English teacher, are going to have different ideas than I, as an English teacher. We're not going to teach exactly the same way. No English teacher does. This just gives good strategies that can be your launchpad and that will hopefully help with with study in general.
Janice Campbell Yeah, and that's ideal. Just helping kids move deeper into books is kind of the goal of being an English teacher or a homeschool mom or whatever. And it helps you move deeper into books yourself as a homeschooling parent. I know that through all those years of reading with my boys and sometimes rereading and rereading—
Cheri Blomquist A hundred times, Are You My Mother?
Janice Campbell Yes, exactly. Moms need little badges for every time they hit a hundred on a book.
Cheri Blomquist They really should. The prize in the mail.
Janice Campbell Exactly. Oh my goodness, some of those books are practically memorized at this point. But it really does. It does help to have the tools that you can use. And I know that my grandkids have done things that I didn't do as much with my boys, such as acting out something they just read. Example: last term, early in the year of last year, the term, there was like a six, seven, eight, and nine-year-old doing a school together, and they read the lamb's version of Hamlet. They finished and they did their narrations. They did all that. Immediately, as soon as school was out, they ran and costumed up and made themselves a six-minute video of the entire story of Hamlet all on their own. And what fun?
Cheri Blomquist Yeah, that's what art is about. We experience it and it should launch us into new ideas, and that's what the great books are all about. You've got one great author building on the authors that came before him, and it's the same with children's literature. The modern authors, they built off of the authors that came before them and all down through the ages. When our children can do that themselves— maybe not going to do something great in themselves, but just something that they extracted from that work, and they built on that, and they created something on their own, and they took it to heart, so to speak. That's just wonderful. I think that's a lot of what art is about— experiencing it, making your own, and growing from it in some way.
Janice Campbell Absolutely. It introduces you to experiences you might not otherwise do. I remember reading The Secret Garden as a child, and it was one of my favorite books because my granddad had a little garden, and I could go over there. The year that I read The Secret Garden, I immediately wanted to plant something to make myself a secret garden— cornstalks. It just inspires life.
Cheri Blomquist I'll tell you, the reason I'm a writer today is because of books that my mom gave me as a child. My very first real story that I wrote for myself, not for a teacher, was kind of inspired by two children's books: The Borrowers—which I didn't really understand very well, but I liked the concept of the little people—and The Great Christmas Kidnaping Caper—which is one of my favorite books of all time, but is now out of print—a Christmas story about these three little mice. I kind of inspired by those, I think, and I just started to write, and I wrote this story called The Grandfather Clock Mouse about these little mice who lived under a grandfather clock—which, kind of a combination of The Borrowers and this other book. From that point on, I wanted to be a writer after I wrote that story because it had so much fun with it. Books can be transformative, but it's important we give our children the rich experience of really good books as well. Fortunately, we have a big treasure trove of those, both the classics and modern. There's some great modern books too. So I don't want to leave that out.
Janice Campbell Absolutely. How do you feel about poetry for children? I know that nursery rhymes can be completely nonsensical, but I love things like Hilaire Belloc's Bad Child's Book of Beasts and some of those funny, funny poems. Ogden Nash, others.
Cheri Blomquist Shel Silverstein.
Janice Campbell Yes, exactly.
Cheri Blomquist I do feature a few of the greatest children's poets in my book, but in general, I feel like poetry is not given the importance that it deserves. Poetry is probably older than prose, as far as literature goes. I'm not 100% sure about that, but I think it might be. I was fortunate that through my school career, I was given regular studies of poetry in my literature classes, and I didn't really enjoy it very much. But I'm really glad I got it. I feel like that has been pushed aside in the recent decades in education, where children maybe read it, but we don't study it anymore as an art form to understand rhyme scheme and the different elements that make up poetry. I feel like that's unfortunate, even though it could get kind of dry. I'm really glad I understand those things about poetry so that when I read a poem, I can more fully appreciate the poem, and I feel like it's not being taught anymore. I haven't seen a poetry class or poetry—maybe in your program, I don't know—I just don't see it very much. I don't see it in the schools that I've substitute taught for. I haven't seen it in homeschool programs too much, and I feel like that's really unfortunate. We need to bring poetry study back. I have taught poetry to homeschool students, but not a lot. I think poetry should be bigger than it is.
Janice Campbell I agree completely. Even the simple enjoyment when they're very, very young of nursery rhymes and things like that, the nonsensical things with that delightful rhythm and bounce, it introduces new vocabulary, but it can also get the rhythm and cadence of the language into their minds in such a deeply memorable way. That gives them so much more to use in their own writing as they develop.
Cheri Blomquist That's another reason poetry is really important, not just as literature for its own sake, but for its ability to to teach us writing lessons, so to speak, and help us to write more richly and have a poetic sense when we write. Tolkien's Hobbit, Lord of the Rings—he has a very poetic way of writing. It's beautiful. Sometimes I think he's a little wordy, but it's beautiful. He probably didn't learn how to do that—probably not all him—he probably got a lot of that from poetry in his own poetry reading. It doesn't just magically happen, but poetry can enrich us in ways we may not realize.
Cheri Blomquist I know it has me. As a kid, my parents had a book of— I think it was 101 Famous Poems, and I found poems in there. I would take the book because it was a tall, skinny book and it was very tactilely pleasing—which is one reason I like to have print books for reading, they feel nice—and I would find poems and I would read fragments of them. I didn't necessarily understand them, but I remember I was very young when I encountered the Highwayman. What a great story and an adventure, and I started memorizing it just for fun. But the rhythm and cadence, again, of that language— I started noticing that cropping up in, say, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Longfellow's poem about about Paul Revere. And in other places. As you internalize these things by reading, by memorizing, by just enjoying, you do notice the elements. The when you get to the age where a formal poetry study is excellent to do, you're so much better prepared than if you hit middle school and that's the first poetry you've ever looked at and you're just dissecting before you've enjoyed.
Cheri Blomquist Yeah, I love the idea of having children read poetry from the time they're very small and continuing that. For my son for the first couple of years we homeschooled, we read a poem every day. Or I made him read a poem every day if I couldn't read with them. I made him memorize poetry. I had to memorize poetry in school. I still remember that I had to memorize The Sugar Plum Tree. It's not as natural to read as prose, maybe. So reading it from a young age and just delighting in the language, and then studying it later as a formal discipline—which I think does have value—I wish more of that would happen in homeschool and in traditional schools.
Janice Campbell Yeah, I agree. I know that you have a website where you review young adult literature, and that's a genre that can be a little bit dark and challenging. So can you talk about your some of your observations and maybe suggest some ways of approaching it? And perhaps a book recommendation in that genre?
Janice Campbell Yeah, our children are not just going to want to read classics all the time. The classics are important, but they're going to want to read books that their peers are reading or that they can relate to in their own time. So my website has maybe close to 300 reviews by now where I don't talk about the book as much as I expose what kinds of controversial matter are in them—like sex and abuse and violence and drinking and drugs and things like that—because you can't tell from a jacket. In fact, one as an example, there was a book—I can't remember the name of it now, but it's on my website—and it's about a black girl and a white girl making friends in the civil rights era. And I thought, "Well, this sounds really good. You know, black and white making friends in the civil rights era. That sounds like a really rich story." And in the jacket, it sounded beautiful. What the jacket didn't tell me was that it was fundamentally an LGBTQ book which changes the whole thing. I could have handed it to my child. Whatever you feel about the LGBTQ topic, it's important to know that that's what that book is about, but you can't tell that from the jacket. There's a real deception in the young adult market today. And that's just an extreme example. Most books you can kind of get a sense. But there are a lot of good writing out there. There's still a lot of good writing. Good writers didn't die out back in the 1960s. You know, we still have great writers. Ruta Sepetys—I don't how to pronounce her name—she's an amazing writer. My mind is blanking out, but there's a lot of great writers. But it's so easy to find the books that are full of smut. I try to be pretty broad minded when it comes to literature because there's so many ideas and there's so many ways of expressing ideas. Although I'm a conservative, I'm all for a creative mind and expressing a story and ideas in whatever way. But there is a lot of trash in the YA genre, along with the good. And so my website— I try to help parents sift through some of that so that they're not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But they're also steering clear of some of these books that look really good and they're really nasty. I can tell you that since I started reviewing YA books years ago, I was reviewing a lot and it became so spiritually oppressive to me. I'm a Christian, I don't know about the people listening, but I'm a Christian. And so for me to encounter constant spiritual darkness in these books with the violence, and the drinking, the graphic sex, the swearing—it got so dark to me. Some of these books are not even nasty. They're just dark. They're just kind of a dark story. I feel that, and it started crushing me, and I had to stop. I had to put a notice on my website like, "I can't review as much as I used to. I just can't handleit anymore." I don't think a lot of parents realize how bad it is. Again, I don't want throw the baby out with the bathwater because there are some really, really good books, but you got to be really careful and really look into the book before you have your your child read it. You can't take it for granted anymore. And you can't take a middle grade book for granted anymore, either. There was a time you could trust publishers up until just a few years ago. You can't anymore.
Janice Campbell Right. Even elementary age books have been getting more edgy and a little darker. And yeah, it's sad. But you're right. There are good things out there. There are good authors. We do have things that we can share with our kids. But I'll put the website in the show notes, so that parents can go and take a look and they can have some ideas on what to look for. Some good ones to look for and that kind of thing.
Cheri Blomquist There are different levels, things that we are not willing to have our children read or that we are. I might be okay with a little bit of swearing, but another parent might not be at all. I might be fine with some romance, but another parent might not want any kissing at all. I try not to judge the books, but just say, "This is what's in here. This is what the literary quality is, in my opinion. Here's some extra comments. These are awards it's won. And you can make the judgment for your family." I try not to steer a parent to a certain moral side.
Janice Campbell Yeah, I think that's the most useful way to do it for parents who are coming to look for something or to look for the absence of something. Because, as you say, people do come from different perspectives. Just on a lighter note, what book do you think every child should own, maybe?
Cheri Blomquist Oh, there's so many. Well, I still love The Great Christmas Kidnaping Caper by Jean Van Leeuwen—I can't pronounce her name. I think when it comes to those classics, I really love Ramona the Pest or The Wind in the Willows. I guess I'd put out one of those. It's hard because I love The Chronicles of Narnia and all these different books. But Ramona has a special place in my heart from my own childhood. Not just because it's what I read when I was a child and it was trendy when I was a child, but also because Ramona is just a real kid and she's just this real little girl who experiences regular everyday things. And Cleary is so brilliant in expressing the child's world in a non preachy, non heavy handed way where you can just be a kid in Ramona's world and understand Ramona. I loved the Ramona books and Ramona the Pest particularly. And Wind in the Willows because—I hate to say this, but I just recently read it for the first time the past couple of years. I know it's hard to believe, but I grew up with the Disney cartoon version of Mr. Frog and Mr. Toad. I don't remember what it was called. The beauty of Graham's story with his language and the friendship that the story centers around and the crazy Mr. Toad. It's a brilliant piece of work and just the way it celebrates friendship and the simple things in life, just the beauty of nature and creature comforts. I don't know. I think it's a very special book.
Janice Campbell It's a book that took me several starts to get into as well. I was essentially an adult when I read it all the way through the first time.
Cheri Blomquist It is slow to get started.
Janice Campbell It is, and the language is beautiful, the language is lovely. But for some reason, I would get a little way in and I would stop, and get a little way in and stop. For families who are trying to read it, the idea is to don't plow through if you're hating it, every minute of it. But come back to it. Because at some point it'll be just the right thing.
Cheri Blomquist Right. As I said, I didn't like Anne of Green Gables when I was a child, but now it's one of my favorite books. You have to be ready for books. You can't just say, "Well, this is a good book. You've got to read it." Because your kid may not be ready for that book. And that's okay. It's all right. There's so many good books, and you can always come back. It doesn't matter how old you are, you can come back when you're 80 if you want to.
Janice Campbell Exactly. Because I still do. I still love so many of those books. So as we're getting toward the end here, let me ask you one more question. If you're going to be quarantined alone for six months—as seems as possible at times—what books or what book would you like to have read by the time you come out?
Cheri Blomquist That's hard because I like all different kinds of books. It's hard to just pick one. But I think what I would pick right now is— I'd want to reread The Chronicles of Narnia because I just recently read a scholarly treatment of the series where it analyzes the books as literary analysis, but also drawing spiritual lessons from it and spiritual aspects of it that I didn't maybe probably didn't see because I was younger. Because Lewis can be experienced on multiple levels, I want to go back and read the books again now that I've read that other book and be able to read it in a deeper, more broader sense, where it's not just a good story but I can go deeper. So I guess I would say the— and I know that's seven books; I'm cheating.
Janice Campbell But yeah, it's a work.
Cheri Blomquist It's a work. So all together.
Janice Campbell And I think that would be a great choice. If you are quarantined by yourself, you would you would really want something that's not so dark and depressing or so heavy that it's tiring. Sometimes you just need the lighter. There's so much depth to it anyway.
Cheri Blomquist There's still plenty of dark, but the light always wins. These days, the way the news is and the way our country has gone the past couple of years, we need that. We need the light, and we need to know that the dark will not defeat the light. That the light will always defeat the dark. The Chronicles of Narnia reminds us of that.
Janice Campbell Absolutely. I've really enjoyed talking with you. Books are one of my favorite topics, as you can probably imagine.
Cheri Blomquist Me too. I don't get a chance to talk about them with people very much, so thank you for having me on and letting me jab a little while about it.
Janice Campbell Exactly. Well, I look forward to your next book. If you have anything in the hopper now, just thinking some ideas through or—
Cheri Blomquist A couple of self-published books that I've already got out on my website through Amazon that I'm not trying to get published. I've got a couple. I always have something in the works, but right now I don't have anything that's in the pipeline for being published. But you can check out my self-published things, and I probably have more coming up. I do have one thing, one project that's being considered by Ignatius, but I haven't gotten to the point where I can say anything about it.
Janice Campbell Sure, that's great. I will watch. I get their catalog because they have some amazing books and I love the Ignatius Critical Editions. They're the best. They have the best notes, best introductions of all the classics. So I really enjoy their editions of those. They're nice to feel, too. Good tactile feel. Again, I recommend your book, Before Austen Comes Aesop, because I think it'll help parents and students come away with a renewed delight in teaching children's literature and enjoying it, just dipping into it for joy.
Cheri Blomquist Yes, well that's my goal is to experience it, not just another chore to get through for school.
Janice Campbell Right. So listeners, we thank you for being with us on the Homeschool Solutions Podcast. You can connect with Cheri at OnceUponAPen.Studio, and with me, Janice Campbell, at EverydayEducation.com. You'll find these addresses and the books we've mentioned in the show notes. Thank you for listening and goodbye for now.
Janice Campbell Thank you for joining us this week on the Homeschool Solutions Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.mom. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast, and while you are there, leave us to review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents like you to connect with our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @homeschoolingdotmom (that's homeschooling D-O-T-M-O-M) to let us know what you thought of today's episode. Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics, and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit halls in the U.S. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there.