Thursday, September 9, 2021

Book Review: Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children's Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls by Mitali Perkins (2021)

I borrowed Steeped in Stories by Mitali Perkins from Hoopla for a few reasons. One was that I had a goal to read three books about books in 2021 and I needed one more. Another was that I had just DNFed a 55-hour audiobook (The Source by James Michener) after 17 grueling hours and this audiobook was much shorter. Another was that my husband and I had just been talking with a friend about how to handle "problematic" children's books of the past, and the topic was on my mind. I was also intrigued by the negative Goodreads reviews complaining that the book was religious. I would never have guessed it had religious content based on the description I read, and I wanted to know more.

The structure of the book is based on the seven virtues and their corresponding vices, and the author selected one book per virtue. The titles she covers are Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. For each, Perkins makes the case for why adults should continue to read these books and share them with their kids, even if they include flawed characters or outdated ideologies. She also makes references to the writings of saints, Pope Francis, and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church to point out how reading these books can enrich a reader's spiritual life as well. 

Though I think her comments on potential racial issues in Tolkien and Lewis revealed a lack of knowledge of the fantasy genre more than any problems with the books themselves, Perkins's analyses of the other titles were interesting and compelling even when I disagreed with portions of them. I appreciated that she showed obvious affection for each author (though calling each of them "aunt" and "uncle" was a shade too cutesy for my taste) and that she imagined herself posing questions to them about why they chose to write the things they did, rather than just outright condemning them all.  Her thoughts on how to think about race in children's literature on a broader scale are also interesting and far less accusatory and nasty than a lot of the rhetoric I've seen surrounding this topic. I'm a little disappointed that our culture feels so guilty for reading its classic literature, but I think this book does a good job of combatting those feelings of discomfort or shame and makes a great case for keeping those classics around. I also liked the questions provided at the end of each chapter, which would make great jumping-off points for book club discussions or prompts for journaling.

If you're a parent or just a children's literature enthusiast wondering how to deal with the problems of racism and other forms of bias in older books, this book is a very gentle and inviting way to enter the conversation. Perkins strikes a nice balance between research, personal anecdotes about reading with her own children, and thoughtful literary analysis. I listened to the entire book in two days, and I could not stop talking about it when I was done. I don't think it's a perfect book, but I'm thrilled that a Christian (and Catholic, I think?) take on children's literature is out there in the world, and I definitely think it's worth a read. 

No comments:

Post a Comment