A Great Moment in Children’s Literature

little house

We all have favorite books from our childhood, and one of the greatest joys in life is sharing those books with our children. Ashton and I just finished reading aloud Little House in the Big Woods, the classic story written by Laura Ingalls Wilder (c. 1932). It was such a pleasure to read this book again, and when I came to the end, I was reminded of why this is a classic:

(Pa has just finished playing Auld Lang Syne on the fiddle, singing those famous words about old acquaintances.)

“When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

“But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Does this not make your soul sing?

What is so amazing about this passage is that it transcends the words on the page, tapping instead into deep emotion — layers of emotions, actually. Memories of what it felt like to be a child and to live in the now (as represented by Laura), yet with the hint of losses to come: growing up, and gaining the adult’s (Ma and Pa’s) knowledge that now won’t always be now. The passage balances the experience of blissful ignorance captured in a single moment when life is perfect and we’re surrounded by unconditional love and security, with the adult’s hard-earned wisdom that life changes, leaving a bittersweet pang, but not a bitter aftertaste.

How difficult this is to accomplish!

I find myself getting choked up each time I read this passage, and as I read this aloud to Ashton (who is five), he yawned his little boy yawn with his cheeks still flushed from bath time, leaning his head against my shoulder, and I understood the deepest layer of these words, that even as an adult, now is still now and although it’s much harder to do, if I can forget the threat of time, moments of perfection are still present, ready to be grasped.

Ms. Wilder has given us a gift from across generations, a timeless reminder of a deepest truth. And the wrapping of that truth in a story gives me an opportunity to experience those emotions with my own child who will come to know these feelings in his own way as he experiences first the warmth of his mother’s embrace as I snuggle next to him and sing the words of Auld Lang Syne, my voice taking the place of Pa’s voice, and his mind echoing Laura’s — he knows only the now — and then as he grows, learning every layer of meaning, until one day, I hope, he’ll find himself reading the passage aloud to his own child, singing Pa’s song with his own voice, passing along a great truth, not by telling it, for that diminishes any knowledge, but by recreating it and experiencing it anew.

These are the great achievements of children’s literature — the great potentialities of our genre. This is why I write books for children and why I read aloud to my son. What a golden gift children’s books give us: an invitation to snuggle together in the now.

 

 

 

 

 

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