Children’s Literature: Instruction and Delight

In the novel Don Quixote, Cervantes states through his main protagonist that the ” . . . ultimate end of writing is both to instruct and delight” (476).1 Since Cervantes is credited with the invention of the modern novel, perhaps his perspective is one we should take to heart. Regarding the notion of “instruction” of course, as parents we get that, that is a given. In our parental role we are forever looking for resources to educate, inform, and instruct our children.  But how often in that pursuit, do we neglect the notion of delight?  When we make choices of curriculum, literature, and history for our children, do we adequately factor in the importance of delight as an essential medium of effective and lasting learning?

As parents who read faithfully to our children, we know in a very elemental way, how important delight is.  None of us would even think to pick up a book of statistics to read aloud to our children at bedtime. For most of us, fond family memories often involve a favorite read aloud that not only instructed our children (and ourselves), but also brought rich delight.  As a bookseller I often have the charming experience of observing people of all ages, who, when they come unexpectedly upon a beloved book cover, erupt in effusive praise, with common phrases such as, “My mother read me this as a child!”  “This was my grandmother’s favorite book.  She read it to me every time I visited her!”  I remember a fellow graduate student reminiscing about her father reading her Tolkein’s  Lord of the Rings trilogy when she was a teen.  Her memories of an extraordinary work were inextricably linked with loving memories of her father.  Just viewing the cover of a beloved book can elicit memories of sweet delight–a testament to the power of classic literature.


Mark Twain is noted to have said, “A classic is a book which people praise about don’t read.”  As educators, is this true of us as well?  Do we make a mental ascent to the importance of classics, but never actually read them?  Or if we do read them, are they actually classics, or are they abridged and edited editions that are so watered down they barely resemble the original works?  In many contemporary educational trends, the use of abridged books is common practice.  Sadly, while some educators believe they are doing their students a favor by introducing them to “classics” at an early age, in many cases they are missing truly wonderful works of children’s literature that are not only age appropriate, but are the very embodiment of instruction and delight in literary form.  In some popular educational trends, often whole bodies of excellent children’s works are missed. For many of us, who did not have a rich foundation in children’s literature, we have no idea of what we (and our children) are missing.  So, what is a parent to do?


A wonderful place to begin is with resources such as Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt, Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson, and Children’s Books and Their Creators, by Anita Silvey.  These books were essential companions on all my library excursions when my children were young and helped introduce me to countless children’s authors previously unknown.   These experts on the best children’s books first acquainted me with Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, Genevieve Foster, James Daugherty, Marguerite Henry, Robert McCloskey, Sterling North, Margaret Wise Brown, Marguerite De Angeli, Holling Clancy Holling, Robert Lawson, Virginia Lee Burton, Lois Lenski, Munro Leaf, and many more.  The works of these authors not only provided instruction, but they were delightful in visual terms (often both written and illustrated by the authors) as well as lyrically beautiful.  These works form the very canon of young children’s literature as veritably as The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Les Misérables, and To Kill a Mockingbird form the adult canon.  A childhood without Make Way for Ducklings, Time of Wonder, Rascal, The Door in the Wall, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Ben and Me, Andy and the Lion, Misty of Chincoteague and many others, is sad indeedThe study of American and world history without the award-winning books of the D’Aulaires, Genevieve Foster, Holling Clancy Holling, and James Daugherty is profoundly less delightful.  







As a mother, it was gratifying to watch how a liberal foundation in the canon of children’s literature provided my children with the stuff of rich imaginative play.  Theater productions in the basement, tree fort adventures, Victorian tea parties, Robinson Crusoe-like explorations on deserted islands, all contributed to the development of an imaginative life that psychologists say is the very foundation of problem-solving skills in adult life.  In addition to problem solving, literature is essential in teaching children empathy–the ability to see and feel another person’s pain, their struggle, their triumphs and their joy.  The habitual reading of truly great books provides children an opportunity to vicariously walk in another person’s shoes, and see through another’s eyes.  Rachel Sawyer, the children’s author and book critic, defines the best children’s books as follows:


Stories that make for wonder.  Stories that make for laughter.  Stories that stir within, with an understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty.  Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end.  Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence; stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.

–Ruth Sawyer, The Way of a Storyteller2


The best children’s literature also builds emotional, spiritual, and intellectual bridges between parents and children.  The connections of closeness, trust, and security that are created when mom or dad is cuddled together with their children reading-aloud, are strong bonds that can endure the stresses and strains that life inevitably brings.


Finally, in the article, The Neuroscience of Joyful Education, former neurologist turned middle-school teacher Judy Willis maintains that, “Brain research tells us that when the fun stops, learning often stops too.”3 As we consider choices for our summer reading, our upcoming school year, and our family read-aloud time, let’s remember to weight our choices as strongly to the purpose of delight, as we do to the area of instruction.  In this way, we will more effectively achieve both.


1.  Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. pg.


2.  Sawyer, Ruth.  The Way of the Storyteller. New York: Viking Press, 1962, page 157.

3.  Willis, Judy.  “The Neuroscience of Joyful Education.” Engaging the Whole Child.

ACSD. Volume 64. Summer 2007.  Accessed on 6.25.2012 at:

Rea Berg enjoys organic gardening, travel to historic sites (especially Paris!), dance and yoga. One of her favorite pastimes is discovering classic children’s books in old bookshops. Rea has a bachelor’s degree in English from Simmons College and in 2006 earned a master’s degree in children’s literature at the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature in Boston, where she was named a Virginia Haviland Scholar.  Rea founded Beautiful Feet Books in 1984 to provide quality literature to the home schooling market.  She speaks around the country on the joy of discovering history through literature and has written numerous guides on this topic, which have garnered acclaim in the home education community. Along with her husband Russell, she has brought back into print many classic works of children’s literature.  The Beautiful Feet Books website is and Rea can be emailed at  Rea is a columnist for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine and blogs on children’s literature at

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  1. I really appreciate this post. I spend a significant chunk of our homeschool day reading classic literature to my kids. I’ve been exploring how to cultivate an appetite for the kind of “delight” that good books affords. I’m convinced copious read-alouds are necessary. Thanks for the great essay.


    Rachel Rigdon Reply:

    Uh…*afford.* Not *affords.* Whoops! haha


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