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4 Steps to Introduce Children to Classic Literature

When a book lover becomes a parent, they want to know: How can I introduce my children to the stories that shaped me? Classic literature can seem daunting, but there are so many benefits to exposing our children to the greatest works from around the world. I might be biased as a former English major/current acquisitions editor, but I see immeasurable value in great literature. Of course, there are the obvious literary benefits—children who read more challenging books have larger vocabularies, better critical thinking and moral reasoning, and greater communication skills. But more importantly, as author Malorie Blackman said, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” Hearing stories about someone from a different country, a different background, and a different socioeconomic situation than your own (ideally from their own voice!) is the first step toward building empathy.

Turn Your Favorites into Bedtime Stories

Classic literature is typically outside a child’s reading level, but retelling the story in your own words lets children hear amazing stories in a way you, as the parent, feel is age-appropriate. There are a number of reasons I wouldn’t want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud to my four-year-old, but when I tell the story in my own words, I can demonstrate the power of friendship and the evils of racism and slavery. Your retelling can be as detailed or bare-bones as time and your child’s maturity allows. Plus, by the end of the day, it’s much easier to pull a fully formed story from your memory than to make up a new one!

Start Simple

Many books that we think of as classics are remarkably child-friendly. Certainly, you might need to be the one reading them, but children are more than capable of understanding them. Before you tackle Wuthering Heights, start with stories about children like these:

  • Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time
  • Roald Dahl’s Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Don’t Discount Adaptations

Some purists believe that starting with an adaptation cheapens the experience of classic literature, but I disagree! In fact, children who understand the basic storyline of a classic are more likely to understand and appreciate the “real thing” when they decide to read it, regardless of the difficulty of the language. Utilize the resource of adaptations to fit your child’s needs.

Here are some of my favorite adaptations:

  • For ages 0–2, series like BabyLit introduce the characters.
  • For ages 3–8, the Lit for Little Hands series tells classic stories in a simplified way with moving parts on each page.
  • For 10–14, the Illustrated Classics are long-form adaptations, much more detailed, but still age appropriate.
  • When your child is ready, find animated and live action film adaptations and watch them together. Be ready to answer any questions your child might have. Shakespeare was never meant to be read, but to be watched by an audience. So a film or live adaptation is much more true to the original.

You, as the parent, will be the best judge of what your child can handle. Don’t be afraid to guide them into the world of literature through adaptation.

Broaden Your Horizons

When you look at the curriculum for classic literature, it is often filled with white, male authors. Now I’m not saying those often-studied classics aren’t great—they are! But classic literature is certainly not limited to Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. Read and share stories from women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. I only speak English, but there are wonderful translations of literature from around the world. Great literature opens a window into another’s soul, another’s perspective, another’s suffering, another’s joy. Remember, “Reading is an exercise in empathy.” The more diverse and inclusive your own library grows, the better you’ll be able to help your child tackle the big questions of life and build the kind of empathy that leads to action for a more just, equitable world.

Brooke Jorden earned a BA in English and editing from Brigham Young University. The author of If It Fits, I Sits: The Ultimate Cat Quotebook, I Dig Bathtime, and the Lit for Little Hands series, Brooke is also the managing editor at Familius. Brooke, her husband, their three children, and their cat live in Cedar Hills, Utah.

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