Children's lit for big kids

Childlike wonder has been the touchstone of success for Monika Hilder. This Trinity Western University English professor's scholarly work in children's literature—what she considers the forger of moral and objective thought—garnered her the dean's convocation medal in graduate studies when finishing her PhD last June at Simon Fraser University. But this lobbyist for the imaginative argues shaping the mind toward moral ends through children's literature is not just for those12-and-under.

“Dismissing fairytales as being only for kids is an unfortunate 20th century error,” says Hilder, who in addition to completing her PhD in education, has spent nearly 20 years teaching English at the secondary and post-secondary levels. It was this exposure to literature that directly influenced the doctoral research, earning her the only graduate level medal awarded by SFU faculty other than the Governor General's Gold medal.

Taking only three years to complete, her studies culminated in a thesis entitled Educating the Moral Imagination: The fantasy literature of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle. She emphasizes the importance of developing the moral imagination amongst adults and children alike as a means of influencing social interaction.

Unfortunately, children's literature—the original sources for many articulations of pop culture that include films such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the up-coming Chronicles of Narnia—remains a “diminished genre.” “Many of the versions have edited out the moral impact so we have this Barbie-doll mentality of stories like Cinderella instead of the older moral stories that were originally written,” says Hilder.

“The moral imagination is what gives us the capacity to imagine what's virtuous,” says Hilder. “It teaches the emotions to interact with reason and trains the whole person.” Elements, she argues, that are underdeveloped in our current social atmosphere.

According to Hilder, in a culture often focused on bleak and morally relativistic literature the noticeable absence of imaginative thinking has created a cultural void. “We can be absorbed with exclusively dark, depressing literature that never gives imagery of hope and courage.”

She argues this imbalanced teaching methodology affects students' opportunities to learn the higher critical imaginative ways of thinking. “We need to offer literature and teaching methodology that allows young people to experience and fall in love with the good so that their emotions are trained ethically.”

For her research, Hilder focused on three authors whose works she hadn't read until adulthood. “The books I used for my PhD I read in my early 20s,” says Hilder of C.S. Lewis, Madeline L'Engle and George MacDonald. “They were books that nurtured me.”

While kids head back to school this fall to stimulate their imagination, Hilder suggests these titles for re-igniting childlike wonder in adults.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Willow and Twig by Jean Little

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a not-for-profit Christian liberal arts university enrolling over 3,500 students this year. With a broad based, liberal arts and sciences curriculum, the University offers undergraduate degrees in 38 major areas of study ranging from business, education and computer science to biology and nursing, and 13 other graduate degrees including counselling psychology, theology and leadership.

Last Updated: 2015-07-16
Author: Keela Keeping