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Trailing Clouds of Glory : SPIRITUAL VALUES IN CHILDREN'S BOOKS by Madeleine L'Engle (Westminster: $12.95; 143 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Fallon Evans | Evans is visiting professor in the English department at Loyola Marymount University. and

"Let's wake the baby and show her the stars." What a wonderful way to begin a book. What a wonderful way to begin a life. Madeleine L'Engle speculates that someone in her family must have said this, because her grandmother woke the infant Madeleine and carried her to the porch of a beach cottage to see the Milky Way.

"And I will never look at the stars and yawn," L'Engle writes in the preface to this book, "Trailing Clouds of Glory: Spiritual Values in Children's Books," with Avery Brooke as anthologist.

Avery Brooke we don't know, but we all know Madeleine L'Engle, whose classic children's book, "A Wrinkle in Time," has the famous opening line that Snoopy steals each spring as he starts his novel: "It was a dark and stormy night."

What a wonderful idea for a book, an anthology of children's literature through three decades, each entry introduced by L'Engle and followed by her meditation on the spiritual values of the book.

What a boon to troubled parents, and concerned teachers, favorite aunts, and nostalgia buffs, who are looking for books to present to the treasured next generation.

But how pale the execution.

For myself, who matured (like wine in a vat) in the children's room of a public library, the book echoes and resonates and recalls. But this slim book isn't really an anthology--the selections are, for the most part, one to two pages long; mere snippets. Louisa May Alcott is given two pages; Frank Baum, one; Judy Blume, one; Kenneth Graham, two. It is less anthology, more mnemonics.

The spiritual values are simple and endearing: God is love, the universe is a place of great wonder; we should treat the planet with love and respect, love one another, have the courage to overcome obstacles. As I string these statements out, they seem flat and dull, but that's the way L'Engle's spiritual values struck me: more platitudes than revelations.

I will cite three examples:

--Punishment is a just vehicle of education, she writes, but should never cross the line into revenge; and this is her commentary on a dark and troublesome passage from Alcott's "Little Men," wherein Prof. Bhaer insists that the boy, Nat, who tells lies, must beat him--Bhaer, the father figure--rather than the other way around, the father pandy-batting the boy.

--L'Engle cites a passage from Blume on the problems that kids face with a divorce: This is an imperfect society, she concludes. But kids read Blume because of her direct presentation of adolescent sex.

--As for Mark Twain, there is nothing here of the spiritual turmoil that Huck faces when he decides to save Jim from slavery, even at the cost of his own soul. There is only an inanity from "Tom Sawyer," Tom caught out in an embarrassing lie.

This slim book ends with an index of authors and titles, and an index of characters. What the book cries out for is a helpful bibliography, something for the anxious parent or favorite aunt concerned with passing on the wealth of spiritual values embedded in treasured children's books. Are Alcott's books still in print? Is there a good illustrated edition of "The Little Prince?" Where can I find C. S. Lewis' stories of Narnia? Here, L'Engle is of no help.

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