Bedtime reading

Two decades of Lewis, Tolkien, and much besides

Issue: "Top 100 Books 1999," Dec. 4, 1999

I'm nearing the end of an era: 20 years so far of reading bedtime sagas to four wonderfully story-engaged sons. Our youngest, Benjamin, is now 9, and it's hard to predict how much longer he'll want to end the day in this sweet way. I hope to keep going for three more years, until the cows come home or the testosterone rushes in. That's my preface to the reading recommendations coming up. Children have different tastes, so I cannot say that yours will like what mine have liked. Also, I have little close-up knowledge of little girls, strange creatures who aren't always pushing against and trying to one-up each other. Maybe one day I'll have granddaughters. But let's move right along to my prime suggestions: The series of books that have worked best over the years for bedtime reading have been C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Lewis is perfect word-for-word reading (and try to make sure that your children have heard them at least once before they start watching the videos). Tolkien is more of a challenge-I've abridged a few sections when a child's attention lagged-yet more of a reward in some ways. Lewis is theologically more pointed and usefully didactic; kids make connections between Aslan and Christ. But Tolkien may push a boy's adventurous imagination further. My sons went high over the Misty Mountains and down into dungeons deep and caverns old. They sped on Shadowfax even faster than the Riders of Rohan. They developed the determination to trudge through Mordor. And I traveled with them. Nothing else in my bedtime experience has equaled the big two, but other books and series have been useful. Lately I've been reading to Benjamin the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, and earlier this year we read adventure books by Jim Kjelgaard and Piet Prins. Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe are the two classics we've enjoyed the most. (Be sure to get an edition of Defoe's book that doesn't have his Christian references removed.) I've treasured the four Annie Henry books by that wonderful writer Susan Olasky, but my boys don't go for books in which the main characters are girls. I should also mention the one book from which we've read a chapter most evenings over the past two decades: the Bible. We've almost never used devotional material, although I know that has its place. We read big chunks straight from the Bible, sometimes discussing particular passages and explaining things, but in general emphasizing immersion rather than sprinkling. After children's bedtime reading comes my own, done (when there aren't WORLD pages to edit) not tucked-in but while walking on a treadmill next to a window in our house on a hill, so I can look out at the city lights receding over the Texas hill country. Once in a while I pull out an old favorite, like Whittaker Chambers's Witness, Jose Gironella's The Cypresses Believe in God, Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There, or Shelby Foote's The Civil War. For the most part, though, I stack on the floor next to the treadmill books that people and publishers send me. Most are quickly discarded, but those I've pawed through recently and found informative include Leon Podles's The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity; William Bennett's updated Index of Leading Cultural Indicators; Deanna Carlson's The Welfare of My Neighbor (with its accompanying workbook by Amy Sherman); and Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey's How Now Shall We Live? I'm now reading James Kugel's The Great Poems of the Bible. The familiar verse from Psalm 23, "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies," is good. Yet, when I'm sitting at my office desk amid uncollegial colleagues at the University of Texas, I like Mr. Kugel's more pointed translation: "You set a table for me, right in the face of my enemies." Home is a much more pleasant environment, one that seems only slightly east of Eden. I enjoy reading at night, with my wife near me and our children tucked in. But no paragraph chokes me up as much as when, after a long string of evenings reading Tolkien aloud beside a child's bed, I come to the last sentences of The Lord of the Rings. That's where Sam Gamgee decides to come home rather than embark on further adventures: "And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said."

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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