Long before I had my daughter, I began collecting the books I thought would be important to our life together: “Goodnight Moon” and “Eloise” and “Frog and Toad” and “Owl at Home” and “Mouse Soup.” I stockpiled picture books by Cynthia Rylant and Patricia Polacco and Ezra Jack Keats. These were the books that I remembered from my own childhood, and from my days as a first-grade teacher, books I’d read aloud, again and again, until I had practically memorized the words.
My daughter Beatrice is now almost three, and I still haven’t collected or read many books about parenting—maybe because I don’t remember my own parents reading such books, or maybe because I suspect such books would fail to match the wisdom of Arnold Lobel, the poetry of Cynthia Rylant, the wit of Kay Thompson. But there is one book on the subject—at least in part—that I discovered after Beatrice’s birth, and which has meant more to me than any other: “The Little Virtues,” by the Italian novelist, essayist, playwright, short-story writer, translator, and political activist Natalia Ginzburg.
Ginzburg, who died in 1991, at the age of seventy-five, was born in Palermo, in Sicily, to a family of prominent scholars and intellectuals. She published her first novella at eighteen, and in her early twenties became the first person to translate “Swann’s Way” into Italian. During the course of her long career she lived in Turin, Rome, and London. “The Little Virtues” is a slim volume of essays, a little more than a hundred pages altogether, which she wrote and first published between 1944 and 1962. Some of the essays chronicle Ginzburg’s time in exile with her family during the Second World War; others compare the life she experienced in Italy with life in England, or the particular differences of preference and temperament between Ginzburg and her second husband. (Her first husband, a writer, professor, and resistance leader, was imprisoned and murdered by Fascist police, in 1944.) The title essay considers what we should teach children—“not the little virtues but the great ones,” according to Ginzburg. “Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
I first read “The Little Virtues” on a family beach trip when Beatrice was eight months old, and my attention was divided between vacationing, caring for her, and writing syllabi for the fall semester. I thought I could use some of the book in a class I was planning on the personal essay, but I also began to see the book as piercingly relevant to my own life, to my hopes and uncertainties. I read lines out loud to my husband, my mother, and to Beatrice—lines like this one: “What we must remember above all in the education of our children is that their love of life should never weaken.”
My husband and mother nodded and turned the pages of their own books. Beatrice listened placidly, teething alternately on her fist, her foot. I have read the essays in the collection many times since, and I often teach them or recommend them to my students. In a graduate class that I taught at North Carolina State University, a woman with a wry sense of humor who wrote speculative short fiction gave a presentation on “The Little Virtues.” Near the end of her talk she tried to read the final passage from a tender and heartbreaking essay called “Winter in the Abruzzi,” about Ginzburg’s last winter with her first husband. My student had to stop herself because she was so overcome with emotion.
In another essay, ostensibly about shoes, Ginzburg asks, rather suddenly, about her sons, “What road will they choose to walk down?” She has been thinking about her worn-out shoes and the more comfortable and protective pairs provided to her children at their grandmother’s house. “Will they decide to give up everything that is pleasant but not necessary,” she writes, “or will they affirm that everything is necessary and that men have the right to wear sound, solid shoes on their feet?”
Often in these essays her children are in the background; they are safe with her mother while she lives in Rome with a female friend, or they appear only through their toys, which “covered the floor” beneath the table where her husband wrote at their home in the Abruzzi, in Fascist-imposed exile. Caring for her children is not necessarily a pleasure so much as a duty, one that sometimes interferes with art—but it is nevertheless central to her, necessary. When she is away from her children she anticipates returning to them, and to a life of domestic comforts, becoming a different person than the woman who fastens her clothes with “pins instead of buttons” and writes whenever she pleases. Then, she writes, she “shall take my children in hand and overcome the temptation to let my life go to pieces. I shall become serious and motherly, as always happens when I am with them.”
It’s important business, raising a human being from infancy to adulthood, and one full of anxiety, for most of us, especially when we consider that essential question: Which road will they choose? Surely this is why the parenting shelves at my local library groan with books that detail every possible approach to raising kids: free-range, attachment, logical, positive, “scream-free,” “no-drama,” French. Perhaps that’s why my daughter’s day care, and another day care she might join someday, if she ever reaches the top of the waiting list, regularly e-mail me compendia of parenting advice. We all want our kids to be useful, productive, caring, happy, successful.
But Ginzburg is ambivalent about success, and she does not consider childhood a staging ground for adulthood. Her writing expresses a deep empathy for the child’s mind, the child’s perspective:
“When we are little children we have our eyes fixed above all on the world of adults, which is dark and mysterious to us. It seems absurd to us because we don’t understand any of the words which adults say to one another . . . and we are not interested in them; on the contrary they are infinitely boring to us.”
Adults are particularly boring to kids when they talk about what Ginzburg calls “the problem of money,” a concern that animates a number of parenting books, notably “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money,” a best-selling 2015 book by Ron Lieber, the personal-finance columnist for the New York Times. At the children’s museum near my home, there is an exhibit called Moneypalooza, with black walls and colorful spotlit play areas, where children are encouraged to work at pretend jobs and to think of the wages they earn as opportunities to “spend, save, and share.” I don’t care for the atmosphere in Moneypalooza; the room is as dim and windowless as an Abercrombie & Fitch. But Beatrice likes to jump on the piles of oversized quarters, which light up when you land on them, and she likes watching the enormous suspended piggy bank fill up with green foam balls until it opens and spills, piñata-like, onto the children waiting below. I don’t like the Bank of America signs in the room (they are one of the exhibit’s sponsors) or the advice near the pizza station about how to earn tips. (“Good service earns you extra money! Be on time, Provide service with a smile, Make your customers happy.”)
Lieber makes the basic assumption that his readers have incomes “above $50,000 or so” (many of the stories concern families with much higher incomes than that), and his book asks not only parents but also fairly young kids to think and talk about the use of money, the responsibility of money, the importance of money. Both Lieber and the designers behind Moneypalooza appear to consider the enormous piggy bank a given, and they convey the idea that money is a good, useful tool—good to have and good to understand.
Ginzburg, who grew up privileged but endured years of privation, calls money “an ignoble thing.” Where she grew up, it wasn’t kept in a clay pig, but in an “innocent-looking moneybox made of earthenware, in the shape of a pear or an apple.” She sees it as almost poisonous, as something that “in the dark and in secret grows like a seed in the womb of the earth.” She posits that when we encourage kids to save for something they really want, a special and expensive toy, for example, they often become disappointed once they buy the toy, which invariably “seems dull and plain and ordinary after so much waiting and so much money.” They don’t blame the money, she says, but the object—they miss the money, and the alluring project of saving: “It is not bad that they have suffered a disappointment; it is bad that they feel lonely without the company of money.”
Better, she says, to raise them with an indifference to money, to let them spend it—and share it—freely and without regret, to teach them to seek work that they love, a vocation, rather than work that pays well. It’s a radically idealistic approach, more in keeping, maybe, with the life choices of Frog and Toad, who sometimes just fall asleep outside, in the swamp, than with the lives of contemporary middle-class parents. The kids of such parents need to be prepared, Lieber writes, for “college costs that we could never have imagined when we were teenagers.” He then lists amounts I can barely conceive: “$100,000 for a flagship state university,” rising to “at least $250,000.”
That’s the main difference, I suppose, between Ginzburg and some of today’s most prominent parenting-advice-givers. Ginzburg, who authored twelve books and two plays; who, because of anti-Semitic laws, sometimes couldn’t publish under her own name; who raised five children and lost her husband to Fascist torture; who was elected to the Italian parliament as an independent in her late sixties—this woman does not take her present conditions as a given. She asks us to fight back against them, to be brave and resolute. She instructs us to ask for better, for ourselves and for our children.
I find her inspiring. I find my daughter inspiring, too—this tiny but fearless being who leaps so confidently from those stacks of giant quarters, sure that however she lands, it will be O.K. It’s my job to keep her feet dry, Ginzburg reminds me, because “perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” What road will she walk down? I can’t know, not yet.
But 1947 was just the beginning of a golden age of children's books. The post-war decades supplied a growing audience of children for the small band of visionary editors, mostly women, who nurtured an entire generation of artists and writers. And that is where today's doting adults have a great advantage. The books they remember with the most affection and delight are often just as good as they remember them, and many have been continuously in print.
What Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row, Mae Massee at Viking, Elizabeth Riley at Thomas Y. Crowell, Margaret K. McElderry at Harcourt Brace and others all shared was an understanding that children at particular stages and ages are more alike than they are different, and that there is no substitute for excellence in text and pictures. They also understood and recognized the importance of the compatibility of art and text in books for children.
But if books and children have not substantially changed in 50 years, publishing clearly has. The transformation of a small business into a big industry took place slowly, but in retrospect the steps are discernible. Beginning 40 years ago, the two inspired series of books that started with ''The Cat in the Hat'' and ''Little Bear'' turned the process of learning to read into a delightful adventure. Soon thereafter the development of trade paperbacks brought the work of many authors into inexpensive uniform editions, greatly expanding the number of children's books available. In recent decades new printing technology has resulted in full-color illustrations that have made children's books appear ever more lush and complex. The young-adult novel -- which many see as dating from ''The Outsiders,'' by S. E. Hinton, published 30 years ago -- found an audience as the boomers and their babies grew up. Nonfiction books, often as handsomely illustrated as the most lavish fairy tales, made all sorts of science and history exciting.
The greater change, however, has been not in the books themselves but in the alternatives to books. Today children must choose reading from among many other tempting, and more intensively marketed, distractions -- television, tape recorders, computers, electronic games, the Internet, movies.
One thing that has not changed is the pure pleasure of reading with toddlers and preschoolers. The practice is now bolstered by all sorts of scientific research in support of the benefits. (The studies somehow fail to note one of the most obvious factors every child understands: if you are reading, you are giving a child undivided attention.) It may be even more important to continue to read aloud with children who know how to read but haven't developed the habit, helping them with words and ideas that are hard or unfamiliar. Fluency, the prized ability to read easily and understand, comes only with practice.
A poem by Karla Kuskin captures the glory this kind of reading makes possible:
So I picked out a book
on my own
from the shelf
and I started to read
on my own
And nonsense and knowledge
came tumbling out,
the wisdom of wizards,
some songs of the ages,
all wonders of wandering
wonderful pages.Continue reading the main story