When I am traveling in other parts of the United States and someone discovers that I’m from Wisconsin, I am often asked two questions; the first regarding whether I own a cow, and the second regarding the cold weather of a Wisconsin winter. I usually respond that I don’t own a cow, but have considered investing in one. To answer the second question, I tell them to read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, a short story that more accurately captures what it’s like to face numbing, bitter cold than anything else that I’ve ever read. “To Build a Fire” takes place in the Yukon, a region that is easy to relate to for those who have ever inhaled a breath in winter to discover that their lungs have frozen.
The value of good fiction far exceeds simple entertainment; it can inform, inspire, and give a student a deeper understanding of the world around them. A common adage states that “Nothing is as it seems,” and good literature can give invaluable insight into the complexities of life and the nuanced thinking that it requires to properly understand it. Additionally, many novels (particularly in classic literature) involve protagonists who are able to navigate through the pitfalls and difficulties of life through positive action and strength of character.
Novels provide the opportunity to have a breadth and depth of experience far beyond the scope of our everyday lives and surroundings. We don’t live in the 18th century, for example, but by reading a good novel set in that time period we can have an idea of what it was like. One of my favorite novels as a boy was Johnny Tremain, which tells the story of a young, blacksmith’s apprentice who is caught up in the events leading to the American Revolution. The storytelling and attention to detail are so excellent that the reader cannot help but be pulled into action.
Novels can also inspire a young person by giving them characters and stories of courage that they can relate to. Sometimes this means that the protagonist is of a similar age to the student, but other times it may be a deeper connection with the struggles of that character that they relate to. Johnny Tremain lives with a deformed hand that sometimes makes it difficult for him to do his job, and leaves him unable to shoot a musket. In a day when most young men are joining militias, he must deal with not being able to participate in the way that he wishes he could. Stories like this one can help develop a student’s empathy for those facing struggles around them, and enrich them with a greater understanding of themselves and others.
Finally, the language and themes of novels often pull students into a world where attention to detail and mental acuity are rewarded. Good authors often speak in simile, metaphor, and allusion rather than blunt description. To understand a story, readers are often required to think through concepts and situations, leading to greater skills of analysis and interpretation. The value of these skills cannot be overestimated because they help comprise emotional intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong. On the surface, “To Build a Fire” details a man’s struggle to survive on a dangerously cold day in the Yukon. On a deeper level, the story explores the dangers of not heeding the environment around us and choosing our paths in life without care or consideration of the consequences. For this reason, as well as its somber ending, it is more appropriate for older students than for younger ones. However, there is a wealth of great fiction for all ages that contains appropriate material and themes.
Introducing children to quality fiction can have many benefits beyond entertainment. Good stories allow them to encounter and think through situations that they may be faced with at some point in their lives. Additionally, novels can introduce them to individuals of different time periods and backgrounds, while developing their comprehension ability and insight. One of the greatest benefits is that if you get them hooked on great books, you’ll never have to remind them to read again, because great stories sell themselves!