What qualifies a book as a classic? This is the question my classmates and I were faced with in English today and I am probably way more emotionally invested in this subject than I should be, but my answer to this question has taken years to discover! And, after all, isn’t most literature in some way based on a quest for self-knowledge? Wouldn’t such a quest evoke passion in real life?
Anyway, I digress.
Basically, my answer to this question is that literature is not made; it grows and develops as humanity does. That is what makes books such as Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, Vanity Fair, and Dracula classics. These enduring masterpieces do not rise to fame and fade away like many of those novels on the current New York Times Bestseller list because they are more than just entertainment; they are reflections of humanity, despite their dramatic plots or fanciful characters. They remain stocked on bookstore and library shelves while other tales come and go and are read and forgotten by fickle readers. Why do they endure? Because their themes remain applicable to human life, their conflicts observable in the modern world, and their characters relatable in spite of their age differences with current readers.
That was my answer, but I had to wonder, do all classics have to be deep, wordy, and- let’s face it- rather dull? Or could some pieces of literary genius be- dare I wonder?- simple? Innocent? Entertaining even?
C.S. Lewis says yes.
Actually, what he really says is, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally- and often far more- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
Wait. He’s talking about children’s books, not the brick-like jungles of symbols and allusions that we must machete our way through in our English courses, but children’s books! Suddenly a whole new world is opened to readers and we no longer have to feel like we cannot benefit from the wisdom of literature simply because we do not care for ten-syllable words and tragic endings! The wardrobe has been opened again to all readers and we can return to the “Narnias” and “Secret Gardens” we left behind.
It seems that often people ignore the relevancy of children’s books to their adult lives, but perhaps it would do us good to return to their simple wisdom and beauty. It is likely- no, it is definite- that upon rereading a children’s book that you read as a child, you will find meaning where once you saw only a story. For instance, I reread The Secret Garden to give my brain a vacation, but where I expected to find the familiar story I read as a young girl, I found a tale of friendship, determination, overcoming, forgiveness, and even redemption. These were certainly not themes that I detected as a beginning reader, but upon revisiting this childhood garden, I discovered that morals and symbols had bloomed like flowers since my first visit.
My English teachers always insisted that I bring my arguments full-circle (probably just as well, since I do tend to ramble), so to conclude, classic literature endures because it continues to be relevant and applicable, not, as a classmate of mine said- because the authors are long-winded and professors like to look smart by explaining vocabulary. If my answer is correct and C.S. Lewis is to be believed (which he should be, seeing as he had some experience with literature himself…you know, being an author and all that…) , many children’s books fall into this category; Charlotte’s Web may sit beside Pride and Prejudice, Redwall can have adventures with The Lord of the Rings, Nancy Drew can share secrets with Sherlock Holmes.
So you see, children’s books are completely equal to, and perhaps above, many “adult” classics in their vast stores of wisdom and potential for application. They are not to be looked down upon for the youth of their intended audience, but may even set examples for what true literature ought to be.