Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination

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As the popularity of William Bennett's Book of Virtues attests, parents are turning more and more to children's literature to help instill values in their kids. Now, in this elegantly written and passionate book, Vigen Guroian provides the perfect complement to books such as Bennett's, offering parents and teachers a much-needed roadmap to some of our finest children's stories.
Guroian illuminates the complex ways in which fairy tales and fantasies educate the moral imagination from earliest childhood. Examining a wide range of stories—from "Pinocchio" and "The Little Mermaid" to "Charlotte's Web," "The Velveteen Rabbit," "The Wind in the Willows," and the "Chronicles of Narnia"—he argues that these tales capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, in which characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds. Character and the virtues are depicted compellingly in these stories; the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. We are made to face the unvarnished truth about ourselves, and what kind of people we want to be.
Throughout, Guroian highlights the classical moral virtues such as courage, goodness, and honesty, especially as they are understood in traditional Christianity. At the same time, he so persuasively evokes the enduring charm of these familiar works that many readers will be inspired to reread their favorites and explore those they may have missed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Not since Chesterton have we seen such an open, affectionate, and brilliant analysis of fairy and fantasy tales. For parents, teachers, and clergy, here is a theological perspective on Beauty, Beast, Pinocchio, Bambi, Narnia, the Velveteen Rabbit (among others)—all as seedlings in growing a child's garden of morals and virtues. It is a fresh, embracing, and enlightening view, and, I might add, long overdue."— Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook

"Vigen Guroian's Tending the Heart of Virtue is a lucid, illuminating, and timely interpretation of the classics of children's literature. At a time when children are continuously assaulted by stories and products churned out by the morally vacuous purveyors of pop culture, Guroian reminds us just how essential great stories are in developing the human soul. Unlike many of the 'back to virtue' books on the market today, this study does not promote tales which are sentimental, didactic, or merely conventional. Rather, Guroian demonstrates that the best children's stories combine an almost mystical love of goodness with a high degree of dramatic realism. Here is a book that will not only evoke memories of beloved childhood reading experiences, but also spur us on ( as parents, teachers, and friends) to share these stories with the children we know and love."—Gregory Wolfe, coauthor of Books That Build Character

"This is a book written primarily for parents, though it may be read with prophet by others. It builds upon and answers to current interest in moral education and the rearing of children. And certainly, for parents looking for ideas about where to start reading to their children, Tending the Heart of Virtue will prove a good place to begin."—The University Bookman

"Of special note is Professor Guroian's bibliography essay that concludes this seminally informed and informative literary inquiry and study. Tending the Heart of Virtue is a welcome and highly recommended addition to academic and community library reference collections and supplemental reading lists in the fields of Literary Studies, as well as Philosophy and Ethics." —Midwest Book Review

Joshua P. Hochschild
This book deserves a wide audience and a place on the shelves of parents and non-parents alike.... Guroian has written a book that itself appeals to both heart and mind.
First Things
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Guroian is an Eastern Orthodox theologian whose intention is to help busy parents make the right choices of "what books and stories to read with children." But this hasn't the content of William Bennett's anthology, and it's scarcely a guide in the way that Noel Perrin's recent first-rate volume, A Child's Delight, is. Guroian devotes the bulk of the text to explaining the Christian (ergo "virtuous") underpinnings and symbology of a few works by Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. The problem is he never gives a sense of artistic proportion or shows how or why classic stories are more likely to "[a]waken a Child's Moral Imagination" than a Spiderman comic. Ironically, he points out that "[m]ere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil's will is coerced." His discussions are often just that, loudly demonstrating nothing so much as his own facility in detecting biblical allusions. He finds that the themes of love and friendship in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio and Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows owe their sublimity to Christianity rather than their authors' humanity. Having damned critics Roger Sale and Jack Zipes for discerning faults in Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," he says of the story's ending that we must ask ourselves: "why would we want our children or ourselves to be content with [300 years of mer-life] when [Christian] immortality has been proffered?" Unfortunately, such arrogance pervades Guroian's tome. The concluding bibliographic essay is dismally short of recommendations. (May)
School Library Journal
The word virtue in the title, as well as the reference in the introduction to William J. Bennett and Russell Kirk, bear witness to the author's position as a conservative and a member of the religious right. His aim in this intelligent and persuasive book is to encourage parents in their efforts to "form moral character in the young" through stories that are rich in moral messages and Christian mystic vision. He finds these qualities in works by Hans Christian Andersen, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and classic 19th-century and early 20th-century literary fairy tales with themes of good and evil, sin and redemption, faith and mystic love. As a teacher of children's literature, he is well aware of educational programs propounding values clarification, and literary critics who approach stories from secular, social scientific, and psychological viewpoints, but what he seeks are works that embody "universally binding moral norms" with values that are rooted in God. Not surprisingly, Guroian finds these qualities in stories of the last century, when education was a matter of building character rather than acquiring information and practicing critical thinking. This scholarly yet readable book will provide assurance and inspiration to adults who look for titles that are strong in what he calls "moral imagination." His discussions of the religious and ethical assumptions on which the works of these classic authors are founded will, for teachers and literary critics, provide a useful corrective to postmodern reliance on secular and psychological analysis of all texts. His is a responsible voice for the value of tradition and of religion.-Shirley Wilton, Ocean County College, Toms River, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
A little jewel of a book on how great fairy tales and other children's stories, with their vivid myths and metaphors, can morally educate and refine young people. Theologian Guroian engages in a close and sensitive reading of about a dozen children's tales, including such well-known ones as The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio and such largely forgotten ones as The Princess and the Goblin by the 19th-century British writer George MacDonald. He notes that contemporary þvalues education," with its often dry presentation of moral principles, has at best limited appeal to children. In contrast, the great children's stories graphically and memorably present charactersþhuman, animal, fantastical, and otherþthat embody the struggles and joys of being human. Their focus is on such enduring themes as deep friendship and love, suffering and solitude, fear and courage, empathy and the "leap of faith." Guroian writes crisply and perceptively about these and related matters, such as this observation about love, faith, and tolerance in The Princess and Goblin: "the hard truth [is] that we cannot make even those whom we love believe, and that if we truly love them, then we must permit them to come freely to that belief." His interpretations sometimes may prove overly christological for many non-Christian readers. For example, he claims that a "red-rose willow tree" that the Little Mermaid plants þalludes to blood and tears and the passion of the cross," a symbolic link that seems far too theologically freighted for most children. Still, this is a book whose appeal goes far beyond the religiously minded; it will interest parents and teachers of all backgrounds who want to helptheir children to both grow imaginatively and achieve moral depth.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195152647
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 802,332
  • Product dimensions: 8.10 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Vigen Guroian is Professor of Religious Studies, University of Virginia.

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Table of Contents

1. Awakening the Moral Imagination
2. On Becoming a Real Human Child: Pinocchio
3. Love and Immortality in The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Mermaid
4. Friends and Mentors in The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte's Web, and Bambi
5. Evil and Redemption in The Snow Queen and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
6. Heroines of Faith and Courage: Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin and Lucy in Prince Caspian
Conclusion: A Bibliographical Essay

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