Here’s a confession – I read my children’s books. And I actually do enjoy some of them.
Their books are colorful, they’re full of interesting facts and details – and they’re just plain fun.
Good books versus bad books
I find that good children’s books are a lot like good books for grown ups. They’re factual, they give you a sense of history, they have biographical details, they’re not overly speculative and the truly well-written ones have a plot that keeps you interested in what’s going to happen next. This is true even when the book is non-fiction.
The quickest way for me to tell that a book is bad is when it started veering off the road of normalcy into the land of idolizing.
You know what I mean. It’s when it starts building the pedestal of the man overcoming incredible odds to become the truly titanic person he is today, or was, before he died.
We’re supposed to read with rapt attention, hoping to achieve that level of success. It makes us work harder, longer, because we want to emulate that person we just read about.
Or so the story goes.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. What usually happens is that we either see through the story because some detail sticks out at us and makes us skeptical or because this larger-than-life person fails to impress us and motivate us because he seems hollow.
And he seems hollow because, indeed, he is. He is two-dimensional.
But that is the better of the two scenarios. Because the flip side of what could happen is that you decide this person was truly remarkable and you can’t possibly be like him.
Bring Your Heroes Down to Earth
Now I’m not saying there are not people who live remarkable lives or that we shouldn’t be inspired by them. I’m just arguing for nuance.
There has to be something more to a book – even a children’s book – than just the individual overcoming obstacles. If there isn’t, it reads like just another Disney movie telling people to “follow your dreams.”
There’s nothing wrong with following your dreams, but without a sense of the time, the place and the truth, these books meant to inspire us just end up creating idols.
And idols have the annoying tendency of disappointing us.
Has Your Idol Disappointed You?
If you are constantly bombarded with only the best details of someone’s life, chances are you won’t be motivated, you will be disillusioned.
And yet, there are books upon books that cherry pick the events in a famous person’s life, flatten them to the shape of a cardboard and then present it in the form of a book, a very bad book, that offers nothing.
Chances are, you’ve run into a few of these.
Chances are, you’ve read some of these as a child, given to you perhaps by a well-meaning adult. And now, with a slightly more mature view of history, you’ve realized that it couldn’t have been true or if it was, that it’s been heavily tampered with, that like most history-based movies.
So if your idol has disappointed you in some way lately, be motivated by the fact that he’s a real, flawed human being. If your hero was cut down to size, you can still rejoice in his victories.
We don’t need two dimensional stories to motivate us. We need real-life people who have done amazing things, even though we find out that they are not perfect. It’s okay to find out that they have messed up sometimes.
It doesn’t ruin their successes. It just puts them in relief.
Wrong Books = Bad Worldview
The more insidious problem with bad books and the idolizing they create is two-fold.
For one, books tend to be overwhelmingly about famous people. Many of these people are currently in power or have been in power in the past. Putting them on a pedestal convinces us that they were truly amazing super-humans bestowed upon us to drag us into a better life. We could never aspire to be like them because they were made of something else that we mere mortals could never be, right?
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. – C.S.Lewis
And secondly, the problem that proceeds from the above is that we think people like this are still running the show, that the leaders, the innovators, they are made of something different, something better than us – the child reading the book.
“I could never do that because I am not that,” is an easy conclusion to draw.
Call me an iconoclast…
…but I love it, when in the middle of a good book, I find that one of my favorite authors has made a typo. I’m not – mind you – rejoicing in his failure; I’m just happy that he’s like me and if he can be successful, so can I. He’s just worked harder and longer at it. So can I.
If my children get that glazed over look when talking about a historical person or even a famous person today, we make it a point to talk about his flaws as well.
This is not about dragging famous people down into the dirt and it’s not about revisionist history. This is about giving them the right tools with which to see the world.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”
Give yourself and your family the gift of the right worldview, the right books, stories of successful people warts and all, so that when the opportunity presents itself, they are not fearful or lacking in courage or self esteem to have the strength and presence of mind to seize it.