Spent an hour or so in front of the fire with one of my daughters this morning, reading aloud from Black Beauty, the all-time horsiest children’s book, written by Anna Sewell and published in 1877.
We’ve been working our way through it together for a week or so now and It’s been a great experience… My daughter loves the story and it has awoken deep sympathies in her, but it has also been powerful because two aspects of the text make it especially complex and therefore immensely valuable in ways that will benefit her as a ten-year-old and long after.
The first aspect of the text is its complex narrative structure. Black Beauty is told from the point of view of a horse. “The first place I can well remember is a large and pleasant meadow…” the book begins, though it’s still not clear that a person hasn’t made this idyllic observation. It goes on to describe how the narrator looked out across said meadow to his “master’s house” and it is yet unclear that the narrator is not human. Humans have masters as well, especially when those humans narrate British novels. After an even larger hint–“Whilst I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass,”–I could literally see my daughter processing and she stopped me well before the give-away sentence, “There were six young colts in the meadow besides me,” to say, “Daddy, I think a horse is telling the story.” As we’ve read she’s continued to reflect on this. “The author must have had to work hard to think about the things that a horse would notice and find important.” And she hit a bit of a homerun when she observed that the author used the bond between narrator and reader to awaken deep sympathy for horses. In short it’s been quite rigorous for her to wrestle with thinking about why one might choose to have a non-human narrator.
Throughout high school and college my daughter will continue to experience texts with a complex narrative structure–she’ll read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Naguib Mahfouz’ Miramar, where multiple narrators tell the story and the reader has to parse the truth out of the margins in between. She’ll read Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart” and Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier where she will be forced to recognize–to much different degrees of magnitude–that the narrator is unreliable and has got the story wrong. And then perhaps she’ll have to ask herself whether every narrator gets some part of the story wrong. And this will be a critical part of her learning to read.
Black Beauty is also complex in its old-fashioned–you might say “archaic”–language. People spoke and wrote differently in 19th century England and its usage syntax and phrasing all reflect that. Consider this sentence: “Our master and mistress were respected and beloved by all who knew them; they were good and kind to everybody and everything, not only men and women, but horse and donkeys, dogs and cats, cattle and birds; there was no oppressed or ill-used creature that had not a friend in them and their servants took the same tone.” Not only is it ornate and complex in a way that is less commonly seen today where students are pandered to with sentences beginning in “But” because, apparently, a comma and a coordinating conjunction are too challenging, but the sentence features phrases that force my daughter to make sense of words from another time and place–“ill-used” for example. Even beyond the historical vocabulary and usage, phrases like there was not a creature who “had not a friend in them” or “beloved by all who knew them,” provide lots of practice familiarizing her with language in its different forms and in so doing will not only prepare her to read Dickens and Darwin in college and understand them fuly but to find joy in a far wider world of great books which will fall open to her as she develops a facility with archaic language in all its forms. I suspect she will do so without fear and perhaps with a bit of relish–just to make sure, though, I read the book in a variety of accents that dramatize the story and bring it it to life. Bred on a diet of such books–e.g. the Secret Garden, Robin Hood, even J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan which was like dusting off a diamond–she will, I hope, dive in with relish when faced with something that gives of a cloud of dust when she cracks the spine.
All of this causes me to reflect on the Common Core. I love its emphasis on difficult text–that’s a gift to students, I think. However, it’s important to see text complexity not as strictly a quantitative measure (Common Core has famously advised teachers to increase the difficulty of what they read by two grade levels according to the Lexile system) but in qualitative terms. To me there are at least five types of complex texts that students need to experience again and again–the first is the Archaic Text and the second the Narratively Complex Text. The third is a text with non-linear time sequence–where time moves forward–or backward–in erratic and inconsistent rates. It lingers and then suddenly lurches forward. Symbolic texts (think here of the prose-poem like alternating chapters in Grapes of Wrath are a fourth type of text complexity that students need to experience. The last is the Deliberately Resistant Text–a text that tries to resist the reader’s inclination to make easy sense of it.
Reading these kinds of difficult texts is deeply important for students and, I fear, still not something teachers are intentional enough about. Nor schools–few, I think, even think it is their role to participate in the conversation with teacher about what their studnets will read. They’ve definitely fallen victim to an over-emphasis on “leveling text,” and if nothing else my happy morning in front of the fire, reading with my daughter and seeing her love complex text reminds me of the opportunity we have to build rigor by being more attentive to what we read not just how we read it.