The Company You Keep

Paperback Advice from Livy

I wish there was a magic way to identify good literature for children—especially for boys. Unfortunately, there isn’t… and this discussion is as important as it is difficult! This is because paperback friends—just like the flesh-and-blood variety—exert a powerful influence on the lives of children. Bad company corrupts good morals. Are your kids searching for pearls in a literary dung heap? How do you even determine that there’s a pearl there in the first place? What’s a good book even supposed to do?

In his account of Rome, the renowned first-century historian Livy listed two fundamental purposes for studying history. In history, “You see examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what you are to avoid.” Why is this important? If you don’t pay attention to this kind of thing, you’ll end up where Rome was at the beginning of the first century… a society "in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.” (Sound familiar?)

The same two purposes hold true for other literary genres as well: all good lit should help the reader imitate the good and shun the bad.

As Christians, we want our sons to become devout men of God. We want them to be just, compassionate, and humble. We want them to be courageous, bold, men of integrity. In keeping with this, the stories we give them should be rife with heroes who embody such strengths. Our boys should be filled to the brim with heroic virtues. If we turn our sons upside-down, giant-killing bravery, humility, and sister-protecting instincts should pour out onto the carpet. And this will be due, in part, to the potent heroic examples floating around in their heads.

Such heroes reside in healthy stories. But we don’t want to confuse “healthy” with “safe.” Stories of sunflowers and smiling perfection may be safe, but so is tapioca, and a steady diet of either is horrendous. This leads to Livy’s second point: good stories have to teach us how to shun evil. This world is a fearsome place with legitimate danger that we will encounter. Stories about evil can enable our sons who are faced with evil to avoid getting caught re-enacting Little Red Riding Hood—all fresh-faced, oblivious to wolves, and wearing cute little hoods.

While there’s no sure-fire way to instantly determine a good book, it helps to keep the purposes for literature in mind: Good books show how to imitate, and good books show how to shun.

The Makers of History series is good food for growing boys. Originally written in the 1800s by two brothers (Jacob and John Abbott), we’ve started revising the whole series, keeping younger readers’ enjoyment in mind, so that our kids can take a peek at the people Livy was writing about (along with a good many others!). The first four books we’ve revised cover the lives of Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Nero. While none of these men could be considered a “role model” (though you can learn a thing or two about bravery and strategy from some of these men!), it’s what God does with their lives that is the central point of the series. The mad persecution of Nero served to strengthen the early Roman church rather than stamp it out. Alexander the Great's avaricious conquest of the Eastern world paved the way for the spread of the Gospel in Greek—Alexander’s army’s native tongue. Julius Caesar turned Rome into an empire—but Paul used that empire’s infrastructure to light the whole Mediterranean on fire with the Gospel.

Even tales of tyrants and warlords can teach our sons that the world is ultimately a sanctuary for God's children and encourage them to meet it with full confidence in Him, leaving behind the bad and taking hold of the good.