Re-visiting Honey for a Child's Heart

By Cindy Rollins

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I no longer have my original heavily underlined copy of Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart. I lent it to a ‘friend’, once, and then later noticed it on her bookshelf. I hesitantly hinted that it was mine. Perhaps she didn’t hear me, but I came very close to stealing it back. The booklist in the back of that copy was covered in notes and codes: O for own, RA for read-aloud, initials of children who had read the book, and so on. I miss that old friend. The book, that is, not the thief.

Instead, I have in front of me a much nicer library-bound copy, pristine, an earlier edition than my copy, and as I browse it I realize that of the picture books mentioned on the first three pages of the densely typed bibliography, I have read aloud all but four. This is not really surprising since Honey for a Child’s Heart was the book that changed the course of my life, the course of my own bibliography — and as any real reader knows, your bibliography is your biography.

When I found Honey for A Child’s Heart sometime in the early 1980s, it gave me a new way of seeing. Suddenly all the books I had plowed through as a young girl in the DeLand Public Library fit into the scope and sequence of my life. The Witch of Blackbird Pond and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn were not just one-and-done books read by a moody teenaged girl, they were remembered, classified, stored in the file cabinet titled My Life. Reading through any booklist is a trip down memory lane and the booklist which takes up a third of Honey for a Child’s Heart is especially poignant for the reading mother. Lest I linger too long over past readings of Bread and Jam for Frances or Lassie Come Home, I am reminded that all is not lost or forgotten, for I have grandchildren.

Honey for a Child’s Heart is a treatise on reading aloud to children. It is a book about books. That’s the funny thing about people who read books: they especially enjoy reading books about books. Just reading through a booklist can send a reader into an afternoon reverie. “Treasure Island, aye, aye, I have been there.”  “Sir Launfal, Oh, my, that was a lovely summer’s day.”  “Oh, dear, I have never read Black Like Me. I wonder if the library has it?”  “How Green Was My Valley haunts me still. So happy to see someone else remembers it.” For that is what a book list is— a remembrance—either of things past or things to come. 

I love that it’s decorated with original illustrations from various children’s books. The picture of Christopher Robin and Pooh playing Pooh Sticks is enough to send me through the looking glass of memories. Did we ever walk over a bridge spanning waters without at least one game?  After all, I did name one of my sons Christopher Robert; I just wasn’t quite brave enough to go the whole way, for which timidity Chris is profusely thankful. Would you believe he recently met a friend also going through special forces training named Christopher Robert?  They looked at each other and laughed. “Your mom, too?” Our sons grew up to be a bit braver than their mothers. 

And here is a picture of Wilbur grinning from ear to ear, under Charlotte’s web with letters spelling T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C. Why do I have a lump in my throat? It is just a picture. It is just a book—a work of fiction. It is not true, is it? I wouldn’t be mourning for a pretend spider giving her life to save a pretend pig from becoming bacon, would I?

The book’s title insinuates that this honey is for children and yet most adult lives would be sweetened by reading these classics. A few years ago my husband started noticing he did not read enough. And instead of jumping into Tom Clancy or Plato, he began reading children’s classics. He fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure stories about Sir Gerard and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow. As Hunt reminds us, “C.S. Lewis says that no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally worth reading at the age of fifty.” 

“What makes a good book?” That is the title of chapter three; it is a simple, clear chapter that is at the heart of what makes Honey for a Child’s Heart stand the test of time. “A good writer,” she writes, “has something worthy to say and says it in the best possible way. Then he respects the child’s ability to understand. Principles are not preached but are implicit in the writing.” We must understand that sentence if we are to understand what to read and how to teach. We must stop stealing the mystery away from our children. Hunt ends the chapter with a story of her son pondering how he learned to care for nature. He learned it over many years from many books, he decides. “You put the whole childhood of reading together and you don’t have to take a conservation course.” Fiction as much as non-fiction can teach us about the world around us, the attitudes to emulate and those to shun. 

With Honey for a Child’s Heart as my guide, I spent thirty-two years, and counting, reading the best books to my children and students. Often I find myself re-reading favorite stories to new students. I feel a thrill of delight as I open the spine of old friends knowing someone else is about to love them too. Recently, I read the first chapter of Treasure Island to two children unused to hearing stories. They seemed listless and uninterested. So I returned the next week thinking I would try another book only to find them disappointed. “Please, please read Treasure Island, Miss Cindy,” they clamored.   

Old Pew and the black spot here we come. I am just as excited as the children.