From the time I was ten to the year I turned thirteen, there was no place I’d rather go than the Millcreek Mall in Erie, PA. Like so many of my peers, I’d beg my mother to drive me over–and like the good mother she was, she’d comply. I’d rush out of the car and into the mall so I could hang out with some of my best friends.
The friends happened to be fictional, and my favorite place to go in the mall (really the only place I wanted to go besides maybe the food court) happened to be an in-building branch of the Erie Public Library. But…whatever. I can pretend I was normal.
So who were those best friends I spent my tween years with? Anne Shirley, Betsy Ray, Bilbo Baggins, Sara Crewe, Eustace Scrubb. Every character Louisa May Alcott wrote (in her children’s stories, at least). To this day, if you want to become friends with me very quickly, all you need is the implied recommendation of one of my fictional squad. Tell me you’re a fan of Maud Hart Lovelace, and you get to be my friend for life. Recently, a dear friend of mine–one of those women with whom I just instantly connected–came over to my house and saw my [extensive] L. M. Montgomery shelf. “Oh, my goodness!” she said. “This is like my childhood on a shelf. L. M. Montgomery books made me who I am today. They were incredibly formative.” And suddenly our instant connection made sense. We may not have spoken about it right away, but we’d been hanging out in the same crowd for years.
Imagine how I felt when I first saw the cover of Mitali Perkin’s non-fiction work, Steeped in Stories. There, right on the dust jacket, was evidence that the author and I were clearly friends who just hadn’t met yet: beautifully emblazoned on illustrated leaves were the names of my favorite creators: Montgomery, Lovelace, Lewis, Tolkien, Burnett, Spyri, Alcott. I was right at home. These are my people.
After cracking open the book, I found that Mitali Perkins does indeed love my people just as much as I do–and she loves them enough to ask them some really hard questions. Not out of hatred or woke-ism or whatever you want to call it–but truly out of love and a desire for the truth. Why, Lewis (or “Uncle Jack,” as Mitali calls him), did you use racial stereotypes? How, Aunt Frances [Burnett], could you be so blasé about the destruction British colonialism wreaked upon India? What did you really think, Aunt Maud [Montgomery], about orphans and French Canadians and minorities? In doing so, she allows us to grapple with these same questions while still appreciating all the good to be found in these stories. The good that I found as a lonely tween “military brat” who’d moved around a lot. The good that had formed Mitali as a lonely tween daughter of Bengali immigrants, reading on the fire escape of her New York apartment.
In a society that finds it very hard to grapple with problems and find good at the same time (canceling is so much easier, isn’t it?), Mitali Perkins’ book seems almost revolutionary. Instead of ignoring issues, she faces them head-on with love and candor, inviting readers to find solutions by doing so themselves–and, instead of striking books out of our to-read lists and off our shelves, by reading more widely and more diversely. Good, common sense.
Add to all this one more element. Mitali organizes her discussion of each story by vice and virtue. Drawing on wisdom from ancient Greece, Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism, and even Pope Francis, she delves into each book’s themes of good and evil in their various incarnations. In doing so, she reminds us yet again that the greatest of children’s literature is not just for children. It is entertaining and beneficial for children, certainly, but we grown-ups are hardly too old for it. If we’re not learning how to be better people through our encounters with Bilbo Baggins and Heidi, we’re not paying enough attention.
This review has been a long time coming, as I read Steeped in Stories shortly after its release last year. That happened to be a rather turbulent time in the world and rather full time in my own life. But just like the books she champions, Mitali Perkins’ book provides a panacea to the turbulence and hecticness of life. Steeped in Stories is a lovely reminder that we humans have been in this together for as long as scribes penned stories or raconteurs shared them. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed or discouraged or scared by the current happenings in the world, then the time is perfect to pull Auntie Mitali’s (may I?) own book and favorite books off the shelves. Steep yourself in the comfort and challenge and reassurance of a good book.
(This post was originally published on my old blog, blytheandbold.wordpress.com.)
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Hi! I'm Faith. I blog about books and creativity, family and faith. Welcome!