Letters To Children, by C.S. Lewis, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead
Although C.S. Lewis never had any children of his own and was long a bachelor Oxbridge don whose only marriage was a marriage of convenience that turned into something more before his wife died only a few years later, he has had a lasting fame as a thoughtful children’s author, most notably of the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia. It is therefore little surprise, given this skill in writing for children, that Lewis carried on a series of shy epistolary friendships with a wide variety of children, which the editors have placed in a short book that demonstrates C.S. Lewis’ shyness and timidity as a person as well as his genuine respect and concern and honesty in dealing with children. There is a lot that one can tell about someone based on their writings to and about children, and what it says about C.S. Lewis’ character is that he viewed children with respect, was both kind and honest with them, and took their thoughts and feelings seriously.
The contents of this book are well-designed to convey to an expected audience of C.S. Lewis fans, especially those young people who are greatly interested in the Narnia series, the essential level of respect and fondness that Lewis had for his younger readers who were brave enough to write him. The book begins with a kind and tender introduction by one of C.S. Lewis’ stepsons, and then proceeds to a short biography of Lewis’ difficult childhood marked by experiences of abuse in private school, the death of his mother and the emotional distance of his father, and the gift of a wonderful teacher who helped Lewis develop his intellectual capacities and succeed in the world of academics for which he was temperamentally and mentally well-suited. The main body of the book, which is short at about 120 pages, consists of Lewis’ letters to children, some of which were long friendships extending over many years as the children grew up into their teenage years and young adulthood. Lewis’ letters are mostly short, and filled with wit and honesty and a great deal of compassion, and are worthy models to those who wish to carry on successful correspondence with young people. After the letters, which are arranged in a chronological fashion, there is a short bibliography of Lewis’ children’s literature and some of the best books about that literature.
In terms of the contents of the letters themselves, they reveal C.S. Lewis to be a man of striking tenderness and sensitivity to the concerns of children, but an honest and fair-minded reader and critic of their own efforts at literary and artistic production as well. Several of the letters were written to Lewis’ goddaughter, and they show him to have been a very shy man, whose gloominess upon the loss of his wife led him to decline an invitation to her wedding and who admitted his own shyness rather honestly: “If I had come and we had met, I am afraid you might have found me very shy and dull. (By the way, always remember that old people can be quite as shy with young people as young people can be with old. This explains what must seem to you the idiotic way in which so many grown-ups talk with you). But I will try to do what I can by a letter (25).” Another of his frequent correspondents was an accomplished young woman who divided her time between New York and Florida, about which he has several immensely witty comments: “Congratulations on your 98% in Latin. What a drole idea in Florida, to give credits not for what you know but for hours spent in a classroom! Rather like judging the condition of an animal not by its weight or shape but by the amount of food that had been offered it! (88),” as well as his mildly flirtatious “I see you’ve grown into a pretty woman. It must be a nice thing to be (108).” Many of the letters deal, as might be expected, with Lewis’ writings, mostly the Chronicles of Narnia but also Till We Have Faces and the Space trilogy. The end result is a beautiful set of letters that demonstrates Lewis’ wit and decency as a man, and his willingness to answer many of the same questions over and over again with graciousness and good humor.