And those characters dwell in a moral world, whose laws are as clear as the law of gravity. That too is a great advantage of the folk tale. It is not a failure of imagination to see the sky as blue. It is a failure rather to be weary of its being blue—and not to notice how blue it is…If you do not want a child to paint, you take away his palette.Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

Yesterday, in the middle of our school day, I glanced over to Quinn, who had suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, and found him standing next to the couch with the saddest look on his face.

“What’s wrong, buddy?” I asked. “Are you OK?” Even from across the room I could see that he had tears in his eyes so I started walking toward him.

“I just finished the book, Mom,” he managed to get out. “It was so sad.” And suddenly, he was overtaken with huge, wracking sobs. We sat down and cried together while I rubbed his back, grateful for the blessing of being able to talk him through his emotional response to the deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann. I don’t recall the first book that caused that kind of deeply felt emotional reaction in me but I won’t ever forget this one. It was the perfect moment to remind him of why I want him to read classic books. As I explained, this is the unique power of the written word: its ability to transport you to another time and place, and to emotionally move you in powerful ways—happy, sad, and everything in between. It’s what they’ve witnessed in me during various chapters as I’ve read aloud the Wingfeather saga books to them: laughter and ugly face tears both.

He’s been reading well above his age since he was 4 and has read hundreds of books since then. But Where the Red Fern Grows touched him in a way unlike any of the other books have thus far. In Billy, Quinn recognized a hero worthy of his admiration and he felt deeply for Billy’s longings and loss throughout the course of the story. How sad that it’s much more common to see kids reading books that entertain them for a few hours yet do absolutely nothing to stir their souls. Sadder still is the reality that the heroic themes that resonated so strongly with him in the book are being slowly but surely erased because our culture values celebrity and self-importance over character and self-sacrifice. If I can feed his soul with more great books like this, the gift will extend well beyond just the interesting or entertaining story.

As I sat there with my arm around my tender-hearted son, I thought back to all of the “fluffy” books he’s read and was so grateful that he gave this one a chance. The book itself was a 1961 edition that probably sat on the library shelves when I visited it myself as a 9-year old girl. It didn’t have a fancy, flashy cover and the pages were yellowed, with small type, and no illustrations. Yet he has declared it to be the best book he’s ever read.

I think he’s probably right.