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Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children’s Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls

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"This is one of the most brilliant guides to children’s literature I’ve read. It is a model for us all of how to read all good books well." ~ Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

The stories we read as children shape us for the rest of our lives. But it is never too late to discover that transformative spark of hope that children's classics can ignite within us, especially during uncertain times.

Award-winning children's author Mitali Perkins grew up steeped in stories--escaping into her books on the fire escape of a Flushing apartment building and, later, finding solace in them as she navigated between the cultures of her suburban California school and her Bengali heritage at home. Now Perkins invites us to explore the promise of seven timeless children's novels for adults living in uncertain times: stories that provide mirrors to our innermost selves and open windows to other worlds.

Blending personal narrative, accessible literary criticism, and spiritual and moral formation, Perkins delves into novels by Louisa May Alcott, C. S. Lewis, L. M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other literary "uncles" and "aunts" that illuminate the virtuous, abundant life we still desire. These novels are not perfect--and Perkins honestly assesses their frailties and flaws--but reading or rereading these books as adults can help us build virtue, unmask our vices, and restore our hope.

Reconnecting with these stories from childhood isn't merely nostalgia. In an era of uncertainty and despair, they lighten our load and bring us much-needed hope.

(Visit steepedinstories.com to find out more.)

240 pages, Hardcover

First published August 31, 2021

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About the author

Mitali Perkins

23 books500 followers
Mitali Perkins has written many novels for young readers, including You Bring the Distant Near (nominated for the National Book Award) Rickshaw Girl (a NYPL best 100 Book for children in the past 100 years, film adaptation at rickshawgirlmovie.com), Bamboo People (an ALA Top 10 YA novel), and Forward Me Back to You, which won the South Asia Book Award for Younger Readers. She currently writes and resides in the San Francisco Bay Area: mitaliperkins.com.

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5 stars
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158 (35%)
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101 (22%)
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26 (5%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 122 reviews
Profile Image for Darla.
3,355 reviews530 followers
June 6, 2022
In reading both classic and contemporary books, we can be on a hunt for virtue as well as bias. How does this story illustrate justice, temperance, prudence, courage, faith, hope, or love? Most good novels--ones we might choose to reread--illuminate at least one or more of the seven virtues we have explored.

This book is a gem and should be recommended reading for librarians, teachers, and anyone who shares books with children. Perkins uses seven classic books to discuss the virtues listed above. The books are: Heidi, Little Women, The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, A Little Princess, Emily of Deep Valley, and Anne of Green Gables. Throughout these chapters she talks about looking for flaws in "the bones" of the book vs. a particular character and recognizing virtues and the vices that seek to counterbalance them. There is also a chapter devoted to critical reading which lists eight questions to ask about each book including: How is race defined, if at all?; Who is the intended audience?; and Who has the power? This is a book that one cannot just read and put away. It is one you have ready on your shelf for reference. One thing I have learned from reading this book is that I have so much more to learn.

I must add one more favorite quote which especially stood out as the same quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn was also highlighted in another book I read last week (Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion)

As the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.” Even so, human beings are the imago Dei — created in God’s image — and designed to practice and yearn for justice, temperance, courage, prudence, faith, hope, love, and other virtues.
Profile Image for Hannah Monson.
151 reviews15 followers
June 8, 2021
When I was 17, my mom died. That summer, I reread all of my favorite children’s books— Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, A Cricket in Times Square... then I read Little Women, which I’m not sure I ever read as a child (but I do remembering being traumatized by Amy in the ice in the movie), and I fell in love. The story about a mother’s love and sisters hit me at the perfect moment. (Little Women has been my favorite book since, and I now collect different editions of it��I have over 60).

Since then, I have advocated for reading children’s literature in hard times. Recently when a friend was getting divorced, I recommended Anne of Green Gables (she cried).

I’ve never really known why children’s literature is the perfect salve for the soul, but I’ve thrown around theories (especially while getting my masters to become a children’s librarian). But Perkins gets it. She so eloquently says everything that I felt but couldn’t understand or vocalize.

What a beautiful book exploring 7 incredible children’s classics (6 of which I have read). Not only should every children’s librarian read this but every adult to whom I have ever (or will ever) recommend a children’s book— so, basically all of the adults in my life.

Perkins is not shy in calling out racism, injustice, colonialism, and other -isms seen, particularly, in older literature. However, rather than encourage censorship, she encourages deep engagement. Children will encounter warped views in the world, what better way to learn to see, dissect, and confront them than in literature? While none of the books discussed is perfect, they all have virtues to emulate and problems to learn from.
Profile Image for Teri-K.
2,074 reviews45 followers
February 12, 2022
Read C. S Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism. Then come back and evaluate what this author is saying. She means well, but goes about reading books from the wrong end of the stick. It's not about bringing our values to the story or focusing on virtues we want these stories to convey. It's about entering into the world of the story as the author crafted it and receiving what the story has for us. With discretion, yes, but not with preconceived ideas of what the story will "teach" us.

One guaranteed way to turn kids away from reading is to insist on finding morals and values in books. If literature is really good, those values are transmitted without help.
Profile Image for Emily.
874 reviews145 followers
December 17, 2021
This book is an appreciation of seven classic works of children's fiction, written from the refreshing viewpoint of someone who encountered them as a child of Bengali speaking immigrants. With this subject, and the lovely title and an even lovelier jacket design, it seemed tailor-made to appeal to me. I love reading about children's books, and Steeped in Stories focuses on seven that I know pretty well, and for the most part love just as much as the author does (the one possible exception is Heidi, which I'm not actually sure if I've read, but feel as though I have as I'm familiar with the story).

So I expected to just sink into this book with a sigh of happiness, but that didn't quite happen. I thought the book would be a collection of essays, and to an extent it is, but it also feels like a textbook about how to appreciate children's literature (not something I need to learn) a parenting book about how to discuss problematic aspects of older books (racism, glorification of colonialism, etc.) with children, and a self help book with a spiritual slant. Perkins tells us that each of the seven texts demonstrates a particular virtue that hopefully will enrich the character of the reader. I was put off by reflection and discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and surprised by frequent references to biblical scriptures.

Here's a list of the books and a list of the virtues. Can you match them up correctly? Answers in the spoiler space.

Anne of Green Gables
Emily of Deep Valley
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
A Little Princess
Little Women
The Silver Chair


Profile Image for Betsy Cypress.
94 reviews4 followers
February 27, 2022
2.5 stars.

The good:
The author encourages readers to read multiple stories from a culture to help prevent stereotypes. Great idea!
The author lists the names of some southeastern authors which helps those of us who like to read from a variety of viewpoints.
The author appreciates children’s literature.
The author’s photo in the back is so sweet and she looks like a wonderful happy woman I’d love to get to know.
The cover is beautiful.

The rest:
I wanted to love this book. I was excited when it arrived - a book about children’s books and how they refresh us? And a gorgeous cover and dust jacket to boot? Yes, please!
What followed was a dismantling of the author’s favorite stories as she led us on an anti-white racist hunt for...racism. Ironic and trendy all at once.
I had to skim the last two chapters because I just couldn’t take it any longer and wanted to move on to what will hopefully be a better book about books - “The Book Whisperer” by Donalynn Miller.

I hate leaving such low reviews. I know the author spent time on this book and I worked hard to glean something good from her time and efforts. The problem is her book furthers racism, the very thing she says she is so against.

Do not recommend.
Profile Image for Becca Harris.
389 reviews30 followers
February 13, 2022
I had seen this recommended multiple times, but finally picked it up (actually, I asked my library to purchase a copy) after it became a Read Aloud Revival pick for the Mama Book Club. I heard mixed reviews about it, so I went into it thinking I would either love or hate it. I don't love it or hate it, but I did think there was some value in it.

I had a very difficult time reading the author's imagined conversation with C.S. Lewis as she describes herself showing him the right way in regards to her perception of his racism in his Narnia books. I don't think I would be able to handle anyone imagining a conversation with a dead author and putting quotes around them admitting the error of their ways. That section really grated on me because of the way the author handled it.

Is there bias and racism in the Narnia books? Quite possibly! I do not think it affects the story and I just can't handle imagining people from the past coming into today's light and apologizing. I don’t believe that’s a great way to handle literature.

However, I did appreciate much of this book. I think this is probably very necessary for people who haven't wrestled through why it is necessary to keep children's classics in our reading lives. I give this book 3 stars instead of fewer because the author does encourage readers to see the good in these classic stories that contain bias and prejudice. The fact is that we all have bias (I have spoken at length to Asian friends about this) and prejudice and I struggle when it seems like one race (white Caucasians) are blamed for the bias.

After reading this book, I'm very much looking forward to reading Heidi and Emily of Deep Valley! And I will probably reread this book again in a couple of months. I definitely added some modern Asian Indian authors to my TBR because of this book and I look forward to continue reading more diversely.
Profile Image for Mid-Continent Public Library.
584 reviews186 followers
June 7, 2022
In reading both classic and contemporary books, we can be on a hunt for virtue as well as bias. How does this story illustrate justice, temperance, prudence, courage, faith, hope, or love? Most good novels--ones we might choose to reread--illuminate at least one or more of the seven virtues we have explored.

This book is a gem and should be recommended reading for librarians, teachers, and anyone who shares books with children. Perkins uses seven classic books to discuss the virtues listed above. The books are: Heidi, Little Women, The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, A Little Princess, Emily of Deep Valley, and Anne of Green Gables. Throughout these chapters she talks about looking for flaws in "the bones" of the book vs. a particular character and recognizing virtues and the vices that seek to counterbalance them. There is also a chapter devoted to critical reading which lists eight questions to ask about each book including: How is race defined, if at all?; Who is the intended audience?; and Who has the power? This is a book that one cannot just read and put away. It is one you have ready on your shelf for reference. One thing I have learned from reading this book is that I have so much more to learn.

I must add one more favorite quote which especially stood out as the same quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn was also highlighted in another book I read last week Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion

As the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, The line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.” Even so, human beings are the imago Dei — created in God’s image — and designed to practice and yearn for justice, temperance, courage, prudence, faith, hope, love, and other virtues.

*Review by Darla from Red Bridge*
Profile Image for Jenny.
1,350 reviews21 followers
May 5, 2022
Steeped in Stories is the sort of book that seemed perfect for me on paper, but ended up being profoundly disappointing. It should have been right up my alley--an exploration of the wonder and value of classic children's novels, written by someone who (sort of) shares my faith. But it fell flat.

The author covers much of the same territory as authors like Alan Jacobs and Karen Swallow Prior, but the joy and passion of those other authors is catching, while Perkins feels almost apologetic, trying to explain away the "problematic" parts of her favorite childhood books. While I don't mind retreading ground that I've read before--especially when that ground is gushing about great books--it doesn't feel like Perkins is adding anything of substance to the conversation.

Additionally, while I absolutely agree that variety in books is a really good thing, and enjoying books from many authors and cultures can only enhance our understanding and love of literature, I think Perkins misses the mark in several cases. She takes issue with Little Women because Alcott doesn't address racial issues. Offering valid criticism of an author for handling an issue badly is one thing, but criticizing a book for what it isn't about is beyond absurd. Perkins gets caught up in modern American tendency to elevate race above all other considerations (for instance, is the book actually well-written or just tick a few boxes of diversity and equity? does it illustrate truth about the human condition? does it speak to us across the centuries? is it agenda-driven or a story worth telling?) and stretches what is a reasonable concern with some books to the level of absolute nonsense when she discusses others.

Perhaps, for readers who are experiencing guilt because their favorite books don't perfectly conform to modern sensibilities, Steeped in Stories might be a good book to read to get an idea of ways to approach older books, to understand that our sacred cultural values are not the sacred cultural values of the past (and won't be the sacred cultural values of the future). I would recommend that from there, you go on to Alan Jacobs' Breaking Bread with the Dead or Lewis's Experiment in Criticism, because they do a much better job of covering the subject.

Update, 5/5/22:

Apparently, I was madder about this book than I thought because I ranted about it to my husband for about a half-hour last night. It's so frustrating when an author gets so close and then veers off-track.
Profile Image for Ms. B.
2,908 reviews34 followers
February 6, 2022
Revisit or discover childhood classics* or reread your own childhood favorites to look at them more discerningly. What are their flaws; what are their virtues? If you read nothing else in this book, read chapter 10 for the questions that Mitali Perkins offers for discussing race, culture and power in stories.
With discussion questions at the end of each chapter, this would be a great book for educator or religious book clubs.

*Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Emily of Deep Valley, The Hobbit, Little Women, A Little Princess, and The Silver Chair are shared in this book.
Profile Image for Cara (Wilde Book Garden).
1,039 reviews57 followers
November 15, 2021
Um, I loved this.

Mitali Perkins starts off with a bang by brilliantly explaining why it is not only acceptable for adults to read children's books, but it is *necessary*. She also talks about the value of rereading, which also spoke to me very much!

She then deftly addresses the question of 'can we still read problematic classics, and if so, how?'

Next (and this is the bulk of the book) she takes 7 classic children's novels and analyzes them in connection with the Seven Heavenly Virtues to explore the way these stories and characters illuminate those virtues. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter are thoughtful and helpful, and I actually wrote down my answers! (This is noteworthy because I almost never do that - I will think about the discussion questions, but rarely take the time to write down my answers.)

At the beginning, the end, and throughout the book, she also does a fantastic job of interrogating the less than positive messages of these stories, and emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the flaws in things we love - and she's also very specific about how to do that!

Finally, I think one of the highest praises I can give this book is that it has now made me eager to reread several of these books I had no intention of returning to, like The Hobbit (I much prefer LotR), Anne of Green Gables (I adore the first few books but the later books in the series really soured my memories of the others), and A Little Princess (The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books that I've reread many times, so when I finally got around to A Little Princess it couldn't compare with the wonderfully flawed Mary Lennox and her story.) Mitali Perkins could not argue me out of my unpopular (?) Little Women opinions, but I won't hold that against her since truly I don't think anyone could 😂

People may want to know that this book does come from a religious perspective, but it didn't feel trite or overly simplistic in any way - I'm religious myself but am very particular about the religious books I pick up because so often they feel cheesy or overly simplified to me, and this one didn't at all.

I look forward to rereading this book and, as with our favorite novels, getting more and more out of it each time. This is my first book by Mitali Perkins, but I am so excited to pick up more of her work - she's such a brilliant, thoughtful, compassionate, and engaging writer and this book lived up to my very high expectations.

CW: Discussions of: racism, sexism, colorism, colonialism, classism, xenophobia, religious intolerance
Profile Image for Courtney.
25 reviews
June 11, 2022
What a pleasant surprise of a book! I already love books, especially classics, and books about other books that make me want to read more books. There's something about good children's novels that is so refreshing, and Mitali Perkins is able to capture that when she identifies these 7 with certain virtues that they embody. I was surprised and pleased to see how she integrated her own Christian faith into her analysis and honestly yet fairly evaluated the books as products of their times. Would recommend to anyone else who loves books, children, virtue, or teaching.
Profile Image for Melody Schwarting.
1,441 reviews82 followers
December 24, 2021
Steeped in Stories provides a fascinating glimpse into Mitali Perkins’s reading life and the books that shaped her: Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Emily of Deep Valley, The Hobbit, Little Women, A Little Princess, and The Silver Chair. I have read all of the books she discusses (a rarity for me in bibliomemoirs), and almost all of them in childhood (Emily of Deep Valley was a grown-up discovery).

Perkins frequently references the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Thomas Aquinas, even giving a nod to the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, but most of the writers she examines are Protestant. She also lines up the books with the cardinal virtues, like On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, but Perkins counterpoises the vices with the virtues in the same chapter, showing how character development demonstrates the movement from vice to virtue.

Steeped in Stories brings some wonderfully constructive discussion to the table concerning negative content in children’s books. What I really loved was how she chose the most problematic passages (usually involving slurs and prejudices) and demonstrated how she discussed them with her children or in the classroom. For example, she imagines a young Syrian girl reading the passages about Syrians in Emily of Deep Valley, and argues that we should trust child readers to recognize who speaks slurs and who doesn’t, and how those who use slurs grow in the course of the novel. Perkins read Anne of Green Gables aloud to her sons, who are adopted and were not born in Canada (thus embodying Rachel Lynde’s dreaded “imported” orphans). They paused to discuss Rachel Lynde at that point, and revisited the topic later in the novel. As Perkins demonstrates, a little good discussion goes a long way in educating a reader. Were all our children’s books sanitized, we’d be sending young readers into the adult world with deficient literary immune systems. Perkins effectively demonstrates how books with content like that can be constructive for young readers. However, since she brought it up earlier in the book, I wish she’d talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder more, and offered her wisdom regarding that series. (Perhaps Wilder didn’t pen a book that meant that much to her; prairie life isn’t everyone’s literary cuppa.) I loved her imagined conversation with C. S. Lewis regarding the Calormenes, and her closing words on forgiving the dead. Truly wonderful stuff to take into one’s reading life.

Learning how Perkins’s background as a constantly moving global citizen informed her reading was glorious, and discovering how the values in these children’s books often felt more aligned with her family life than what she saw in the contemporary world gave me lots of food for thought. I had never thought of Western children’s books being relatable in that way for readers from other cultures, and it was delightful to hear her interpretations. Her family is ever-present in the background of the book, and seeing how reading affected her relationships is classic bibliomemoir fodder and is exactly why I love them. Learning about how she became a Christian, and how that affected her relationships in her Hindu family, was similarly fascinating, and surprisingly uplifting, to read.

Some of the problematic aspects Perkins discusses come from other novels by the same author that aren’t as visible in the novel she’s discussing. Perkins discusses Asia, a character from Little Men, as if she were in Little Women, without mentioning the sequel’s title. She parks on the portrayal of the Calormenes in Narnia, even though she is considering prudence in The Silver Chair. While her discussions are always helpful, they sometimes felt like a departure from the novel at hand. Not every chapter is this way--A Little Princess does have more problematic content about British colonialism in India than, say, The Secret Garden--but a few times these discussions felt like checking boxes rather than contributing to the discussion of the particular novel she chose.

Steeped in Stories falls prey to an unfortunate phenomenon that I will lay on the publisher. To the unaccustomed eye, Steeped in Stories seems like just another bibliomemoir. Its deep foundation within Christianity is not blatant on the blurb, and doesn’t fully appear until a chapter or so into the book. (Christian readers, meanwhile, can piece it together from Karen Swallow Prior’s recommendation, and the reality of all seven authors operating within a Christian framework.) In recent years, as Christian publishers try to expand their reach (I guess), they elide faith-based components from their books’ marketing and try to promote, say, The Printed Letter Bookshop as another bookish romance novel. Almost never do I see a reviewer pleasantly surprised that such a book was Christian. Often do I see readers disappointed to feel slapped in the face by religion when the blurb carefully omitted any mention of faith. The reason why this is so jarring for readers is because Christian authors aren’t changing how they write, but that publishers are changing how they market. In an ideal world, of course, readers would be honored to learn from authors with different faith backgrounds, but when publishers are sneaky about it, it does a disservice to the faith and the virtues Perkins so wonderfully illuminates.

I highly recommend Steeped in Stories to those, like me, who love a good bibliomemoir, and are tired of books about books that ignore problematic content. I’d also recommend it to teachers and parents who want to have constructive discussions about children’s literature with young readers. While Perkins has chosen only British, European, US American, and Canadian authors here, she often references and praises books like her children’s fiction that illuminate other cultures. I’m intrigued by several of those titles and look forward to seeing how their authors explore virtuous living in their stories. Alas, I discovered Steeped in Stories too late for it to go on my Christmas list, but I will be adding a copy to my library as a permanent companion to re-reading these favorite books.

A Few Fun Facts about Editors

Ursula Nordstrom edited Laura Ingalls Wilder (along with E. B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, and more), though I’ve always known her from her one children’s novel, The Secret Language.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher edited this book, and she wrote a book about books and reading that I really enjoyed, called Thrill of the Chaste.
Profile Image for Molly Grimmius.
622 reviews8 followers
May 5, 2022
RAR momma book club though discussed primarily with my sister Marisa… and oh what discussions!! I went into this nonfiction read thinking it was about author writing sweet antidotal essays on her 7 favorite childhood books… and I was unexpectedly delighted to know I had actually signed up for a critical lot theory, philosophy, theology course all in one that challenged a lot of how I think about racial disparities all rolled into one.

Mitali Perkins invites to see the virtues and vices in classic children’s books. My confidence in explaining virtues and vices has grown ten fold has she does a wonderful job, explaining and illustrating these words that are not as common …ie girl temperance yourself is not on the bookshelves…
She does this but also address hard racial bias that was presented in many of these books… and still is… She helps you has questions whether this is in the bones of the story or the character’s flaw and if it is in the bone’s of the story… how do you wrestle with it.
She encourages us to cross borders again and again as readers and especially in these last few years Inhave been desperately trying to because I have only my one view. In these border crossings I have learned so much and been aware of so much and yet I always can go deeper… as this book reminded me. Question, think…look at at how Everyone is represented.
This book was so well done and excited to read more by her.
Profile Image for Beth Anne.
1,194 reviews92 followers
December 28, 2021
This book could not have been more perfect (or perhaps I could not have read it at a more perfect time?). Quite possibly this will be my favorite book of 2021. I am so glad I splurged and bought an expensive copy at an indie bookstore a few months ago, and that I let it sit on my shelf until it felt like the right time to pick it up.

I thought I would like this book, but it ended up filling me with such hope and delight in the nature of story, the interconnectedness of love and forgiveness, of seeing someone fully and flawed, and of pursuing Christ first above all. Not preachy, but truly like sitting down with a friend.

My mind is spinning with possibilities, I must lead a discussion of this book and the books it contains. The world needs to hear these words.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
935 reviews50 followers
September 4, 2021
This was such a treat to read. I reveled in these old classic children’s novels with the author as she described what is lovable about them. I love how Perkins has been influenced by Karen Swallow Prior’s “On Reading Well” and Alan Jacobs’ “Breaking Bread With the Dead” (two other five-star books for me) and incorporated the ideas of those books into the rich world of children’s classics. Some of my favorite novels are in here, including Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit, The Silver Chair, and Emily of Deep Valley. The other books are also ones I have read and enjoyed (Little Women, A Little Princess, and Heidi).
Profile Image for Libby.
1,324 reviews15 followers
February 19, 2023
This was a really beautiful, short book looking at a number of classic children's stories that the author loved when she was growing up. It explores children's literature through the eyes of virtues, but also gracefully talks about how to consider those aspects of classics that are flawed and how to consider those flaws with the children in your life in mind. Really loved this approach to how to share literature with children.
Profile Image for Carolyn Leiloglou.
Author 3 books55 followers
August 8, 2021
This is such a beautiful book for anyone who loves the classics or wonders why they should bother to read them. Perkins has a wonderful approach of valuing the wisdom in this old books while still acknowledging their flaws.

This book is so well-researched and thought out. I found myself underlining something on nearly every page.
Profile Image for Katie Fitzgerald.
Author 4 books201 followers
September 10, 2021
I borrowed Steeped in Stories by Mitali Perkins from Hoopla for a few reasons. One was that I had a goal to read three books about books in 2021 and I needed one more. Another was that I had just DNFed a 55-hour audiobook (The Source by James Michener) after 17 grueling hours and this audiobook was much shorter. Another was that my husband and I had just been talking with a friend about how to handle "problematic" children's books of the past, and the topic was on my mind. I was also intrigued by the negative Goodreads reviews complaining that the book was religious. I would never have guessed it had religious content based on the description I read, and I wanted to know more.

The structure of the book is based on the seven virtues and their corresponding vices, and the author selected one book per virtue. The titles she covers are Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. For each, Perkins makes the case for why adults should continue to read these books and share them with their kids, even if they include flawed characters or outdated ideologies. She also makes references to the writings of saints, Pope Francis, and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church to point out how reading these books can enrich a reader's spiritual life as well.

Though I think her comments on potential racial issues in Tolkien and Lewis revealed a lack of knowledge of the fantasy genre more than any problems with the books themselves, Perkins's analyses of the other titles were interesting and compelling even when I disagreed with portions of them. I appreciated that she showed obvious affection for each author (though calling each of them "aunt" and "uncle" was a shade too cutesy for my taste) and that she imagined herself posing questions to them about why they chose to write the things they did, rather than just outright condemning them all. Her thoughts on how to think about race in children's literature on a broader scale are also interesting and far less accusatory and nasty than a lot of the rhetoric I've seen surrounding this topic. I'm a little disappointed that our culture feels so guilty for reading its classic literature, but I think this book does a good job of combatting those feelings of discomfort or shame and makes a great case for keeping those classics around. I also liked the questions provided at the end of each chapter, which would make great jumping-off points for book club discussions or prompts for journaling.

If you're a parent or just a children's literature enthusiast wondering how to deal with the problems of racism and other forms of bias in older books, this book is a very gentle and inviting way to enter the conversation. Perkins strikes a nice balance between research, personal anecdotes about reading with her own children, and thoughtful literary analysis. I listened to the entire book in two days, and I could not stop talking about it when I was done. I don't think it's a perfect book, but I'm thrilled that a Christian (and Catholic, I think?) take on children's literature is out there in the world, and I definitely think it's worth a read.

This review also appears on my blog, Read-at-Home Mom.
Profile Image for Jodi.
1,145 reviews6 followers
February 20, 2022
In Mitali Perkins' thoughtful book-about-books, she delved into themes in seven beloved stories which supported her in her loneliness of childhood. While I love all the books discussed in Steeped in Stories, Perkins' exposés on "Heidi" and "Emily of Deep Valley" resonated with me the most. I'll keep my review to those sections both for the sake of brevity and because their impact on me was greatest.

-A big part of Heidi demonstrates our need to belong, and Perkins speaks about the fact that our sense of connectedness really dictates our state of well-being. Feeling like we belong is crucial to the health of our souls, and conversely, feeling isolated and unaccepted crushes our spirits.
-"Around us and in our own hearts, we sense a desperate, unnamed desire for belonging and reconciliation, both to God and to other human beings."
-"...there's the mystery of how suffering makes us useful in the spiritual journey of another. It is Heidi's season of loneliness that enables her to bring reconciliation into her grandfather's life. So, too, may our deepest sorrows serve others one day."

-A book I did not discover in my youth, Emily of Deep Valley is a story I very recently read based on the recommendation of Steeped in Stories. While I know it would have meant a lot to me in my teens and twenties if I had read it then, I can't say my reading of it has been belated.
-Themes of depression, loneliness, feeling left out, and anticipating a hopeless future of sorrow were discussed in this chapter.
-Of hope, Perkins posits that we can use "the metaphor of water in a well; the drawing of it takes effort, but the source is infused by unseen springs. Once we have a measure of it, we are able to draw from that well when thirsty. We can, to paraphrase the lines Emily Webster memorizes from Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, 'muster our wits and stand in our own defense.'"
-Perkins' brief analysis of Don as a narcissist who enjoys causing Emily to feel inferior was very striking to me. In the story, he took turns showering her with attention and gifts, boasting about himself in order to make her feel small, not being interested in who she was as a person yet trying to spend great amounts of time with her, and refusing to acknowledge her in public to make her feel rejected and unworthy. I've had a "friend" who did the same to me, and ultimately I had to do what Emily did: say goodbye and shut the door. Reading of Emily's courage in letting Don go in favor of a healthier (and truly healthy) relationship gave me courage as well in knowing I did the right thing, even though, like Emily, I wrestled with the choice for many months while trying to reconcile and repair what could not be redeemed. There was nothing to redeem because it wasn't true friendship in the first place. Emily's story helps the reader to see where false relationships lie and to be brave enough to let them go.
-There is discussion of finding hope in God and feeling the solace to be enjoyed through the hymns of our faith and stirring poetry, as Emily did; of choosing carefully the words which we are allowing to influence us and speak into our lives. The voices we listen to have great impact on our bearing, for good or ill.

Throughout the whole treatise, the author discusses racial slurs and other negative content in classic children's books and explains why she believes they should still be read and treasured. I agree that they should still be read and enjoyed, but some of the arguments and examples of offensive material I felt were overreaching. I think it is possible to be a little too quick to be offended, and a little too adamant about inserting current cultural ideas into books from the past.
Profile Image for Dawn.
154 reviews7 followers
April 8, 2022
Delightful read! I enjoyed the author's reflections on some of her favorite children's books. And I esp. enjoyed the following bit of advice she offers, and agree with her that we would all be better off if we made this a nightly habit; "Because the last place my mind dwells before sleep is crucial, I try to replace a smartphone on my nightstand with a book I loved in childhood. Why not feed my unconscious soul with the goodness of a story instead of a depressing sweep through the headlines of the day". What an excellent practice to get into!
Profile Image for Linda Joy.
126 reviews3 followers
March 1, 2022
A beautiful grey book in a world marked by black and white.

Ms. Perkins, thank you for taking the time to pour your heart into this. It is filled with wisdom and critical thinking, unwilling to accept the all or nothing fallacies that dominate the majority of thought. Thank you for rescuing some of my favorite writers.

Profile Image for Jessica Perteet.
189 reviews4 followers
February 17, 2022
I read this as part of the introverted mom community winter book club and next week I get to hear from the author. This book looks at 9 books and chooses to see the flaws and seek the virtues. I have been struggling with how to discuss race and colonialism with my older kids as they read Tom Sawyer or Treasure Island or Caddie Woodlawn. The last chapter was worth the cost of the book alone. She has discussion questions to guide how an adult can talk with her kids about books they are reading. I will probably use these questions somewhat when I do book clubs with my kids for school.
Profile Image for Shilpa.
142 reviews
September 18, 2021
Who says children’s books are only for children? Rereading books from my childhood with my children has been exciting and eye-opening. Through adult eyes, the nuances jump out at me like newly discovered treasures making for fun and often lively discussions with my kids.

With her immigrant background and through personal anecdotes, Mitali Perkins’ new book, Steeped in Stories offers another unique perspective on some of my favorite childhood books. She invites readers to “steep” themselves in the cultural and historical context of these seven books: Anne of Green Gables, The Little Princess, Heidi, Emily of Deep Valley, The Hobbit, and Little Women. By doing so, we commune with the past in order to make sense of the future. 

In a time when we are becoming more racially and culturally aware, a book like this offers a solid case for not getting rid of those classics with racial epithets that make many of us uncomfortable. Rather, let’s cross the borders of race, culture, and even the past to gain a wider perspective of literature that is both beautiful and flawed. Quite simply, instead of throwing away the book, let’s have a conversation about the flaws and how we can create a more empathetic generation by helping them and each other understand the “why” behind the current divisions and  racial tensions that exist in our societies.

Books play an important role in shaping our outlook of the world, giving us glimpses into other cultures and places that many of us have not visited or are unable to visit. Steeped in Stories looks at how literature treats different themes like adoption, culture, race, colonialism, and injustice specifically in these seven books. Perkins’ book is well researched and her personal narrative makes this book warm and engaging. Most importantly, it gave me pause.Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a feminist book that has stood the test of time. But, at the same time we can wonder why an abolitionist and Civil War nurse like Louisa never tackled issues of race in her writing. 

 There’s so much that we take for granted, but it certainly helps to look beyond and try to understand why an author would write a certain way. Was it the perspective of the time they lived in or the writer’s personal bias? Books can often misinform us. For instance, a book with colonial themes written by an author who has been seemingly unaffected by it and may have even benefited from it will possibly put a positive spin on colonialism and make us think, “hey this wasn’t so bad”.  We see this in The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Steeped in Stories compelled me to confront my own biases and look at my favorite books and their authors with fresh eyes. It has pushed  me to understand that the books we read and sometimes love, have their flaws. But, is there a good reason to discard the book altogether or perhaps engage in discussion about those flaws and hold on to the beauty that is in them too? I am fairly convinced of the latter. Let’s keep the books, talk about them, and also advocate for more diverse voices in  contemporary literature. 

 I would suggest you read (for the first time or again) the books discussed before delving into Perkin’s  book or if you don’t mind spoilers, dig right in. But, do grab your  copy of Steeped in Stories and a cup of tea or coffee, find a cozy spot and steep yourself in all it has to offer.
Profile Image for April Bumgardner.
75 reviews2 followers
September 6, 2021
In 2018 Karen Swallow Prior gifted us On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, an apology for reading closely and “promiscuously.” Now, Mitali Perkins blesses us with her own version, Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children’s Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls, focusing on beloved children’s literature. Both authors rely on discussion of the cardinal and theological virtues in influential books. Perkins addresses the question of how to approach outdated ideas, racial slurs, and blatant and unwanted prejudices in these books. Recognizing their flaws, she engages the reader with simplicity, charm, and honesty.

Her winsome tone and persistence in seeking the good is convincing. Perkins differentiates between racism in the “bones of the book” and in the voices of negative characters intended on portraying poor attitudes. Her advice? Use these as opportunities to discuss them with your children and let them learn to discern when they don’t align with your family values. Her descriptions of reading with her own boys when they were small are endearing.

As a Christian, I appreciated how she incorporated Scripture and faith into her literary criticism. However, she admits early on in the book that the “brewing” (my feeble attempt at a pun) of virtue is not unique to the Christian faith, nor any faith at all. Perkins’ love for humanity and for story is evident throughout.

Her lovely book ends on a note of graciousness as she recalls moments with her now deceased Hindu Dadu (grandfather).

“I wish [Dadu] were here to join our conversation. But I’m glad for your company, dear readers, as we considered these timeless novels. Writing this book has invited me to forgive the dead and once again be taught by them. I hope you have been able to do the same and that your soul, perhaps as tired as mine, has been refreshed.”

Thank you, Mitali. It has.
Profile Image for Loraena.
325 reviews22 followers
September 3, 2022
My friend Amy (@book.nosed if you’re on Instagram) highly recommended this to me a couple of years ago. Earlier this year she got our whole book club to read it, but I was behind the times and only got to it now.

But it was worthwhile reading. Like the author, I grew up on classic children’s novels. And though I’m not a person of color, I do have a daughter of color and I have grown a sensitivity to subtle (not to mention overt) racism in books I have loved. It definitely has created a tension for me, and though I’ve not been in the camp that wishes to throw out these books, when I learned they were reading the Little House books at my daughter’s Christian school I definitely had questions about how they were discussing some of the problematic views on minority peoples. Just because racist tropes and perspectives are a historically accurate norm does not mean they aren’t confusing and hurtful or people of color today.

Like me, Mitali is a believer and she writes with love, thoughtful intelligence, and forgiveness in a very gracious way and I found it helpful and thought-provoking. Definitely enjoyed processing through these things with her.

100% recommend for people who love and/or teach classic literature.
Profile Image for Megan.
95 reviews8 followers
March 6, 2023
Mitali Perkins brings her non-western background to the table of conversation regarding classic children's literature, current trends in literary criticism, and the future of engaging in story telling and sharing. She beautifully talks about 7 classic children's books that personally resonated with her highlighting both their universal virtues and also discussing their problematic elements with clarity and grace. The wisdom, humility, and affection of the author is so refreshing as she draws people into an honest and edifying conversation about human nature, bias, beauty, and virtue. I sincerely wish I could spend an afternoon with this author discussing more of her story and the literary legacy of some of my beloved and flawed favorites. I highly recommend this book to parents, teachers, and anyone who loves story. I intend to use it as a conversation piece for our children as they age, and would love to host a book group at some point around this work and some of those mentioned in the text.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books47 followers
August 19, 2021
As a lover of good children's literature, this book is a reminder to never stop reading or rereading those favorites kids books, no matter our age. And Steeped in Stories is an encouragement to parents and grandparents to saturate the minds of our young people with excellent stories.

Perkins deftly handles the issue of not censoring older books that might be written with flawed racial and cultural viewpoints. She encourages parents to read the book with their child and use this moment as a teaching opportunity to learn how views have changed. I highly recommend this mini-children's literature course!
Profile Image for Rebekah.
35 reviews
September 6, 2021
This book was a soothing cup of tea and a comforting bowl of shepherds pie (or whatever your preferred comfort food is!) So much of what we choose to read or are asked to read in school goes unquestioned and unexamined and this book is a gracious and helpfully critical look back at the books that have shaped the author and may have shaped the reader. Read it and reread the books it walks through, and then share the conversation with others.
Profile Image for Susan Tunis.
820 reviews180 followers
October 11, 2022
Mitali is a talented children's novelist. And she writes with intelligence in this non-fiction work. But as a secular Jew, I didn't appreciate how everything was viewed through the lens of her Christian faith.
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