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Book Review: Tending the Heart of Virtue by Dr. Vigen Guroian

So much of our current society has given way to the modern notions of tolerance and values, instead of instilling and nurturing concrete virtues in our children, a moral road map to guide them through life’s mysterious and sometimes dangerous adventure that will ultimately lead to their becoming the beloved creatures that God intended.

Dr. Vigen Guroian, in Tending the Heart of Virtue ~ How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, Oxford University Press, 1998, shares his knowledge “in order to be of some assistance to parents or teachers who desire to learn, as we did, what books and stories to read with children in the midst of a busy life in which time is limited and making the right choices is important.” His goal was to fill a void he found in instructional material for parents to introduce and discuss the moral fabric of some of the best loved children’s literature, particularly stories and fairy tales.

Guroian asserts that while fairy tales are not a substitute for life lessons, they do have the ability to shape our moral imagination without dogmatic lessons or settling for values-clarification education. Fairy tales remind adults and teach children that virtue and vice are opposites. In Tending the Heart of Virtue, Guroian walks us through the moral lessons and Biblical references that can be found in some of the most popular children’s stories. He also compares and contrasts modern interpretations to the classic tales from which they are derived. Reading and sharing these insights with children will help grow morally responsible and virtuous adults, and isn’t that our goal?

In “Becoming a Real Human Child,” Guroian compares and contrasts the Disney version of Pinocchio to the original tale by Carlo Collodi. While both stories portray the wooden puppets desire to become a real boy, Disney’s version of Pinocchio is awarded boyhood for being “brave, truthful and unselfish.” Collodi’s Pinocchio, however, is rewarded for his conscientious pursuit of morality, even though the task is not yet complete. He strives to abandon his selfishness, laziness and his hard head, not to mention his lack of experience. According to Guroian, Collodi alludes to Christ with the use of the blue-haired fairy, who appears to Pinnochio at critical crossroads in the puppets attempts to return to his father, including the scene where she saves him from death by hanging on a tree. Pinocchio’s heart reaches its turning point when he believes the death of the blue fairy is his fault. The theme of the love and respect of a child for a parent is evident when the blue-fairy appears to Pinocchio again, this time as an adult. At first he does not recognize her, but once his eyes are opened because of the love he has for her, he understands. Love, respect and responsibility towards those you love, according to Collodi are essential to becoming a complete human being.

In subsequent chapters, Guroian covers the concepts of love and immortality by discussing The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Mermaid; friends and mentors by looking at The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web and Bambi; evil and redemption through examination of The Snow Queen and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and heroines of faith and courage by reviewing the characters of Princess Irene in The Princess and the Goblin and Lucy in Prince Caspian.

Much of children’s literature is filled with stories and illustrations that awaken the moral imagination. As parents, teachers and clergy we can use the lessons portrayed in these adventures to teach our children something that appears to be missing for the greater society - an understanding of the difference between value and virtue. As an Orthodox Christian, parent of two older teenagers and one young adult and home educator, I honestly wish I would have been introduced to Guroian’s book and insights when my children were younger.