Living By Wonder
the Imaginative Life of Childhood
by Richard Lewis
1997 Parabola Books
New York, NY
148 pages (paper)
Reviewed by Chris Mercogliano
Living by Wonder, the Imaginative Life of Childhood, is a series of essays by a lifelong teacher and writer, a man with as consummate a sense of the delicacy and intimacy of the learning process as any I've ever encountered Throughout this marvelous collection, the author leads us by example with his sensitive, softly embroidered prose, modeling a reverence for the unfolding of a child's intelligence that is fast being buried under an avalanche of hype and hysteria concerning educational goals and standards.
The word "education" has too course a sound to describe the subject matter of Richard Lewis. His thesis transcends the mundane acquisition of the "Three R's" and the digestion of data about the external universe, instead delving inward to examine how we, as parents and teachers, can best nurture one of a child's greatest gifts of all: the imagination.
The author begins with an essay about the assimilation of language, one of the primary tools of the imagination and the foundation of all later learning. He writes:
The noise of our verbalizing culture too quickly deafens what children innately understand. Their early relation to language is a poetic one, reaching far beyond utilitarian speech. They are surprised by speaking with the smallest bird or the most distant sun. They sense that this communication was what language was supposed to be: a link to what is here, can be imagined, and has once been.
One of the hallmarks of Lewis' long career has been fostering the literary exploits of young writers. Over the years he has edited numerous volumes of children's poetry and prose. One of them, Miracles: Poems by Children of the English-speaking World has sold over a quarter of a million copies and has been in the Free School library for many nearly two decades.
Here is a poem by eleven-year-old Maria Hourtgan which Lewis offers up as an example of the extraordinary ability of a child, imagination still intact, to describe the subtle mystery of everyday life:
Gentle as a feather
Cat quiet
Snow soft
Gentle, gentle as a feather
Softer that snow
Quiet as a cat
Comes the evening breeze
In 1969, the author founded the Touchstone Center with the mission of preventing teachers in the New York City school system from succumbing to the monotony of public education. The center continues to this day to hold workshops that help them to learn ways to fan the creative spark in their students. In an essay entitled, "The Pulse of Learning," Lewis exhorts:
How stifling it is for many children in our schools to find after kindergarten (in some cases before) that the prerequisites of getting ahead in school are to divide play from work, imagination from fact, feeling from truth. How confusing it must be to children to be told that their senses (hence their bodies) are not where they learn, and that real learning takes place only in the citadels of the intellect.
Richard Lewis' latest book is a stirring defense of the wonder that is the birthright of every child. If he had a magic wand, he would return wonder to the gravitational center of everyone, young and old, so that we could all perceive like eight-year-old Max that:
This eye started from nothing,
white tears. sun, tornadoes,
secrets, night.

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