princeton – Generosity and kindness are noble virtues. But how do we acquire them? And how do we help our children acquire them?
One of the most effective and pleasant ways to inspire kindness is with a story that draws us in and gives us a positive virtual experience of kindness.
“The Selfish Giant,” is just such a story. It’s a classic tale by Oscar Wilde that can be read aloud in 12 minutes. You can find the complete story at eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/SelGia.shtml.
Years ago, at a book fair, I discovered a tall, thin Scholastic Inc. paperback version of this story printed with gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger, winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. At least 20 other illustrated versions are for sale online, including a Spanish translation.
A child is the hero of this story and the catalyst through which the Giant becomes a kinder, happier person. Adults are typically the ones to teach kids, so this inversion of roles makes the story appealing to kids and disarming to adults. This isn’t a lecture on how to be kind. It’s a window into the life of someone whose selfishness is melted into kindness by love.
Kids may not grasp some of the significance of the story the first time they hear it because “The Selfish Giant” is a children’s story only on one level. At other levels, it is a sophisticated and profound reflection on human relationships.
Wilde’s language and sentence structure are delightful. For example, at the beginning of the story, we learn that the children have been freely playing in the Giant’s garden while the Giant has been away visiting his friend the Cornish Ogre. He has been visiting for seven years. “After the seven years were over he had said all he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle.” I chuckle every time I read that sentence, but the children I read the story to this week didn’t see the humor. That’s okay. My point is that the story has a lot to offer on multiple levels.
It is worth reading more than once.
As you talk about the story with your kids, here are some questions you could use to prompt discussion.
Why didn’t the Giant want the children to play in his garden? Is it sometimes okay not to share? When is it good to share? Did anyone ever share something good with you? How did it make you feel?
Wilde uses personification in this story when he describes Snow as a woman who covers the grass with her cloak and Frost as a man who blows silver paint all over the trees. The two of them dance around the garden and invite their friend Hail to visit. Is that the way you usually see winter in your imagination? How would you personify the other seasons?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this story. You can reach me at [email protected]