Book Review: “C.S. Lewis: The Chronicler of Narnia” by Mary Dodson Wade

I consider juvenile nonfiction as my own personal version of Cliffs Notes (for those of you too young to remember the once ubiquitous yellow and black covered pamphlets, think a printed Spark Notes.) Whenever I want to get a general outline of a topic, a basic overview of an idea, or some interesting facts about something, I turn to the juvenile nonfiction section at my local library.

I was excited to see C.S. Lewis: The Chronicler of Narnia in the children’s nonfiction section when I was working on the Chronicles of Narnia reading challenge (all the way back in July!)

I generally enjoy biographies written for younger people because they tend to focus on the highlights rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae (as some adult biographies can.)

I discovered that Mary Dodson Wade’s biography did a good job at giving a classic overview of Lewis’s life. The author begins at the beginning with young Clive Staples renaming himself “Jacksie” and concludes with some of Lewis’ legacy. In a concise 83 pages, it offers an efficient, comprehensive biography.

My only peeve with the book is its title. With a subtitle like The Chronicler of Narnia, I would have expected the narrative to focus on events and ideas that specifically relate to the Chronicles of Narnia. It did no such thing.

Sure, the book opens with a quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader–but from there it gives no mention of Narnia until the second to last chapter (Chapter 13). While many other authors would discuss similarities and differences between Lewis’s childhood imaginary world Boxen and Narnia, Wade remains silent. While many other authors would muse on how Lewis’s love for myth or experience in the Great War or training in philosophy or comaraderie with the Inklings affected his writing of Narnia, this author does not. She does not mention Narnia until after she has told almost all of Lewis’ story and discussed all his other writings. Then and only then, she states “Lewis wrote seven fantasies for children” and begins to speak of the Chronicles.

This is where I find it hard to review this title. How can I assess such a book? It was well suited for the purpose for which I read it–that is, to give me a Cliff Notes on Lewis’s life so I wouldn’t have to work so hard while reading a more in-depth adult biography (I’m currently working on The Narnian by Alan Jacobs.) But as a biography in and of itself? It gets the job done. It tells the facts. But it has little artistry of form to recommend. Wade’s writing doesn’t pull me into Lewis’s world, it doesn’t fascinate me by establishing a meta-narrative in which to read his life, it doesn’t make any interpretations about who Lewis was. It’s just…the facts, nothing more.

Rating: 2 stars
Category: Children’s biography
Synopsis: Wade summarizes the major events in C.S. Lewis’ life, including his many writings.
Recommendation: The facts are there, the treatment pretty comprehensive–but this title lacks soul. If you want an encyclopedia entry-type coverage of Lewis, go ahead and read this. Otherwise, look elsewhere to learn who Lewis really was.

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