A Troika is the legendary Russian three-horse team of special design. In the ideal troika (see “Dashing Troika”, below) only the best trained horses are harnessed to run ‘Center’. The galloping ‘Wing’ horses seem set to bolt, as their cannoning legs flout gravity. Within this cacophony of motion and power, the flashing trot of the Center horse imposes control and direction, bringing beauty and harmony to the whole —making sense of team and carriage. (One can see the truth of this by watching a few YouTube videos of Troika races.)
Story – Ideas – Craft
The “Dashing Troika” captures a certain Romantic, Russian, “Sense of Life”. It is of fighting off horrors, be they stark or shadowy. It is of thundering ahead, commandng extraordinary and beautiful powers. Holding onto right ideas can be like that.
VM’s Literary Troika, of Story, Ideas and Craft, is a memorable and useful way to evaluate books with greater consistency. The three parts are not merely a simplification; they distinguish and classify various aspects used in judging literature (see Scoring Schematic). How these lesser aspects contribute to the main elements has to be distinctly identified and evaluated, but Ideas —the central ‘horse’ in the troika— requires special consideration.
Evaluating ideas requires more than simply examining the main idea the author seeks to convey by the story. The author’s own ideas guide the crafting and sequence of scenes and provisional events leading to the conclusion. They guide how the characters make choices. They are even revealed by the author’s choice of descriptive language. VM seeks out these ideas as they are communicated to children, whether directly or indirectly.
Because good authors can create drama and meaning from good or bad ideas, a special prudence is required when evaluating children’s literature. Well constructed stories that serve as propaganda for (flawed) beliefs, fads or causes can capture uncritical adults. Children have little inborn capacity for a healthy detached skepticism and should not be left to read just any book, just because it’s a ‘children’s’ book. The logic behind this fact is summed up by the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man“. What is at stake is the choice between indoctrination and education.
Therefore, our review process asks what the book suggests to a child —about himself, as a human being, and about the World he is in. For example, does the story suggest the reader is just one speck among many, his pointless pursuits mired in destiny, or does it suggest he is a unique individual with the potential for choice and greatness?
Ideas are so powerful that even the same plot can suggest opposite views of life. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid presents the struggle for happiness as characterized by suffering and failure, whereas Disney’s The Little Mermaid presents the same struggle as bringing happiness and success! (For an explanation see Reading and the Growing Mind.) A well crafted story with properly harnessed ideas, like a well matched team, can bring a young reader to the right ‘destination’ providing satisfaction, understanding and even joy.