Children’s Books that both Comfort and Confront us as Adults

by Kathryn Eaves. Kathryn, 27, from Perth Australia is an English teacher and writer.

Author C.S. Lewis contributed greatly to children’s literature, both through his much loved Narnia series and his commentary on children’s books.

Lewis championed children’s stories, but in a society that now has access to a nearly endless stream of stories at the click of a button, do adults still need to revisit the books of their childhood? To put Lewis’ words to the test, I think it’s appropriate to use his own fiction to show that books read at the age of ten are not only as worth reading as an adult, but can perhaps teach us even more as we reflect on our childhood, having learnt more about dealing with the world and also as we need encouragement during challenging circumstances.

I first read CS Lewis, fittingly, as a ten-year-old: an experience that would significantly influence my future. Sitting in my primary school classroom, I learnt that the characters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were more than just made up creatures; they were meant to show what would happen if Bible stories took place in a fictional world. That children’s book characters could tell stories like those I had heard already was a turning point, as I started appreciating what stories could achieve. This lesson stayed with me as I continued a love of reading and studying literature through school and university, now teaching English myself. While I haven’t got to fifty, I imagine that I will retain the same affection for the story that captured my ten-year-old mind as I have in my twenties. This was just one of the books that I came to love as a child- classics such as Ballet Shoes and nearly anything by Enid Blyton are still stories that I would happily re-read, despite their pitch to a younger audience. The pleasant memories of a childhood engrossed in books is worth revisiting at any age, however the Narnia series holds not only nostalgia, but also the opportunity to continue learning.

I recently re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Lewis’ conclusion to his Narnia series, The Last Battle. I skipped the rest of the series; part of being an adult is having time constraints, and it was being an adult that I was struggling with. Recent disappointments sent me back to the words that had impacted my childhood, looking for something of myself that I was missing – a tall order for a book – but Lewis is the one who said it should be worth re-reading as an adult. I think he said this with the knowledge that adults don’t just grow up to be larger versions of their childhood selves, but humans who face disappointment and joy beyond what they could have anticipated as kids, and who are affected by life, for better and worse. I believe he didn’t just mean that books were worth reading later because they brought the same happy memories, or were still interesting, but because the lessons learned stay with us into adulthood. I also believe that the very best books don’t just teach us something that we can later use, but continue teaching us different lessons as we develop.

I was recently talking to some students about Lois Lowry’s children’s book Number the Stars, about a girl whose family helps her friend escape the Nazis by disguising her as their daughter who had died fighting for the resistance. It occurred to me that one of the first things I learnt about World War II was that young people died fighting to save others. This was important to learn as a child, but it is only as an adult that I appreciate that particular character as a hero, despite being a minor character in the book. Likewise, re-reading Narnia novels taught me even more than just the power of story. One of the reasons I returned to these books for comfort was the presentation of truths that I had always held, but which I was now struggling with.

As I came to terms with adult problems such as job loss, what I thought I needed was the reminder that God was around even when it didn’t feel like it. What I got was the realisation that I had taken my faith for granted. Like the character Lucy, even though it was sometimes difficult, I felt confident God was always around. This was part of my identity, so when this started to wobble, it was a problem. As I read, I questioned whether I was like Lucy anymore. It seemed I was more like her doubtful older sister Susan, and who wanted to be her? Sure, she cared for her family and was crowned ‘Queen Susan the Gentle’, but she was always nagging the others to cut their time in Narnia short and didn’t even return with them at the end of the series. The books I was reading for comfort were instead challenging me – not what I had signed up for, but an apt metaphor. Adulthood is often not what we expect it to be, and yet, we get the opportunity to grow as people, often uncomfortably so, but no-one, not even in Narnia, gets to remain a child forever. The books worth revisiting help us no matter our age or life stage.

So how could this disappointing re-read help me? It is true that I was frustrated with my apparent change of character, yet these novels did bring a sort of comfort. After all, there was hope for Susan, something I overlooked in my first reading of the Last Battle. I had always assumed she was out of Narnia for good. It seemed that the world of Narnia had ended, so it was my assumption that Susan no longer had the opportunity to return. Upon rereading, I had an inkling that I could be wrong when I realised that the human world in the novel had not ended. Turning to Google, I discovered that Lewis had commented on this, too. Writing to a young fan, he said, “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end…in her own way.”[1]

This led me to consider the implications for Susan: would she be able to return to the world that had meant so much to her as a child? It was the realisation that Susan, despite wavering during every journey to Narnia before spurning it altogether, still had hope of returning, that gave me hope. It is awful to think of the pain she would have had to go through upon realising her entire family was killed, but Lewis still implied she could return to Narnia. As a child, I just wished that he hadn’t written about such a horrible thing happening. As an adult, I appreciate that he created a character who didn’t find life easy, but who still had the potential to be who she once showed herself to be- gentle, perhaps too cautious, but very much part of her family and Narnia. It reminds me of re-reading JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and changing from wishing Ron hadn’t run away (a devastating plot development in my teens), to appreciating that he acknowledged his weaknesses and returned to his friends. To use another Lewis quote, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”2

If we learn of people who fight and overcome problems when we are children, those lessons can stay with us as adults, but it’s sometimes necessary to return to those books after we’ve faced a few battles, and realise that courage isn’t always what we think it is. Books worth reading in your twenties, fifties, or any age take into account hardships and have the surprising ability to continue to teach us important life lessons.

CS Lewis had some strong claims to make about the importance of children’s books, and in my experience of his own fiction, he is correct that books worth reading as a child are as worth, if not more worth, reading as an adult. The books that stay with us are not just those that we enjoyed, or have good memories of, but that teach us lessons as a child that grow with us, even lessons that change as our experiences shape us into adults. Life lessons are rarely easily learnt, so I am grateful for the novels that let us learn from others, and bring us encouragement in knowing that others are also learning.

 

[1]  Abate, M and Weldy, L. (ed) (2012). New Casebooks. CS Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. Palgrave Macmillan, p5.

[2] Lewis, CS. Sourced from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/54800-since-it-is-so- likely-that-children-will-meet-cruel

 

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