It seems to be an unspoken general rule that when you leave childhood behind, you stop reading, and sometimes even looking at, the books that you loved. As a child, I read many books by authors like Nick Butterworth, Beatrix Potter and Jacqueline Wilson, but I have to admit that after I entered my teens I fell into the trap of thinking that most of these books are babyish and hardly suitable for a more grown-up mind. And I thought that fairy tales, in particular, were the most unsuitable.
Then, during my undergraduate studies, I took a course on Children’s Literature, and one of the topics we covered was the question of “what is Children’s Literature?” And part of that question was the discussion of whether books like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Northern Lights are for children or adults. Both are considered to be “crossover books”—children’s literature that is also read by adults. In the bookstores, you will often see these books in both the children’s and adult sections with different covers. I view books like these as “transitionary”; books that younger readers use as a sort of gateway to stories with more complex plots and themes.
Ten was the age when I started reading more complex books, which funnily enough started with the fourth Harry Potter book, The Goblet of Fire. From there, as I grew older, I read more and more books and now I couldn’t even begin to guess how many books I’ve read. Most of them have been fantasy and romantic novels which, to my mind, are modern fairy tales for adults.
This leads me to the notion that fairy tales are only for children…well, that is not strictly true if one wants to be historically accurate. Many of the stories that we know so well are oral tales meant to caution and entertain in times when the modern appliances that we have today did not exist. These tales were handed down by word of mouth through the generations before being collected and written down. Then there are stories like Beauty and the Beast, written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, which was constructed from several fairy tales, including The Pig King and the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Over time these fairy tales were dumbed down to the Sunday school versions that are known today, which, if I remember correctly, was started during the Victorian era with the intent of preserving childhood innocence for longer. And yet to many, including myself, the “original” versions are far more interesting; though they were often violent towards wrongdoers.
Many will ask why people in their fifties, or older, would read books and stories that they used to when they were ten years old. Well, answers will vary. Some will read them aloud to the children or grandchildren to share what they enjoyed, by themselves to reminisce, or sometimes to relive their childhoods.
My own father, who is over sixty, still reads a lot of children’s books that we have around the house, mostly older ones like the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, though there are some he can’t abide. At first, like most teenagers, I thought that this was weird; but as I grew older I began to realise that it was not strange at all; he just genuinely enjoyed reading them as some could be just as complex and interesting as adult literature.
When I revisited some of these books, it was clear which audience they are intended for due to the simple language, the fairy-tale-like beginning their authors tend to use, and the fact that most of them are illustrated. Despite, or in spite of, their intended audience, many of these books contain so-called adult themes like death, betrayal and redemption which are all part of Christian symbolic narrative. These stories became a way of reinforcing what children are taught to believe at school or at home, and their narratives replaced pagan elements from before the advent of Christianity. Many people, both adult and children, find these stories to be a comfort; many of these books can be a “comfort feast” for the mind and soul and, in fact, I have heard Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows described as such in a documentary about that much-loved children’s novel, and indeed, throughout the book, there is a strong sense of home and the warm feeling that you can always return to at the end of the day.
In conclusion, no matter what age you are, or how much you have changed over the years, the books one reads as a child do not leave us. The books we read as children can have a great impact on us, though we sometimes forget how and why it affected us, so rereading the stories can remind us of our dreams and what is important to us and give us comfort. At first, we may set aside these “childish stories” but, in the end, they are always waiting for us like old friends waiting for us to come home, which we all do eventually.