Yes, I remember those afternoons when I pictured myself flying over the neighborhood on the back of a bird. Back then I would only pay attention to the height of the buildings, if there were people trotting underneath and if they wore colorful scarves. Today, when I read over the same passages printed in black ink, I realize the symbolism of whether the doors are open or closed, and if the girl in the balcony is singing a melancholy song. What I took away from that book as a child is very different from what I take away from it as an adult, and yet both world views are equally important and true. Perhaps, our first few reads only get sweeter with time, and latent in expression, as we fail to realize just how it affected us, and shaped our thoughts and choices at that moment in our life. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was among the first books I read as no more than a seven-year-old. It has a dream-like, eccentric quality which, at times, was beyond my comprehension, even as I reveled in simpler portions of the book. When I read it as an adult, it assumes an altogether different dimension of coded thoughts. I rediscovered Heidi at the age of 26 and found myself drifting to the music of the mountains, and salivating over goat cheese all over again. Quality children’s literature does not age into retirement. If it is valid for a six-year-old, it remains true also for a sixty-something’s weakening eyesight and trembling hands.
Innumerable researches point to the fact that children’s literature is essential to developing cognitive skills, emotional intelligence, imagination and creativity in the formative years, helping kids foster a positive social contact. These books encourage kids to respond to their theme and context, allowing them to figure out their own positioning vis a vis the characters in the book. Quality literature enhances appreciation of differences among people, how every life story, no matter how insignificant, is important, and the importance of love and peace in one’s own life, and in the world at large. These books set the foundational stone for empathy and kindness in an age-group which is entirely focused on one’s own self. Moments of crises and conflict in the book has the characters taking a decision hinging off a moral plane, providing inspiration for kids to model themselves on and evolve into quality citizens.
Increasingly, as people are finding themselves depressed and disappointed in the post-modern reality, and a burdened, bending definition of morality, mired in a chaos of interpretations and miscommunication, they look to fulfill their yearning for those simpler, dusty afternoons through children’s fiction. And so, in my adult library that covers one whole wall-area of my room, there is a section devoted to Alice, Peter, Dorothy, Anne and the March sisters.
I yearn with a nostalgia for simpler times, embodied in the classics of over 100 years ago. A run in the gardens or a book about March sisters was enough to settle me for the day back then. Now, I reach back to that time through books that picture those perfect afternoons in the park, tracing pilgrim’s progress or chronicling an adventure atop the Faraway Tree.
These books provide a retreat from reality into a world where relationships are straightforward and characters speak clearly to one another. A land that revels in slow-cooked meals, simple joys of knitting, and where one does not feel judged all the time.
It is difficult to say as to what comprises of children’s literature, and what ought to be out of bounds to those impressionable minds, as classic works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist have found readership in a very young age bracket. Further, the readership for The Fault in Our Stars, Twilight and The Hunger Games points to the idea of cross-over books, one that can entertain both younger lot as well as adults. A case in point being the success of the Harry Potter series that appeared in child and adult editions, the only difference between the two being the illustrated jacket and price point.
Shakespeare’s plays such as Romeo and Juliet, although require an adult audience for full appreciation, are also available as picture books to foster a younger readership. Wordless picture books are often fun for an adult who yearns for simplicity albeit layered with a certain profundity of wisdom.
Truly then, children’s literature occupies a space which is both silly and profound, realistic and magical, true and make-belief. Roald Dahl rightly said, “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men”. It is sometimes important to discover our goofy self, and humor ourselves in a world that is often too prim and proper for its own good.
Philip Pullman nailed the dart right at the heart of the matter when he said, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” And so, a book that ignites a young mind and tender heart, often also rekindles warmth and memory underneath a sagging skin and faltering sight.