Personally, I think it’s a form of torture to ask anyone to choose which five books they would take on a desert island. I mean, the Harry Potter series alone totals seven books. Nevertheless, it was a task we were asked to attempt in one module I studied at Exeter University. Studying why we read and considering the value of literature in society, it was a fascinating module, made more so by the diversity of students. The seminars were a combination of undergraduates in their twenties and students of The University of the Third Age, all of retirement age. In this first seminar we went around the room, umming and ahhing over our five chosen books, struggling to remember authors and nodding as others mentioned old favourites, and nearly every single student, no matter the age, chose at least one children’s book.
One of my favourite books, Scribbles in the Margins, describes the joy of returning to a beloved childhood book: “when held, a silent charge pulses through the book and shrinks you backwards in time”. Even just holding the book, maybe smelling it, we are transported. There is something about rereading a book from childhood which not only lets us escape to whatever world lies in the book but also to our childhood self, to who we were and how we felt when we first read the story. When discussing the reasons behind our choices many students confessed that they felt as though some books were part of who they were. Maybe for the time the book was read, or the story it contained, or who had given it to us, these books had shaped our characters as much as our friends or experiences. The book’s importance on a desert island would be that of comfort, of an old friend supporting you, and of course of escape but overall it would be a reminder of your sense of self.
In this seminar, we were all book lovers, avid readers, however, I couldn’t help but think that some people would struggle to name five books they had read, let alone would want on a desert island. Reading for them was a chore in childhood, shaken off as soon as the skill of learning to read had been accomplished. Books weren’t loved or sought out and so many classics were passed over, some may discover the joy of reading in adulthood, but many lessons taught in those early books were missed out.
Children’s fiction doesn’t teach us easy things like maths equations, it teaches hard things like friendship, learning to accept people who are different to you, learning to stand up to people who bully us, and learning to be kind to others. Do you know how we know that these are the hard things to learn? Because even adults who can do all the complicated stuff like driving and paying taxes and writing cover letters, even they can’t get these lessons right most of the time. The world’s problems aren’t caused by not knowing pi to one hundred decimal points, or the names of all of Jupiter’s moons or how to code. They are caused by a lack of tolerance and compassion. Things which we are supposed to learn as a child. Madeleine L’Engle is quoted as saying, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
I am not saying that all non-readers will grow up to be heartless human beings full of facts and nothing else. All I am saying is, children’s books are given to children because they are the first things we want them to learn. If a child is reading the book, it must be important for them to absorb it early on so as best to understand it. A human with the knowledge to create gunpowder is intelligent, but humans who are compassionate and kind will put it to use in quarries and mines rather than use it to kill. We need intelligent children, but we also need kind children, and more than that we need kind adults. Therefore, reading books “meant” for a ten year old at fifty may in fact be more than useful, it may be long overdue.
Of course, we do also learn a lot from our life experiences, but by the time we reach 50 and beyond, we have had years of unpleasant people wearing us down, newspapers and TV filtering events, our own mind, more messy and full than it was as a child, all making life seem difficult and complicated and hard to figure out. On the other hand, children, and their books, always make things seem so simple. I just feel that many adults past the age of fifty, may do well to reassess their world views through the less clouded lens of a children’s book.
For those of us lucky enough to have cultivated a love of books at an early age, we can enjoy the pleasures of rereading at fifty and beyond, many classics: The Secret Garden, Black Beauty, The Faraway Tree, all common choices in my literature seminar. But for those adults who didn’t love reading as a child these books are far more worth reading for the lessons they can learn from them. Kindness is what most children’s fiction teaches and it is, as Professor Dumbledore says, a trait people never fail to undervalue.