I track the history of my life less along the lines of conventional milestones – fleeting first crushes and those terrifying but gratifying signs of impending puberty – and more in my memories of favourite books. My fascination with the fantastical magnificence of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marked one of my earliest forays into ‘proper’ books with lots of words. Creating a desire to follow the footsteps of Mary Lennox as she revelled in the unrivalled self-reflection encouraged by nature, The Secret Garden became one of my first sites of escape from the panic attacks that have plagued my life since childhood. I still recall, with astonishing clarity, reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the first time on a caravan holiday in Wales. Pre-puberty, this book served as my introduction to the changes that were heading my way with unavoidable determination. Children’s fiction offers, for many young readers, a first confrontation with life’s realities. Typically softened by a palatable mix of fantasy and convenient remedies to lasting harm, it is up to adulthood to educate us in the naïveté of these positive twists-of-fate, unseen by us when we first turned the pages of our favourite books. Who knew that salvation in the form of magical abilities and a kindly teacher would not fall upon the emotionally and physically neglected? Was anyone truly surprised by the fact that adult life did not entail leisurely friendship with river-residing species of rat and mole? In children’s fiction, adults perceive a willing conspiracy on the part of the entire grown-up world to protect the innocence of the young. Much as, childless or not, we all work to preserve the existence of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, many of us view children’s books as maintaining a necessary separation between our kids and the toughest realities of life. Yet we assume that, past a certain point, life demands a rejection of the perceived naïveté of children’s fiction, requiring instead a full-faced confrontation with the monotony of all of the socially-prescribed norms that we know so well.
When is it, then, that so many of us lose our ability to find solace and truth in children’s literature? The imperceptible creep of expectations – when indulging in imagination becomes taboo and conformity our goal – combined with the natural progression of reading habits toward more ‘adult’ literature surely explain a good deal of this. Facilitated by the idea that we must perform a duty of camaraderie with the rest of humankind by facing up to the tax-paying, 9-to-5 realities of life as a grown-up, it is without even a backwards glance that many of us leave the world of crime-solving cousins and flying peaches behind us. This unquestioning march is, however, always a loss, registered almost unconsciously in our latter choices and attachments. The love for characters like Luna Lovegood – bullied for an innocent unconformity and determined acknowledgement of a world beyond what is immediately perceivable – points with undeniable clarity to our zeal for courageous quirkiness. That Luna would not hesitate to indulge in a re-read of her favourite children’s classic is surely beyond question. Many of us yearn openly for a return to the innocence of childhood but fail to recognise that our rejection of its principles – captured by children’s fiction – is a choice. The love, courage, and wilful self-belief that children’s literature teaches are always available to us. Yet we are coached away from this mindset with the promise that fear, stress, and self-doubt are the rightful inheritance of all who have graduated childhood.
The sense that I am somehow failing my own adult sensibilities by re-reading my favourite children’s fiction has informed my reading habits for at least half of my life. I reminisce with unrivalled fondness about my obsession with Enid Blyton and my brother remains – albeit very unwillingly – “moonface” to this day. The question of sitting down in earnest to look back over my childhood favourites has, however, never really entered my mind. I assumed, like so many of us do, that this would be the territory solely of time spent reading to my own children or those of my relatives. What an unnecessary deprivation. I’ve spent the past few weeks crippled by panic attacks. While my anxiety has been largely under control for the past couple of years, a series of unfortunate events left me housebound by uninterrupted panic, not eating, and barely sleeping. In this state, all I could think to do was read. But instead of turning to my endlessly growing stack of ‘to reads’ – replete with subject matter that I was sure would not assist my psychological paralysis – I broke out some children’s books. My mum had recently returned some old copies of The Famous Five to me and I had been carting Roald Dahl’s catalogue of fiction around with me from country to country over the past several years. Reading through these books – for myself and my own enjoyment – helped me more than just about any of the various medications, meditations, or other remedies that I tried. This is not to oversell the efficacy of fiction as a kind of treatment nor undersell the essential role of other interventions. Yet one must not underestimate the profound impact that an earnest promise of “everything will be ok” can have. And this is a message with which children’s fiction abounds.
As the world continues to plummet with growing speed toward social crisis – with feelings of loneliness and instances of mental illness on the rise – there is an increasing sense of desperation for finding anything that might help. ‘Self care’ has become the watch-phrase of a generation, one can now spend over $100 on a pair of yoga pants, and lessons in the use of essential oils are available at just about every community centre. It seems to me, however, that this social sickness exists at the very heart of our perception of the world and our own place within it. The pressures to conform – to look just right, earn enough money, have children, and thrive in the correct way – are astronomical and lodged in our psyche from the earliest moments. While there is no simple remedy to such a widely reinforced notion of ‘the good life’, we can consciously help ourselves to break the mould. Children’s fiction stands apart from the way that we are taught to think in adulthood. It encourages thoughtfulness and bravery in the face of challenge. It teaches a trusting reliance on others and a resilient openness to the possibility that everything just might be alright. Where we are increasingly shuttered to love and compassion beyond the boundaries of what we know and understand in our own lives, children’s literature asks us to widen the circle of our own in-group. It promises only good things if we learn to look beyond the world that we perceive around us and allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that we can make magic.