During the last lockdown, the staff at our local library drove around hand delivering books to people like me who were stuck at home. I was thrilled when a pile of books magically appeared on the little white table on my front porch, wrapped in plastic and ready to take me to another realm.
I’d requested some children’s books and when they arrived, they came with a brown paper bag containing art supplies for a craft project suitable for three-year-olds. I don’t have anyone of that age at my house, so I gave the materials to a neighbour with two young children, but it told me that the library staff had assumed I had a small person living at my house. Why else would I be requesting picture books?
It would be easy for me to tell you I was doing “research” so that I can find a publisher for my own book, but the truth is that I enjoy reading books for children.
In Katherine Rundell’s book “Why you should read children’s books even though you are so old and wise,” she says…
“Children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.”
I love that quote. I should paint it on my wall.
Rundell says that as we get older, our imaginations become dampened and we can’t experience the same wonder that children experience when they see the stars in the night sky or the stark blue ocean. Adults feel these things at a primal level, but we are quick to deny ourselves wonder and joy. We avoid being child-like because it leaves us open and vulnerable. Who knows what other feelings might leak out if we admit to being enthralled or amazed?
Children never worry about what other people think. They shriek with delight when a beetle crawls lightly across their palm, or they see a lizard sunning itself on a warm rock. Everything is wondrous to a three-year-old, but sometimes older people forget to be amazed and become cynical and hard. Reading children’s books gives us a second chance to re-capture the bliss of being a child.
“When you read children’s books you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra”.Katherine Rundell
Adults want things to make sense and align with their understanding of the world, but children don’t question the logic in stories, even though they are keen to ask “why” about most things in life. In The Tiger who came to Tea, the tiger eats all the food in the house and drinks all the water in the tap. Judith Kerr said that her publishers wanted her to change that line because it was impossible to drink all the water in the tap and that this would trouble children.
How foolish. If children can cope with the idea of walking through a wardrobe to a frozen wonderland full of speaking lions and magical witches, then they can certainly cope with a tiger drinking all the water in the tap.
Writing for children doesn’t mean you need to avoid big words
Rundell’s criterion for cutting words was whether they interrupted the story and not whether they were too sophisticated for children. She went against her editor’s advice and retained façade, abundance and renunciation in one of her books because there weren’t any other words that would do the same job of meaning, tone, and rhythm. But she had limits.
“I cut adamantine, a word I love and think children might also love, because it came at the climax of the story, and I didn’t want to lose even that split-second flicker of time that comes when a reader jumps over an unknown word. I would do the same for adults.”
I must admit that I had to look up adamantine because I was unfamiliar with that word. Imagine my surprise when I found it means ‘having the quality of being adamant’, which is exactly what I thought it meant, even though I was guessing.
Like adults, children understand the meaning of words by seeing them in context. They have good imaginations.
Children’s literature is not a lesser form of writing
Another myth that Rundell explores is that children’s books are easier to write than books for adults. I think they are harder. Children wriggle and squirm if they aren’t fully engaged in a story, but they can also listen to the same book hundreds of times if they like the rhythm of the words. Sometimes they just like snuggling up close to you while you read.
Children are keen to read about feelings and emotions
In the book “Are You My Mother?” by PD Eastman, a newly hatched chick goes out into the world to search for his mother. He doesn’t know what she looks like, so he asks every creature he meets if they are his mother. This includes cats, dogs and other animals. Eventually, a kind friend takes him home, and he finds his mother waiting for him and wondering where he is. This is a book about belonging, something every child (and adult) hungers for. Children can understand deep themes.
I like to read children’s books because they make me feel better about the world. When I’m stressed, or tired or angry, they bring me comfort and take me back to a place where feelings are allowed to be expressed and where values such as love and friendship are deeply held and treasured.
Children’s books get down to the nitty gritty without being pompous, but they are often profound. They’re like poetry. Pure, concise, and true.
Like literary vodka.