The Joy of Reading Children’s Books, for Adults! September 24, 2019 – Posted in: Book News

When was the last time you read a children’s book for your own pleasure? That is the question posed by Katherine Rundell in her recently published essay “Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise.”

Bestselling author of five children’s novels, including “The Explorer” and “The Good Thieves” Rundell defends children’s fiction, which has “a long and noble history of being dismissed”. For Rundell, when we stop reading children’s books, us adults forget that “there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return.”

That is not to say that all children’s books are well written or have some innate wisdom to impart, but Rundell’s issue is that we are taught to always ‘progress’ with reading in a linear sense, “because to do otherwise would be to regress or retreat” and it is here we do ourselves a disservice.

When we move on to grownup books and resist picking up a children’s book to read, we suppose that, “children’s fiction can be discarded. I would say we do so at our peril, for we discard in adulthood a casket of wonders which, read with an adult eye, have a different kind of alchemy in them.” She posits that reading children’s books, especially the classics, have much to tell us about the world today.

Children’s books have often dealt with controversial themes and for them to take a political or moral tone is nothing new (Think Harry Potter and anything by Roald Dahl). But it took until 1744 for John Newbery to publish what is often called the first work of children’s literature to appear in English, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book — though it too took the view that children’s books were “instructive first and entertaining second”, writes Rundell.

However, it was not until the mid-19th century did children’s books take the desires of children into account, ushering in a golden age of fantasy and adventure through such works as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. “A lot of children’s fiction has a surprising politics to it. Despite all our tendencies in Britain towards order and discipline — towards etiquette manuals and school uniforms that make the wearers look like tiny mayoral candidates — our children’s fiction is often slyly subversive,” Rundell writes.

So what should adults be reading to give them a new perspective on the world today? Here is a selection of books recommended by Rundell for all us jaded adults to read ourselves or with our children:

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

Rundell writes:

“There are as many interpretations of Where the Wild Things Are as there are people who have read it, and it means something very different when you are 30 from what it meant when you were three. I think it’s about the ferocity of love; about how we devour each other, and are devoured.”

Mary Poppins, by PL Travers.

Who can forget the magical nanny played by Julie Andrews in the 1964 film classic? But did you ever realise how pro-hippie and anti-capitalist the story actually is?  This is a book that could have been written for the age we live in as a call to arms to rise up against the evil bankers that want to drain the world of fun and magic in the name of profit. Read with that in mind, you might be surprised at what you find between the covers.

Author of The Railway Children, Edith Nesbit (who is said to have influenced PL Travers) founded the Fabian Society to further democratic socialist principles and was herself a Marxist. The book itself is hugely political; the children’s father is falsely imprisoned for being a spy, and the family take care of a Russian exile, who is on the run from Tsarist Russia.

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series that began in 1995 and is extended into his The Book of Dust trilogy, has strong anti-religious undertones.

For Rundell the books are fundamentally about truth. “We must learn, in Pullman’s universe, to watch the world with intense and generous care. We must learn to tell stories, his books say, whether it comes naturally or not – because it is the best and sometimes the only way we have to exchange truth.”

The Paddington Books by Michael Bond. At the heart of the Paddington books lies one central theme, one of refuge. An orphan who is brought up by his Aunt Lucy, the little bear from Peru is a stowaway on a boat who finds salvation on our shores after his aunt becomes too old to care for him. Here, the loving Brown family take him in, and many hilarious adventures ensue, usually resulting from some misunderstanding of Paddington’s and him trying to right what he deems to be unjust. But the little bear always comes out on top and wins our hearts in the process. These books are the absolute antidote to cynicism, as well as fear of ‘others’.

As Rundell says “The books tell us that if we zoom out we will see that inside each disaster there is a cog, propelling us towards potential goodness. Baked into the structure of the stories, small as they are, is Bond’s colossal central truth: larger than the world’s chaos are its miracles. Paddington asks us to trust, if only for a brief gasp, for the length of the book, in the world’s essential nobility. The books are oxygen for those, like me, who doubt.”

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