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The Stories That Shaped Us

Why you should still read children's literature

The stories that were read to us as children are full of life. They are suffused with a special kind of genius, demanding its writers to have an unusual blend of creative insight and moral responsibility. Children’s literature must be simple, comprehensible, and, crucially, infused with some moral or the other. But the best of children’s fiction transgress standards of moral messaging and endearing characters — its real duty is to nurture imagination in young minds and instil values that stay with us for the rest of our lives.

George Eliot, writing of the tribulations of childhood in her novel The Mill on the Floss, stated that ‘childhood has no forebodings; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow.’ Actions and behaviours that we now deem ‘childish’ are only so because we did not have the knowledge that comes with lived experience; it is the responsibility of writers for children to try and impart this wisdom through simple language, narrative, and images. The idea that children’s fiction is ‘childish’ is a misconception; these stories are uncommonly astute and self-aware, without the pretensions of ‘serious’ writing and style. When writers’ audiences are made of children, they must be infinitely more attentive, yet equally straightforward in their writing — there is no room for affectation, only clarity and sincerity.

A writer of children’s fiction has a difficult task ahead of them when language is in question. It seems that we are constantly reminded that language is too often inadequate; great writers have not ceased trying to innovate in their style, creating new forms, and testing the limits with old ones. Sentences are succinct, dialogue even more so. It goes without saying that headache-inducing moral dilemmas and complexities of genre have no place in the brief stories written for the youth.

I think what endears me most in children’s literature is how freely it embraces the simplicity of words, ideas, and images. Most of all, stories for children tend to reflect a shared, nearly universal love that we hold for nature, animals, friendship, and love. Beatrix Potter was an avid conservationist and sheep farmer with numerous pets and a love of flora and fauna. Enid Blyton’s father took her on walks through nature, encouraging her to learn about plant and animal life; as an adult, she actively supported the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. These writers nurture compassion and fellow feeling in their young readership.

In these writings, we are reconnected to our most integral and timeless passions, those we often lose sight of as we grow older. Enid Blyton’s fiction immerses readers in a nostalgic sense of adventure and wonder for that which surrounds us. Roald Dahl’s whimsical stories, with their wicked humour and retributive justice, remind us that joy can persist even amongst the small evils of the world. To read the works of Beatrix Potter, or A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh is to again remember the beauty of nature in a world where it is increasingly endangered. Yet it doesn’t matter that we can gain new profundity and wisdom from these books (that should not always be motivation to read); books for children celebrate beauty and adventure. They remind us to be a little more thoughtful, a little more aware of the wonder around us.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s timeless classic, The Little Prince, he writes that ‘all grown-ups were once children … but only a few of them remember it.’ Children’s literature asks for remembrance more than anything else. To read the stories that we did in childhood is to remember the way in which we were taught to wonder at, admire, and love everything around us; nature, animals, family, and friendship. Stories are some of the earliest art forms that children are exposed to, and these books are more aware of what is truly important than any other form of literature. And that which is important to us as children should remain important to us for the rest of our lives. Yes, writers of children’s literature have great responsibilities to fulfil; it is up to us to carry on reading their works, and to remember all the insight and emotion they have given, and continue to give us.

Illustration by Hannah Beggerow

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