As we grow older, it is easy to dismiss the stories our younger selves liked to read, to think of them as something frivolous or silly. But, to paraphrase a few wise words from a much-loved rom-com, when you read a book as a child, it plays a huge part in who you turn out, as an adult, to be. Cathy Willets, a Senior Children’s Bookseller for Waterstones, says: “I think as a child, you read a book for the storyline, the adventure, the escape to a different world. As an adult, so much more jumps out at you – underlying meanings, unattractive character traits…”
And the things we have taken from the stories become clearer, too. Probably one of the most prevalent lessons that pops up in children’s books is that if a time comes in our lives when we need to be brave, we absolutely must be. Matilda Wormwood: modest, intelligent creation of Roald Dahl, shows us that if we want to change a situation, we must be prepared to stand up for ourselves.
“You must remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. Even so, she was determined to have a go.”
For children, these words are particularly encouraging when encountering a bully or a rather pushy friend, or, as adults, for those moments with difficult work colleagues. Matilda reminds us that we should not let anybody make us feel downtrodden – there is a lot to be said for fighting your corner, and stopping in its tracks a behaviour that you no longer wish to tolerate.
Lesson one: be brave. Every brick wall is surmountable
Claire Salisbury is the author of the blog Reading Alphabetically, and muses on the themes she has come across in children’s literature. “I think that pretty much all children’s writing has the same message: be brave and be kind,” says Claire. “The Moomin books are all about this. As are Eva Ibbotson’s stories. All of her characters face hardship and are often incredibly brave – more importantly, though, they are good and kind and loyal.”
Brave Bitsy and the Bear: a lovely picture book about a toy rabbit who is rescued by a bear and returns the favour, is not only one of the dearest stories a child could ever read, but also offers one of the strongest messages about selflessness and kindness. It’s a point that constantly returns to us. The Browns take in Paddington after all, giving a stranger a home and a plentiful supply of marmalade.
Lesson two: be good and kind, wherever you possibly can
As well as treating the world and all those in it well, many children’s tales emphasise the fact that we should look out for ourselves, too. The Sophie Stories by Dick King Smith are almost a battle cry for those who feel stifled by stereotypes.
“When I grow up,” said Sophie at breakfast time, “I’m going to be a farmer.”
“You can’t,” said the twins.
“Farmers are men,” they said.
“Well,” said Sophie, “I’m going to be a lady farmer. So there.”
As a child the message is that you can be whoever you want to be. As an adult, that should still ring true. It is absolutely fine to be different. The Harry Potter series is particularly strong on this theme. All the characters we come to love in J. K. Rowling’s series are outsiders in some shape or form. Dumbledore is homosexual, the Weasleys are poor and Harry is an orphan. As well as simply being wonderful stories, the Harry Potter books teach us that every individual has value, and the things that make you different do not make you any less of a human being than anyone else.
Claire points out that those amongst us who feel different to others can find reassurance in children’s books, also: “The Moomins in particular remind us that sadness and loneliness are actually OK sometimes. I guess that a story about strange, non-human creatures is a safe place for a child to explore these ideas.” For children, anxiety and depression are not easy issues to cope with, or to understand. To have Tove Jansson weaving into her wonderful, whimsical tales that this is nothing to be ashamed of is a great way to help children cope with these strange feelings. No doubt it would be a gentle comfort for a grown-up, too.
Lesson three: allow yourself to be you
In The Tale of Despereaux: a beautifully fairytale-like story, we are also reminded that those things that do make us different are not flaws in the eyes of those who love us.
“Those are some big ears he’s got, too” observed his Uncle Alfred. “They look more like donkey ears, if you ask me.”
Compare these words to those of Despereaux’s beloved Princess Pea…
“You have lovely ears,” the Pea said to him. “They are like small pieces of velvet.”
The books we read as children nudge us into surrounding ourselves with people who actually love us, and whisper quiet reassurance to the lonely. The Death-Defying Pepper Roux is a rollercoaster of a children’s book, full of excitement but essentially about finding a place to belong and people to belong with.
‘I wish you were my… family,’ he said as they cycled. Not ‘father’. He did not say ‘father’. As the word ‘dentist’ smells of disinfectant, ‘father’ was a noun that reeked to Pepper of drink and distance and disappointment.
It is an interesting thing to put in a book, a bad father, but an important one. It reminds children that in reality and in fiction, not all families are perfect, and that we make our own lives and find our own loved ones. “Friendship is also really important,” says Claire. “If you have a rubbish family, or no family, especially so. Harry Potter is a brilliant example. Also Matilda, who was born into the wrong family. I think lots of people feel this way, but the important thing is that there will always be Miss Honeys – people who love and appreciate us.”
Lesson four: your heart will find its home one day
Cathy argues that as well as these big lessons that can be learned from children’s books, reading generally helps children to develop as human beings: “I think what’s really noticeable as a bookseller is how books bring children together. The best recent example is the mania that is The Fault in our Stars. Almost all girls aged between 12 and 18 have read this book, and they are all talking about it with each other in great detail and creating their own reading groups. And books themselves are great teachers. They are a way of widening your horizons, learning new interests, discovering new words and new worlds. They are a great introduction to life.”
Books also introduce children, softly, to issues outside their own lives. And I would defy any child to read The Animals of Farthing Wood and not find that a nugget of concern for the environment has found its way into their hearts. Likewise, to read Watership Down is to question what kind of world we actually want to live in, and to wonder what we can contribute to that?
Perhaps most importantly, however, a truly great children’s book will instil in a child a love of literature which will stay with them for life. And if they become a kinder, braver, happier person as a by-product of that? Well, so much the better.