The magic of children’s literature27th May 2018
Children’s fiction contains a Wonderland of possibilities: dragons, mermaids and animal croquet (partially replicated on Oxford’s quads in Trinity). From the enchanting halls of Hogwarts to the battered old tent in Horrid Henry’s back garden, we all have memories – hopefully endearing – of reading as a child. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived at university that I realised how far I had overlooked children’s literature as an area of academic and cultural interest. It’s easy to discard Willy Wonka and his incredible chocolate factory as a wistful picture of the adult life we all hoped (and still hope) to lead, but studying in Oxford, amongst such a wonderful legacy of revered children’s authors (Lewis Caroll, J.R.R. Tolkien), immersion in the fantastical is wonderfully easy. What children’s fiction shows us is that literature is our Golden Ticket to the realms of untrammelled imagination.
“We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” So grins the Cheshire Cat from his precarious position on a branch in the gardens of Wonderland. Madness – or nonsense and illogical fantasy – can be found in abundance in children’s literature, and perhaps reflects the slightly incoherent way children view the world; their perspectives haven’t been fully straightened by adult rationality. It can often seem subversive to the ordered nature of adult life, reflected in Carroll’s classic by the eventual disintegration of hierarchical authority in Wonderland; the Mad Hatter’s tea party confounds Alice with its nonsensical circularity of conversation. Riddles are equally prevalent in the novel, but often have no logical answer, and so perhaps children’s literature prioritises curiosity and persistent questioning of the accepted order. Children are constantly asking questions to learn about the world and the way it works, so perhaps when adults read children’s fiction and encounter nonsense, they too should use it as an opportunity to question the rationality society indoctrinates us with.
Riddles are equally prevalent in the novel, but often have no logical answer, and so perhaps children’s literature prioritises curiosity and persistent questioning of the accepted order
When exploring children’s literature, we must also consider how a child receives fiction: an adult reading them a bedtime story, a teacher relating a favourite tale during ‘circle time’, or indeed the curious child piqued by colourful displays in the local library. My childhood reading experience was a culmination of the three, but predominantly generated by my own curiosity and ever-present desire to read more. Yet as an early reader it was not just the words, but the pictures of a text that piqued my attention. In an amusing story related by my parents, my three year old, then-illiterate self still attempted to recreate the stories my parents had told me from the pictures accompanying the words; pictures are integral to developing a child’s imaginative capacity. I particularly remember a lovely glossy picture book of Rapunzel, and even as an adult would still value the craft and visual artistic interpretation of the fairy tale’s words. In the formal study of literature visualisation is still an integral aspect when analysing it. My university lecturers have often displayed paintings of scenes from narratives, and even paintings of people reading, providing an interesting insight into the way we view reading and enjoy visualising our favourite scenes from literature. This is, of course, more habitually to be found in film adaptations of literature, although whereas colourful illustrations in a child’s book are intended to sustain their interest and aid their imaginative capacity, it seems to me that as an adult such images can paradoxically restrict the mental images we are now capable of creating when reading. When we reach adulthood, it seems to me that literature is so deeply saturated into our existence that it becomes hard to track the moment when our conscious imagination first welded together with fiction; absorbing literature and its illustrations as a child naturalises our capacity for narrative and fantastical possibility.
Amidst this exploration of juvenile literature, we should perhaps be asking the question: what actually is children’s fiction? Does the label – so colourfully emphasised in its own corner in Waterstones – exclude adult readers? In terms of practicality, it’s the adults who actually buy children’s fiction, and more importantly, write children’s fiction, which seemingly suggests that the two stages of life are not so disconnected as they might initially seem. For example, both child and adult reader alike delight in the enchanting world of Harry Potter, despite J.K. Rowling tailoring her beloved series to child and teenage readers. Yet whilst the younger reader may more pointedly enjoy the magic and fantasy within the novels, their complicated and often distressing themes ensure their relevance to readers of all ages, and actually perhaps the element of fantasy aids to soften the jarring impact that darker emotions have on both child and adult readers. Alternatively, the appeal of such novels as Harry Potter to adults could be the opportunities it provides for escapism, or for recapturing the imaginative freedom of childhood. Ultimately, it is through literature that the two realms of childhood and adulthood meet, as old friends, and enjoy both reminiscence of previous fantasies whilst simultaneously realising new visions of creative joy. When reading a novel for the second time – especially a children’s novel as an adult – it is impossible to recreate the same sentiment you once felt. Yet such sentiments are buried deep within your memory, and upon the second reading excitedly resurface to intermingle with the views you now hold on the novel.
Ultimately, it is through literature that the two realms of childhood and adulthood meet, as old friends, and enjoy both reminiscence of previous fantasies whilst simultaneously realising new visions of creative joy
In essence, I would argue that the true ‘Golden Ticket’ is realising that children’s fiction, and certainly literature more widely, offers us the unique opportunity to placate reality and instead view an alternative world filled with untrammelled possibility. The real madness is the notion of the unbounded imagination, and the way in which revisiting beloved novels from childhood forces two spheres of life to reunite. Once you fall into the Rabbit Hole you never resurface, and that’s what children’s fiction entails: it catapults you into Wonderland and offers you a life-long Golden Ticket, ensuring safe passage into the treasured realms of imagination any time you need some magic.