I read last week that the University of East Anglia has started a study to explore the impact of children’s literature on culture and society. But what is it that fascinates us so much about the stories we used to read as children? And do they really have an impact on the way we develop as adults?
The first session of the University of East Anglia’s investigation, which is being conducted in conjunction with Norwich Millennium Library, starts today. Readers will be invited to bring along their favourite children’s book and discuss why they like it.
Why we never grow too old for children’s books
For my own part, I will probably be dusting off my copies of the ‘Deptford Mice’ Trilogy by Robin Jarvis and Brian Jacques ‘Tales of Redwall’. But why is it that more than 20 years on I can still pick up these novels and read them with just as much interest and excitement as I did when I was ten?
Perhaps it is because they offer me the chance to connect with my long lost youth! I have fond memories of the nights I spent as a child: snuggled under my duvet, practically interacting (I was very short sighted!) with a chilling ghost story or a gripping adventure novel. But I don’t think that is the reason I still appreciate well-written children’s books. Besides, I still bury myself underneath the covers with a good read, even now. Though, admittedly, I no longer read by torchlight with one ear listening out for my father’s footsteps!
Maybe the reason why I, and indeed many others, continually fail to wean ourselves away from children’s literature is more because they offer a greater degree of escapism. Don’t misunderstand me, there are many adult books out there which offer wild and exciting plots. But the vast majority still operate within the confines of reality. Children’s books, on the other hand are a very different place altogether. Here it is totally natural, for little boys to fly, for dwarves to do battle with orcs and goblins and …well, for mermaids to live in gherkin jars!
But it is more than that. The true power of children’s literature is that it often appeals to our most basic of human emotions. Children’s books may take us on wild flights of fancy, but they are often underpinned by well defined moral dilemmas: good versus bad; love and hate; right against wrong. And in almost all children’s books it is easy to see which is which. In that sense, children’s literature is far more simple than grown up fiction. Right will surely defeat wrong; Love will banish hate and good will triumph over evil.
The legacy of children’s literature
There are a multitude of different things, too numerous to mention, which affect us as we grow and develop into young adults. The impact of children’s books on the way we think is therefore very difficult to assess.
That said, it is more than likely that childhood stories play their part in honing and moulding the way we see the world. For a start, children’s books catch us when we are at our most impressionable. As infants, we absorb information and experiences at an astounding rate. Furthermore, it is worth considering one of a child’s key methods of learning is through imitation.
It stands to reason therefore, that the messages and morals behind the storylines in the books we read when young, will be absorbed and emulated. How many of us used to pretend, that we were gallant knights battling an evil foe or superheroes taking on a terrible nemesis? Children’s books may not be the only factor affecting a child’s development, but their influence should never be underestimated.
But there is one last thing that, for me at least, will always draw me towards children’s literature and that is quite simply that it is about the closest we will ever get to dreaming whilst wide awake. All writers are dreamers. All good novelists possess the enviable ability to transport the reader to a different reality. Good children’s authors, however, wield a literary sorcery of a far greater potency. Such writers have the power to create new worlds with new civilisations, even new languages!
It is the limitless possibility offered by such magicians that will always attract me to children’s books – the chance to indulge in pure fantasy and enter into a realm where nothing is impossible and anything can happen…