The night after my 21st birthday, deep in the throes of a mid-quarantine identity crisis, I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by my favorite childhood books. Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, This Land is Your Land. I had stumbled upon them late at night while digging through the linen closet for a particularly elusive fitted sheet: 15 books crammed into the bottom right-hand corner, wedged between an old school project and a long-unused hamper. I pulled the stack out, carried it down the narrow hallway to my room, and began sifting through the pile. One by one, I read them aloud, embarrassingly pretending to show off the illustrations to some imaginary kindergarten class, relishing in the visceral nostalgia and momentary distraction they brought me.
Halfway through, somewhere around A Story for Bear, I started to think about the person I had become since setting those books down for the last time. Did I like her? Was she all that different from this former me? What, really, had changed?
When I called my Mom a few days ago, I asked her what she thought. “Well, I think you let other people get in the way now.”
During my sophomore year of college, I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In my favorite passage, the beloved, ever-perceptive Mrs. Ramsay describes solemnly shrinking into her interior self, finding solace in her own wedge-shaped core of darkness invisible to others. As a child, I often felt this way: deeply familiar with my inner self, as if we were two separate people in conversation. I’ve always thought we were sort of like friends, this inner me and I. When I was younger, this deep-seated introspection about the life I saw around me allowed me to be curious and imaginative, independent and compassionate. Because of it, I was, for the most part, unafraid to belong to my own life.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begun to feel increasingly removed from myself, as though I had lost a little bit of that inner dialogue which had, for the majority of my early life, defined my sense of self. It always told me how I felt and who I wanted to be. Growing up meant starting to feel adrift, disconnected and completely out of touch with who I really was.
I had spent the summer before sophomore year and the majority of the fall living with my boyfriend’s family in a small town right on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. By mid-June, the two of us had fallen into a pattern of waking up around nine or ten in morning, drinking our coffee and reading for a few hours below the pear trees in his front yard, silently working on opposite ends of the long, oak dining room table until three or four in the afternoon, and then driving through town around 4:30 to take a swim in the Connecticut River before dinner. I was giddily happy, content to exist in a faraway place for a little while.
But, sometime around the beginning of August, I began to feel as though I was looking out at the world from someone else’s eyes. Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his. I wouldn’t have the words to express it until several months later, but that summer I came to devote every part of myself to a life that didn’t really belong to me, rarely engaging with my inner self so as to fully ingratiate myself in someone else’s thoughts and opinions and routines. My self-image had become untenable because I was constantly living out another person’s fictionalized version of me. By the end of September, it became clear that I had become so concerned with belonging to someone else’s life that I had seemingly forgotten to belong to my own. When the relationship ended in November, I was left without any understanding of who I was without it.
A few weeks after, on that night when I sat enveloped by all those artifacts of my childhood, I recognized that my conception of my most authentic self and my innermost truisms were all wrapped up in those books. As I ran my fingers across the front covers of Lili at Ballet and The Adventures of Frog and Toad and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I imagined myself at four or five years old, my auburn hair poking out from behind my ears as I sat tucked under my father’s arm in the cushy brown leather chair that used to sit in the corner of my brother’s bedroom. I can almost hear the soft rasp of his voice as he reads me Sleepy Bears before bed. Then Baby Bear yawned a BIG yawn. As he reads, I can hear my mother brushing her teeth in the bathroom down the hall, our cats Wonder and Punk mewing below her feet. My brother rustles in bed. The old oak tree that used to loom outside my bedroom window still stands tall. It fell down suddenly in 2007 after being struck by lightning, but for most of my childhood it was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.
Now, all these years later, once again hearing the rhymes and cadences of my childhood, I felt closer to myself than I had in a very long time. I realized that the books I read as a child have come to represent a time when I was just beginning to understand who I wanted to be and yet, paradoxically knew exactly who I was.
I don’t think mine is an isolated experience. Children’s literature is often one of a child’s first introductions to expressions of empathy, imagination, and self-awareness. These books influence the way we navigate the lives around us; the way we come to understand the world is entirely shaped by the sites and experiences we explore as children. They offer a vocabulary for children to construct their identities, yet are never deemed especially consequential because of their seemingly elementary lessons. Unlike complex opuses like Steinbeck’s East of Eden or James Baldwin’s Another Country, children’s literature is rarely seen as self-defining. What if we considered Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are to be as powerful as any other piece of literature? Could it be that those books were some of the most formative, provocative, and honest ones of our lives?
In Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, he argues that “the best children’s literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in its execution, as the best adult literature” because it introduces ideas and stories which often go unexplored by adults. These books deal with deeply personal issues—loneliness, death, and the loss of innocence, to mention a few—in imaginative and honest ways, helping children to broaden and stretch their minds, flesh out the complex bonds they have with those around them, cope with conflicting emotions, understand their role in families and neighborhoods, and define the journey from childhood to adulthood. Even more important, Handy contends, is the act of revisiting these works as an adult. In one early chapter he quotes speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who says that while “revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an act of nostalgia”—she had known a woman who reread The Wizard of Oz every few years because it helped her to remember being a child—“[in] returning after a decade or two or three to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and yourself.”
A few summers back, I wandered into my favorite bookstore in New York City: the wooden cathedral that is the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street. I’ve always said that buying a new book is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have. Curiosity swells and a desire for a new reality percolates just below as you find another world to imagine yourself in. On this particular day, I climbed the winding staircase above the mystery section to stand before the $1 book shelf. There, hidden beside a monstrous poetry anthology, I rediscovered The Little Prince. I had read it once or twice as a child, enjoying its sweet illustrations and to-the-point dialogue, but only as a freshly coronated 20-something did I really discover its remarkable power.
The book begins with a drawing of a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole, only, to adults, the drawing looks like a hat. When the narrator shows his masterpiece to the grown-ups, he asks them whether he has frightened them. “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” When the narrator tries to further explain that the drawing depicts a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the adults advise him to lay aside his drawings of boa constrictors swallowing their prey whole and instead focus on geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. Frustrated, he declares that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
American novelist and academic Alison Laurie is fascinated by this moment in The Little Prince. She calls it subversive, because it mocks unsympathetic adult life by looking at the world from below. In her book Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, Laurie explains that the most discerning children’s authors “have the ability to look at the world from below and note its less respectable aspects, just as little children playing on the floor can see the chewing gum stuck to the underside of polished mahogany tables and the hems of silk dresses held up with safety pins.” These books appeal to the questioning, rebellious child within all of us. Sitting on my bed that night, encompassed by my childhood memories and associations, I came face to face with the reality that I had lost my inner self to the confining realities of adulthood, narrowed my conception of myself and the world around me. Those books were a glimpse into a bygone sanctuary.
But not all children’s literature is as illuminating. The New England Primer, largely thought to be the first piece of American children’s literature, was published in Boston around 1690. It’s prescriptive and condescending, very obviously written by an adult to serve adult expectations. In one of its numerous editions, the lesson reads:
Use no ill words.
Tell no lies.
I don’t know any child who would enjoy that. Often, as is apparent here, unsuccessful children’s literature is filled with pragmatism, offering a “realistic” portrait of what adult life is actually like. Unimaginatively and pedantically, these books attempt to prepare children for the rigid, commercial ways of the world. But, according to Laurie, this adult society doesn’t exist: “the world [is] full of hostile, stupid giants.”
The most perceptive children’s book authors somehow manage to stay children all their lives, never losing the ability to see the world from below. In an interview with the New York Times, Maurice Sendak criticized contemporary children’s literature for catering too much to parents, going by the “rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it.”
Sendak’s entire children’s book philosophy is dependent upon the idea that children shouldn’t be kept from the world, locked within a safe haven where nothing bad happens. Instead, he argues, children’s authors should simultaneously reckon with childhood innocence and the harsh realities of life. His books deal with the darker sides of growing up, creatively and authentically helping children to process the hardships they face. In Where the Wild Things Are, a disgruntled little boy, Max, is sent to his room without supper. As he stews in bed, a jungle grows around him and he sails off to a land of the wild things, populated by huge monsters with claws. Fearlessly, Max tames the wild things, who roar that he is the wildest of them all and make him their king. Max screams, “Let the wild rumpus start,” and he and the wild things dance in the moonlight and hang from the trees, until Max realizes he misses his mother’s love. Although the wild things beg their king to stay, young Max returns to his bedroom, where his supper is waiting for him.
Met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1963, the book has since been heralded as a classic, celebrated for its depiction and acceptance of children’s emotions, particularly anger. What I love most about this book, though, is that Sendak doesn’t hide anything. He’s not trying to coerce anyone to be anything other than who they are, or teach someone a valuable lesson. He has no motives other than to tell a story about the way he sees the world. It’s not a very pretty world—it’s not always a very nice one, it’s full of seemingly cruel people who do seemingly cruel things—but it is real. And not real in the way that The New England Primer is real. Where the Wild Things Are is not prescriptive, it’s not trying to get you to be a better part of society or get you to buy into some larger conventional narrative, it just introduces you to the way you work. To the thoughts you may or may not have when faced with frustration or disappointment. It looks at the world from below, warts and all.
Although Sendak’s work will forever be near the top of my list, E.B. White, author of Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, and—arguably one of my favorite books of all time—Charlotte’s Web, will always remain my favorite children’s book author. In preparation for this piece, I spent the better part of one Thursday evening rereading White’s transcendent monument to children’s literature. I had coincidentally stumbled upon the book while perusing a public bookcase in Oberlin and realized I hadn’t reread it since the end of first grade. So here I was, a 21 year-old, mixed-up, hungover college student, sobbing her eyes out to Charlotte’s Web at five in the afternoon. I couldn’t even make it through the first sentence without tearing up: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Forget it. I called one of my friends from elementary school and we both started reminiscing about the first time we heard that sentence.
In our class, we would pick a new chapter book every month to read aloud. That April, the majority ruled that after lunch everyday, Mrs. Downs would sit back in the plush armchair in the corner of the classroom, twenty seven-year-olds nestled on the floor at her feet, and read Charlotte’s Web. I think it was the first book that made me cry. Like Sendak, White’s prose is spare, but burgeoning with fearless and beautiful honesty. The book is about death, plain and true and harsh, but it is also full of life and all of the things that make it worth living. In one of the most compelling scenes, Fern, a young girl who saves a newborn piglet from being murdered, confronts her father as she explains the horror of killing the pig:
‘But it’s unfair’ cried Fern. ‘The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been born very small at birth, would you have killed me?’
Mr. Arable smiled. ‘Certainly not,’ he said, looking down at his daughter with love. ‘But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another’
‘I see no difference,’ replied Fern, still hanging onto the ax.
‘This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of’
A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.
As a child, Fern sees the world from below, unclouded by convention and cynicism. White’s language is subversive, pointing out the flaws in grown-up understandings of life. Arguably, this moment is more illuminating for adults, juxtaposing the world as it is, as a child sees it, with the warped world we have all come to accept. Charlotte’s Web is about serious, traumatic experiences, and yet, it isn’t hard to comprehend. White’s portrayal of death reminds me of a sentence in Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book The Dead Bird, which reads, “Every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” That’s how you write about death. White and Brown alike get straight to the heart of things, unfettered by wordy ruminations and tangents.
In one of my favorite essays of White’s, his introduction in the third edition of Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, he praises his former college professor William Strunk for instilling in him the case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” The book, a collection of writing dos and don’ts, hasn’t left my side in the last couple years because I’m so enamored with its vigor and pith. Just like Sendak (and Didion and Vonnegut and Bukowski), Strunk and White don’t want to trick you. They want your writing to be beautiful and thought-provoking and electrifying, but never complicated. Never so difficult that you have to put a book down to understand what it’s trying to say. This, to me, is what makes Charlotte’s Web so important. There’s nothing superfluous; it gives the reader room to come up with how they feel on their own.
I think this is what makes children’s books, and the act of revisiting them as an adult, so invaluable. In a way, you are returning to a thing and a time that is decidedly simple—and I don’t mean in a stupid or banal way. On the contrary, I think good children’s literature gets to the root of what it means to understand the world and people around you, to embrace selfhood, and, really, to understand the essence of what it means to be human without writing a sentence that is three pages long. It delivers information in no uncertain terms. There is no overwriting or overstating or big, scary, fancy words; there is just the world as a child sees it. There is just the world as it is. To revisit these books as an adult, Laurie says, offers “a way into a lost world, not only of childhood, but of universal power and meaning.”
She encourages readers to return to their children’s books as a way to reconnect with their childhood selves. There, she argues, lies the foundation of our most genuine, self-fulfilled, and actualized selves. Too often, Laurie writes, “as we leave the tribal culture of childhood—and its sometimes subversive tales and rhymes—behind, we lose contact with instinctive joy in self-expression: with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders. Staying in touch with children’s literature and folklore as an adult is not only a means of understanding what children are thinking and feeling; it is a way of understanding and renewing our own childhood.”
It is through this act of rediscovery that we begin to sew ourselves up again. Throughout our lives, having endured suffering and embarrassment and rejection, we become fragmented by judgement and cruelty, both readily given and received. As a result, we lose touch with who we actually are, with our cores of darkness. We feel the way that I felt in Vermont: like a stranger, alienated from my interior self. Children’s books help you to relearn and embrace the world as a child does, with levity and resolute selfhood, offering us a vital opportunity to return to the world as it is, without all that complicated, unreadable, pedantic junk flying around. I think we spend the majority of our lives chasing the high of childhood, chasing a time before we let our perception of the world become muddled by the hurt of adulthood.
Now, as I sit at the desk in my dorm room, again surrounded by piles of my childhood books, I realize I don’t have any new answers. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel as though I had them right in front of me all along. In these past months, having read Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, and This Land is Your Land over and over and over again, I feel as though I’ve returned to myself. I’ve found solace and comfort in this world from below, in this world as it is.