“Mamma, I am noticing that my books are getting fatter and fatter and yours are getting thinner and thinner,” said my son Re, who is amused at my excessive interest in children’s books over the past few years. From eating books when he was six months old, to reading a few in one go (one for the school bus, one for the bedside and one for when we are on the move), he has come a long way, as have I.
Re is currently reading Nevermoor (Jessica Townsend) and The Wizards of Once (Cressida Cowell), and I’m reading Pillow Talk — a book of poems about yawns, bottoms, sneezes and burps by Robert McGough, and Princes Mirror-Belle and the Magic Shoes by Julia Donaldson. Yes, they are supposedly “children’s books” and I am a grown-up. Okay, read that as: I am a person fatigued by grownupness, who is seeking refuge in my inner child and it’s helping.
I spent a lot of my angsty 20s buying books for my friends’ children. It took me to a different place, however fleetingly, and made me forget about relationship issues, my struggle to be my own person and the shit hole that was my career. I remember buying two copies of every children’s book that I gifted, keeping one for myself. I discreetly read the Mouse Soup series and The Caterpillar Who Thought He Was A Moustache under the covers in my working women’s hostel. I found the wondrous world of Eric Carle and Roald Dahl that made eccentric cool. I found my rebellious self in Pippi Longstocking and her escapades. Besides, there was always Enid Blyton and the allure of the food she described.
Some of Enid Blyton’s books from my childhood managed to survive despite all the house moves, and when I introduced them to my child, I went back to reading them again recently, and remembered scones, fondly. I learnt to make them this time, and they tasted exactly like my childhood. Reading children’s books always leaves me feeling gratified that there is a world where things are as they are — straightforward and with less subtext. In children’s books, everything is as-is. When people talk to each other, they always seem to connect; they express love wholeheartedly.
In real life though, we are constantly struggling to express ourselves fully, to be our authentic selves, because we are afraid of how we may come across, or whether we are good enough. We are constantly self-conscious and have little or no appetite for crazy. As a grown up, I read a lot of literary fiction and non-fiction, but I always craved for stories of my childhood. I craved what they made me feel.
The more children’s books I read with my son, the harder it is becoming for me to go back to appreciating adult fiction. Maybe it’s my depleting attention span, or, perhaps, the older I get, the more I seem to appreciate brevity. Maybe I am not in a space where I want to read complex, adult stuff, where characters are ambiguous and I am constantly required to decode things to comprehend what’s going on.
There is a lot of layered stuff happening in children’s books too — it’s just that it is presented with the kind of simplicity I need right now. And the best thing about reading children’s books is that it feels like a reward, not a journey you take to get to a more intelligent, erudite version of yourself.
But then it’s more than that. I think what children’s books made you believe is that anything is possible — if you put your heart and mind to it. As adults, we forget to believe in our imaginary worlds. But there are still things in our subconscious that get awakened when we read children’s books. They take us away from our everyday over connected but emotionally void world, they free our minds to see the intangible with special clarity. They make us believe in magic. Like Dr Louise Joy, a Cambridge University academic said in her research paper: “Children’s books represent a symbolic retreat from the disappointment of reality”. Sometimes our reality hinders us from believing in love and wonder, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go back to it. The fact that we have started listening to TED Talks on how to dream and how to imagine explains how much we miss the simple things of our childhood.
C S Lewis once wrote a letter to his granddaughter about The Chronicles of Narnia :
“My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again…”
As I watched my son grow, I realised how much my grownup-ness was wearing me down and how easily he was able to find magic and joy and delight in the littlest things and I wasn’t. It was a sign for me to grow down, and I am glad I did. The next time you are browsing at a book store (if you find a real one in your mall-infested city), try wandering to the children’s section and pick up something that talks to your inner child and take it home. Even if you don’t have a child. Especially if you don’t have a child. You will be surprised at what it does to you. Like Le Petit Prince would say, “All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.”
(Lalita Iyer writes for little people and big people and the little people in big people)