Childhood is that utopic period we all wish to return to. It was a time when we were stress-free, finance-free, and lived strictly in the moment. Our greatest problems consisted of swing-set sass or colorful classroom comments. We were plunged into a world of play, reward and punishment, and we sought out characters that echoed our sentiments.
The literature we read as kids had a significant impact on our development and emotional maturity. For example, Milo in Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, took us on a linguistic journey to discover Rhyme and Reason. Harriet, in Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, enchanted us with her quick wit and sleuthing ability. These characters inspired us to dream.
As adults, it's easy to lose the spirit of adventure that these books once gave to us. In the real world's cold grasp, how can we hold onto that magic? The secret lies in our childhood bookshelves. Rereading the books of our childhood can have a major therapeutic impact on adulthood.
We shouldn't think that children's books are in any way simple or below our cerebral capacities. They have serious, critical themes that we can only now begin to more comprehensively dissect. You don't need to have a child to pick up your old copy of Charlotte's Web or The BFG. Here are some characteristics of children's and young adult books that can enhance your grown-up life.
How many times as an adult are you challenged to use your imagination? Maybe you have to do some creative troubleshooting at work or make up a convincing excuse to get out of a date. But we're talking about real imagination. When are you challenged to contend with alternate universes, wicked witches or amorphous blood-sucking aliens? (We hope the answer is never.) Maybe you watch an occasional episode of The Twilight Zone for its annual New Years' marathon. But when do you last remember sitting under the covers with a flashlight, fighting your drooping eyes to find out what happens to the protagonist as she ascends the winding staircase of the abandoned castle? The element of fantasy is often present in children's literature, and while seemingly absurd and silly, fantasy is one of the foremost ways that authors can express real-world truths and themes.
When was the last time you set out on a quest to find an ancient relic, a magic treasure, or a long-lost brother? Children's books can give you the rush of following a map from long ago, not knowing where it leads. You can embody the spirit and exuberance of the protagonist while staying safe and dry in your own home. As the mundane exhaustion of adult life sets in, we're often unmotivated to have adventures. We stick within our comfort zone. We fear new things or are intimidated by new trends. We hesitate to hang out with people that are younger than us (or – gasp – hipper). Are we growing obsolete? We don't have to. We can stay sharp and fresh by following these young protagonists on their journeys; by letting their drive and resilience act as an example.
Spontaneity and Spunk
What a lot of children's book characters display is a spirit of spontaneity and spunk. They are not afraid to speak their minds or to stand up to adults. They are passionate about their place in the world and have high expectations for the players in the game. For example, Matilda in Roald Dahl's titular book, has the gumption to stand up to Ms. Trunchbull and harness her powers for rightful revenge. She doesn't let her shyness inhibit her action. Adults are often faced with Why-Bother Syndrome. We see ourselves as stuck in a position and unable to change. We fear judgment, insubordination, and impoliteness. Children's books teach us that self-defense can be a way of self-respect.
Many first-person narratives in children's literature are largely focused on emotions and the vast spectrum of developmental problems that kids face. From peer pressure to bullying to coping with death, these books run the gamut of themes. Kids approach problems with an element of honesty that we as adults often neglect. They keep journals, closely tracking their feelings and reactions to everyday experiences. They collect things that are important to them. Often, simple objects have a greater symbolic meaning. In our adult lives, we can imitate this self-cherishing through our own reflection.
Something happens to books that are meant for adults. Most of them don't have any pictures. While pictures can be used for children as aids to reading comprehension, they have many other unique values. Images stimulate the visual appetite, engaging our senses. They allow for another method of interpretation, and to inspire our imagination. Graphic novels have become a genre all their own, and can have themes that transcend typical action comics. For example, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is a lesson in history, politics, and narrative that many adults would overlook with its' genre classification. Illustration doesn't mean “babyish"; it is another portal into the author's world. Try out a graphic novel.
Children's books are greatly centered on family and friends. Many child protagonists and narrators are orphans, and therefore have an innate need to find familial comfort, to return to the nest. These characters can teach us to value our loved ones, to give them a call even when we're slogged with work, to show that we care. While young adulthood often makes us resent our family, we can hardly realize how important it is to be part of a community – be it at work, school or home.
Ready to get reading?
Children's books have been just as prestigious as “adult" books, winning national and international awards every year. Experts recommend reading to increase social intelligence – which expands beyond “book smarts." Emotional intelligence contributes to greater empathy and appreciation of human issues, struggles and solutions. These studies can extend to our childhood classics, where many of life's most difficult dilemmas are presented in a streamlined scenario of cause and effect. So take a trip back through your personal archives (or to your local library) and see what gems of the past you can rediscover!