Children's books

A University of Cambridge academic is to suggest that grown-ups enjoy children’s classics because they are dissatisfied with life in the adult world.

We cherish children’s classics precisely because they represent a world that does not resemble the world as we experience it.

Louise Joy

Dr Louise Joy is speaking at this year’s Festival of Ideas at Cambridge  – the UK’s only festival covering the arts, humanities and social sciences – which runs from October 19-30 and is almost entirely free.

Dr Joy, a Director of Studies at Homerton College, puts forward the notion that reading and writing children’s books is a symbolic retreat from the disappointment of reality for adults.

Literary classics such as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have been lovingly cherished and re-published over the centuries. Although shelved as children’s literature, these books have remained immensely popular with adults.

Why do we still find such comfort in re-reading these children’s classics? What is it about these stories which so deeply penetrate our collective psyche? Many literary scholars and commentators have explored how children’s classics interpret childhood, but Dr Joy claims that these books can tell us far more about the adult world than they can about children.

She argues that the characters and stories of children’s classics reflect what we in the adult world lack, desire, and consequently idealises.

She said: “Children’s classics are written by adults, valued by adults, published by adults and celebrated by adults. Instead of telling us about childhood or the child condition, they more obviously tell us something about the adult condition.

“By identifying recurrent motifs and themes in children’s classics, I am attempting to provide a new way of thinking about what we, as adults, desire childhood to be and children to be like. The same representations of childhood can be seen again and again in children’s classics, suggesting that we treasure the books that evoke that which the adult world lacks and we wish it contained. We cherish children’s classics precisely because they represent a world that does not resemble the world as we experience it.”

Dr Joy will use the Festival of Ideas to talk about her research on Wednesday, 26 October, 6.30-7.30pm, at the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. Her lecture is entitled Re-reading Children’s Classics.

Many of the most revered children’s books are those which younger readers find the most impenetrable. Ask a child what he or she thinks of Alice in Wonderland, and many will describe it as a scary, weird and difficult reading experience. Ask the same child ten years later, and they may remember the text with fondness. Many adults and children have never even read these famous texts from cover to cover, but the worlds they depict have rooted themselves in our culture through film, pictorial art, and language itself. So why is it that adults distort their childhood memories and look back on these texts with such nostalgia?

Joy argues that adult writers and readers hold an idealised mythology of childhood, a mythology that is kept alive and re-animated by our culture. Many of these texts depict a form of childhood that is far removed from the kind of life children have ever experienced.

Characters in children’s classics value simplicity, unpretentiousness, compassion, loyalty and tolerance. They are often free spirits, unbothered by peer-pressure or social institutions.

“In the fictional world, humans can get on with events; actions and emotions are un-crippled by the affliction of self-consciousness. This is the key feature of the texts which are celebrated over the centuries; they represent a world which is liberated from self-consciousness, self-doubt, self-scrutiny and self-interest,” said Dr Joy.

One theme which she analyses is friendship. Toad of Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows is kind and generous, but also a blathering crackpot with a criminal fetish for fast cars. Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore is a cynical, nihilistic egotist and Tigger a possible depressive. Yet these fictional chums create and maintain friendship on a transparent level, regarding each other with mutual affection and appreciation. Think of Piglet giving up his house to a homeless Pooh Bear, or Grahame’s Rat taking Mole boating on the river. They view one another’s eccentricities as loveable idiosyncrasies, and not as irritating neuroses or dysfunctions. Children’s literature suggests that being part of a diverse menagerie of personalities is an enriching and ennobling experience.

“A specific kind of friendship is represented and celebrated in children’s classics: it is non-narcissistic. In this idealised form, friends are tolerant of one another’s differences. Friendship is founded on people coming together, sharing experiences and activities. Gone are the complicated, vexed relationships based on need, self-interest and power dynamics, so typical of the adult world,” Dr Joy explains.

In a similar way, conversation in children’s literature is clear and direct. Characters choose their words carefully and precisely. As a result, meaning is nearly always successfully and considerately transacted, and characters rarely misunderstand each other. In contrast, in adult fiction – as in the adult world – conversation is invariably a mine-field of miscommunication, causing confusion, heartbreak, and even death.

Added Dr Joy: “Language is forever inadequate in encapsulating what we wish to say, and we are forever unable to say what we actually mean. Adults use language not merely to communicate, but also to not communicate; we use fillers and meaningless words to express emotion, to conceal meaning, to pass the time or to feign interest.”

She argues that the direct speech typically found in children’s classics therefore has a deep-seated appeal for adults.

She said: “It satisfies adult fantasies for language to be used as a straightforward vehicle for communication. A reason why adults derive such solace from re-reading these books is because it is a pleasure and a relief to witness conversation taking shape in this fulfilling form. The pathos, the tragedy and the weight of the failure to communicate, notoriously exemplified in works such as Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a theme which often drives the adult novel. In a children’s book this possibility isn’t really entertained.”

Entitled Literature’s Children, Joy’s upcoming book delves into the symbolic significance of children’s classics, teasing out answers to big philosophical questions such as the adult affliction of self-consciousness and the mythology of childhood.  She says children’s literature “refracts adult consciousness, offering and enabling us to pass on to our own children the world as we wish it, and precisely not as we find it.”

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