Tag Archives: children’s books

The BFG: Why Children’s Stories Are For Adults

“It’s a children’s movie,” I heard someone say—but the darkened cinema held only a handful of children.

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I can only assume that, like me, the adults crowding the seats had spent hours of their childhoods in Roald Dahl’s make-believe world and that, like my own, their hearts raced with anticipation.

For two hours in that dark room, we adults gasped and giggled like the children we once were. We again feared the shadows lurking in dark corners. We again knew the solitude of waking when the grown-ups slept. We again felt terror, wonder, and the childhood certainty that the world must be much bigger and hold much more than we knew.

And in those dark hours of made-up giants, trapped dreams, and downward-streaming bubbles, we lost our trepidation and regained something else: the raw desire to see the world beyond our own gates.

We all live, like Sophie, behind walls. We each follow rules, like Sophie’s, designed to keep us safe.

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We avoid our own curtains—questions we choose not to ask, places we refuse to go, ideas we fear to entertain. Like Sophie, we feel certain something important lurks in the unknown, and we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed. We ache to know what more there is, but we dread what we might learn. And, like Sophie, we have favourite blankets under which we hide, knowing they can’t protect us from everything that waits beyond the safety of our walls but still preferring to cover our heads and hope.

But there comes a moment for each of us when we must approach the curtains and, having looked too long into the darkness beyond them, we can no longer hide from the bigger world outside. Something happens—a phone call, an accident, a breakdown, a single line of type on a page—and all at once we’re forced out of our safe beds, carried beyond our familiar walls, and dropped into the unknown.

Suddenly, we are faced with the truth that the world holds people, ideas, and events we never believed existed. Deny it we may, but we are pressed to live a new kind of life. We see beauties beyond our imaginings, but we also see injustices, horrors, nightmares.

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And then, like Sophie, we have to face ourselves—our fears, prejudices, and desires. We have to decide whether to stay hidden in our blankets or to stand up and try to do something, even if that something seems impossible. Even if we feel tiny and helpless against hungry giants and a disbelieving world, we’re given an opportunity to say that enough is enough, to be defined not by whether we succeed but by whether we try.

Adult stories are important. They explore complex ideas, difficult truths, and opposing perspectives. Adult stories teach us to look unflinchingly into the grey spaces between black and white lines. But children’s stories are important, too, and somewhere in between childhood and adulthood, we begin to forget that.

Children’s stories tell us that some things are good and others are bad, that beautiful things must be protected and injustice must be fought, that small people can—and should—stand up against big evils. They remind even adults that we are not insignificant.


Lessons from the Children’s Section

Shelving is the neverending story of library work. You can unload cartful after cartful of books in the stacks, and when you turn around, there will be another shelf of returned books waiting.

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The easiest books to shelve are reference materials; they’re enormous, so you can spot the five-inch-wide empty space waiting for any given book practically from across the library. Of course, reference books all weigh a couple of tons, give or take, so perhaps the best books to shelve are adult fiction—small enough to carry in one hand, read often enough not to kick dust in your eyes, and interesting enough to distract you with cover blurbs while you’re searching for the right spot on the shelf.

But my favourite books to shelve are the juvenile fiction.

They can’t stand up on their own, so you have to keep a hand on the cart to stop the whole row from toppling. The shelves are a mess, because children are happy to chuck Dr Seuss, Patricia Polacco, and Eric Carle all together on the same shelf, never mind alphabetising. You spend more time rearranging chaos than actually shelving, but there’s something magical about the children’s section—something that doesn’t extend to the rest of the library.

In the children’s section, you never know what you’ll find. Jumanji might rest against Goodnight Moon one day and Cinderella the next. Books meant to teach children about serious topics—handling death or loving people with special needs—press against books meant to trigger unbridled imagination. Animals and children and monsters mingle together in a colourful blend in which the population is too diverse for stereotypes and the lines between truth and fiction blur. Illustrated historical fictions make friends with the wildest fantasies, and yet the whole colourful mass whispers one unified message, telling children to love, to learn, to dream.

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In my twenties, I still love children’s books. Over the years, I’ve grown from sounding out The Cat in the Hat to analysing Anna Karenina, but I can still hear the picture books telling me to explore thoroughly, live kindly, and dream vividly.

Green Eggs and Ham still reminds me to give new experiences a shot.

The Grouchy Ladybug still tells me to show compassion.

Harold and the Purple Crayon still promises that creativity can change the world.

No matter where I go, no matter what I learn, these incongruous worlds of colour and rhyme are with me. They underlie the jokes I tell, the choices I make, the dreams I pursue. They live in my memories and shape my ideas. And returning to them now, even if it’s just to put them in order after tiny hands have set them in disarray, feels like coming home, like visiting old friends who welcome me with love and send me back out with that one simple reminder that’s so easy to forget in the chaos of growing up:

The world is big, but not too big for you.


Of Picture Books and Potential

It keeps me awake at night, haunts me in the daylight, paralyses me with terror…

Can you guess what it is?

The bogeyman? No.

Giant, flesh-eating wasps? Horrifying, but not scary enough.

The bogeyman riding a giant, flesh-eating wasp? Eh…no.

I know you can’t imagine anything worse, so I’ll tell you:

Children’s books.

Let me explain why.

Content.

You ever try keeping a five-year-old entertained? You use toys, make weird noises, and possibly stand on your head, and if you’re lucky, they stay happy. Imagine trying to do that all through words on a page. You have to say something meaningful in phrases a five-year-old can understand, and you have to make it interesting enough to keep the mini Energizer Bunny entertained.

Word length.

These things have to be short. You have to fit all that meaningful, interesting content into, like, five words. Okay, maybe like five-hundred, but still, pretty darn short. Which is hard—I was raised on Tolkien and Dickens. ’Nough said.

Market.

In the two weeks since my interest in children’s books burst into being, about a million people have told me it’s a hard market. …okay, about four, but they were all knowledgeable people whose expertise I trust. “Agents hate taking on children’s books,” my professor assured me.

I wrote a children’s book anyway.

I poured my soul into it—entirely unintentionally. One day, I read an email from my mother, and I thought, “I should write a children’s book about this.” And then …I did. With no idea how to write one, with no idea how long it should be, with no idea who might publish children’s books or what process to follow to get it in front of someone who might care about it. In fact, I started it without even asking my mother if it was an invasion of family privacy to turn my grandmother’s dementia into a children’s book.

I have no tidy bow to wrap around today’s post. I’m sure you’re all expecting, “And guess what, guys? I sent it out, and they loved it, and I got a contract, and it’s coming out next year!” But actually, I haven’t sent it out yet. I’ve gotten some feedback—some really positive feedback—from some family, some friends, and one widely-published children’s author. But I haven’t sent it out—in fact, I haven’t even finished researching who I could send it to. And the truth is, it might never be published. It might live for eternity (till my computer crashes, anyway) as an unpublished file in a whole folder of unpublished files, just the phantom of unrealised potential.

But here’s the thing: that’s okay.

Yes, it really is.

To spend hours on the words, to pour my heart and soul into a story, to lovingly craft sentences and phrases…and then to see that work live forever in the shadows…that’s meaningful. Because my desire to publish is an outgrowth of my desire to write. I write to process, to understand myself better, and I desire to publish because I believe that individual issues relate to broader human experience. Because my heart and soul might mirror someone else’s, and if writing helps me reach conclusions and gain insight into myself, perhaps reading my conclusions might help someone else gain insights, too.

But if that never happens, nothing is wasted. Because, like I said, I have to stop discriminating against readers. And if I’m my only reader, but I gain something from my own writing, the process is entirely as valuable as if my book becomes a bestseller that touches thousands of lives.

Because the power of words is not quantifiable. Because there’s something beautiful and mysterious in the way that arbitrarily assigned sounds and letters can touch our souls and teach our spirits.

And that why I write. Not for bylines. Not for fame. Not for money.

For the mystery.

 


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