9th December 2015

The Magic of Children’s Literature

Jen Borland uncovers the joy behind reading children’s books, and their power to revive old memories and bring about a sense of nostalgia

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss

We all have a soft spot for our favourite children’s books, despite the fact that we barely remember them being read to us all those years ago. However, the books we vaguely remember can be powerful triggers of nostalgia, and they often illuminate a whole host of vivid memories from our childhood.

Recently I came across a large box full of old books in the loft of my house. As I rummaged through the box, a bright yellow cover of a book entitled I’ve Lost My Yellow Zebra caught my attention. It told the story of a girl who, surprisingly, had lost her favourite stuffed zebra. At the end, we discover that the zebra had been in the washing machine the whole time, and the girl is reunited with her freshly cleaned toy. As I flicked through the book, helping the girl look for her toy by lifting the flaps on each page, I felt a strange sweet melancholy—the feeling you sometimes encounter when you look at old photographs of yourself or smell a familiar perfume.

I also found my collection of Dr. Seuss books, and turned to a story called What Was I Scared Of?, which, I remember, used to give me nightmares. It was centred on a character who, walking alone in the woods after dark, encounters an animate pair of “pale green pants with nobody inside them”. Sinister stuff. But at the end, the pants start crying and they are said to be just as scared of the main character as he is of them.

Then I came across my favourite, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which describes the journey a group of children take as they search for a bear. The ending is full of suspense, as the children are chased home by the bear and hide under their bedcovers until he goes away. But it’s the final page that I remember most distinctly: the image of the lone bear, head down and shoulders slumped, as he trudges along a gloomy beach at sunset, back to his dark, empty cave…

I remember crying every time I turned to this page, wishing I could reach through and comfort him. It seems strange that I was able to empathise with such a ‘bad’ character; one who I was afraid of just one page before. But now, with this final image, my fear had morphed into sadness. Perhaps the bear didn’t want to eat the children after all, but just wanted some company.

These are just three examples of books that fall into the category of children’s literature. But already we have encountered some heavy themes for a young child to grapple with: the reassurance that things we lose often find our way back to us; the fear of encountering something strange; and the idea that our first impressions of people often turn out to be false. Books like these help children to tackle serious issues from the safety of their beds, ingraining in their minds important social and moral values, which they will carry with them through their lives.

Perhaps that’s why we remember our favourites with such warmth. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the fun and colourful stories that lulled us to sleep when we were small actually helped to develop our empathy and our ability to deal with our own fears and anxieties. They moulded not just our imaginations, but also our characters, shaping who we are today.

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