Friday, November 1, 2013

The Magic of Children's Books

I read with interest an article in Macleans Magazine (a Canadian magazine akin to Time Magazine) about the power of children's books to heal adults in physical and psychological pain.

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Adults turn to children’s books

‘There are lessons and hope in kids books, unlike self-help books’

by Rebecca Eckler on Saturday, October 26, 2013 8:00pm - 1 Comment




Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon
 
Recently, a well-known politician, 60, who has made scathing headlines for months, received a children’s picture book, Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book, from a good friend. The book, drawn from the Golden Book series that was launched in 1942, is about finding contentment in the simplest things (“Be a hugger!” “Get some exercise!”). That evening, the politician sent a thank-you email, mentioning that the same day, another friend had emailed saying that a “great thing to do in times such as these is to find a childhood book and read it. So I’m reading my Little Golden Book.” The politician isn’t alone. These days, thanks to publishers bringing back vintage children’s picture books, more and more adults are turning to them, in the face of hardship, sorrow or stressful times.
 
Amanda Kelman, a philanthropist, had a three-month-old baby who died of a rare genetic disorder. She says, “About a year after my son passed away, a very good friend gave me the book The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. I had spent a lot of time at the hospital with my son and read him a lot of books. After he died, I did not want to read those books anymore.” (She can’t look at Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever.) “But The Heart and the Bottle, although for children,” says Kelman, “is incredible as it relates to anyone, of any age, who is grieving. It shows that it is okay to feel sad and put up barriers and literally ‘put your heart in a bottle.’ It’s [also] a reminder that it’s okay to find things that bring happiness.”
 
Barbara Miller, a therapist and social worker, recommends that adults turn to children’s books. “There are lessons and hope in kids books, unlike self-help books, where adults can find holes in the words.” For her clients who are grieving, she suggests a children’s book, The Mountain That Loved a Bird by Alice McLerran, a gentle tale of friendship, devotion and hope.

David Hayes, a freelance writer and editor, has numerous children’s books. When he was in a bicycle accident and in bed for months, barely able to move his arms, his girlfriend bought him Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, originally published between 1949 and 1963, about a little wooden boy who is a taxi driver. It’s a series he read as a child. “His horn went ‘parp, parp!’ ” says Hayes. “It always makes me smile when I remember that. These books are better than self-help books, because they are not instructional. They open you up and make you feel as innocent as a child. They cheer you up.”
 
Like Hayes, Tamara Leger, a freelance communications consultant and mother of two, has a go-to book from childhood. She adores the Just-Alike Princes by Pauline Palmer Meek. The book, she says, is “so old and the graphics so ’60s perfect, that they make me smile, no matter what.” She has parts memorized. “When I’m feeling particularly low, I reach back to children’s literature. It’s a place where the ideas are big and the words are simple and ring true. These books bring me back in time, then free me somehow to bubble up or step forward.”
 
Sarah Ramsey, who’s been in the book business for more than a decade and now works part-time at Book City in Toronto, says she always goes to Matilda when she’s sad. “It’s a total cliché but I didn’t fit in as a child and the isolation I felt was awful and sometimes I still feel that way.” When she rereads Matilda, it reminds her that Matilda had a champion in Miss Honey. “As an adult we know there’s not always a happy ending, but I’m drawn to the story because it comforts me.”
 
Barb Wiseberg, co-founder of Give One Book, a children’s book bank, says her favourite children’s book is Hippos Go Berserk! by Sandra Boynton. It was also her son’s favourite baby book. Fast-forward 12 years. “We are planning his bar mitzvah, and I keep a copy with all my notes, to keep perspective on how time flies.” Erica Ehm, founder of YummyMummyClub.ca, sees a similar reminder in one of her favourite children’s books. She says she always turns to Love You Forever. “Sometimes life just punches you in the face. This book just reminds me, point blank, to live in the moment.” The simple truths, it seems, bear repeating.
 
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Now obviously, I am a writer of children's and young adult books, so the article struck quite a chord with me.  But even if I wasn't a writer, the article would still strike a chord.
 
I harkened back to the week I sat with my Mum as she lay dying twelve years ago, supported and cared for by the Betsy-Tacy series.  The Betsy-Tacy books were like slipping into a warm bath for me; surrounded by the loving Ray family, I felt that I was gathering strength for what lay ahead.
 
When my Dad died last November, on the last afternoon of his life I read him A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.  That story, of naughty boys and funny peculiar families who get together at Christmastime despite their differences and because of ties that run deeper than reason, felt like just the cozy and nostalgic thing for both he and I on this last day together. 
 
I suspect it is the reason that someday my son will want to read Apple Tree Christmas and The Hobbit, long after I'm gone and for reasons that have nothing to do with a good story.  Or my daughter will find those old Enid Blyton Adventure books and curl up some afternoon and feel as safe as if she was in the arms of the angels.  For she will be.
 
I read recently (though I can't recall where), that the books we read when we are between the ages of 9 and 12 years of age have the most profound impact on us.  For middle grade writers, our writing feels like sacred ground.  I imagine that someday (god-willing!) some grown up will say "Do you remember those Pig-Face books?" and laugh out loud, remembering not only a good story, but a warm house, a cozy bed, parents still alive, siblings still around.   That is a darn good reason to write a book...
 
Then I would be slap-dashing home, the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils, when out of a snow-clogged side lane would come a boy the spit of myself, with a pink-tipped cigarette and the violet past of a black eye, cocky as a bullfinch, leering all to himself.
A Child's Christmas in Wales
 
In honour of this wonderful story, how about a lovely brandy cocktail for Miller Time Friday?
 
Brandy Cocktail

Ingredients:

Preparation:

  1. Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
  2. Shake well.
  3. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
  4. Garnish with a lemon peel.

How about you?  Do you have favourite children's books that you turn to for comfort as an adult?  I would love to hear about them!

Have a wonderful Friday and stay safe out there!

 

41 comments:

  1. You made my weep! You are absolutely right! Childhood books are so very important to me and my family. I have lost both my parents, and I turn to their books again and again. Then I can hear their voices, feel their warmth, and smell their scent. My mother wrote in many of the books that she left...little notes to say how she enjoyed that copy of Just So Stories that her father read her, and she read to me. We have the copy of A Christmas Carol, that my grandmother read my mother, my father read us, and I read to my family...and so it goes on with such a rich treasure trove. Thank you for reminding me of how important these books are to me!

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    1. I felt the same when I read the article above. I am reading Little Women again for Dani's book club and I cannot get my mother out of my head! I love the Just So Stories!

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  2. Love The Giving Tree and The Tale of the Three Trees. As far as novels, I will always favor Watership Down. I do not have memories of my folks reading to me...my kids do remember curling up in bed while I read the Harry Potter books and many others. Loved The Little Princess. And, my sixth grade teacher read to us. He seemed to like sad dog books...Sounder, Where the Red Fern Grows.

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    1. oh your poor first grade teacher! wonder what that was about!

      It is nice to think of those memories of reading! My mother must have read me The Gingerbread Man over and over again - I am sure she was sick of it!

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  3. PAGE TURNER Lump in my throat WMM, but the good kind. I cherish my grandmother's Pooh book that she read to her little sisters. Not exactly a family Bible, but works for me. And A Child's Christmas a mandatory seasonal at my house. Isn't it wonderful how the pages of a good, comforting story get wrapped around some the cornerstone moments of our lives. (And it was the wish for DD that got me "lumped," lovely.)

    Happy Friday, good balanced cocktail today if you like brandy, and the bitters make it.

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    1. I am sure Dylan Thomas has proud of place Chez GetFresh!

      well you will laugh because today it is November 1, which is the official first day of Christmas music season from my daughter, who has been waiting for 11 months to play the Chieftains!

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  4. Many of my favorite books have children or young adults as the main characters. I love their sense of wonder and optimism as they navigate through life, how they triumph over all their problems. I can see myself still reading Roald Dahl's books when I'm old and gray and I cry every time I read Little Women.

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    1. MArie - I love Roald Dahl - so awesome and funny! And you are right - Little Women makes me weep too!

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  5. well i was one of those Harry Potter fans although Twilight escaped me. I think i love a natural traditional story arc with a moral at the end. As children I think we all used to try and understand the world and sometimes the premise in adult books assume you have been through certain life changing events or certain circumstances and if you haven't done so then you cant relate as much where as with a childrens book the author assumes limited experience so themes are broader?

    Have a lovely weekend!

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    1. CSW - Twilight escaped a lot of people! I think your analysis is quite a good one! Plus I think that there are often more heroics in children's books than adults, especially in modern literature, which is more nuanced than say Dickens.

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  6. Hi Wendy, I cannot look at Love You Forever! I first heard it while my children were at storytime at the library; I was shocked at my visceral reaction - a huge lump in my throat. I just can't read it without ending in a puddle of tears - when I started leading storytime myself I wouldn't read it, I could not trust myself to get through it.

    On a happier note, I used to love reading the Just William series - I first came across them in a tv series in the 70s and found the books and enjoyed them (even as a teenager). William and his gang live in an English village and have all sorts of adventures.I still have some copies and dip into them now and again.

    I read so much to my boys when they were little - their great favourite was Roald Dahl, but they also loved Harry Potter when they were a little older. Both still read a huge amount today - one is studying English Literature.

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    1. Love you Forever: stick a fork in me, I am done when I read that! I forgot about Just William! How fun!

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  7. Lovely, lovely post. I re-read Anne of Green Gables every few years; it changed my life as a pre-teen. And I love the Little Bear series and Paddington Bear. Plus, I have a stack of kids Xmas book that come out every year when my now 20+ girls come home. I adore books!

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    1. Oh, I forgot about Paddington Bear - love him!!

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    2. Sandy - I love all of your favourites! I have a Paddington Bear Christmas ornament which is quite prized by me! I love all of the Anne books and the Emily books so much!!!

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    1. You are so welcome! you are so helpful Gigi - is nice to give you something back!

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  9. As a longtime elementary school teacher your post brought back memories of staff room talks where teachers shared how they teared up or had to take a moment when reading aloud from a book to their class. They had always read it before and often many times but even knowing when the poignant part was coming they would have to stop and collect themselves. The kids loved those teachers. Others would talk about extending the read aloud time so they could stay with the story saying the kids were really into it when we all knew they didn't want the story to stop. I will never forget Little Women since I was going to grow up to be Joe and have a house full of unwanted boys. The house full of boys did not happen but Joe was my first feminist.

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    1. Mary - that is so neat! It's funny - I was thinking of my grade 6 teacher and how I should write and thank her, as she read every blessed story and poem I wrote unfailingly and she can never know what that meant to me! You gotta love Jo! Although it is interesting, I am reading Little WOman for the umpteenth time in advance of Dani's book club in December and I am thinking more and more of Marmee!

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  10. So, so true!! You have really struck a chord here. The books I read during those formative years are the ones I turn to time and again, and especially when I feel the need for something comforting. I still read Jane Eyre and The Hobbit at least once or twice every year.

    Hope you have a great weekend!

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    1. Oh I love Jane Eyre and the Hobbit! I am counting down the days till the next movie is released!

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  11. Oh gosh Wendy! This past Monday when our little rascal was home sick she asked for her picture books, her favourites from when she was little, she always reads them in her bed when she's sick in bed.
    I so worry about kids between 9 and 12 and the lack of reading, they are such computer kids now, it's a real struggle to get them to read. No computer in the bedroom, set times for computer and strict rules on reading before bed, I do all of this but it is still difficult. And it's such an important age to spend in books you're right!

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  12. do I sound like a dolt or what, obv she reads them in bed when she's sick in bed, eeesh have another coffee!

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  13. I love that she wants those books - that is so lovely! Mine are still readers despite and in addition to all of the other distractions! Books change our lives and like you have tried to really instill that in my two rascals!

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    1. ps. never even noticed the duplicate!

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  14. Don't you love the aunts in "CCI Wales", one dried out and brittle, the other a bit of a lush?

    So many of these-- I do keep our favorite children's books in our bookshelves rather than boxed up in the attic. At Christmas I bring some out and sprinkle them around the tables in the house.

    One of my all time favorite series is Rosemary Wells' Voyage to the Bunny Planet. I think there are 3 little books, all about some little animal character having an awful day( dinner of cold liver chili and other miseries). Then, in zooms in the bunny queen,
    "Far beyond the moon and stars,
    Twenty light-years south of Mars,
    Spins the gentle Bunny Planet
    And the Bunny Queen is Janet."
    Who fixes everything in gentle ways that rely on the animal's strengths. The pictures are so wonderful and I guarantee smiles.

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    1. Lane I am a HUGE Rosemary Wells fan. And do you have her illustrated Mother Goose, I went through two copies of that with my kids, the first one fell completely apart, we read it over and over.

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    2. No! Why don't I?? Will look for this. All her little faces are so expressive. We liked Hazel's Amazing Mother too. And the Max and Ruby series. "sigh"

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  15. Love Rosemary Wells and I have never seen this so I am going to keep an eye at it at the local chapters!!! we have no books boxed up now - I am so afraid of mildew! I love that the Bunny Queen's name is Janet!

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  17. As a child, I was a serious and voracious reader so I didn't get a chance to read many children's books. As an adult, I'm discovering the charm, wisdom and cleverness of many for the first time. I can't say which are my favorites though but in a similar way, the movie "A Little Romance" (it's sweet, *not* fast-paced with slick dialogue/special effects and big bangs) dissolves me to tears (in a good way) every time I watch it.

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    1. TR - bring the pants over girl and we will read!

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  18. Noel Streatfield, The Children of Primrose Lane

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  19. Hello, I enjoyed reading this post. My favourite re-reads are the picture books I read to my children when they were young - Dr Seuss, The Gruffulo, Where the Wild Things are, The Tiger who came to Tea and so many more!

    My blog, readingforaustralia.blogspot.com.au is aimed at the reading interests of children aged 10 to 13 years, an age when most children can read but often choose not to do so.

    We have an "online literary festival" during November when we invite authors to write discussion pieces on books/reading/writing. The authors also tell us the books they loved as children - its curious how often the same titles come up!

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    1. Your blog is wonderful! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing it with me - will be a great source for me! Since my dream is to publish works for 10-13 year olds, I can so relate to what you are trying to do! And love your books choices!

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    2. Thank you - yes, please stop by as often as you like! There's a great author post today - with photos of Iceland! and tomorrow there'll be a poetry post. We're also having an "industry post" each Thursday, where someone from the book industry writes about their involvement with children's books. The publisher writing this Thursday's post has 25 years experience in children's publishing - a great read. I hope you enjoy it.

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  20. I love reading the Christmas books. We have a bunch of Christmas Golden Books, plus a bunch of others, that always make me smile. Dr. Seuss is always good for a smile too! The last childrens' book I read wasn't very uplifting, though, it was The Fault in our Stars. I guess that's more of a young adult book, have you read it?

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    1. Cate - I read that too (is one of my daughter's favourite books) and I cried and cried and cried....

      Love Christmas golden books (actually I love all golden books!)

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