Everyday healthy children come to my office with their parents for routine appointments. I ask many questions during these visits: do they eat fruits and vegetables? How many hours are they sleeping? Do they exercise or have a hobby? Do they brush their teeth regularly? Before entering my office, I often see them playing with their phones, and many keep using them while I ask these questions. Their eyes reflect the screen light, a pale blue color which resembles a distant dying star. Then I eventually ask: do they enjoy reading books? Many parents answer that they enjoyed them when they were very young, especially picture books filled with colorful images but, as time passed by, they stopped reading them and instead started playing mobile videogames. When I ask if they like children books, their parents often reply: “They are too old for that. They don’t read them anymore.”
There was also a time in my life when I stopped reading children’s books. One day, back when I was nine or ten years old, I was reading my then favorite book (a children’s book with some old fairy tales and watercolor illustrations) when my father interrupted me and grabbed my book. He looked at it, closed it and said I was too grown up to keep reading those childish books. He took me to his office, whose walls were lined with bookshelves. He pointed at them and said: “You’ll now learn from these books. They will teach you valuable lessons and help you grow up. It is time to stop reading those childish books; you have to grow up and learn something from the classics.” After that, I chose a book written by a Portuguese author called “Os Maias”. That moment marked the end of my “children’s books era”. Except for one or two series (such as “Harry Potter” and “His Dark Materials”), I stopped reading children’s books and instead started to read “adult” ones.
I kept this habit until a few years ago, when I visited for the first time a small bookstore. The rooms were tight, and their book selection was not huge. The children’s section, however, was lovely. The place was empty, but there were many books piled up everywhere, most of them old ones. I picked one that caught my attention: A. A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh”. Up until then, I had only known Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh, which didn’t appeal particularly to me. Shepard’s drawings, however, were so beautiful that I started reading the book right there, while standing up almost perfectly still. And that was the moment that changed my whole view of children’s books.
We know children’s books are important, as they represent a child’s first steps into literature. Reading and interpreting stories is a basic and crucial aspect of literacy and education, as they stimulate children’s attention and imagination. But is it important for adults to read children’s books? In a world full of interesting and compelling books, why waste time reading children’s books? What can we possibly learn from them, when there are so many non-fiction books addressing almost every important topic?
One of children’s literature most underrated benefits is forcing the reader to reflect upon themes that would otherwise first require a complex literature analysis. Despite their apparent simplicity to an adult, children’s books are actually an invitation for readers to imagine themselves as the characters living an adventure. Certain themes like friendship, love or kindness are more easily assimilated as a story, rather than as abstract concepts plastered over a dozen technical books.
Take friendship as an example: as adults, we often struggle to keep our friendships. Our calendar is just too busy, full of appointments, meetings, family duties and so on. Sometimes, we simply don’t have time to make a phone call to that friend we haven’t talked with in ages. We wonder how they are, what they have been doing – but then our boss sends us an urgent email and we postpone that phone call. Some children’s books kindly remind us it’s OK to let go someone we love, if that’s what’s best for them (even if that makes us sad or nostalgic). But they also remind us how important it is to keep our friendships alive, to nurture them and being there to listen to our loved ones when they need us, as “Winnie-the-Pooh” wisely does:
“You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
“Winnie-the-Pooh” is a wonderful book about friendship and kindness. It also helps us to understand that just being with someone is as important as doing something with them. We live in a world where there’s a constant pressure to just do something: people share on their social media accounts photos from their parties, hangouts with friends, trips and concerts. In those pictures, people are often gathered to do something. “Winnie-the-Pooh” helped me to remember it is a precious thing just being with someone we care about and love.
“What I like doing best is Nothing."
"How do you do Nothing," asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
"Well, it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, 'What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?' and you say, 'Oh, Nothing,' and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering."
"Oh!" said Pooh.”
― Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
On the other hand, “The Lion and the Bird” is a small, but beautiful book which reminded me of the power of friendship and the importance of letting go. It tells us a story about a lion who finds a wounded bird. He takes care of him, and eventually a beautiful friendship arises between them. When the spring comes, the bird is ready to join his friends. The lion is sad because of his friend’s departure but he is also happy. Letting his friend go was the largest sign of true friendship and love he could ever give him. This reminded me how important it is to be empathetic to others, to understand their needs and to do some personal sacrifices if that means something to them. Sometimes it is hard to be alone, especially when we love someone, but this book helped me remember that our loneliness can be minimized if we remember that our loved ones will be better that way.
Another wonderful gift of children’s books is the way they seemingly change as one grows ups. Rereading a book, however, is a dying habit that results from our compulsive need to read many books in place of pursuing those that really make an impact on our lives. Reading challenges, recent and seemingly exciting new authors and lists of the “500 greatest movies of our time that you have to watch before you die” have been preventing us from rereading books, particularly those from our childhood. As we age and (hopefully) develop some emotional maturity, we slowly realize the greatness that lies in the simple words from those books: a simple-looking message suddenly acquires another dimension, one that might even overshadow most of what’s written in a best-sellers bookshelf.
“The Little Prince” constitutes a remarkable example. Although I immediately loved this wonderful story when I first read it, it was only after reading it several times that I began to understand its magnificence as a children’s book. Reading “The Wind, the Sand and the Stars” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was obviously helpful, as it made me understand what the writer and pilot went through and how he managed to translate his feelings and memories into this lovely and apparently simple story. But “The Little Prince” is much more than a bunch of cute merchandising; it has many important metaphors that an adult needs to analyze in order to fully understand them. It helps us understand that there are many important things in our lives, more important than the daily tasks that often tear us apart and test our nerves. The most important thing is to be kind, to care for people we love and be able to keep the sense of wonder that was present in our younger selves.
I also learned a lot when I read “The Secret Garden” for the first time, a couple of months ago. I remember I was sitting in a café, drinking a cup of coffee while waiting for my train to arrive. The night was cold and it was raining outside. I was enjoying the story when I read this passage:
“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun--which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone's eyes.”
― The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I could never have understood this beautiful and strong passage if I had read it when I was younger; or maybe I could, but it resonated so much more now. For a few moments, I was there, watching the birds sing, the green grass and beautiful flowers around me. The sound of people entering the café and the rain pouring outside while cars and buses ran down the street disappeared. I suddenly remembered my younger self walking in my favorite childhood park, thinking of me as an eternal being. I always knew I would not live for eternity, but I wanted to be eternal.
And that is the true beauty of children’s books. They might seem too simplistic. But sometimes we need simplicity in our lives to remind us of the importance of some themes we often forget in this busy and all too often technological world.
Because you are never too old for reading children’s books.