The obvious problem with recommending books during what is possibly the harshest lockdown in the world is that if you don’t have the book on your shelves, you cannot get it from a shop or order it online. So parents searching for something new to read to their small children during these inexorable weeks of government-mandated quality time must hope their neighbourhood has a book exchange or that bookshops in local markets that are not part of malls and can enforce social distancing will be allowed to open. Treat this, then, not so much as one more set of guidelines or instructions to follow, by now, we have all had enough of being told what to do, but as an argument for the solace that reading can provide to children who have no doubt imbibed our own fears and anxieties to become anxious and fearful themselves.
We scour pandemic reading lists for chinks of insight, for explanations, for the comforting rationalisations and hindsight of non-fiction and the evocation of horror and human fallibility in fiction that also, curiously, is comforting, though we appear to have learned none of the lessons. In A Journal of the Plague Year, published nearly 300 years ago about events a further 57 years in the past, Daniel Defoe wrote about “all trades being stopped, employment ceased, the labour, and by that the bread of the poor were cut off”. Frightened and desperate, people, in most stories about pandemics, behave as vilely as they do heroically, seek to blame and vilify, to spread rumours and blame, to whisper darkly about “outsiders” who seek to spread the disease for their nefarious gain, and eventually to resort to violence.
Children’s books, steeped in joy, in escape, in the capacity of the imagination and love to overcome fear, are antidotes to adult dystopias. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, a classic from the 1960s, is about a young boy whose anger gets him sent to his room without any supper. Confinement is a common theme in children’s literature, in which children, subject to parental discipline, have little or no autonomy. Now, like children, we too have been peremptorily sent to our rooms for the foreseeable future and for our own good. It is in books like Sendak’s that we learn to trust our imaginations, our resilience, and the love of our families to cope with the inchoate anger we feel at the circumstance in which we find ourselves.
The best children’s books also glory in silliness and subversion, in the bizarre and unfamiliar, in animals that talk in rhyme and children whose crayons permit themselves access to faraway lands and adventures. In Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, beloved of toddlers and their parents the world over, a mouse invents a fearsome creature to ward off predators only to then have to protect himself from the monster of his own making. In another bedtime favourite, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, a wolf defends himself from being smeared as ‘big and bad’ by the three little pigs. In yet another, Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, a French girl’s tininess is countered by her inordinate pluck. These are the valuable lessons of children’s literature, that you don’t need to leave your room to travel and have adventures, that you don’t need to be big to be brave and to stand up to bullies, that power can be disarmed by kindness and charm, that unfamiliarity and strangeness is better understood than feared and despised.
As for older children, and teens, let them read what they like, but in this age of surveillance, of government intrusion, of otherwise sane adults both ceding authority and claiming the right to police others, it’s never too early to introduce them to George Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps older children will seek, as we do, the false comforts of information, to seek parallels in history, to ‘learn’ from the past. Literature, though, imparts more useful ‘information’, it shows us that we are in this together, that empathy and generosity will help us survive. Unfortunately, literature also shows that too often society succumbs to fear, hatred and the division it sows.
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