For some time now, I've been interested in the link between the books we read as children and their effect on our reading lives as adults. Why, I ask myself, does the media have such disdain for contemporary children's literature when surely it's the books that we read as children that set us seeking more and more imaginative paths as adult readers. Isn't a steady diet of great children's books just the thing for an appreciation of adult books? Writers, I've discovered, think so.
In the wake of September 11th, I think that it's clear that books give real comfort to readers of all ages. The New York Times web site included a spot where readers could talk about books that give them strength in good times and bad. I go back to my childhood favourites when I need to re-create a feeling of the safety of my childhood worldłI go with Babar to Paris and have my picture taken by a high society photographer; I careen around the countryside in the back of Mr. Toad's car; I hang out in the Hundred Acre Woods with Pooh Bear. For me, returning again and again to children's books is akin to that comfort zone which we often create with foodłmeatloaf, ham, scalloped potatoes, Kraft dinner! I've been asking writersłchildren's writers and adult book writersłjust what kind of importance they put on children's booksłas kids and as adults, as creators, as parents and as passionate readers. Here is the first sampling of their responsesłthere's more to come so enjoy!
Jeffrey Canton, Editor, Children's Book section
I wouldn't say I was a big reader in the way I know many of my colleagues were. I was a kid who loved books as much as I enjoyed being a kid outdoors hanging with my friends. Over the decades my need for books and friends has not changed, nor diminished. The reality of both in my life has enriched me immeasurably and made me a privileged man.
The Wind in the Willows. Little Black Sambo. And To Kill a Mocking Bird. Each of them in their own inimitable way touched me profoundly while opening up a world that I had never imagined, igniting my imagination, and leaving an indelible mark on my soul. I am a changed person for having read them, and I hope a better person, too. They are three books that I return to again and again. For the love of a good story. For characters that inspire and challenge me. For the pure pleasure of reading. To be reacquainted with old friends. Today, those three books and their remarkable characters still touch me in much the same way that they did when I was young.
Ian Wallace, author and illustrator
The True Story of Trapper Jack's Left Big Toe, 2002
Night and day and in between I read. The worst punishment my mother ever gave Was to forbid me to read for a week. Agony. I revisited favourites every year. While studying for final exams in university, I would shut myself in my room with the current cat, relax and read children's books. I read for excitement, for company, as my daughter said tonight when I asked her about it, for magic. That would be the Nesbit books. The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. At the Back of the North Wind was too painfulłas was much of Hans Christian Andersen. For sheer comfort, I think the Dulce Domum chapter in The Wind in the Willows, the gradual warmth of Sarah Crewe's attic in A Little Princess, all of the Secret Garden, and the Cuckoo Clock. And above all, the rich mystical world of Kim.
Mary Alice Downie, author
Scarred Sarah, 2002
I have a very specific memory pertaining to reading and comfort, and I'm not even embarrassed that the book in question was a big Enid Blyton omnibus, with excerpts from The Adventure books, and I suppose the Famous Five and Secret Seven. I think I have those names right, though truth be told it was books like The Mountain and the Valley and the Circus of Adventure that really caught my fancy and that I remember with anything approaching accuracy. The omnibus had been a Christmas present, and I hadn't paid it any mind until I happened to be home with the flu or bronchitis or whooping cough or some illness I was fabricating (I did a lot of that), and picked it up, the omnibus, I mean, very much in a faute de mieux kind of way, there being nothing else near by, and right away I was nabbed by it. The easy prose, the chumminess and collegiality that was abound between the children in the stories, their derring-do, the certainty that all would be well, the language that was just oblique enough to be plainly from another place, pleasingly strange but not so daunting as to be off-putting: all those elements, I suppose, combined to engage me. As to the comfort, I think it was derived from a kind of nostalgia, the particular nostalgia (there might be a better word for it, the Germans are sure to have one) that doesn't grow from a longing for anything you've known yourself and lost, but that you would have liked to have know, will never know, and suspect never really existed in the first place; a world where parents were de trop, and excitement of a manageable sort waited behind every hedge. I recently re-read some of those Adventure books to see if I could understand why they were so appealing, and while I'm bound to say that they haven't stood the test of time, not my time anyway, I could still detect whiffs of that same yearning rising from the page. Latterly I've learned that Enid Blyton and I share a birthday (along with Mavis Gallant) and this wink at kinship has made me, I'm almost sorry to say, as happy as anything has in recent years. Also, and this has just come back to me, there was an introduction to the anthology by Enid herself, along with a photo, and in it she wrote about her working habits. I was impressed by how she would sit in her garden (this is what I recall, it may or may not be accurate) with her typewriter on her knees, and thwack away. I am writing this on a laptop, and it is indeed on my knees. Enid's influence is far reaching.
Bill Richardson, author and broadcaster
I was a big reader mostly due to the fact that there was no TV in the household where I grew up. I greatly envied the children who exchanged stories about TV programs and the movie-of-the-week. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a book I remember from my childhood. I suspect it moved me because it offered a realistic portrayal of young protagonists who became empowered to have a major impact on the 'real world'. I was an orphan and never felt safety as a child, so I don't seek out my childhood as a comfort zone. For me, books offered possible alternatives to a difficult reality.
Paul Yee, author
Ghost Train, Tales from Gold Mountain
I was a self-taught and compulsive reader as beguiled by the back of a Cornflakes box as I was by a picture book. It was the printed word. My mother would lug a shopping bag full of books from a library near her work every week for me. Now her English was pretty well non-existent and she couldn't read so the bag would be full of an astonishing array of stuff. Picture books, non-fiction, poetry, essays, decorating books and novels that were utterly beyond me. I read them all. I don't think I had a discerning palette. I loved equally and fervently The Secret Garden and the Trixie Beldon series, delighted by Poe and all those coloured fairytale collections. I loved 'girl' books and 'boy' books with the same intensity. My world was crowded with war stories, cowboy stories and to this day I am uncannily soothed by the mere mention of Horatio Hornblower. I have no memory of having been read to and we moved at least once a year for many, many years. Still I defy anyone to come up with a more adventurous childhood or anyone who was less lonely.
Teresa Toten, author
Nominated for the 2001 Governor's General Award for
Children's Literature (Text), The Game
I was not a huge voracious reader, but I usually had a book on the go. I'm hesitant to endorse the idea of children's literature as comfort food because it makes it sound too much like a security blanket rather than good literaturełor something that you only read to feel reassured, rather than something that might challenge and provoke an intense and possibly disturbing reaction in kids. As a kid Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World moved me because of the wonderful father-son relationship. Mostly I read for sheer adventure and escapism: John D Fitzgerald's Great Brain books; Betrand Brinley's Mad Scientist Club books. There was something appealing (and comforting) about these little universes with their community of friends and family, the power the children had over their lives and environment. Like most Canadian kids in the 60s I also read Enid Blyton, not terribly good books, but hugely popular and appealing to kidsłchildren on vacation, taking things into their own hands, controlling their destinies, yet with a safe resolution at the end with parents and adults ready to rescue them if need be, and a normal life to return to. But I also liked books that scared the shit out of me, like John Christopher's Tripod books and the danger of Lloyd Alexander's books.
Ken Oppel, author
In many ways, children's books are like a comfy blanket, you know that one you used to have when you were 4 or 5 years old? At least I had one. I devoured as many books as possible. Mostly science fiction, Fantasy and mythology books. My absolute favourite was a hardcover version of "The Book of Three" by Lloyd Alexander. I took it out of the school library every chance I could. Living on a ranch in Saskatchewan, I truly felt like Taran, who was on A farm and forced to make horseshoes instead of sword blades and who felt like nothing would ever happen to him. The book took me away to another world. I'm happy to say when the library chose to sell a portion of its books, I was able to pick up that very same copy of "The Book of Three." It even has the library card with my name written several times on it.
Arthur Slade, author
Winner of the 2001 Governor General's Award for
Children's Literature for Dust
Sometimes I'd read 7 books a week. I remember a picture book called Where's my baby that my Mom read to my brother and I in England when we were little. At that time my father was away in the Navy. Each page has a fold-over portion. When the page is folded you see a mother animal saying "Where's my baby ?"łlooking for her colt or duckling. When you folded open the page the same picture was transformed and amplified to show that same mother cuddling up with or in attendance with her doting calf, chickling etc. The coloursłthe look of the meadows, the spring in the legs of the sheep still affect me with wonder to this day. On the last page the human mother finds not only her children but ..... the father too. I looked forward to this with great enthusiasm. The promise of the father's return. For many years I had only a torn copy of this book, but recently found a re-issue of it in a children's book store. The Swallows and Amazons seriesłfor its depiction of independent morally motivated children was important to me. As were the Narnia booksłparticularly the Last Battle with it's strange apocalyptic after-life vision. I almost wanted to kill myself after reading that bookłso I could go to Narnia.
Definitely a comfort zone! A way to get transported from this troubled world to another more magical place. Like food, if the quality is good, if the balance is rightł very nourishing as well.
Robert Priest, author and poet
A Terrible Case of the Stars, Day Songs Night Songs
"Cheer up!" whispered Jack, from the goose-bush, seeing her gloomy face. "This is an adventure, you know."
(Enid Blyton, The Castle of Adventure, 1946)
The one thing people remember is always seeing me with my nose in a book. Adventure booksłhands downłalways won out. I started out as an Enid Blyton book junkie in Grade 1 and it got worse after that. Although Blyton's books have been criticized for racism, sexism, and snobbishness, as psychologist Michael Woods has stated "The secret of her books lay in the fact she was a child, she thought as a child and she wrote as a child." Needless to say Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass also inspired. Why? The imaginationłgirls were involved and (mostly) not an adult in sight making everyone be sensible. I hated sensible shoes. You know those brown oxford things. I would have worn ballet slippers everywhere if I could have gotten away with it. And the best part to readingłI could create my own version of the world's being described in my drawings.
Marilyn Mets, author and illustrator
Waiting for the Sun, Midnight Math
Every time I'm stressed out or get a miserable cold I take The Secret Garden to bed with me. Sometimes I take Little Women or Heidi or Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, too. I read compulsively as a child (still do) and the books I readłmore, the books I lovedłare such an intrinsic part of my life and have been for so long that I can't even begin to tell you why. I can tell you this, though: there's no comfort in the world (not even mashed potatoes and gravy) like the comfort that comes from surrendering myself to the magic of a story that first threw its enchantment over me when I was eight or ten years old.
Janet Lunn, author
Laura Secord: A Story of Courage, The Hollow Tree
I used to go to the children's book section at the library and stay there until dark. I kept returning even as I grew, growing bigger and bigger while the chairs stayed the samełkind of like Alice after she took the 'get big pill'. I guess that was because I was such a big 'looker' as a kid. I loved looking at the picturesłthe details, the backgroundsłheaven.
I was a big Barbar fan I loved the department store, the old lady's soirees with her stuffy (but kind) friends- all of it couldn't be more unlike the Bronx and maybe that's why I loved it so. The image of two chairs in the old lady's apartment stayed with me all my life. I always longed to own a pair. When I was 37, we bought a house in France. I think I loved the house because the owner's had two chairs like the, as I came to call them, 'Barbar' chairs.
It's all about comfort zone isn't it? But you know, it means we're emotional cripples, don't you? I mean obviously something went very wrong for all of us not to want to fully grow upłn'est pas?
Maryann Kovalski, author and illustrator
Queen Nadine, Omar on Ice
I loved to read as a child. As eastern European immigrants, my parents spoke very little English when I was young. So, I used to work my way through the Grimms Fairy Tales, savouring each picture, even before I could make out the words. My parents used to recite Czech fairy tales to me and I was amazed to discover that Snow White and Red Riding Hood were universalłthe language was different but the story was essentially the same.
When I was older and reading on my own, I discovered that books could fill my soul, as well as every hour of the day. I devoured the Nancy Drew Mystery series at a young age and still have copies in my basement.
I read Gone with the Wind when I was 11 years old and that's when my love affair with historical fiction began. It's still what I love reading today.
Kathy Kacer, author
The Secret of Hannah's Dresser, Clara's War
My childhood was quite typical, I suspect. A great reader, anything and everything but especially the things my parents (who had fairly strict literary tastes) didn't want me to read. Not the Fanny Hill sort of thingłthey probably wouldn't have minded. But the Hardy Boys were dTclassT, as were Spiderman, Archie, and Zeke the Outlaw. Freddy the Pig was, well, all right, but not exactly great literature. But I read him avidly, and am happy to have introduced him to my own children. I remember waking from a horrific dream, scared to death and unable to go back to sleep, whiling away the night with Snoopy. I remember plunging happily into friends' stashes of Mad magazine.
On a more serious note, my sense of the infinite is still very much a child's. I have no formal religion, but the Christianity of CS Lewis is pretty close. I found comfort there. I have, as an adult, re-read many of my old favoritesłKipling, Ransome, and Nesbit stand outłand found that they all stand up. And my most astonishing discovery, on reading to my children, was how good Russell Hoban is. Frances the Badger and Captain Njork are on my list of great characters.
Richard Scrimger, author
Princess Bun Bun, 2002
I read all the time and books were literally like food to mełI used to nibble on the pages as I read. Most of my childhood books have the page corners torn off. Most of the books I read seemed more real than my own life. I particularly remember Christopher Robin's party at the end of Winnie-the-Pooh. I stared at the picture and I was there, sitting at the table under the large tree with the other animals and toys. I felt an immense security, being both inside the book at the happy party and outside of the book listening to my mother's voice and about to fall asleep in my cozy bed.
Kit Pearson, author
Awake and Dreaming
I was obsessed about Nancy Drew as a kid because it was a series and an adventurous girl protagonist. My Dad wasn't a reader (unless it was the Financial Times) and I only have one vague memory of my mom reading aloud The Water Babies when I was very little. I tried to read it to my kids some years ago but none of us got interested. This made me realize that the sound of the parent's voice reading, storytelling, is a big part of the experience. Mom could have read the Financial Times and I might have remembered it. When I became an independent reader, I got hooked by Nancy Drew and then later Eloise McGraw, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Stewart and Tolkien. There were picture books I learned to love as a teenager babysitting my favorite kids, Dr. Seuss and Madeleine, and then I started taking Children's Lit courses in university and discovered The Secret Garden and Narnia. I've wondered if the kid in me is making up for a "literature deprived" childhood, but I know that's not true. Kids' books don't conjure up a sense of an old comfort zone, a reliving of something familiar from childhood. I think they just appeal to the kid that still resides in me, to my sense of delight and total willingness to suspend disbelief.
Anne Laurel Carter, author
In the Clear
I was an avid reader. My idea of a really great day was to have stack of books and no one to bug me, so I could read all day. I spent most of my pocket money on books (apart from a bit on candy bars and ice-cream) and I would buy second hand books to make the money stretch as far as possible. My favourite birthday gifts were books, many of which I still have. When I lived in Bombay, in India, there was a library across the road from my house, and I delighted in the riches on the shelves. It was there that I discovered Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, both of which are favourites to this day.
One of my all time favourites was Anne of Green Gables. Partly because I lived in a city, I was enchanted by the sense of the countryside that so pervaded the books. I was fascinated by the closed secure community that Anne lived in, again, because my life was so different. My parents, being upper middle-class Indians, had servants to do most of the work around the house and a nanny to look after us. They had a wonderful social life and were out a lot, so family meals were not a regular event. Anne's world which involved chores as well as cozy family meals, peaceful walks through fields and woods, seemed to me wonderfully romantic. All the Anne books were definite favourites and a source of comfort. I read them over and over again. The pleasure and delight of being in Anne's world was both an escape and a comfort, much like the familiar delight of slipping on a favourite bathrobe or pair of slippers. The Anne books had enormous impact on my life. When I discovered that the world in those books, Prince Edward Island, was a real place, I knew that I would go there. And I did. When I first came to Canada, I went to PEI, and I lived there for 14 years. It still is home in a way that no other place can be, partly because the landscape is woven into every cell of my bodyła process that began long before I ever went there; a process that began when I read the books in the heat and humidity of Bombay.
Books definitely re-create a sense of comfort and safety. Slipping into an old book is like visiting old friends and it creates a haven that is both comforting and re-charging. I still re-visit Anne and Jo from Little Women, and there are many other books that I like to re-read at intervalsłThe Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, The Borrowers, the Narnia books, The Wind in the Willows, the Wrinkle in Time books and many others. I think what is so enchanting about them, apart from the safe haven that they create, is that they all depict worlds in which there is joy and hope. As well, they are books with characters that live and breathe, so that I can truly believe the world which they live in. Yes, these books comfort in ways that food does. In fact, I love the double comfort of snacking while reading my favourite books.
Rachna Gilmore, author
A Group of One, Mina's Spring of Colours