Small Worlds - Chlidren's Books for Grownups [NOTE: PRINT VERSION ONLY. WEB VERSION TO FOLLOW]

We read children's stories differently; we don't treat them with the same cynicism, we play along.

Feature by Katie Mathis | 15 Jun 2006
With the phenomenon of a certain bespectacled young wizard, it is easy to forget that Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and A. A. Milne were once household names. The adventures of the Famous Five, of Matilda, of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, were read and re-read long before the gates of Hogwarts opened. In these comfortingly predictable worlds clever girls outwitted foolish fathers, thieves were thwarted, treasure discovered, and the intrepid heroes and heroines still arrived safely home in time for dinner.

Such worlds, however, were finite: Matilda lost her amazing powers, Christopher Robin went away to school – and despite Pooh's promise never to forget him, 'even if he lives to be ninety-nine, and even if he acquires an Education' the implication is that Christopher Robin will one day forget Pooh. Real Christopher Robins and Matildas also 'went away to school' and began to wade into the treacherous waters of Grownup Literature, leaving their storybooks in the irreverent hands of younger siblings. It was all too clear that you weren't supposed to take it with you.

Some of us went on exploring these Small Worlds, going on to discover Susan Cooper, Tove Jansson and Madeleine L'Engle, but admitting that you still enjoyed children's books was frowned on by scathing contemporaries almost as much as having written your name in Elvish runes on the front of your algebra textbook. What is most notable about the advent of Mr Potter is his suddenly shameless popularity. In only a short while the anticipation of parents and even childless adults for the latest instalment of the series has become as eager as that of any of the younger fans.

Clearly children's fiction offers something that adult fiction does not. Philip Pullman, author of the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, is a 'children's author' who is widely read by adults. In debate with former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway at the 2002 Edinburgh Book Festival, Pullman denounced the "queasiness" with which modern writers of adult novels have avoided tackling the issues of 'moral conduct', as well as life and death, "leaving the work to children's fiction."

As adults we are supposed to already know the difference between right and wrong. An adult author trying to instruct us in morality would seem condescending and arrogant. But we read children's stories differently; we don't treat them with the same cynicism, we play along. We are all too eager to suspend our disbelief and grant them vast liberties. A children's book is a Trojan Horse full of witches, goblins and Hattifatners. You wheel it straight through the gates and then, when you're not expecting it, the wonders it contains come pouring out and trample down doors that you've kept firmly bolted since puberty, opening old toyboxes and reminding you how much fun it is to play. Also, as Pullman says, they remind you of the difference between right and wrong - yelling wisdom right in your ear - often pointing out the obvious, yes, but sometimes the obvious needs to be pointed out in a way you won't ignore, in a way that will get through your walls of world-weariness intact.

Dig out those old boxes in your parents' closet and you'll discover another world in there, a whole universe of Small Worlds, both comforting and frightening, familiar and shocking. If you treat it as an exercise in nostalgia be prepared for an ambush; the stories won't ever be quite what you remembered. There will be things you didn't understand the first time round, and things you understood perfectly at age six which are now incomprehensible. But you're never too old to go exploring (neither do you have to wait for children of your own). As Winnie the Pooh tells us, "the Forest will always be there, and anyone who is Friendly with Bears can find it."
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