Anyone who has ever dabbled in the world of babysitting — perhaps as a high school endeavor to generate pocket cash or involuntarily by being born an older sibling — understands the inestimable power of a good children’s book. They contain the seemingly supernatural capacity to quell tears after a stubbed toe, lull an energetic little one to sleep and even distract from the threat of an imminent visit to the dentist or doctor. Children’s stories appear to hold a leverage that is notably challenging to replicate among tales targeted towards adults. This observation yields a crucial question: Are these stories so powerful because children are more easily swayed than their aged counterparts, or is there something in their simplicity that renders them so poignant?
I’d be shocked if the correct answer was the former one. Reading Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, originally put to print in 1947, still conjures a sense of serenity within me that few books I’ve read in my (albeit short) adult life have done. What could be more peaceful and more innocent than the process of wishing goodnight to the very fixture of nighttime itself, without whom our night sky would remain stuck in a perpetual state of new moon?
Goodnight Moon, of course, is not alone in its place of honor among the pieces that have continuously and relentlessly soothed children across generations. Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, published first in 1969, is another certifiable classic, recounting a story of metamorphosis and transformation that speaks directly to kids’ own fears about growing up and taking on new roles. I remember hearing this story an unidentifiable number of times in classrooms and at home throughout my youth, and his passing earlier this year felt to me like the loss of a true cultural icon.
Further favorites emerge as we look deeper into the twentieth century. Take Ludwig Bemelmans’ darling 1939 Madeline series, which follows the adventures of a particularly feisty young Parisian schoolgirl. Where the Wild Things Are has also become a staple in the lexicon of American children’s fiction, written in 1963 by Maurice Sendak. (A blockbuster animated film followed in 2009.)
Each of these four stories was crafted for a different century than the one we are living through now, a world in which childhood looked almost unrecognizable from its current form. While the social and political contexts have changed drastically, the themes these books confront remain timeless — growing up, embarking on new adventures and exploring the bounds of one’s own imagination.
Similarly, the timeless illustrations that dot the pages of children’s stories create a hybrid linguistic-visual experience that is largely lost on adult literary creations. The words and phrases that run across the pages of children’s books are intentionally simple and oftentimes deliberately brief, and so the illustrations fill in the gaps to complete the mission initially undertaken by the written material. Today, we have devised several means of praising this incredibly special confluence of words and pictures, with the Era Jack Keats Book Award, Caldecott Medal and Geisel Award representing some of the highest accolades one can achieve in this space.
While the advent of books made uniquely for children are by no means a development of the twentieth century, they were not always such an integral piece of youth. Prior to the 1700s, reading material for kids largely concentrated on religion, etiquette or education. It was none other than Enlightenment philosophe extraordinaire John Locke who helped transition away from this dull material, advocating for engaging and enjoyable learning opportunities for kids in his 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
Authors began to produce options that aligned more closely with Locke’s ideal in the eighteenth century, including Mary Cooper and her Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1944 that gave us the blueprint for nursery rhymes like “London Bridge” and “Bah, Bah, Black Sheep.” By the time the nineteenth century took root, these more captivating tales had evolved into full-fledged fantastical adventures, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 as the most prominent example. The development of the Cold War in the mid-1900s induced a sharper focus on the quality of American educational material, and the quest to generate truly intriguing educational tools for children only escalated. Dr. Seuss, for example, practically ascended to literary stardom.
In our current moment, however, there are a plethora of options competing for children’s attention. Television shows full of firefighting dogs or talking dinosaurs as well as iPads stacked with colorful games are just a few examples, yet the variety of these entertainment options will only continue to skyrocket as handheld devices continue to advance, and kids receive these handheld devices earlier and earlier. The old-fashioned children’s book, then, seems to occupy a rather precarious position.
We would do well to continue emphasizing the value of these books, these tangible instruments for otherworldly investigation, as awe-inspiring tools. Beyond simply conveying the basic building blocks of grammar and language, they also facilitate the process of teaching youngsters how to be comfortable within their own imaginations. They create worlds that are entirely encapsulated between a front and back cover, a self-sustaining ecosystem of exploration that exists wholly in isolation. (The same cannot be said for online educational games, which achieve the first end, or children’s television programming, which achieves the second.)
What’s more, contemporary children’s books can also serve as primers that familiarize kids with the issues that shape our social landscape. Take National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings, for example, which encourages tolerance in place of hatred and hope in lieu of pessimism. Kathleen Krull and Yuyi Morales’ Harvesting Hope tells of Cesar Chavez’s work to create equality for farmworkers in California,and Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet recounts the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909. In these ways, children’s books are so much more than mere means of making rowdy kids hit the pillow. They have the power to play a critical role in cultivating children’s passions and thus shaping who they will become, all the while offering a wisdom that has trickled down from a shared consciousness centuries old.
Megan Pontin is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] Rewind runs alternate Mondays.