I have a reading list. All writers ought to, I’m told.
And for a while, this was a stressful thing. My reading list was a thing to conquer. I still had yet to tackle classics that my peers had been hotly debating since middle school. My giant to-do list yawned before me, standing between me and literary literacy. For a while I stopped reading altogether, or did so haltingly, guiltily.
But all writers ought to read, so I’m told.
So I went to the library. And on a whim, among the stacks containing the sum of human knowledge and experience, I picked out children’s books.
It started with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the movie of which I’d watched to oblivion as a child. I can now say with smug surety that although the plot of the book is far better, the movie does have the best songs. Also, Dick van Dyke.
Then I checked out “Folktales from around the World.” This was a thicker volume, one I didn’t get to finish. But I did read a truly horrifying tale called “Blue Beard.” “Blue Beard” is the kind of story that either French parents told their children to squelch curiosity, or that French husbands told their wives to squelch independent thought. Maybe both. (Google it.)
The Little Prince was sweet and beautiful and disconcerting. The whole world is in that story; every line is packed with meaning. Like a haiku. Like orange juice concentrate.
Inkheart, my beloved Inkheart, was cozy and wonderful and profound. It’s a book about loving books, which makes you love books as you love the book.
A Little Princess, my main jam. As a kid I had the black and white illustrated version, which I painstakingly colored with crayons. It’s deliciously Victorian and deliciously hopeful. It makes me want to be six again, wearing flowered dresses and tying my curls with ribbon.
This pint-sized reading list made me fall back in love with reading. Of course, I’ve recently read some amazing, good, deep grownup books as well, but children’s books have a magic about them that adult literature is too audacious to allow. As I was reading, I worried that others might not understand this. A few times I found myself hiding my book choices as I walked to and from the library, worried that my children’s books were not sophisticated enough to deem me a serious reader.
Well, screw that. Because any piece of writing can be serious if you’re serious when you read it. The nutrition facts on a bottle of ketchup can be just as profound as the Odyssey. (More so, actually, because I’ve been way more serious about my ketchup choices than I ever was about reading the Odyssey.) Books written for children take humanity and melt it into little Jolly Rancher-like pieces that are bright and sweet and take time to really savor. (Except children’s books are much better because they don’t give you tooth decay.)
But the best thing about kiddie lit is it reminds you to wonder at the world, to marvel at light and beauty and the simplicity of truth, and to hope for the good things always triumphing, no matter how bleak it may seem.
The things you read about in children’s stories are more poignant as an adult, because they allow you to eat the bite-sized morsels of truth with a much larger appetite. The crumbs all come together to make a meal much more complete. The childlike joy in the meal couples with an adult-like appreciation of its nutrition. (Sorry for all the food metaphors.)
This reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: “…unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Adult Christians try really hard to attain this kind of childlike faith. We strive to see God as a loving Father. We force ourselves to throw off the cares of the world. We scour our Bibles and exhaust our small group studies in an attempt to be more childlike.
In this way, we create a very ambitious “reading list” out of life. It’s a list not created out of a spirit of joy and wonder, but one of stress and begrudging piety. We read our list—we live our lives—haltingly, guiltily. It’s a thing to conquer, something to hotly debate with the people around us.
But maybe it’s more simple than we think. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe all it takes is to throw out all the adultlike self-help crap we clog our brains with. Maybe sometimes we don’t need yet another platitude, another prescription for good living. Maybe we just need to pick up a good children’s story.
Try it. What’s the worst thing that could happen; you learn how to slay a dragon? At the very least, that’s practical. At the very most, it’s a step towards childlike faith.