Children’s Literature and Painful Events

J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a salve for three boys who lost both of their parents, one of sarcoma, and one of an inoperable cancer in her chest, according to Wikipedia.

But Barrie, like any writer, also wrote the story for himself. His older brother David was his mother’s favorite. So James took pains to try and cheer his mother up by whistling the way David did and by wearing his clothes. In his mother’s eyes, the ice skating accident that killed him simply froze David in time, and he became the boy who did not grow old.

While I have been reading Peter Pan this week, I have a closer kinship to other children’s stories. More notably there’s Winnie-the-Pooh, which captured my imagination as a child on videocassette adaptations which, when I eventually did find myself reading the tales in the book, I found such a verisimilitude as to be uncanny. Suffice it to say there were goosebumps galore.

A.A. Milne wrote the stories as a representation of his son’s adventures in their pastoral home, but like Barrie, he wrote them undoubtedly as a way of coping with the First World War and the Spanish Flu, which swept like a most pernicious broom the young and the younger, erasing such great talent and hope.

Not only that, but Winnie-the-Pooh can be a great lesson when confronted with so little to do in our lives: we can turn towards someone who was really good at it.

But the children’s stories I have the closest relationship to is Alice in Wonderland. The book was published on November 26th (the same as my birthday), and I have read it numerous times, each time finding something new and profound. Most recently I read the book on a Princeton edition containing all of the printed works of Salvador Dali, and the result is such a beautiful copy. The pages were so thick I often thought I was accidentally turning two of them rather than one. That is the sign of an excellent children’s book.

Lewis Carroll, unlike the previous authors, had the most mundane and pain free life of all of them. To quote Thomas Jefferson, he “steered clear of the rocks and shoals.”

But if you were to ask me why I have spent so much time this past week rereading children’s literature, I suppose it’s to find again a safe place amidst the outbreak of a pandemic. Many of the lessons of Alice reminded me that grown ups have an intricate and complex exchange of rules and morals that, when taken together, do not always make sense. And magical places can either be a safe haven or a stark reminder of the hardship of reality.

Reality is a place where accidents happen.

I can see when I speak of rereading children’s literature to other adults that I have to explain myself. It does not occur to them that children’s literature is still written by an adult, and the impetus I’ve had for reading them is that despite the strange and imaginative worlds the authors create, the source material lies like ink on their soaked fingers. I can easily see where the sadness lurks.

If you have not already, I would encourage you to lose yourself somewhere else than right here in the now.

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