Approximately a week ago I finished reading a picture book written by Lindsay Leslie. The unnamed protagonist in the book attempts to construct a library. From the physical materials to real estate infrastructure, the author lets her imagination run wild and the result is a fulfilling laugh riot! And as Leslie warns her readers in no uncertain terms, there has to be dragons in the library. There is no compromising this indispensable requirement. The simple reason being, “every book – and library – is made better by dragons.” However, the dragons need to be appropriately trained. In the precisely 26 minutes that it took to complete the book, I was an absolute bundle of hilarity. Guffawing like a demented soul at the magnificent illustrations by Aviel Basil, I was transported into a world of innocence and innocuousness, albeit for a very brief but exhilarating while.
This enjoyable experience made me introspect as to what is it that makes a simple, unassuming and unpretentious children’s book so appealing to adults? The revelation when it came was as profound as it was simple. It is precisely the allure of simplicity, unpretentiousness and humility that moves the reader. In Roald Dahl’s evergreen novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, every adult unfailingly eggs on the poor paperboy Charlie Bucket in his quest to identify the five Golden tickets hidden by Willy Wonka, the owner of a Chocolate Factory, that have the potential to transform Bucket’s life for the better, While as an adult I am completely aware of the fact that what is unraveling before me is just the product of an unrivaled imagination of a gifted author, and that inevitably in the end Bucket would be the sole and expected beneficiary of luck, goodwill and fortune, I still end up immersed in the book and cannot allow sleep to come in between me and the funny challenges conjured by Willy Wonka.
The greatest lesson that a children’s book imparts, in my humble and personal opinion, is an absolute absence of judgement. If we as adults were to bring this one quality as our perpetual companion and friend, the world would be such an awesome place to inhabit. Before pointing a finger at anyone, we would first put ourselves in the shoes of that individual and then perhaps our entire construction (or misconstruction rather) clouding our judgment would vanish into thin air. Moreover some of the most subtle constructs of life and living are contained within the confines of books for children. Unfortunately such precious and precocious pearls of wisdom remain unclaimed, since many feel it either beneath them or an absolute waste of time to peruse books for children.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” comes with a very noticeable subtitle – “A Tale for Children”. Nothing could be more deceptive than this seemingly obvious subtitle. An old man, whom the villagers believe to be a decrepit angel has for some imperceptible and unfathomable reason wings growing out of him. A Catholic priest examines the geriatric and pronounces that even though he came with the whole package, including wings and all, he could not be an angel since he cannot comprehend Latin. Latin is, but the undisputed language of the Gods and a person inept at Latin cannot lay any claims to Divinity, even if such a person has a pair of wings. Now, this concept is so complex and abstract that no child may be declared guilty of not deciphering its essence. Children’s stories often are messages for adults packaged in a hidden and shadowy manner. C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is replete with theological symbolism that is beyond the grasp of any child, (prodigies and geniuses being rare exceptions). I challenge anyone who argues that The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery has children as its sole or even primary target audience. The story of a Little Prince getting enlightened and sharing such enlightenment with his readers as he sets off on a tour of the Planets is as profound and philosophical as any meditative piece, but without the almost-deemed-necessary metaphysical jargon.
Even today, very few readers remember AA Milnehttps://punchdrink.com/ as a West End playwright or features editor of Punch. They only know him as the brilliant and engaging author of “Winnie The Pooh”. Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Nighttime” has altered the very perception that people hitherto nursed about children suffering from behavioural difficulties. The fifteen year old protagonist of Haddon’s book, also its narrator, Christopher John Francis Boon is a Mathematician who suffers from Asperger Syndrome. Translated into thirty-six other languages, the book offers a very moving perspective of the world viewed from the unique lens of Boon. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Nighttime” keeps luring the reader back to its pages time and time again. No wonder literary critics are uniform in their opinion that it is children’s books that are re-read the greatest number of times. To paraphrase best selling author Neil Gaiman, “When I’m writing for kids,” he says, “I’m always assuming that a story, if it is loved, is going to be re-read. So I try and be much more conscious of it than I am with adults, just in terms of word choices. I once said that while I could not justify every word in American Gods, I can justify every single word in Coraline.”
Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five” series and Edward Stratemeyer’s “The Hardy Boys” are even now a perennial favourite of mine. However, sitting atop the pile of my beloved collection children’s books is “Swami and Friends” by the great R.K. Narayan. It is an unpardonable travesty that one of India’s and the world’s most celebrated writers was never honoured with the Nobel. However no literary recognition can hold a candle to the reverence and love accorded by the reader to his/her favourite author. In this regard, Mr. Narayan stands unrivalled like an eternal beacon of light. “Swami and Friends” is a joyous celebration of life despite its gnawing perplexities, gripes and grinds. It is also a glittering testimony to humanity as a collective force for the good.
In summary, if anyone says that she prefers Dr. Suess to Dostoyevsky, please do not jump to conclusions and judge her. Instead, pick up a copy of “The Cat In The Hat” or “The Grinch Grinches The Cat”. Please do not fail in your duties to thank her once you are done!