As adults, we are often quick to dismiss children’s books as frivolous, meaningless stories, our own memories of our childhood favourites remaining a blurred shadow at the back of our minds. But children’s books, more often than not, contain key reflections of very real life dilemmas and insights, wonderfully packaged in a seemingly light-hearted adventure. Growing up, some of the books I read as a child left a lasting impression on me for this very reason – and on revisiting them as an adult, my wonder at their subtle yet powerful poignancy only increased. Here are four children’s books that taught me valuable lessons about the adult world:
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
As a child, I remember thinking of Anne as a cheerful but rather stubborn young girl who navigated growing up in a little town with her adoptive family, the elderly Cuthbert siblings. While the series overall radiates with the comfort of family life, I also remember that Anne was an orphan. The book does not delve too deeply into Anne’s life before the Cuthberts, but from the little that is said, it is apparent that young Anne had a dark, abusive, traumatic, and extremely lonely past.
Keeping this in mind, the central theme of the book revolves around the sheer resilience of a young child who refuses to let her past define her, showcasing her ability to use imagination as a coping mechanism and adapt to new, unfamiliar situations very quickly.
This book taught me not just about resilience, but also about the subjective nature of human difficulties. The other characters in the book have challenges of their own, of varying levels, and even though they might not be as bad as Anne’s early life, they are still relevant, thus highlighting the fact that each individual’s difficulties are relative to their circumstances, and all are valid.
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
Having grown up in an orthodox Christian community, religion was one part of life that was never questioned. But while my schoolteachers were busy condemning the Harry Potter series for witchcraft, His Dark Materials passed unnoticed. Had my teachers known more about this series, they probably would have banned it from the school library.
At surface value, the trilogy appears to be about a young girl with a plucky spirit, and her adventures across various magical realms. However, the series is propelled by a strong undercurrent of religious commentary, with the antagonists actually being the religiously ‘righteous’ leaders of society. The book explores the connection between religion and morality, and how for centuries, oppressors have been using the very religion that kept the masses in check as tool to justify their obviously problematic actions (including torture and murder).
Sadly, the manipulation of religion is not confined within this series, and the trilogy is a reflection of the real world in many ways. The series taught me that religion is far from absolute, and showed me the importance of observing society with a removed eye, and recognising when religion was being exploited by people in power to justify hurting others and spreading hate and discrimination.
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
The most distinctive element of this book is the eerie atmosphere that pervades it – and even though it spooked me a little, my interest in off-centre, strange, highly imaginative universes made me immediately fall in love with it.
In Coraline’s case, the sudden disappearance of her real parents and the emergence of sinister doppelgangers leaves her to find her way all by herself. This is the only truly scary aspect of the book, i.e. the young protagonist being completely alone in what develops into rather terrifying circumstances. And yet, the book also gave me valuable insights about being independent and taking charge of a difficult scenario, accepting that which you cannot control; and instead of shunning away things that are unfamiliar, the book taught me the importance of learning about them and interacting with them before passing judgement.
Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
I remember feeling very sad at the end of this novel, because it was one of my earliest introductions to death. But the reason that this book remained important to me was not just because of the sadness of death that was depicted, but also the joy of life and the strength of meaningful relationships. For even thought the book ends with death, it also continues with more life, and this was probably the first time I experienced layered emotions (being deeply saddened and yet hopeful at the same time).
Charlotte’s Web was one of the most beautiful books I ever read as a child, reflecting complex animal-human relationships on a farm (the protagonist being a pig raised for slaughter) as well as the value of friendship and its ability to carry one through even the darkest of times.
These are just a few of the many children’s books that contain very powerful, meaningful messages that play a definitive role in shaping the adults we become (even though we might not have realised it at the time), mainly by exposing us to different narratives and teaching us how to be empathetic, understanding, independent humans.