As the majority of the so-called adults in charge across the globe begin to mirror the villains I grew up reading about, I find myself going back through old, worn favourites as well as buying plenty of new releases that help keep me sane. Kids’ literature, after all, is probably the best place to look for advice on dealing with monsters. I don’t know where I’d be without them.
Currently, I’m re-reading the accurately absurdist Alice in Wonderland, and the elaborate riddles and rabbit holes feel very 2017. Many quotes from the legendary Queen of Hearts (possibly one of the world’s first corporate feminists) remain lodged in my mind, but “why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” is especially sticky.
Returning to the literature that I loved as a kid isn’t just a comforting regression when times are tough. I find that when things feel weirder than usual, I need to find a literary weirdness that’s capable of unscrambling my present tense.
Kids’ books offer ways to make sense of a world that is suddenly spinning so quickly we’re permanently dizzy; it’s one of the few formats that helps you do everything at once in the way the internet landscape demands; escape, understand and take action.
But as much as we need them more than ever, we’re still making the mistake of thinking that kids’ books are transient; that they only serve to get through a bedtime, or prep a child for the responsibilities of being a grown-up. There’s two things wrong with this.
Firstly, it pretends that kids in 2017 aren’t absorbing what adults do (albeit through a different filter) every single day. Secondly, it pretends that there is even such a thing as an adult in the first place. I know I feel like I’m impersonating a “grown-up” right now, and I imagine you feel like that, too.
Maybe we delineate between books for adults and books for children because there is no greater comfort than pretending that the trajectory of time is linear and easy: we start out young and daft, and wait to become older and wiser. Really, though, it’s all just chaos. We are constantly jumping back and forth between different selves. Some days I go from 31 years old to six in a matter of minutes.
In 2017, it’s helpful to have as many spaces as possible in which this eerie grown-up world is refracted, not reflected. Nothing can leave you at that magical place where clarity meets absurdity like children’s literature.
In my mind it’s a sort of wiggly venn diagram, at the centre of which the complex inevitabilities of life: love, loneliness, death are rendered with an astounding simplicity. Better still, the themes, plots and characters aren’t afraid to confront how random and arbitrary life is.
At least that’s what I felt the first time I read Matilda, or flicked through Ruth Krauss’ A Hole is to Dig. A crocodile makes his way through a busy city to his job in a zoo enclosure, where he must remove his suit to become an appropriate spectacle for everyone else. That strange randomness of existence feels momentarily fathomable.
Great children’s books are always uniquely frightening, hopeful and mad, not unlike the world we live in now. Thanks to all that strange literature I’ve absorbed I can’t look at a jam sandwich without thinking of an infuriated wasp, or a onesie without feeling Max’s unrelenting fury as he stomped with the Wild Things in Maurice Sendak’s famous book.
Raised on a strict diet of Roald Dahl, I still consider all Pelicans to be called “Pelly” and can’t help but imagine the grim things that are probably hidden in hipster beards. EB White has plenty to answer for, too: when it comes to spiders, depending on the size, I find myself wondering if it might be on first name terms with a nervous pig.
Crucially, kids’ books remind me that everything has an interior life, not just me. Children’s books keep us humble, with their wonderful logic and endless empathy, reiterating that more of the world is unknown than it is known. There’s nothing better to help ease that stagnant, “grown-up” solipsism.
• Kat Patrick is author of the children’s books I am Doodle Cat and Doodle Cat Is Bored.
What are some of your favourite kids books to re-read as an adult? Let us know in the comments.