There are aspects of our childhoods that we carry with us when we get older, and one of these for me has been the children’s book. It is children’s literature that often becomes our first foray into suspended belief and imagined landscapes. It is when we first question what it means to see the world and see how life can change suddenly at night. It’s when the moon comes out and fearful things seem to emerge from vapor.
Many children’s books engage with concepts and ideas that, crafted by an adult illustrator’s and writer’s hands, can be imbued with very adult-like questions about existence and the problems that come with it. I found, re-visiting some of the books of my past, that these messages seem to have permeated my childhood and, in effect, permeated my adulthood as well.
One of the books my mother read to me was “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson. The book unsettled me with the oddly blank pages tiny Harold traversed with a single purple crayon in his hand. As a child, it struck me as frightening that he was motherless and alone as he went about drawing what he needed for security, being self-sufficient in a world where everything was empty and yet to be drawn except for himself. When hungry, he would draw pictures of pies to sate his appetite, and when he was scared of the dark he would draw the moon to light his way as he walked in the emptiness of the page.
As a child I found this book profoundly and achingly lonely. The adult in me sees and recognizes Harold, not as a lonely child, but as a representative of what we all are — alone within ourselves in our inner worlds. Life itself is a singular, individual process.
The book also comments on filling the blank slate of one’s life with one’s own hands and inventing what we become rather than inheriting a preconceived meaning or direction of existence from those who came before us. This is something many of us deal with as we grow older: the creation of self through what one does, not what one is given. I suppose at six I wasn’t ready for this revelation — the prospect of constructing families, homes and safety from scratch — but now I understand it, and it’s not as terrifying as it once was.
Another book my mother read to me as a child was “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. My mother used to sing the refrain of the book to her own tune, her voice honed and pitch-perfect: “I’ll love you forever / I’ll like you for always / As long as I’m living / My baby you’ll be.”
She would always cry after reading the lines as they appeared in the book, and I didn’t understand why. The book has soft pencil drawings of a child as he grows up, from a tiny infant to a messy baby to an impassioned, raucous teenager to a homesick college student and finally to an adult, when he, as an older man with graying streaks in his hair, holds his own mother in his arms as she (possibly clearer to adults than to children) is passing away, singing to her his own version of the song: “I’ll love you forever / I’ll like you for always / As long as I’m living / My mommy you’ll be.”
As a child I saw “Love You Forever” as a look into the life of a person who went through momentous events I had yet to experience: tween-hood, teenage-hood, adulthood. I was watching the moments of a boy whom I would later come to follow with the flow of time, unbeknownst to myself. And for my mother, and now me, the book itself seems to reiterate and make bittersweet the passing of time and its circularity — letting go of children at certain moments, figuratively or literally, and having them return at the end, post-bruises, teary eyed with skinned knees. We learn to forgive our parents for what they have done and they, in turn, forgive us and have always done so since we were children.
These books and others unravel some perception of life in a way that’s understandable to children and adults. My experience of children’s books is not isolated to that one moment of being six when my body was consumed in the books’ hard covers. Instead, my experience of these books and their themes is something I have taken with me and have been able to see and build upon in my adult life. Books are things we carry with us from beginning to end, building those perceptions of selfhood and personhood we first begin to be aware of as children and we learn to construct and shape when we enter adulthood and beyond.