The wonder of reading children’s literature as an adult


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Caged, talking gorilla breaks free from captivity with help from Katherine Applegate’s pals The one and only Ivan. Two neighbors become best friends as one receives messages from the universe in Jen Wang’s stargazing. A gallant mouse seeks pleasure and adventure in Kate DiCamillo’s Desperaux’s Tale.

These are stories that could only happen in children’s literature, bringing with them a sense of wonder that pervades enlightened children. But kid lit also has courses for adults. Through reading children’s books as an adult, I felt a jolt that jolted me out of my jaded attitude. I began to realize that my life too was a promise of wonder, that anything could be possible, whether in a fantasy story or in my contemporary day-to-day existence.

Kid lit taught me when I was young to put my faith in hope, and I was blessed to reconnect with it when I was in my early thirties, bringing with it a renewed curiosity for the world around me, and the fantastics I could visit through books or by writing myself.

To experience wonder is to become vulnerable, confront the fact that your life could be different, that a sprinkling of magic could help you realize the absence of magic in your own life.

What is “Marvel”?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, wonder is: 1) something or someone very surprising, beautiful, amazing, etc. and 2) something or someone very surprising, beautiful, amazing, etc. In the literary sense, wonder is caused by an everyday encounter with the extraordinary. For example, through the prism of wonder, a cat is not just a pet. No, a cat might surprise us with its behavior, personality, quirks, markings and coat. Her chatter that could be a language only we understand, fantastic cat with hidden powers and magic reminding us that the world has the ability to deviate from the norm and subvert our expectations.

Wonder is a concept found heavily in children’s literature, from picture books to middle-level and graphic novels. Aimed at children learning more about the vast world in which they live, children’s books harness with wonder a young reader’s unfathomable belief that life is full of fantastical surprises, enchanting experiences, magical worlds and fiery characters whose problems mimic the challenges of their readership, such as forging friendships, finding acceptance, and navigating difficult family lives.

Remarkably, the middle tier is a catch-all for books that could have been introduced to older readers because, as noted, anything can happen to children. An example is the mid-level masterpiece co-written by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. The characters in this extraordinary novel told half in prose and half in illustrations are not children at all but rather fully formed adults. And yet, this book is full of wonder, from fantasy world-building to universal themes of friendship, prejudice, and collaborating with enemies. Entering YA territory, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge shows how publishers know they can publish a book and find a young readership if the book is awe-inspiring enough.

Reconnect with wonder

For me, I found the wonder of reading a ton of kid reads for my master’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Reading today’s children’s books as well as revisiting some of my old favorites like Harriet the spy, I rediscovered my sense of wonder, wonder that sustained me through my difficult childhood when books taught me that anything was possible, including transcending my negative experiences. Worlds opened up in my own creative writing, as I dreamed up books about talking cats and secret portals and a Peter Pan story. But my relationship with wonder extended beyond writing saturated stories; I also found myself experimenting with genres and subgenres of reading and writing in adult fiction that captured wonderful stories.

I found a cross between “adult books” and childlike wonder across the genres of fantasy, science fiction and, in particular, fabulist books that blended magic and realism. By asking us to consider and embrace the magical, indeed, these genres of fiction allow us all to suspend our disbelief and prepare ourselves for anything to happen, no matter how odd, bizarre, or bizarre. We become vulnerable as we open our minds to wonder beyond the semi-comforts of adulthood, because living in children’s fiction is not a bubble. Existing alongside wonder, mid-level protagonists also encounter difficulties, challenges, and misfortunes.

Finding Wonder for Adults

But to experience wonder, you have to be open to receiving it.

As adults, we are mired in the real adult world, with bills to pay, careers to have, and the stress of living with multiple expectations such as social, work, family, and financial obligations.

Where do we find wonder in our daily lives? Where do we meet something or someone who inspires us with the feeling that anything is possible?

If we want to channel that same reaction of wonder we had as children, we have to set aside the rules by which fiction and life must operate. We must prepare ourselves to look at and experience our world with fresh eyes, to accept the inspiration that wonder creates, to brave the frightening thought that anything – sure or not – could happen. To seek wonder is to be vulnerable, to risk being hurt and suffer, to go beyond the logic of the world we know, to run the risk of colliding with evil.

Seeking wonder is an act of bravery.

So how can we rediscover wonder in adulthood? One way to experience wonder is through the power of literature. Speculative fiction – an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror – thrives on creating a sense of wonder in readers young and old. Likewise, magical realism and fabulism can arouse wonder in their fans. Certainly, books for adults are not lacking in wonder.

On the other hand, even regular readers of “adult books” in these genres can learn something from children’s literature. Revisiting children’s books as an adult involves opening your mind to explore the world in new ways. The danger is recognizing the lack of wonder in your own life. But if you can, you might also find that finding wonder will inspire you to pursue your youthful dreams and believe that anything is possible. Hope. Joy. Ambition.

And courage.

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