The lockdown we have been enduring has at times felt drawn from the pages of a children’s book. The eerie quiet of the deserted public square has had something of the earliest fairy tale about it, as if we were all slumbering in Sleeping Beauty’s castle. At the same time, the apocalyptic media landscape of death graphs will have been familiar to fans of the latest young adult dystopias. Either way, for the healthy at home the action is still happening elsewhere, so this might be a good time for confident younger readers to tackle those enduring classics which have seen more than one generation through a crisis.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson will resonate with any child feeling isolated, but this compulsive thriller offers much more than the one-word Netflix-style title suggests. The real-life-inspired abduction of young David Balfour might be plotted with as many bingeable twists and reveals as a box set, but David’s evolving relationship with his rescuer Alan recalls that of Jim Hawkins with Long John Silver in Treasure Island. In both cases, the odd couple partnering of likeable villain and impressionable hero are thoughtful introductions to the complex ethics of adult friendship.
Perhaps a simpler path to freedom is to imagine a door into another world and walk through it. Long before C.S. Lewis sent Lucy through a wardrobe or J.K. Rowling announced boarding at Platform 9 3/4, Edith Nesbit had mastered transforming the everyday into the magical. Her underrated collection of short stories, The Magic World, is a true box of delights, and includes ‘The Aunt and Amabel’, in which Amabel — a bored eight-year-old — explores a large wardrobe in a spare room to discover that it leads to a secret railway platform which can transport her to a world of fantasy.
When we can go out, we see nature differently, as reduced travel clears the skies, emboldens the birds and abandons swathes of countryside to its own devices. Encourage children to look more closely at the hedgerows by sharing Little Grey Men. Written by the naturalist Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the pseudonym ‘BB’, this series still stands as one of the finest introductions to the diverse pleasures of British wildlife in story form. Who could fail to be soothed by a story which invites the reader to ‘Watch the wood mice among the leaves, the hedgehog hunting at twilight and the squirrels swinging among the trees’?
If long awaited holiday plans have been cancelled, a literary replacement is Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper’s haunting Dark is Rising sequence. This Cornish seaside adventure could have been a Blytonesque romp, but Cooper’s instinctive feel for the menace and mystery behind so much English pastoral lifts it into an altogether more epic and haunting quest. It has everything, from ancient maps to clifftop tunnels, and, of course, a vicar in a silk jacket, which readers of John Masefield will recognise as the one true sign of duplicitous intent.
When nothing but transportation to an entirely different world will do, there’s also Ursula K. Le Guin. She drew sketches of the mist-wreathed Earthsea archipelago before writing a word; and the sagas of those islands are still unequalled for high fantasy. But while the world is complex and the philosophy profound, the stories have a mythic simplicity. The first book, The Wizard of Earthsea, tells of how Ged, a village boy, becomes a great wizard. He defeats a dragon by learning its name and escapes temptation by transforming into a falcon; but his greatest foe is a relentless shadow loosed into the world by his youthful pride, which threatens to devour him whole.
For those sensitive to dragons and sinister shadows in general, staying at home can be just as good. You don’t get more homely than a story written ‘sitting in the kitchen sink’, as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castleentrancingly begins. She wrote the book while in self-imposed Californian exile, longing for the familiarity of a life that seemed far removed, just as creative fulfilment and love seem tantalisingly out of reach for the Mortmains in the book. For anyone, child or adult, pressed by doubt and anxiety, this charming and optimistic account of first-time love will be the perfect balm.
While the immediate future remains uncertain, exploring the past can provide a welcome perspective. In Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy, children are sold, disposed of and enslaved with wicked 18th-century abandon. The child-catcher Mr Otis removes unwanted babies from mothers’ arms for cash, promising to deliver them to the Coram Foundling Hospital in London. Alas, a grisly fate awaits for most who fall into his hands. This ingeniously plotted Gothic thriller winds readers on a coiling tour of many historical iniquities, from vulnerable children to the ever-lurking horror of slavery. But the healing power of time and friendship is the ultimate destination of this absorbing novel.
Of course, for some inexplicable reason children may also be missing school. If they are, the blissfully puerile wit of Geoffrey Willans’s Down with Skool, alongside Ronald Searle’s spidery observations of gerunds in the wild, will correct them of this notion, as any fule kno. The Sword in the Stone, by T.H. White, offers a more magical vision of educational possibility, with transformation into a fish and a badger on the syllabus. And if older children haven’t yet read Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole Diaries, it could be a good time to realise that nothing was ever quite as bad as being a teenager in the 1980s.
Children’s literature moulds and influences the adult imagination, and the very best speaks to both the child and the child reader in all of us. It places fantasy lands, the natural kingdom and domesticity all on a level without judgment, a world of freely interchangeable wondrous realities — all of them currently more alluring than our own.
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