The healing pages: How children’s literature shapes our worlds

Divya Choudary

In the bustling world of education and child development, there exists a magical realm often explored with delight and with luck, in depth – the realm of children’s literature. From the whimsical to the profound, these stories are gateways to understanding the complex, vivid inner lives of our youngest readers. As Maurice Sendak might have hinted, it’s where the wild thoughts are. Children’s literature serves as a powerful tool for psychological and emotional development. Drawing on Rudine Sims Bishop’s insightful metaphor, children’s literature acts as a mirror reflecting young readers’ inner worlds, offers windows into diverse lives and cultures, and opens doors to vast new realms of possibility.

A heart, lost and found
I was nine when my dad passed away in an accident – a time when life’s complexities seemed far beyond my grasp, yet suddenly demanded recognition. In the wake of his loss, the world felt like a puzzle with a piece forever missing. Story books, a place of adventure and friendship until then, soon became my sanctuary. Feelings too tangled for words found expression. As I navigated through my own journey of loss, children’s books were not just an escape but a means of navigating through the fog of grief.

Decades later, I stumbled upon Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle. Jeffers’ tale, with its poignant exploration of loss, grief, and the protective shells we build around our hearts, resonated with me on a level I hadn’t anticipated. It taught me that it’s okay to protect our hearts, but it’s also okay to feel, to experience the full breadth of human emotions. This, I believe, is the essence of children’s literature: to keep us company through the darkest of times and to show us the infinite possibilities of the human heart.

As I sit here writing, surrounded by shelves filled with children’s books I’ve grown up with, I’m struck by the pivotal role these narratives have played in my personal journey. From the innocence of childhood to the introspection of adulthood, they’ve not only offered solace and escape but have also guided me in the journey of finding and becoming myself.

Mirror: reflecting the Self
The stories we grow up on, and the ones we pass on, are not just tales. They often mimic the structure of real-life experiences in a controlled, coherent manner, helping children make better meaning of reality. They offer a foundation for self-reflection, self-soothing, and psychological scaffolding. These stories uniquely address complex issues like fear, confusion, and uncertainty providing children with a safe space to explore feelings that are often difficult to express and seldom discussed – such as rejection, failure, loss, loneliness, and shame. Children identify with characters they admire or relate to, recognizing themselves in characters’ triumphs and struggles. By presenting these themes in accessible, often metaphorical ways, these stories help young readers navigate, articulate, and manage their feelings, comforting them with the knowledge that they are not alone.

Like The Heart and the Bottle, Patrick Ness’s heart-wrenching book A Monster Calls serves as a compass for navigating grief. In the story, 13-year-old Conor grapples with his mum’s illness, a journey fraught with complex emotions like guilt, acceptance, and responsibility. The monster, a pivotal figure in the narrative emphasizes the profound role of storytelling, telling Conor, “Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” The monster further deepens this insight by noting, “Because humans are complicated beasts,” and goes on to explain the dual nature of human belief, saying “Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary…” While this narrative helps young adult readers process these emotions, it simultaneously highlights the role of stories as a language for the subconscious, reflecting Carl Jung’s emphasis on the power of narrative to access and understand our deeper selves. It teaches children and adults alike the importance of confronting their truths, no matter how difficult, and affirming that their feelings and fears are valid and should be expressed.

In The Dark, Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen personify darkness, providing young readers a visual narrative that encourages them to confront and engage with their fears. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak follows Max as he confronts his “monsters,” enabling children to explore their anger and “wild” sides before returning to a place of safety and love, thereby offering a model for self-regulation. Both stories serve as metaphors for managing emotions, suggesting that awareness of these feelings can improve one’s ability to deal with them.

Illustrations: Divya Choudary

Navigating these emotional landscapes, children encounter Jungian archetypes – universal, symbolic elements that resonate deeply within our collective unconscious. Such archetypes, including the wise old mentor, shape-shifting creatures, and journeys into the unknown, are prevalent in stories like The Adventures of Pinocchio, Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials. For instance, Harry Potter extensively uses Jungian archetypes: Harry represents the hero, Voldemort the shadow, and Hermione and Ron embody the anima and animus, Jung’s terms for the feminine and masculine aspects of a person’s unconscious. Similarly, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, dæmons metaphorically represent the complex nature of human beings. These dæmons symbolize inner psychic companionship, illustrating how personal growth is achieved by embracing and integrating different aspects of oneself. These archetypal stories enable children to see beyond their immediate surroundings and pave the way for further exploration into the realms of fantasy and reality.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll offers a whimsical albeit deep dive into the concepts of identity and self-discovery. Alice’s journey through Wonderland serves as a mirror for psychological self-exploration, helping readers contemplate their own identity and place in a world that is big and bewildering. Similarly, Bill Watterson’s comic Calvin and Hobbes captures the essence of childhood curiosity and the boundless realms of imagination, while also providing a grounding contrast through its portrayal of adults. This juxtaposition helps children navigate the friction they may face from the expectations imposed by the adult world. Through the adventures of a boy and his tiger, readers can delve into philosophical inquiries, and explore deep existential thoughts, humorously wrapped in the innocence of play.

From enduring classics to contemporary books and narrative video games, characters’ stories not only illustrate the universal and intimately personal journey of finding order in chaos and cultivating self-understanding but also open a lens to a broader worldview.

Windows: gazing into Other’s lives
Children’s literature plays a crucial role in shaping a healthy identity and broadening worldviews. By serving as a window into others’ lives, it allows children to experience the world from different perspectives, fostering empathy and understanding. Through stories, children can learn about how people live in different times, situations, places, and cultures. It teaches them the language needed to respectfully question and critically engage with these differences. This emotional literacy is key in developing social skills, resilience, and a sense of morality.

For instance, Morris Gleitzman’s Then offers a poignant window into the resilience required during World War II. I remember being deeply moved by the struggles of the children, Felix and Zelda, as they navigated the perils of the war. The story profoundly explores resilience, empathy, and the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity. It gives readers a window into the harrowing realities of life in Poland during the Holocaust, offering them a glimpse into the past that is both educational and deeply moving. Stories like Then can prompt discussions about moral choices, the value of friendship, and the impacts of war on children, refugees, and society.

Mirror by Jeannie Baker is a wordless picture book that juxtaposes the daily lives of a family in Australia with that of a family in Morocco. On the left pages, readers view a day in the life of the Australian family, and on the right, the Moroccan family. This side-by-side layout highlights both the differences and the similarities between the two cultures, emphasizing a shared sense of family and routine. This unique juxtaposition in multicultural children’s literature allows readers to see how people across the world view themselves. It helps children understand that, despite superficial differences, the emotional landscapes of day-to-day life – emotions like love, happiness, fear, and loss – are universally shared.

One of my favourites, T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea blends humor, warmth, and profound life lessons into a rich narrative. The novel masterfully addresses the psychological concept of the ‘other,’ illustrating how love can bridge even the most seemingly insurmountable gaps. Though wrapped in fantasy, this story firmly roots readers in the reality that understanding and love can foster family in the unlikeliest of places and situations. Imbued with themes of acceptance, identity, and belonging, the story speaks directly to the emotional needs of young readers, deepening their understanding of diversity and empathy and their implications for real-world interactions.

Characters in children’s books often form unlikely friendships that cross boundaries of species, class, or even worlds, beautifully illustrating the universal value of friendship. These stories reveal how friends can differ significantly yet still offer care and support to one another. For example, in A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, the endearing bonds of friendship between Christopher Robin and his animal friends are depicted through lessons in kindness and acceptance. Similarly, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett explores these themes through Mary Lennox’s journey. Children are introduced to the complexities of human nature and societal norms of the time, examining how social status and the relationship between wealth and morality affect individuals. This classic not only highlights the harsh realities of loneliness and neglect but also celebrates transformation and redemption, making it a poignant exploration of the enduring power of friendship.

Children’s stories that serve as windows encourage empathy, cooperation, conflict resolution, and reveal to children that beneath surface differences lie universal feelings and desires, fostering an inclusive mindset from a young age. This broadened understanding invites readers to take another step – toward exploring even more expansive realms of thought and possibility.

Doors: the thresholds of imagination
Some stories do more than reflect and reveal; they invite new ways of thinking and being, encouraging children to question “what is” and imagine “what if”. These narratives act as doors encouraging children to engage with their present and envision who they might become. Drawing on the work of Lev Vygotsky, psychologists suggest that imagination is not merely a source of creativity but also a fundamental building block of language and cognitive development. Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory posits that cognitive functions are deeply embedded in and influenced by social interactions. He believed that imaginative contexts provided by stories enhance children’s language skills and their capacity for critical thinking, problem-solving (questioning, predicting, inferring), and comprehension within the framework of meaningful social interactions.

Jean Piaget, a pioneer in developmental psychology, further reinforces this perspective by noting that imaginative play is crucial for children’s cognitive development. According to Piaget, children move through distinct stages of cognitive development. Through children’s literature, young readers engage in mental simulations that allow them to experiment with and understand complex scenarios and abstract concepts, making the transition from concrete operational thought – where they handle tangible objects and ideas – to more abstract, theoretical thinking, thus effectively opening doors to new cognitive realms.

Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) also illustrates how children’s literature functions as a transformative “door” serving as a scaffold that helps young readers move from their current understanding to higher levels of comprehension. The ZPD refers to the difference between what a child can do independently and what they can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner, such as a teacher or through the narratives in literature. Characters and narrators within stories often assume the role of “More Knowledgeable Others,” guiding readers through “doors” into new realms of understanding and maturity.

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld exemplifies this by opening a ‘door’ to the often-overlooked power of listening. Through its simple yet profound narrative and heartwarming illustrations, the book depicts the young character Taylor dealing with disappointment and sadness. Guided by the quiet support of a compassionate rabbit, Taylor’s experience contrasts with interactions involving other animals who offer well-intentioned but overwhelming advice. This story uniquely highlights the importance of being present and providing silent solidarity in times of need, promoting a deeper appreciation of emotional support among young readers.

In Skellig, David Almond crafts a narrative where the mundane and magical intersect, revealing a world ripe with possibility. The story, enriched by the observation that “Truth and dreams are always getting muddled,” invites children to ponder the possibilities of the unknown and the unseen forces that shape our lives. As Michael, the young protagonist, engages with Skellig, who may be part angel, part pre-historic creature, he embarks on a transformative journey of hope, healing, and discovery. This story nudges children towards exploring beyond the visible world, inspiring a sense of wonder and the courage to believe in the extraordinary amidst the ordinary.

By viewing the world through characters like Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, young readers gain insight into justice, empathy, and the importance of respecting others and defending what is right. Such stories reassure readers that bravery manifests in various forms and that kindness is a powerful force capable of transforming realities, both within and outside the pages. These stories empower readers to take actionable steps toward social change, inspiring them to apply the lessons learned within these narratives to real-world situations. They challenge young readers not just to reflect but to act, demonstrating that individual efforts can collectively create a more equitable and compassionate world.

Building on a rich legacy, newer titles in children’s literature address contemporary issues such as diversity, mental health, and environmental concerns, reflecting the rapidly evolving landscape of children’s realities. As children’s literature expands beyond traditional forms, embracing mediums like video games and extended reality technologies that offer even more immersive experiences, it provides “doors” to vibrant spaces where young readers can explore and influence expansive worlds.

Horizon Zero Dawn developed by Guerrilla Games exemplifies this evolution, with its open world and narrative choices. The narrative allows players to explore at their own pace and make decisions that significantly impact the world and its characters. This interactive environment merges the magic of storytelling with technological innovation, inviting players to step through a “door” into a realm where they can experiment with and ponder complex themes, merging imaginative play with strategic thinking and ethical decision-making. The protagonist, Aloy, a young hunter in a world overrun by robotic creatures, embarks on a quest that promises personal discovery and offers insights into societal impacts and the consequences of technological advancement, illustrating the dynamic future of children’s stories.

Beyond pages: role of educators in guiding literary experiences
Children’s literature, with its unique blend of simplicity and depth, lays a foundational understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Through characters that resonate with authenticity and scenarios that stretch the boundaries of reality, it encourages young readers to question, dream, and explore, providing a healing journey through which they acquire the language, skills, and coping strategies needed to navigate their own life challenges. Even in this ever-evolving digital age, where stories are accessible in countless formats across various platforms, the essence of children’s literature remains unchanged: it serves as a catalyst for dialogue, a source of insight, and a companion in the most personal of quests – for knowledge, understanding, and self-acceptance.

Educators play a pivotal role in unlocking the full potential of these narratives, guiding these explorations thoughtfully. The windows, mirrors, and doors framework is a valuable tool for educators to examine and enhance their curricula. By carefully selecting stories that convey diverse worldviews, reflecting on their own experiences, facilitating discussions, and creating spaces that encourage exploration and connection, educators can help young readers navigate the complex emotions and situations these stories depict, thereby enriching the educational experience.

As we engage with these narratives, from the fantastical to the everyday, we cultivate a culture rich in curiosity and creativity and reconnect with the timeless tradition of storytelling. The exploration of children’s literature is a meaningful journey not only for the young but for anyone eager to guide, share, and learn together. Every story invites us into a dialogue – a conversation that is just waiting to begin.

References
• Almond, D. (2007). Skellig. Hodder Children’s Books.
• Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.
• Goswami, U. (2014). Child Psychology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
• Jung, C. G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. Dell Publishing.
• Ness, P., Kay, J. & Dowd, S. (2011). A Monster Calls. Candlewick Press.
• Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press.

The author works with narrative and design in edtech, drawing on her background in print and new media and children’s literature and literacies. She enjoys exploring storyworlds across books and various media, always with a cup of tea in hand. She can be reached at dchoudary@gmail.com.

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