Were you a reader as a child? Did you snuggle up in a chair or under the covers at bedtime while an adult read to you? If so, chances are you were impacted by the wisdom found in children’s books.
Reading helps us to understand ourselves, the world around us and other people. Reading also allows us to experience things we could not experience personally.
Some children’s books, especially those written in the 18th and 19th centuries were thinly veiled attempts at imparting morals and manners to children.
Later books were more focused on entertaining children, though lessons seeped through like water in a sieve, impacting us – even if we were not consciously aware of what we were learning.
I still remember my mother reading aloud the novel Heidi, one chapter at a time. My sister and I anxiously perched on the bed, waiting to hear about Heidi, Peter, Grandfather and the goats.
We imagined the far away setting in the Alps, almost breathing in the fresh air as Heidi did. From Heidi, I learned compassion, feeling homesick along with the little orphan girl and her wheelchair bound friend Clara.
Compassion is just one of the many lessons I learned while reading classic children’s novels. Here are six other lessons we may have unconsciously learned as we read and reread the beloved stories of our youth.
Part of the work of childhood is gradually growing into people who are independent from our parents and caregivers. Children’s books are full of stories of children who take the reins and control their own destiny.
Remember Nancy Drew? She was very independent, driving around in her blue roadster with only the slightest supervision from her father. The Boxcar Children successfully lived alone in an abandoned box car, working to get money for food and taking care of each other.
The children of Narnia managed quite well in their adopted fantasy land, conquering foes with little adult help. Pippi Longstocking lived in Villa Villakkulla with nary an adult in sight.
Children’s stories helped us to imagine living independently without actually leaving the safety of our homes. We could escape our everyday lives and live in a tree like Sam, the young boy in My Side of the Mountain, who runs away, adopts a falcon and survives on his own in the Catskill mountains.
These characters and others like them taught us that with resourcefulness and hard work we can take care of ourselves.
Remember Laura Ingalls Wilder? The child of the Little House on the Prairie series was known for her spirit. Other young pioneers such as tomboy Caddie Woodlawn, Jody in The Yearling, and Travis of Old Yeller were also courageous and not afraid to act.
Creating a home in a new and untamed land is one recipe for developing kids with pluck and grit, but clearly not the only one.
Young Ramona in the Beverly Cleary books is gutsy, audacious and bold. Velvet, of National Velvet, is strong-willed and determined.
Homer Price manages to foil bank robbers and control a situation with a donut machine gone berserk. These are characters who persevere and tenaciously deal with life’s challenges.
Many of us also devoured biographies. The Childhood of Famous Americans series, little blue and orange books, were wildly popular in the 1950s and 1960s.
The books, which were later deemed to be more fictional than reality, focused on the lives of courageous children who grew up to be heroes. These and other biographies inspired us to do worthy things.
Children’s stories are full of characters who have adventures. What would The Adventures of Tom Sawyer have been like if Tom, Huck and Becky had stayed home and played board games all day?
Think of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Tollivers solving mysteries. Young Jim Hawkins has his map of Treasure Island and goes out to sea. The children of the Melendy family have a new adventure every Saturday.
Travel appeared in children’s books before it became mainstream for many people. Donna Parker goes to Hollywood, making us long for the world of glamour and movie stars.
Nancy Drew travels to France, Nairobi and Austria. The Bobbsey Twins visited Plymouth Rock and Colonial Williamsburg, imparting history lessons along the way.
Children in books also traveled across time and place. Tolly in the Greene Knowe series meets children from the past. Charlotte in Charlotte Sometimes travels via magical bed to an English boarding school in 1918. In children’s books, time travel – with all of its adventurous possibilities – is an option.
We all need a sidekick or two. Friends help us out of sticky situations and encourage us to be our best. They provide laughter and help us to find insight just when we need it.
Charlotte had Wilbur. Betsy had Tacy. Nancy Drew had Bess and George. Donna Parker had Ricky West, and Trixie Beldon had Honey Wheeler. The two sets of Bobbsey twins had each other.
Anne of Green Gables had her bosom buddy, Diana. Like Anne, many of us had or longed for a friend who was our steadfast companion and kindred spirit. If we lacked such a friend in our lives, characters from the novels we read often became our friends.
The fun and fantasy of children’s books enriched us by stretching our imaginations. We love to suspend willing disbelief in order to accept the magical.
Remember Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? She was a little old lady whose husband was a pirate. She lived in an upside-down house and imparted ‘cures’ to children who misbehaved. What fun it was to imagine playing in an upside-down house or digging up treasure in the back yard.
Fantasy could take us on adventures. We could step through a wardrobe in England and walk into Narnia, where we could meet witches and battle evil. We traveled to Oz with Dorothy and had fun believing that lands like Oz, with all of its magical creatures, exist.
Mythology and folklore also gave us fantastic tales. We imagined what it would be like to be a giant like Paul Bunyan and have a big blue ox for a pet. We could also have dragons for pets or ride one conquering the air. We soured across the skies and into the oceans with Greek gods and goddesses.
Some fantasies were closer to home. The adventures of a lowly house painter, Mr. Popper and his twelve penguins, kept us laughing. We imagined what fun it would be to have such amazing creatures in our own homes.
Believing in the impossible opened us up to creativity, which feeds our souls and helps us to solve problems.
Children’s books often bring out the simple theme that kindness matters. In the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, Fern saves a runt pig, Wilbur, from her father’s ax. Saving Wilbur’s life allows friendship in the barnyard to blossom.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we learn the hard way from the story of Wanda, a young girl who is ridiculed for wearing the same dress every day.
When she proclaims that she has a hundred dresses, the other girls laugh. Her bullies eventually learn the truth, too late for Wanda but in time to teach them – and us – a lesson about kindness.
In children’s books we also learn to love and care for animals. Books such as Bambi, Lassie and the horse stories of Marguerite Henry gave us insight into the lives of animals. Many children experienced the love of animals they met through books.
The books we read as children often shape us. What books did you love as a child? What do you think you learned from them? We would love to hear your experiences and memories in the comments below.