Rereading Childhood Books

By | September 6, 2019

Guest post by Alison Waller

The recent death of Judith Kerr, creator of the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, generated an outpouring of love and nostalgia from adults, many of whom recalled encountering her picturebooks as adults and subsequently passed them on to children and grandchildren. Revisiting my own battered copy of The Tiger in the wake of the obituaries, I was reminded why I began researching the theory and practice of adults rereading childhood books. Fingering that well-worn and evocative object, I realised again the possibilities such texts contain for investigating the workings of imagination, memory and emotion over time. Not to mention the fun that can be had digging up meaningful books from the past.

Kerr’s charming stories and illustrations have become popular ‘literary heirlooms’ in the world of children’s literature. They sit alongside Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Richmal Crompton’s William tales, and many others as a common source of re/reading. This is an act that involves an adult rereading while a child is simultaneously encountering a book for the first time. Ursula Le Guin observed that having offspring provides a ‘good excuse’ to return to beloved books in adulthood, and this practice of re/reading is normally based on pleasure and emotional appeal, as a parent or grandparent fondly remembers a youthful reading experience and their child or grandchild shares in common bookish delight.

Of course, the scene is not always so idyllic. During my research for Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics, I interviewed ordinary readers about their memories and experiences of rereading, and came away with a number of gloomy accounts, as enthusiastic memories of a particular favourite failed to ignite similar sparks of interest amongst the new generation. I also researched published accounts of childhood reading by children’s authors, and these also reported ambivalent experiences. Kerr’s own example of a literary heirloom was defined very much by shifting tastes and disappointment. When her mother read her Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories during a bout of childhood appendicitis, the young Judith apparently laughed so much it hurt; but when reading them to her own daughter many years later, she found that neither of them could enjoy the tales at all.

Accounts of rereading childhood books are, in fact, loaded with complex emotional responses. Disappointment is one of the most interesting. Many of us may have returned with a sense of pleasurable anticipation to a book that spoke to us as a child reader, only to find that both the book and our early reading self have become alien. The process can be compared to the archaeological activity of excavating material from the past. Whoever is undertaking the dig might be able to restore the history of a particular site through painstaking work that recognises it has layers of meaning over time. They may prefer instead to preserve it as a static examplar of a specific period. Finally, they may decide that it is better to renovate the site completely, and make it more relevant to modern usage. An adult reader makes similar, though often unconscious, decisions when they return to a childhood book that may have been long buried in memory. The result can vary, from understanding that readerly responses change subtly over the years, to horror – ‘how could I have ever loved that book?’ –, to an urge to re-interpret a story or character through a more sophisticated, adult lens.

Some of the most fascinating accounts in Rereading Childhood Books tell us what happens when something goes awry in the journey between remembered book and rereading experiences. My favourite examples are ones that reveal gaps, silences, and errors in our adult memories of childhood reading: when it turns out that a scene that has caused the reader to tremble for decades does not actually appear in the book, or the wrong illustrations in a modern edition change the meaning of a familiar story. Childhood books are a crucial cultural resource, precisely because of the way they become part of our imaginative landscape as we grow from youth into adulthood, and at the same time represent a permanent body of material that we can return to later in life, in order to interrogate many aspects of our identity and memory. You can hear me talk more about the ideas in Rereading Childhood Books and how I came to write the book here.

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Alison Waller is Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton, UK. Her book Rereading Childhood Books: A Poetics is now available from Bloomsbury.

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