‘Renaissance’ is Pi Comment’s culture column, taking a closer look at popular culture and fresh takes on the humanities. This week, Kezia Niman lets us in on a long-lost secret – the timeless appeal of children’s literature and its new status as a trailblazing genre.
There’s a renaissance underway on our high streets. I’m not talking about clothes shopping or click-and-collect. Walk into any bookshop and I advise you to breeze past Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers. Go deeper and find yourself in a world you’ve forgotten that you’ve missed. A magical world, where every book truly is a gateway into another universe. This is none other than the Children’s Section.
“Why are you bringing me back here?” you ask, flicking through new editions of Harry Potter. The Children’s Section is more than simply nostalgic: it’s innovative. Since my generation left the YA shelves a couple of years ago, too excited to look back, a quiet revolution has been underway. Unlike the adult books that shout ideologies and literary techniques at you from beneath their covers, children’s books have become more progressive, inclusive and creative in a way that rarely makes the headlines. This all changed of course after the The Hate U Give took the world by storm with its unapologetic political message. But even the quieter, gentler bedtime stories are more aware of the grown-up world than ever before. From a new take on classics like the Little Prince all the way to Good Night Rebel Girls, an anthology of diverse heroes based on true stories, to inspire the next generation.
You may be wondering why, at the ripe old age of 20, I returned to my old childhood haunt. The answer is simple. One particular book beckoned me back. My Mum Tracey Beaker was published earlier this year and I couldn’t resist finding out what to happened to a girl that defined my childhood as much as any real-life friend. And then it began; the visits to see what had happened to Peter Pan, Watership Down and Madeline. All still here and doing better than ever, reprinted, shining, waiting for a child to happily carry them off home.
I’m struck by the bravery of many of these books. They don’t shy away from perennial adult topics – Judith Kerr kills off Mog, for God’s sake! As we grow up, children’s books grow with us. They develop ideas with us, give us a shoulder to cry on and a voice to reassure us that it’s alright. As a child, you might not have realised these things as you experienced them. It’s only now that I can see it clearly; books were a lifeline. Thanks to Jacqueline Wilson I understood divorce before it ever crossed my parent’s minds, and I’m sure that helped. Children’s books also enrich the cultural conversation, epitomised by The Hate U Give, empowering young people and encouraging adults alike. That it was adapted into film is a testament not just to its success but to the importance of children’s fiction.
Revisiting this cushioned, colourful world, I’ve realised children’s books helped prepare me for the rest of the book shop. When I left Neverland, all those years ago, I was excited – not scared. I consumed the worlds of fiction, history and more with relish. But now, I almost feel jealous of the next generation of young readers. Not only do they get to inhabit Neverland, but they are enveloped in new stories; from an increasingly diverse background. Now there are more authors and characters emerging from different countries, ethnicities, genders. Though this is also happening elsewhere, the Children’s Section seems to embody this transformation far more elegantly, rendering it a true renaissance. We could all use a reminder from time to time, of the lessons we learned in compassion, human decency and sheer wonder, all those years ago.