takeaways from katherine rundell's _why you should reach children's books, even though you are so old and wise_



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944 words

I received Katherine Rundell’s essay as a gift and it was a lovely way to spend a morning. In its 63 short pages, Rundell delivers on the promise of the title to convey why adults should continue to read children’s books and children’s fiction in particular.

While reading it, I was transported back to my childhood where I thought about the books I read and how they changed me and made me who I am today. Ultimately, however, the arguments about why we should continue to read children’s fiction have more to do with human nature than anything specific to the medium, and in that way, I found several points of the essay particularly striking and will be carrying them with me.

Below are three of those takeaways.

On agency

Katherine dedicates a significant part of the essay to discuss the shame others may try to invoke in you for reading children’s literature - as if it’s a childish escape and unworthy of your time and attention as an adult.

Katherine’s prescription is simple:

Shame requires your acquiescence. So rebel.

This really gets to the core of the issue. We cannot feel shame unless we allow others to influence our perceptions of our self. In pursuit of a noble endeavor, this feels like a super power. As an individual, I am in control of whether or not there’s anything to feel shameful about.

While I love this and believe it can absolutely be used as a tool for good - in this case, enabling people to read books that open their hearts and minds to new ideas - it’s undeniable that it can also be used to create divisions.

Society works only as a collective and effectively, Rundell’s arguing that the collective, those outside perspectives, are wrong and worth rebelling against.

I’m sympathetic to the argument, but it’s context specific.

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind. Speaking on how society viewed the shifting uses for psychadelics, Pollan writes:

It was one thing to use these drugs to treat the ill and maladjusted—society will indulge any effort to help the wayward individual conform to its norms—but it is quite another to use them to treat society itself as if it were sick and to turn the ostensibly healthy into wayward individuals.

The point, then, is that there must be a balance. There’s a time and place to rebel - but also one for finding common ground. Instead of defaulting to a rebellious stance, see if you can’t bring them into the fold to understand your perspective.

(I acknowledge that it’s unlikely Ms. Rundell was encouraging rebelling against all of society’s opinions, but I couldn’t help but think about it as I reflected on the quote which struck me so powerfully.)

On recognizing the seemingly insurmountable as merely temporary

In the section on Politics, Ms. Rundell quotes Ursula K Le Guinn:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I love this quote for so many reasons, one of which is how it reminds me of how we so often accept the world as it is, even when there’s plenty of evidence that it’s ever changing.

One of my favorite aphorisms these days is “the only constant is change” and the spirit of that is in Le Guinn’s quote.

On distilling the message, without diminishing its contents

Writing, often, is done with an aim in mind; it does not matter if that aim is entertainment or education or something else entirely. Ms. Rundell, however, points out that children are a particular type of audience (one, I’ll note that seems to share more and more with the common perception of adult readers as well):

Children will not be patient if you pontificate or meander or self-congratulate.

Continuing, she offers a solution:

Rather, children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.

Ms. Rundell suggests that children literature must be distilled as a survival strategy. If it’s not focused, children will not read it. This is generally applicable advice, however. Most readers will not endure poorly focused writing. As far as I can tell, this is the central thesis to Steven Pressfield’s No One Wants To Read Your Sh*t (full disclosure: I haven’t read this yet).

It’s important to not conflate distillation with a loss of the necessary. Note that Ms. Rundell explicitly calls out that what she’s seeking in the distillation process is the purest forms of those emotions we all know and feel.

She expands on this with an exploration of Claude Shannon’s research into communication. Investigating how much information could be lost before understanding was diminished he concluded that “up to fifty percent of a conversation or text could be either missing entirely or not understood before meaning was lost.”

Using Mr. Shannon’s conclusion, Ms. Rundell defends using advanced concepts and words. She does not expect the children who read her work to understand everything, but knows from experience that through exposure her readers will broaden their awareness.

If you squint, it seems Rundell is arguing to not “dumb down” writing, to refuse to write for the lowest common denominator out of the desire that everyone will understand. Understanding everything is not necessary and by stretching today, her audience will be able to go further tomorrow.

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