As a child I loved to lose myself in the imaginary worlds created by my favourite authors of children’s fiction. I didn’t need to travel anywhere; just by picking up a book and reading, turning the pages one by one, I discovered exotic places, long-ago eras and distinctive characters who had adventures, dilemmas and abilities I sometimes wished were my own.
No matter how new, how foreign, how outside my experience they might have been, these stories taught me true things that went deep into my bones and my soul, and shaped me for a life that was yet to happen. And the power of words—to play and experiment, to reveal what does not exist, to introduce imaginary friends and foes, to give expression to things I didn’t know I knew—this power produced in my young heart a love of words and literature that lives strong within me today.
Wonderful words: Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr Seuss, taught me to delight in language as he opened my mind to possibilities through play and experimentation with words and illustrations. He also helped teach me to read. Through the anarchic and bizarre worlds of Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat and other literary gems, I began to decipher and understand the black marks on the page and revelled in the rhyme and rhythm of the words. I wondered at Sam I Am and his curious diet of green eggs and ham. And I was in awe of the Cat in the Hat and the mayhem he created, and astonished by his nonchalance as he restored order in the nick of time. Even though I read The Cat in the Hat many times I always felt the tension and sheer relief at the end, and I loved that the kids somehow never completely lost their cool.
Learning lessons: From Hans Christian Andersen and The Emperor’s New Clothes I learned about the insanity of unbridled vanity, the power of the truth, and what strange things happen when the emperor is unclad! How I loved the fact that it was a small child who spoke the truth that all the adults knew, but knowingly suppressed for fear of appearing foolish—the emperor’s new clothes did not exist and he was indeed naked! I learned that it’s not just the mature and powerful who are wise, who recognise the truth, and it’s not only the young and powerless who can be foolish and or have lack character.
If there was one character in fiction I cared most about and one whose progress I followed most keenly, it was Anne (with an ‘e’) Shirley. Created by Lucy Maud Montgomery, in some respects the Anne of Anne of Green Gables was nothing like me. She was an orphan whom nobody seemed to want, she lived in a country and era far removed from my own and had to cope with difficulties I would never experience. But in other ways she was so much like me, though I have to say a far braver and less reserved child than I was. Somehow Anne’s zest for life, her escapades and disasters, taught me that while the consequences of making mistakes or doing the wrong thing might be painful and uncomfortable, they are seldom fatal and always instructive. And through Anne I learned how important it is to be loved and accepted, and how transformative it is to know that you belong somewhere and have a place to call home. Through Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, the sister and brother who took Anne in, I began to understand that different people have different ways of expressing love. It’s still love—it just looks different.
Difficult discoveries: Through three children’s classics—from Australia, the USA and the Netherlands—I discovered that bad, incomprehensible things do happen in our world, and that even children die. Initially this was a shocking discovery for me because my own childhood was not affected by such things, and it frightened me. But soon enough, through the news of the day, I was to discover that it was true and it was real for other children like me. Somehow, because I first encountered this difficult truth in the imaginary world of Seven Little Australians (Ethel Turner) and Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) it prepared me as a young teen, for the terrible reality of life in a broken world and for the sadness and horror of The Diary of a Young Girl by forever-young Anne Frank.
Role models & principles: Through the outrageous antics of Pippi from Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren) and of Anne Shirley, I discovered that it’s okay to be different from others or do things differently to them, and that it’s important to be yourself even when others think you should be like them or do what they do. When I was older Jo March from Little Women was another role model for me in this way, especially because she dreamed of being a writer and struggled to make it a meaningful part of her life. But she never gave up and neither did Pippi or Anne.
I was probably eleven when I first turned the page to a chapter entitled, The Principle of the Thing. I was reading Elizabeth Enright’s book And Then There Were Five, the third in a series about the Melendy family, set in mid-2oth century rural USA. Completely captivated by the author’s story-telling charms, I read on eagerly, overcome with curiosity, and I soon discovered that she understood something I had experienced but lacked the words to express. She understood that sometimes, even in the most trivial of incidents, something important can be at stake—a principle. Rush Melendy deposited a penny into a slot machine and naturally expected it to deliver the candy bar he wanted. But when the machine failed to deliver anything at all, what mattered most to him was not the loss of the coin or the thwarted desire to have a candy bar. What mattered most to him was that he didn’t get what he paid for. With a keenly developed sense of justice myself, I understood instinctively that in some cases what matters more is not the actual outcome of events, but how just or unjust they are—it is the principle of the thing.
From Pippi and Anne, from the Melendy family, from The Famous Five, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys I learned that adventures are there to be had—you just need to go and find them. And together, Julian, Dick, George, Anne, Trixie, Nancy, Frank and Joe introduced me to the thrill and challenge of solving mysteries. Like young readers everywhere, I loved that these children could figure out solutions when often the adults couldn’t, and that they had adventures that stretched and even scared them, but that made them stronger and more determined. Even though they ‘lived’ in lands unknown to me, they were enough like me that I believed adventures were possible, that mysteries were never insurmountable and dangers could be faced with the camaraderie and help of friends (even four-legged ones).
Truth & fiction: The significant thing about fiction is that it isn’t fact—the characters are imaginary and the stories describe imaginary events. But even as a child I learned valuable lessons from the books I read, because good fiction is still true. Good fiction shows us what people are like or can be like, and what always happens or might happen in everyday life. These are true things and we remember these true things because good fiction makes us care about the characters and their lives. And that’s its magic.
Jesus was a master of fiction, weaving together pithy parables that concealed indisputable and uncomfortable truths. Who can forget his stories about the good Samaritan or the prodigal son? Like pebbles in a shoe, they disturb and provoke us because they too show us what people are like and what so often happens in this life. They draw us in and make us care about the end. But more than anything, these parables act as mirrors—they give us a true reflection of the state of our souls and in doing so they show us why we need Jesus.
We know we want to be the good Samaritan—the unlikely hero—but in our hearts we admit we fall far short of his example. And if we’re honest, we recognise ourselves in the wilful, wayward son who needed to turn away from his old life and return to his loving father in humble repentance. If we’re honest, we care about these stories because we long to be the good guy even though we know we resemble the bad guys, and we desperately want the happy ending for ourselves even though we know we don’t deserve it.
But thanks be to God for the way he uses fictitious stories for our good. When we believe and trust in the One who tells them, he transforms them from fiction to reality. When we depend on Jesus and follow his example, we learn to love as the Samaritan did, laying down our lives for others, and when we ask for mercy and forgiveness, we receive the assurance of the ultimate happy ending in heaven with him—because he laid down his life for us.
Featured image: Photo by Mrs Fields | Lightstock.com