Human Dignity & Children’s Literature: A Never-Ending Story

I remember that, when I was a little girl, my mom would always tuck me in at night with a lullaby and a short prayer. I always remember the comfortable simplicity of snuggling up in my bed, the soft sound of my mom’s voice, and peacefully falling asleep at the end of the day. Some nights, my mom would read me a story before bed. My favorite was The Giving Tree, and I still recall the illustrations—particularly how the old man resembled my grandfather. I don’t believe that there was a real reason for this….I think it was because my grandfather was old.

Though this association felt trivial, it indicates the reasons children’s literature is essential. I recognized something relevant, despite its appearance as something detached from immediate reality. These memories remain in my mind, though I had no idea at the time what it meant to “make memories”. Simply by reading stories, I took something I didn’t immediately recognize: within my tiny little mind, my imagination was beginning to blossom. I was nurturing my mind and instilling a love of books—which then digressed into an obsession with all things related to turtles. The imagination is one of the most unique aspects of the human person, as it is distinctively creative and expressed. An adult who is more in-tune with their imagination is considered to have a childlike disposition—a disposition often discredited, for that person is viewing the world in an idealistic and dreamy way. But is not an inquisitive disposition towards the world a fulfillment of the human person? All men desire to know—and that curiosity is not limited to children, but something that the intellect yearns for. In basic human action, we seek instruction: How do I use a toothbrush? How do I take the subway? If we have to ask these questions about basic tangible things, what real reason does one have for discrediting the person who views the waterfall as sublime? Their human experience, or lack of it, makes them unable to know certain things. So why, then, would experience deter them from actual knowledge?

The utilitarian-esque thought doesn’t grasp that human experience lends itself to imagination through an inherent disposition towards wonderment. This is evident in children, as they are struck by their experiences. When exposed to beautiful things, wonder is expressed through the imagination, as children form images and thoughts based on what they allow themselves to receive. This entails not doubting an experience but delighting in the capability of receiving and giving. They recognize, but perhaps cannot articulate, the objective value through their subjective encounter. This fuels a curiosity to understand more about themselves, the world around them, and their neighbor.

When children are provided with the resources to read, to think, to dream, they recognize a unique creativity within themselves. Stories present these transcendental encounters to the imagination at a young age; they can develop integral thought, because they can relate to another person through that person’s subjective experience. They can better visualize; they can imagine. Stories give them a means to express this experience, and it gives them a way to understand another’s expression. In understanding another’s story, they may recognize a value within it that is also relevant to themselves—whether the author intends this universal apprehension or not. Children learn to understand another’s experience through story, which then assists their human interactions. Through this transparency, children naturally make friends, as C.S. Lewis states in Four Loves: “Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself!'” It is a means to understanding freedom and solidarity—even if it is done in a way that isn’t immediately recognizable to them. The story places a thought into the context of a concrete reality, and making these concepts accessible to children is essential to their education. There were many times that I felt an emotion that I thought was apprehended only within myself, but it was through encounters with literature that I felt as if I wasn’t alone. Somewhere, someone thought the same thing I did, because they recognized the same objective value in their experience. I was not alone; I was a member of the human family, in a dialogue that would never cease to shape my presence in this world. And to think, I could have ever underestimated the power of the phrase “Once upon a time…”

Written by Meagan Robinson, a current intern at the WYA North America office.