Learning to dream: A life in books

Martha Radbourne 2 May 2017

Looking back at the books that were read, and reread, to us before words formed themselves for our independent comprehension, it can be easy to feel a nostalgia for a simpler past, in which happiness was satisfied by more mundane miracles and imagination still ran unconstrained.  This is perhaps embroidered by that human inclination to fondly embellish those half-remembered, half-narrated details, creating for ourselves a warm childhood that is framed and influenced by a retrospective impression of naïve and more perfect joy.

The Victorians developed a Medieval Golden Age and various religions suggest a childhood of humanity before it was damaged by reality; so we create our own personal lost Paradise.  But how far can this past of ours be separated from our present selves?  Do we ever truly become separated from that infant self, or are we rather developed there, forever haunted and guided by those recollections?   And thus, can we see the ideal of our parents transferred to create our dreams through their choice of our formative stories?

The books that have stayed with me best are those that were read repeatedly to me so that they became an integral part of my childhood, if not immediately present, then distinctly possible in some geographical or temporal distance.  It was therefore natural that Katie Morag was such a personal favourite because her location on a Scottish island made her existence effortlessly believable in my own world.

Likewise, the adventures of Ardizzones’ Little Tim were perpetuated in their reality as their illustrations showed a protagonist just a little older than I saw myself, allowing me to understand that I need only grow a little before I too could run away to sea and find comparable adventures. Growing up among those stories that were sufficiently distant, yet peopled by children with whom we could sympathise, engenders a hope for those things that have not been exclusively disproven, which is essential to us for much of our life.  Though as adults our aspirations are rather more restrained by reality, we nonetheless maintain a belief in those things that we have not yet experienced. That hope of proving to be a worthy protagonist of our own story can be seen in our efforts to increase our knowledge and experience, and the determination to improve our inner self.

Though the hopes of childhood adventure are not directly transferable onto our own childhood, for me, the stories that were read to me gave me a belief in my own independence that I could not have gained elsewhere.  The narratives of a small protagonist prevailing against greater odds, despite expectations, encourage a self-belief that is not dependent on outside acknowledgement.  Often, their reward is a much more homely, comfort than fame or popularity.  Max’s taming of the Wild Thing’s in Where The Wild Things Are is initially rewarded by supremacy but, finding this lonely, he returns to “where someone loved him best” to find his supper still hot. We are inculcated with a sense of the importance of affection rather than rulership, as well as an understanding of how the fearful might be confronted with personal conviction.  As a child, I did not directly take these lessons from the stories – Max might not have feared the Wild Things’ yellow eyes but I was relieved when the illustration showed them asleep. The single character’s triumph for themselves, so instrumental to many plots, instils within the listener an idea of one’s own power and an imaginative idea of self-definition.

Those books read to us as children create the basis of our ideals that we grow with.  As we grow up and away from the simplicity of their plots, their appeal is consigned to that of nostalgia rather than inspiration, but that early confidence in our power to define our worth is essential to the child growing out of the home and into conflict with reality.  From those stories we developed a belief in the possibility of adventure and of what we can become; in short, they teach us how to dream.