As he put his hand on the door latch, she said, “If the red blob leads to Kingsbury and the blue blob goes to Porthaven, where does the black blob take you?”
“What a nosy old woman you are!” said Howl. “That leads to my private bolt hole and you are not being told where it is.”
In the depths of lockdown, with schools closed and stay-at-home orders firmly in place, many of us could have done with Wizard Howl’s magical spinning doorknob in the 1986 Diana Wynne Jones classic Howl’s Moving Castle.
As the next best thing, however, there’s a lot to be said in favour of books as private bolt holes. Poignant research from the National Literacy Trust shows that three in every five children and young people coped with the spring 2020 lockdown by reading, while three in ten said that reading helped with sadness about the separation from family and friends. We have long hailed our favourite stories as “escapism”; yet up until recently, many of us remained blissfully unaware of what that could mean.
Children’s literature bewitches children and adults alike. We seek out beautiful and meaningful books for our children in order to educate them about the world, school them in empathy and expand their horizons; we ourselves return to the books we read as children as a source of wisdom and solace, and continually seek new ways to engage with old stories through reprints and reimaginings. Arguably few books aimed at ‘grown-ups’ have had quite the seismic cultural impact of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, while a brief venture into Facebook will reveal any number of specialist groups devoted to writers ranging from Tove Jansson to Terry Pratchett.
Of course, while books for children can feel more vibrant than their grown-up equivalents, they can also be both rather sharper and darker. Philip Pullman began his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech in 1996 with the assertion that “there are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” We shelve some of English literature’s most nuanced explorations of ethics, morality and the human condition in the children’s section: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Reading fiction can therefore be a brilliant way to introduce children to the complications of history, politics and society. Even less typically “literary” books for children still pave the way for further understanding of the world: Jacqueline Wilson has introduced generations of children to a variety of difficult and sometimes taboo topics such as bereavement, poverty, family separation and the care system, while Roald Dahl’s Matilda serves not only as a manifesto for the importance of literacy but also directs its young readers towards hefty works by Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen and even George Orwell.
Children who enjoy reading have been shown to be happier in their lives and more likely to succeed in school, yet 1 in 8 children who receive free school meals don’t have a book of their own at home while 1 in 4 children overall did not have access to a quiet space during lockdown. As we celebrate the glittering worlds of children’s literature, it is critical that we do not forget those young people for whom our favourite titles are, ultimately, intended. Every young person deserves a private bolt hole and a selection of books to read there. Every child deserves a bit of escapism.
You can donate to the National Literacy Trust here.
Helen Grant is a recent graduate from Murray Edwards College, Cambridge and NEC’s current marketing intern.