Innocence is Bliss
Many famous authors throughout history have surprised their faithful followers by suddenly deciding to write a children’s book. Some of them are so successful at writing for children that history remembers them mostly for their children’s books, such as C.S. Lewis, author of a series of seven fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia; or J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. The Harry Potter and the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings collection are further examples of works by serious British authors best known for their children’s books. There’s also L. Frank Baum, the American author of The Wizard of Oz series of 14 books.
Every author has his own motivation for becoming a writer, and many of them admit that writing is not a career they specifically chose. Instead, they describe it more as a way of life that chose them, rather than a vocation. After all, perhaps one percent of people who write books are full-time authors because, like other artists, they cannot earn enough money. Most book writers have other jobs, such as teaching or journalism.
Many writers begin scribbling in little notebooks or diaries at a young age. Thus, when they later become authors as adults, it’s no more of a surprise than when a man who loves horses and is 5’3” tall (1.60 meters) and weighs 110 lbs. (50 kilos) becomes a jockey.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a distinguished professor of linguistics at Oxford University in England, and he first published The Hobbit in 1937. Lewis Carroll was also an Oxford professor. About a hundred years before Tolkien, he was a mathematics instructor and Anglican deacon at Oxford. Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland, one of the most famous children’s books of all time, and he dedicated it to a little girl named Alice Liddell, who was the daughter of one of his colleagues at Oxford.
Why do successful, highly educated men such as Tolkien and Carroll write books for children? If we can presume that writing, like painting or music, is more of a “calling” or compulsion than a vocational choice, what calls these extremely intelligent authors to write for children? We can only speculate on this question, recognizing that every writer is inspired by different desires. It is possible that the attraction to write children’s literature may have the same roots that draw us to children – their delightful innocence.
We have all seen the face of a child when a parent enters a room. The child’s face shines with elation as if an internal light source had suddenly been switched on. One friend of mine expressed it this way: “My favorite time of the day is when I’m driving home from work because I’m anticipating when I enter my house, my son will be there, and his face will explode with ecstasy when he sees me. Nothing in life can compare to this – someone so excited to see me.”
Children are innocent in many ways, and the younger they are, the more innocent. Infants, for example, before they learn to speak or walk, do not understand what happens when their mother or father leaves the room. For an infant, a parent in the next room has vanished, and he has no way of knowing if the parent will return. In this way, every waking moment provides a new vista for a baby, as if they are seeing existence for the first time. A child lives in a constant state of wonderment.
Once children are old enough to walk and talk, they have a greater grasp of the universe. They can call to a parent in the next room to be sure the parent still exists. Children learn to recognize themselves in a mirror.
Nevertheless, children are unaware of the most basic principles of adult life; children have few responsibilities. They do not understand the inherent economic demands of society. Eating for most children is a chore rather than a pleasure, as it is for adults. Before puberty, children can’t comprehend the sexual nature of their bodies.
Thus, while innocence in children takes many forms, a central characteristic is absence. Children are shielded from the stresses of a demanding job or a demanding mother-in-law. Children are unconscious of racial prejudice and financial responsibility. Once when I was in the mall with my young nephew, he asked me for an expensive toy. When I told him I didn’t have enough money, he replied, “I know where the bank is in the mall. We can go there and get more money.”
Children lack an understanding of why parents are sometimes dishonest. For example, when adults receive a gift, they always make it clear how thoughtful the gift is, even if they already own two of them. When our wives ask us, “Do I look fat in this dress?” every husband knows the correct answer. Hiding the truth is often a better choice than insulting someone’s feelings. Children’s innocence forces them to be ineffective at hiding the truth. When Christmas presents are opened, every parent knows immediately if she has chosen the right gift simply by the look on her child’s face.
Perhaps the most important absence in childhood innocence is the lack of dread. Children are always on the precipice of insecurity, and good parents do everything possible to present them with a sense of security. Besides providing the basic needs of food and shelter, a parent’s primary role is to produce a cocoon of love and safety to abolish a child’s fears.
If innocence can be characterized by absence – the lack of adult exhaustion and jaded fatigue, a time before cynicism and anger over political injustice arise – then what does innocence consist of? The majority of time in a child’s waking life is spent at enchanted, blissful play. For this reason, not to mention the confusing knowledge of the adult world they are lacking, children are the embodiment of the finest human characteristics. Childhood is the richest possible world, a universe filled with daily fascination, curiosity, and wonder.
Like trying to close Pandora’s Box, an adult returning to childhood isn’t physically possible. Nevertheless, when adult responsibilities become a burden in our everyday lives, it’s natural to desire the childhood life of innocence. Perhaps this is what draws wise, accomplished writers to write children’s books.
Adults who wish to recapture the lost world of youthful innocence have only to observe children at play. Play is the essence of childhood, an expression of fantasy and miracles born in the storytelling imagination, not reality. Adolescents love non-reality, the world of hobbits and Harry Potter. Adults are boring and not fun when they discuss the family budget and chores.
In Brazil, babysitters don’t exist because there is no use for them. Parents do not go out to a restaurant or to a party or on vacation without bringing their children. Teenagers live at home when they attend college. One young Brazilian mother told me: “I can’t enjoy myself without my children.” The family unit is more cohesive than in the US. Adults in Brazil, even those who aren’t parents, spend more time at play than American adults. Perhaps this is why Brazilians are so happy.
Pope Francis was asked recently about his secret to happiness. He said slow down. Take time off. Don’t proselytize. Work for peace. Work at a job that offers basic human dignity. Practice integrity. Don’t hold on to negative feelings. Enjoy art, books, and playfulness.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.