Were adults influenced by the books they read as children?

 By Marjorie van Heerden
A talk given by Marjorie at the 2009 Cape Town Book Fair

Were adults influenced by the books they read, or that were read to them, as children? One cannot generalise about a question like this, but after many years of being involved in children’s books, I have noted down some thoughts I would like to share with you today.

Let me start with a personal experience: I remember when I was about four years old my mother gave me a book called Ferdinand the Bull. Half a century later I realize what a profound impact that little book had on me – Not only did it trigger in my young mind a fascination with the interaction between words and pictures, but I believe that Ferdinand played a role in me becoming the peace-loving adult I am today.

The book is about a little bull - he lived in Spain - who loved smelling the flowers and did not like to fight. Years later I learnt that Ferdinand the Bull was one of the earliest anti-war picture books ever published, if not the very first. It was first published in 1937 and is still in print today! 1937 was, of course, right in the middle of the Spanish Civil War.

But, when I was four years old I could not be bothered with boring issues like civil wars. I remember pouring over that wonderful book and loving lines like:

“His mother saw that he was not lonely, and because she was an understand­ing mother; even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”
I remember some pictures showed far away scenes with big, empty, white areas on the rest of the page. Other pictures showed close-up figures completely filling the page. And I wanted to draw pictures like that.

Ferdinand loved to smell the flowers – like the American flower children of the sixties did. In those years my husband and I were also flower children, but we did not protest against some faraway war in Southeast Asia we had read about; we protested against an unbelievably scary thing right here in our own land, a thing called apartheid...

The sixties became the seventies and my head was buzzing with thoughts; anti-apartheid thoughts, anti-war thoughts, anti sexism thoughts… I was a painter and sculptor and I tried to express my feelings though my work.

And then, in 1977, something happened that changed the course of my life as a human being, but also as an artist, in so many ways. I became a mother. Our daughter was born in 1977 and our son in 1980. Becoming a mother brought my focus back to children’s books.

I started illustrating and then writing my own picture books. I started collecting and studying literally thousands of illustrated children’s books. And I realised and became fascinated with what a powerful genre it was.

I studied how the young mind develops. And I learnt how high-quality picture books were much more than entertainment; how a single picture book can play a role in shaping a child’s mind; how it could even contribute to that child becoming a compassionate, caring adult.

And I dreamed of creating that one really beautiful picture book. More than thirty years and almost a hundred published picture books later I am still a flower child.  And today my passion is to get the right books to children. And that’s why I write this article today. Frankly, I would much rather be drawing pictures in my studio in Gordon’s Bay.

But enough about me and about Ferdinand the Bull and about what brought me here. Let’s look a bit at the world we (and our children) find ourselves in today. Here we are at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century: I don’t know about you, but in many ways I find it quite a scary place. Sometimes, when we look at the world around us today with all its religious, political and other intolerance, the racism, the violence and the hatred, it feels as if everything is spinning out of control. Every day one hears stories of inhuman and cruel behaviour that are almost impossible to believe – how can people do such things to other people?

Maybe it has always been like that, but maybe we experience it differently today because we no longer live somewhere in “the big, wide, world”, but all of us live in one “global village.” In a sense we are one, big community living in this one global village. And, like when we were all living in our own small communities, there are certain rules that govern our humanity and our social behaviour. And every single individual who is part of that community has to live and act according to certain codes of social behaviour.

Maybe our problem is that not enough people learn those codes of social behaviour, codes of civilized social behaviour, at an early age and then live their lives accordingly. Just maybe it’s all as simple as that...

A man, whose thoughts and brilliant insights have played an important role in shaping my own thinking, was the American teacher, writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell, who died at the age of eighty-three in 1987. He was also known as a mythologist. Campbell was fascinated by the role that mythology, and story-telling in general, played in the shaping and the survival of societies and the individuals in those societies. 

Describing the world in which he found himself in the late twentieth century, Joseph Campbell spoke about “a demythologized world”. He looked at the people and saw them living in a society without, what he called, “the guidelines of ritual”. He saw a society which lacked the unconscious awareness of long-established patterns of civilized behaviour. And, sadly, this often resulted in destructive violence.

Campbell looked around him and, commenting specifically on his native USA, he saw a society made up of a jumble of people from different nationalities, different cultures and different traditions. By the twentieth century Americans had become a society which lacked the web of assumptions about social behaviour that you find in deep-rooted homogeneous culture. Instead this society was held together by the long arm of the law.

It had become a “demythologised” society, a society without the myths and legends handed from generation to generation and providing each generation with the guidelines to those codes by which to live, the codes of civilized social behaviour within the society.

Those were Joseph Campbell’s conclusions concerning the world and the society in which he lived. He draws a disturbing and rather gloomy picture. And each of us can look around us today and decide whether and to what degree we agree or disagree with him. But, whatever we decide, the fact remains that each individual newly born into Campbell’s, and into every other society, is born with a natural, deep and ancient hunger for myths, legends, stories and guidelines to inherit and to live by. No matter what the reason, be it evolution or whatever, I believe it is part of our natural human instinct and nature.

Unfortunately it is a fact that in most societies today’s children are born into a world where there are no such myths for them to inherit. Interestingly, one result is that some then create their own myths. These myths then become the guidelines and the codes of social behaviour by which they live their lives. For instance, they would form social groupings like gangs, and these gangs would create their own morality, their own rules, their own laws. What is also very interesting is that the leaders of such a group would then develop their own myths to sanction their own behaviour and the behaviour of the gang.

In earlier societies, before Campbell’s “demythologized world” the myths and legends were handed over from generation to generation to generation. These were myths that had been tried and tested in societies. Over many years they were developed into instructive illustrations of clear codes of social behaviour. And these exciting and unforgettable myths and legends instructed the young and formed the basis of their future social behaviour and became almost part of their nature and instinct.

But today, without any such myths, we find that many young adults have trouble to establish their moral boundaries or even their individuality. The instinct for sound codes of social behaviour are still there in each of them, that is inborn. But they are not given the guidelines to civilised social behaviour. In, what Campbell would have called, the “mythologized” societies, those guidelines were learnt at a very young and impressionable age at mother’s knee. Significantly, they were not learnt through the teaching of rules and regulations and laws, like many societies are attempting today. They were learnt subtly and naturally, almost intuitively, when the young child experienced, wide-eyed and with pumping heart and bated breath, the exciting and unforgettable actions and adventures of the characters, the heroes and the villains of the myths, the legends and the stories told to them repeatedly at the fireside before bedtime. The concepts of good and bad, the codes of social behaviour, as illustrated by those heroes and villains became the codes by which they would intuitively live their own lives. In a “demythologised” society this process cannot take place.

I believe, like Joseph Campbell, that to heal a society we have to bring back the myths. We must keep the myths of our society alive and the only people that can do that are the artists, the writers and the storytellers. In a way one function of today’s artists is the “mythologization” of their world and their society. And in that sense, the modern artist has inherited the mythmaking function of the shaman and the seer of olden days.

Let’s look at some of the challenges of today’s reality. As always, since the days of Adam and Eve, every newborn baby is like a clean sheet of white paper – ready for the adults around it to start writing on. And then that young mind, from the very start, is bombarded with messages via the various media, advertising, packaging, television, the Internet, computer games – the list seems endless! The question as to whether any of these media, such as, quote, “educational television” or CBeeBees on DSTV, can take the place of myths and legends handed down from grandmothers and mothers through many generations is debatable. Certainly this is a very interesting debate and one I’ve had many times with my husband who used to be not only and academic and an educator, but also a television executive responsible for the content scheduled for national broadcast. I suspect you’ll guess which side of the debate I’m on. A fascinating question, but unfortunately we do not have the time to dip into that can of worms today. I want to keep focused on the influence specifically of children’s books on the development of the young mind.

From a very, very young age children learn by imitating and copying. Children are not born violent or racist or intolerant. Sadly they learn the bad together with the good. And today they learn it much more powerfully and intensely than in days gone by, because they learn it through the incessant and relentless bombardment they are subjected to in this modern world of technology and media. This world of screens, glass windows into which our children stare mesmerised.

As I suggested a minute ago, the artist, and specifically the artist who focuses on a child audience, has the responsibility to support parents in shaping the young minds and helping the young ones to discover and develop a sound code of social behaviour. And I must stress, this seemingly educational challenge should never be pursued at the cost of joy and pleasure, wonder and excitement – the wide eyes and bated breath I mentioned before. The children’s book and specifically the picture book for the younger ones, is one of the few art forms specifically practised with the child in mind. And in my experience it is always practised by individuals who honestly care for the child, the child’s interests and, eventually, the adult and future parent who will grow out of that child. The kind of children’s book I am talking about here has the potential to powerfully balance, to counteract and even to defuse the relentless bombardment I speak about. And to those who suspect that I might be massively quixotic or even a teeny bit naive: I remind you of a recent phenomenon called Jo - better known as J.K. Rowling - and the fascinating mythology she has been spreading to ever nook and cranny, palace and hut in this global village. Need I mention Tolkien or C.S. Lewis? What I’m saying is that it can be done.

I honestly believe that the only lasting way of helping the young child to learn and fully internalise real codes of civilised social behaviour is through the story format. Our children need and they deserve stories with characters and heroes who act and behave in a way that will not only amuse and entertain them, but will help them to develop values and intuitions in such a way that they will become equipped to function well in the world we live in.

Yes, there may be other ways to teach children about the basic codes of social behaviour. This may be done through lessons or lectures by an authority figure like the parent, the teacher, the policeman. The rules will be learnt and even remembered, but to what degree will they be internalised, will they become part of the child’s value system and intuition? There is even the danger that the child may become disillusioned by that authority figure and with that disillusionment the codes of social behaviour may fall away and the next inevitable step will be resistance or rebellion. Once those codes fall away it becomes OK to take another kid’s stuff and eventually even OK to take another person’s life. But if the fundamental codes of civilised social behaviour are learnt at an early age and through the time-tested medium of story-telling, stories experienced in the safety of a loving parent’s lap, I believe it will last. It will last at least for a lifetime.

When Campbell talks about myth, he talks about the “Tree of Stories”. This tree has branches. Fantasy forms a branch, folktales form another, and so do legends, fairytales, folklore, fables... In today’s world stories are still being told, old stories and new ones. Writers are writing them down and illustrators are building the bridges for the children to cross over, into those worlds of wonder. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers read them to the little ones. But how many of them are doing it? How many? How common is it in today’s world? I passionately believe that these stories must keep on reaching our children. As many of them as humanly possible. And there lies the challenge in this new world of ours.

Basically the needs of the young child in terms of learning to cope with life in the social environment are no different than in earlier generations. Circumstances have changed dramatically, but the development of a child’s intuition and awareness of codes of social behaviour is as fundamental and as basic as it has always been. The young child still needs to learn how to cope with the schoolyard bully, and later with prejudice, abuse, racism, the world around us, nature, people who are different. He or she needs to learn about patience, tolerance, fears, uncertainties, blame and no blame, self respect, self confidence – another endless list... If we keep in mind that every writer and illustrator was also a child once, and that they usually tend to tap from memory and personal experience, we will understand why there is a suitable story for practically every situation. For example, a child with a problem, whether perceived or real, can find comfort and strength in reading about another child or even an animal in the same situation. Picture books play a role in the aesthetical development of the children – those who are lucky enough to grow up with high-quality illustrated picture books can learn a sense of using space and could even develop good taste later in life. They could also develop visual literacy which is as important as verbal literacy in today’s world. Having stories read to them will help to develop their vocabulary. Through books children can develop a healthy respect and a love for the environment – something our damaged earth sorely needs today.

I realise that I have to stop myself – particularly with these endless lists! But let me say this: Even if we create the most beautiful books and we do not revive the habit of reading to our little ones and installing a love for reading as they grow bigger, those beautiful books will remain sitting on bookshelves, unread and unhappy. Our children need stories. Each of those stories has an energy that will only come alive when a child reads or hears it.

I started by asking the question; “Were adults influenced by the books they read as children?”. I hope you will agree with me that the answer has to be a resounding “Yes!”