Findism, not escapism

Kidslit: a random selection of children’s fiction

Katherine Rundell:
Why You Should Read Children’s Books
Even Though You Are So Old and Wise
Bloomsbury Publishing 2019

This insightful and beautifully written essay fits into a slim 63-page hardback but contains as many worthy gems as many a longer study. In nearly a dozen sections Katherine Rundell, herself a children’s author, makes a powerful case for juvenile fiction not being inferior to adult fiction but worthy in its own right; and, more than that, it can offer what much adult fiction can’t or won’t.

The author tries to put her finger on what those qualities are and, in my opinion, pretty much succeeds. All this review will aim to do is to give a flavour of the main points she enumerates.

First she emphasises that children’s fiction is “not exclusively for children” as anybody who conscientiously reads this literature without being the target audience can confirm. Yet there are those so wedded to a false concept of ‘progress’ that they will think that kids lit is of less worth than adult fiction. As the author says, there is a place for fart jokes, dinosaur facts and diaphonous fairies, but there is more to this genre than these kinds of topics.

Four sections provide an overview of the history of children’s fiction down to today and celebrate the immersiveness of childhood reading and the genre’s intrinsic values: ‘wild hungers’ and, in Angela Carter’s marvellous phrase, ‘heroic optimism’. This last was in reference to the message that many fairytales (and fiction using fairytale tropes) provide what Rundell calls “the miracle of hope”. She correctly points out that fairytales “were never just for children” and that by providing a message of hope they speak to all ages, especially during times when it’s all too easy to despair from a sense of powerlessness.

Shen then has a section on politics — not party politics but this very issue of a balance of power. Children’s fiction, she declares, was and is “specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power,” and its messages, often more hidden than explicit, can be mildly subversive if not dangerous. (In a good way, of course.) She later has strong words to say about a lack of diversity in UK publications for young readers, pointing out that though a little over 31% of school children are from minority ethnic origins, just 4% of books issued in a recent year featured BAME characters.

Her next focus is on imagination in kids’ books, for reading them “can teach us not just what we have forgotten but what we have forgotten we have forgotten.” More than that, book say something essential: they say “hope counts for something.” The miracle of hope fairytales provide is present in good literature, a counterblast to all that is ugly in life. Nil desperandum is what they whisper, and sometimes even shout.

And the place to find this hope, distilled into compact form? The library of course, the place so despised by law makers that they deprive it of funds, thus depriving young minds of hope.

Rundell finishes off her impassioned plea with a final powerful truth:

So defy those who would tell you to be serious, to calculate the profit of your imagination… Ignore those who would call it mindless escapism: it’s not escapism: it is findism.

Say it loud, then: Children’s books are not a hiding place, they are a seeking place. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a scoundrel.

32 thoughts on “Findism, not escapism

    1. I’ve long intuited this but Rundell makes it so beautifully explicit. Children’s fiction, indeed all good fiction, has a moral thread running through: truth, justice, humanity are in the values upheld — as against lies, selfishness and psycopathy — and hope nearly always remains after all the world’s evils have been loosed from Pandora’s Box. (Though I suspect it wasn’t really Pandora who opened it, any more than Eve was responsible for original sin.)

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed, I have her wolf book somewhere to read, but Aiken’s wolves are taking up my attention just now! I should have referenced Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm in the review, but that would have meant a much longer and less focused review.


  1. I so agree! And as I read through more of Robertson Davies’s work, I find in him the same message. There is a mythic dimension of life that we ignore to our peril. And it is precisely in confronting the areas in which we are powerless that we come to this knowledge — the only way of finding our true, transformative power.

    Conventional political and economic success is predicated on asserting and exaggerating and inflating power, but as we are seeing now, this mode of being taken to an extreme will only powerfully drive us to our own destruction. We need to learn how to live with and listen to the powerless, and thoughtfully reading good children’s books is an excellent way to do that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s really interesting looking at lists of non-fiction bestsellers, especially in the States: making money, influencing people, billionaire biographies and self-improvement take up the lion’s share. Fiction, and particularly children’s fiction, mostly concerns helping others, telling truth, respecting nature and living a fulfilled life but not at the expense of others. I think that’s telling.

      “A mythic dimension of life.” That’s so important a notion — providing of course it’s not Ragnarok that results, and we’re in great danger of that happening sooner than expected.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ragnarok is here and now. But in some versions of the myth, at least. there is something on the other side. Staying “childlike” in the right way may be the answer to getting through to that place. That’s always been my belief, anyway … time will tell if I”m right.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a wonderful little book, and she is very inspiration to listen to as I found when I heard her talk about it recently. I would certainly like to read more children’s literature – including your favourite Joan Aiken, whom I have never read – I don’t know why.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember your post on this, Annabel, and the double pleasure you must have had to listen to both her and Lucy Mangan in conversation! I’m very envious, as I think I said at the time.

      There’s just so much to read, isn’t there? I’m sure you’ll come eventually to Joan Aiken. When you’re ready!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s shortish, and it’s non-fiction, so even diehard sceptics can’t cavil at the suggestion they read it! And, of course, you need to have read it before you can discuss it with them… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ooh, I love this! As you said in reply to another comment it makes one’s intuition on the subject explicit. I am always captured by those with the literary power to fully render those truths I can hardly express. I used to collect quotations for that very reason when I was a teenager.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading and copying out such quotations are the first steps towards coming up with your own aphorisms, Jo — and maybe also towards writing your own inspirational bestseller! They’re everywhere these days, aren’t they?! Cynicism aside, distilled truths are so important, especially if they become mantras to live by and make the world a nicer, gentler place.


      1. I agree, they are important. They help me understand with my language brain, things I know intuitively on a level of thinking which has no words. I don’t find myself attracted to modern memes; they often seem a bit trite and overly saccharine. It’s more often short passages in novels, or pieces of dialogue which hit me with force and turn the lights on all over my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. ‘Trite and saccharine’ is my impression too, Jo: novelists and other ‘proper’ writers may state simple truths but they often do it with so much more style and with more memorable turns of phrase.


          1. Yes, they seem to get to the heart of it whereas memes seem a little more superficial to me. Memes might reference important truths sometimes but what I prefer about novelists and writers is that they actually seem to capture the spirit of the thing in words and not just point to it. I see a similar contrast with some kinds of art. There is the symbolic art, like many 17th and 18th century portraits where the objects around the person symbolise aspects of their life. This seems more like a meme to me. Then there are other portraits which somehow capture the essence of a person without using any cruder symbology to do it.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m in good company here, I see. I agree, and think of my admired C.S. Lewis, and how he held the opinion that a good children book is simply a good book, worth reading by adults as much or more than by children. All those years I’ve read out loud to my girls children’s classics, I’ve been the main recipient of the wisdom, joy, hope, and beauty good literature for children possesses.

    Incidentally, The Wind in the Willows is one of my three favorite all time books, not just children’s books. Good children literature is deep and layered, and has thus different reading frequencies that we tune to at different times in life.

    I love the spirit of the quotes. How powerful and true.

    Thanks Chris, for divulging these important voices and ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactement! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review, Silvia, and I hope you eventually get to read the original, she writes so well. I hope to read her The Wolf Wilder sooner rather than later (though she has written one or two other titles since), especially after this showing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Completely agree! I’m very much against this trend of artificial genre division: good books are good books no matter the genre, and among the jewels of children literature you may find more unabashed optimism, resilience in face of adversity and contagious will of life than among the critically acclaimed “mature” books – and that’s someting we all need.

    Love the quote!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted but it dismays me to think there are a lot of literary snobs out there who look down their noses at ‘kids’ literature: true philistines, the lot of them! This little volume throws down the gauntlet but it has already won the moral victory. Love your characterisation of so-called immature books, Ola, ‘unabashed optimism’ and ‘resilience’ and ‘contagious will [for?] life’ are all spot on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Chris 🙂
        Maybe ‘will to live’ would be the most appropriate term 😉 Once again, German turns out to be indispensable: Lebenswille is the concept I was alluding to

        Liked by 1 person

  6. What a wonderful review. I agree with what Katherine Rundell says. It is that feeling of hope that I find appealing, that and the idea of there being infinite possibilities. There is wisdom in children’s literature and so many difficult themes covered nowadays that it can comfort adults too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Infinite possibilities’ I hadn’t picked up on but you’re right: it’s often about consequences of choices made and actions taken. As a result much adult literature seems amoral in comparison, but children’s fiction is revealed to be about morals but without the heavy moralising. Who says kids lit can’t do philosophy?! Thanks so much for this insightful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I already have this on pre-order so I’m delighted to read your endorsement of what I fully expected to be an enlightening and stimulating read, Chris. I’m just coming to the end of Bookworm which I loved, and Rundell’s book will be the ideal companion to that I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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