The stories we carried as children live on in our adult lives.
Sabrina Masud, Ph.D. ’24 in English, and the teaching fellow for ENGL 237, discussed the influence children’s books hold on adults today. Explaining the importance of the fantasy genre and how the morals found in literature are still felt in people’s minds today.
“We’re always a child at heart because we pretend to be adults, we actually never [grow] up,” Musad said in an interview with The Journal.
Students in Masud’s class always try to recreate new stories from the narratives found in childhood stories. She used the example of Barbie as a figure who existed as a doll in people’s childhood rooms, which then evolved into a movie thousands of adult women went out to see.
Masud described societal demarcations, the points in a person’s life that determine when they’re no longer allowed to exist in the fantasy world of children’s books.
“Once you attain a kind of physical growth, you’re no longer a child, or you become an adult after 18. Or you can drive. Or you can drink. These all serve as social markers, but we actually never grow up from being a child,” Musad said.
Masud said when looking at Alice and Wonderland or Little Red Riding Hood, the child is still present in the fiction. Despite the violent content in figures such as the Red Queen or the wolf, the narrator retains the innocence found in Alice and the Little Red Riding Hood.
It’s simply replicated, refurbished, and reproduced in something an adult can relate to.
Pulling out a picture book to read to a child before bedtime is a new phenomenon constructed for the family less than a hundred years ago, Masud said. Children’s stories emerged in the Western world around the 15th century from Spanish and French women who gathered in a salon to create and exchange stories.
“When you’re thinking about these stories, they weren’t meant for children. These stories were meant for adults to satisfy their fantasy world.”
It isn’t about presenting the child with an imaginary person or world. It’s about teaching a lesson through the characters in the story. In introducing fairy tales to children, the parents are introducing them to a world where the characters are black and white.
In reading these stories to their children, Masud said parents are teaching their kids how to present good behaviour or how to avoid bad behaviour.
A central theme Masud wants her students to understand is the relationship children’s books have with anthropomorphism—the attribution of human characters or behaviour to an animal or object. She used Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to show how anthropomorphic animals symbolize adult characters.
“Alice asks the Cheshire cat, ‘Which way should I go?’ and the Cheshire cat answers, ‘As far as you need to go,’” Masud said.
Masud is drawing attention to the argument that children are what John Locke calls “tabula Rasa,” meaning a blank slate. Locke’s theory argues that children are a product of their environment, not their genes.
Applying Locke’s theory to children’s literature, the Cheshire cat is supposed to symbolize an adult figure. The cat encourages Alice to explore the world of Wonderland at her own pace to learn lessons about the world by herself.
Alice in Wonderland is easy to return to because the power dynamic between Alice and the cat is seen in the way adults mediate their relationships with children.
She continued with the personification of the cups and knives in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to evoke the same themes as Carroll’s novel. The characters in the film encourage beauty to speak with the beast, in a similar way to a parent encouraging their child in a time of suffering.
“In a way, these inanimate objects having life bonds create something tangible for the child and is really accessible for them. It’s a really engaging way to tell a story.”
However, in stories such as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, the underlying violence is shown to give children an understanding of the harm they will experience as they grow older.
She calls children’s books a parody filled with irony and satire that can only be understood when you look back at them as adults.
“These are all literary tropes that were intended for a very adult audience to give you some kind of titillation, [to give] different pleasure as well as resist a kind of conversation [against the notion that children’s books are only found in childhood].”
Masud said there seems to be a return to these stories because the child inside a person does not go away when they’re an adult. The lessons of black and white characters, making choices and avoiding violent situations are still present in adult life, just in new ways.
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