We’ve been following Jerry Griswold’s book, Feeling Like A Kid. In Chapter Four he introduces another major theme in children’s literature: lightness vs. heaviness.
We see the love of “lightness” in the way kids are dazzled by kites and helium balloons, zoom on scooters or put on capes and pretend to fly. So it’s not surprising that there are so many stories with flying carpets, winged fairies, witches on broomsticks and more.
And in story after story, the “lightness” of child characters is contrasted with the “heaviness” of adult characters.
In Steven Spielberg’s movie, Hook, the imagined sequel to Peter Pan, Griswold observes: “Peter has grown up and forgotten who he was. Instead of a lighthearted sprite, Peter has become our contemporary: a forty-year-old workaholic weighed down by responsibilities and tied to his cell phone. Over the course of the film, Spielberg’s Peter must eventually remember his childhood and recover his lightness so he can fly again.”
In the original Peter Pan, Tinker Bell is the ultimate symbol of lightness and light-heartedness, which are often treated as the same thing. She is a tiny, zooming, lighter-than-air bolt of energy who tells Captain Hook, “I’m youth! I’m joy.” In this story, being young, innocent and full of happy thoughts translates into the ability to transcend gravity (heaviness).
In Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, we see a different kind of lightness. Tom is the light-hearted one with the nimble feet and nimble mind, able to fool his Aunt Polly or trick his friends into painting the fence for him. With his cleverness and playfulness he is not weighed down by the rules or the grownups. We come to see that mischief can also be a form of lightness.
And in The Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor is done-in by his own foolishness, over-seriousness, and susceptibility to flattery—qualities of the “heavy” adult world where all the grownups are afraid to see or say what is obviously true. But the boy is light-hearted, free to just say what he sees without “weighing” what everyone thinks. Here, lightness means freedom to be honest. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
There are many other facets to Griswold’s discussion of lightness and what it means to the way kids see the world. But perhaps this is best summed up in the Oscar Wilde quote: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” Kids would agree!
Or, as the old saying goes, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.”