In the last chapter of his book, Feeling Like A Kid, Jerry Griswold points out that one big difference between adult literature and children’s literature is that in books for kids, everything is often alive—from the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland to creatures jabbering away in Doctor Dolittle’s world to animals trading insults in The Jungle Books to the Three Little Pigs and more.
In the adult world and literature we rarely see animals and things talking. There is a clear line between the human world and the rest of the world. But as Griswold points out, “In childhood, the ego is still in the process of being formed and has yet to be solidified. As a result, the boundaries between the self and the non-self, between humans and animals, are fuzzier and less distant.”
The whole world is experienced as alive, even toys, and this is reflected in the way kids play. “The aliveness of toys is important when the young play,” Griswold says. “Teddy bears engage in conversation. Toy soldiers do battle. Stick horses gallop and whinny.”
And it’s not just toys and animals, but in a child’s world even inanimate objects can “be alive”—like the ocean waves that are dancing and playing tag. At the beginning of Pinnochio a piece of wood loudly complains when a carpenter is about to strike it with an ax. The carpenter gives it to Geppetto who makes the wood into a puppet boy that does all kinds of mischief and wants to become a real, live boy.
In a kid’s world, everything is potentially alive. So it doesn’t seem strange to a child that the dog laughs and the dish runs away with the spoon. “In this sense, the child is never alone in the world: a companion—or companions who come in thousands of shapes and forms—emerges out of the cosmos…”
The great Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was asked, “How did this world come to be?” Aurelius admitted there were many things about that that were a mystery to him, but there was one thing of which he was sure: “It loved to happen.”
His vision was a vision of an alive, dancing universe: The animals love to happen, the oceans love to happen, the trees love to happen, the mountains love to happen. And therefore, it just makes sense that a person’s life should love to happen.
And that’s a vision that kids can relate to. Such stories reinforce this ancient idea that we are always surrounded by the dance of life and always being called to join the dance.