How do you measure the impact of good children’s literature on kids? How do you know when a light comes on? When the imagination is stirred? When a fire is lit?
We can’t always know, of course. But I recently read something that got me thinking about this. It’s the story of Irina Lazar, a TV producer. She writes:
“I had a difficult childhood, not because of abuse or neglect, just a hopelessness that followed me around like a little dark cloud. I couldn’t tell you the source of that sadness. But [one day at the age of 15] as I was standing in my closet, I had a moment when I suddenly felt the veil of sadness lift off of me. I felt that I could do and be anything I wanted. I felt empowered, confident, and most of all, happy…My life opened up, I felt alive and ready to take on any opportunity.”
Now, that’s quite a shift in the way Irina felt about life! It was a shift from feeling that life is dark, flat and colorless to feeling that life is three-dimensional and colorful and full of possibility. What caused this change? Irina couldn’t say.
Can reading great stories have a similar impact? Hard to say. But I do believe that stories can at least sow those kinds of “mind expanding” seeds in young readers. Great children’s literature can definitely affect the way kids think about life and broaden their horizons.
For example, there are stories in which a character—over time—goes through an awakening, “life opening” experience similar to the one Irina talked about. I think of The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and others.
It’s as if stories like these whisper to kids, “Yes, life has its problems, but it’s also full of rich, exciting possibilities. There’s more to life than meets the eye!”