I have always read books that weren't what I was "supposed" to be reading. I remember walking into the school library as a child and asking for The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It was intended for kids aged 10 to 12, which I was not. The librarian looked at me and shook her head. "That's too old for you," she said.
I don't recall what I went home with instead, and Amazon didn't even exist back then, but I'll tell you this: I found another way to read the book I really wanted, ASAP. (My mom never cared what the labels said, for one.)
Of course, I've always read children's books, as soon as I could read. But I never stopped reading them, even when I was reading adult books, too. Recently, when shopping for my niece, I found myself paging through picture books at the excellent New York City store Books of Wonder, which deals exclusively in works for the younger set. My eyes would well with tears, I'd smile, I'd turn another page, and I'd vow that each and every book — I must have read at least 10 of them, maybe more — was a book I had to give my niece, because each of them seemed to capture some true, heartfelt kernel about what it was to be human, about what it was to be good.
Now, I don't mean good in the "doing nothing wrong" or "playing exactly by the rules" way; it's a different kind of good altogether, a sort of sense of owning your place and self in a world and being the best person you can be, despite threats from those who don't understand, or global or political or parental unfairness, or, more generally, something small that stands for all of that. Children's books are brilliant at modeling. They teach, and they deconstruct preconceived ideas through character development and plot and imagery, even if they've got very few words in them. And when you fall into those created worlds, you fall completely. It's almost like time travel; I see through the eyes of a kid again when I read a children's book.
Maybe this is just me. But I think there's a greater power here, one that can extend to all of us, if we open ourselves up and take it all in, really and truly and fully. (It helps, sometimes, when you're reading one of these books to a child. You can see the world as they do, too. How can you not?)
The same is true with young adult books, which, as I mentioned, I was reading well before the "appropriate" time. These books are a shot in the vein for humanity. They bring us back to who we are — who we really are, at the crux of it all — whether it's that scared teenager walking into a new school, that righteous fighter who started the environmental club, that girl or boy who has fallen in love for the first time, that kid whose parents just don't understand, that person who really, really, really wants to be a witch (not the plot of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, just something I desperately hoped for as a child!), or that child who yearns to be seen for who they are, even if they're still figuring out who that is. Adult novels, too, are the stuff of life, and they carry their own wonder and enlightenment properties, but with adulthood comes a certain erosion of the purest emotions and insecurities we had in earlier times. Things get fogged in. We're busy. It's hard. How can you feel so much and also make your way through life in the world? We're smarter and older than that. There are things to do. And so we shut down, bit by bit, and close ourselves off, and start reading nonfiction about economics and whatnot, because it seems important or has to do with our job or we can talk about it at parties. (No offense to nonfiction about economics, if that's your thing.)
But, oh! Then you miss those feelings that well up from the core, that threaten to take you over completely and leave you sobbing in your bed because WHY CAN'T THESE TWO PEOPLE SEE THEY BELONG TOGETHER? You never fall in love for the first time again, and that's okay. But to channel those pretty-much-same emotions, pick up a young adult book on the topic, and HOLY CRAP IT'S LIKE YOU'RE THERE AGAIN.
This is why, in the time since the last presidential election, in a time I've been depressed and anxious and not a little bit sad, I have pretty much exclusively been reading books ostensibly written for children and young adults. In part this counts as research — I have my own young adult book coming out in the fall — but it's much more than that.
As teens lead the charge to fight for better gun safety in our country, as teens bravely and furiously challenge the adults who have failed them, making us wonder why we've put up with something for so long when they are so right, it would behoove us all to take a lesson from them. One way to do that is to put ourselves back in their shoes. The passion in children's literature is raw. It doesn't get diluted by rationality, or the views of the authorities, or the rules of society and how it's always been. It feels just like we did back then, before jobs and commuting and the day-to-day mundanities of life wore us down, made our emotions something we had to put aside, or only experience behind closed doors. It can make us smile and dream; it can also make us shout and scream and fight.
I'm not saying adults don't feel, or that adult literature doesn't feel. We and it most definitely do. But if you want to remember how it used to be, pick up one of your old favorites — I've been re-reading Beverly Cleary's Ramona series, which focuses on a girl who sees herself one way, but is all too frequently misunderstood. Or try a new book, like John Green's Turtles All the Way Down, which confronts OCD and first love and children who have to become the parents, or Ava Dellaira's In Search of Us, in which a daughter who's never known her father goes out to find him, and the truth about herself, or Jennifer Mathieu's Moxie, about teen feminists teaching their school what's what, or Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, which examines the aftermath of a police shooting that kills the main character's friend, and spurs her to activism and action. And on and on and on.
These are the stories we need to read right now, because they're the sort of emotional experiences and reminders we need to have. Even when they're painful (and they are), they bring us back to our core, to a sense of how we need to live. They remind us there are other people in the world, and they teach us empathy along with ways to survive. They're not about us getting smarter (though they cover that too) so much as they're about us getting better — but not in any highfalutin moral way, rather simply in the way we've always known. They allow us to realize our own power.
Our childhood and teenage memories are forever — even when we think we've forgotten.