What’s Your Superpower? Children’s Books in a Pandemic World

Mine is reading. For many years, I have escaped or disappeared into texts. Writers have made the visible world invisible and the invisible world, visible. They have shown us downward plummets and paths toward happiness. They take us on journeys into the core of the earth or the heart of the sky. When the world is going to hell, whether it be through bullying and racism in school or work, at university, relaxing on a holiday, books have been a constant and life-saving companion.

I can’t stress enough the importance of building up some personal resources against the bleak winter and under these pandemic conditions. Debates are raging on about the wisdom of taking sanitary precautions like masking and hand sanitizing, versus, “business as usual”. Poverty— as well as covid19, is growing, in response to haphazard and unsupported lockdown measures that have made living a terror for millions of people in the developing world and in the wealthier countries, like Canada, U.S, and the U.K., where Black and other people of colour, make up increasing numbers of an underemployed and badly educated working-class, in holding pens, that pass for schools.

Yet, in the months since the media has let us in on the existence of this new coronavirus, we have not witnessed governments come up with life-affirming measures of public safety. But while millions lose jobs, day labourers go hungry, families are evicted, medical debt is a huge thing across the world, hospitals and seniors’ homes are understaffed and underfunded, mental health crises are rising, and economically non-productive people and working people are devalued and dehumanized, there are some who are doing their utmost to profit from this uncertainty and mixed messaging.

That’s why it is important to be able to read about different stories than those that characterize our time— one of vast indifference and apathy in which millions are languishing in misery, fear and hunger.

I want to share a couple of kids’ books which I believe are under-rated and under-represented in the world of post-world war 2 children’s literature. The first, is The Happy Islands Behind the Winds, by James Kruss.

This book, written during the end of that war, offers a possibility of a more humane world, through the stories of the Happy Islands, a fantastical land where animals, birds, fish, insects, and vegetation, are as much citizens— with corresponding rights and obligations— as humans. The beauty of the islands is in their straightforward belief that hope, kindness and beauty are cornerstones of “good” living, that power ought to be distributed equally among beings in society and that we are all capable of learning from our mistakes and worthy of trust and redemption. The author manages to do all this with a great deal of imagination and humour, conveying a sense of wonder at the variety of stories the world could offer. Animals, insects and people share stories and poems that open up a world of astonishingly progressive ideas about crime and punishment and belonging and rejection!

I believe this book to be one of the most lovely examples of books for kids. It is the first part of a trilogy comprised of Return to the Happy Islands, and The Lighthouse on the Lobster Cliffs, where we meet the characters of the Captain, the four seagulls, poltergeists, lighthouse keepers, and so many more. In these books, trees talk, insects reason, people respond to kindness and understanding, and change is good. They also encourage imagination and story-telling, important tools for feeling like we are a part of the world!

These books are now out of print, but were published by Atheneum Press in 1960s in English translations. The Happy Islands Behind the Winds can be found at https://openlibrary.org/books/OL24763459M/The_happy_islands_behind_the_winds if you are interested in browsing. It can also be ordered through inter-library loan through the public library.

The second book that made a big impression on me while growing up, was the British historian Rhoda Power’s novel about the 14th century life of Redcap, a blacksmith’s son in medieval England. This book, like the one above, shares the device of stories within stories, much like the idea of a 1001 Nights. It centers outcastes and the powerless of feudal society at the time— children, “witches”, minstrels, and the like, celebrating tricksters, jugglers, acrobats and all the entertainment of that long-ago age.

Redcap Runs Away (1953), is a captivating book about a runaway boy who falls in with a group of minstrels and travels England in the Middle Ages. While it draws on religious and other influences of the time, it’s still a fascinating and imaginative book, which allows us to expererience life in another time and place. Fantasy writing does not have to be confined to Utopic or otherwordly scenarios. Historians turned storytellers are often adept at blending fantasy and history together! Rhoda Power crafts an interesting story, that lends itself to researching some of the daily conditions of life in medieval Britain. It’s hard to imagine a time when entertainment was not a click or tap away, but had to be conjured up by real people with talents and skill, in real time! (Cuba is perhaps the only place I’ve stayed in, in recent years, where I was exposed to amazingly talented young people who shared their talents on the streets and parks and patios, instead of staring at their cellphones or TVs.) But getting back to this children’s book which allows us to imagine a different way of life; it shows us that Redcap’s view of the world and the questions that challenge him are as much a product of his time and circumstances as are ours. And that’s a good departure point for learning about history!

While many of us are more confined to the home during this time, libraries in much of North America have gone online. Although it’s not the most complete selection of books, nor the most diverse, libraries are a great online resource at this time, as are sources like Open Library, for harder to find books.

In times when we feel confined, books are a way of taking to the seas or the open road, allowing all of us, adults and children, a chance to remove ourselves from the humdrum concerns of every day life! Over the next while I’ll be sharing some lesser known books for kids, including Jamaican Andrew Salkey’s stories on natural disasters for children!

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