Losing Wonder

Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are Old and WiseFor most of my writ­ing career, I’ve insti­tut­ed news black­outs, weeks in which I didn’t lis­ten to, watch, or read the news. When peo­ple asked how I could live in blind igno­rance, I replied I need­ed to keep the out­side world at bay because I write for chil­dren. Dai­ly cycles of news, usu­al­ly bad, made me for­get how five-year-old or ten-year-old kids feel.

In 2020, it became dan­ger­ous to ignore the news. We don’t have cable or stream­ing capa­bil­i­ties — we only watch DVDs on old tele­vi­sions — so I turned to CNN on my com­put­er to nav­i­gate the mine­field of Covid-19. Like every­one, I got caught up in the dai­ly surge reports, the num­bers of those who’d suc­cumbed, the plight of health work­ers. Then came the sum­mer BLM protests. Fall brought the elec­tion. The news grew more stri­dent and urgent.

At first, I checked CNN each evening. Soon I added morn­ings in case sit­u­a­tions wors­ened overnight. I kept up the rit­u­al when I had Covid myself and con­tin­ued the habit (addic­tion) as a long-hauler. I nev­er knew how many lev­els of out­rage and dis­may I could reach until three days in ear­ly January.

On Tues­day, I went to the eye doc­tor. I’d had cataract surgery ear­ly in Novem­ber that didn’t seem to go well but then Covid took over. Fail­ing my eye exam, I was hus­tled to a reti­na spe­cial­ist. Diag­no­sis: mac­u­lar ede­ma in both eyes. This explained why words broke into pieces, why edges shim­mered, why faces were fuzzy.

The next day I stayed glued to the com­put­er, switch­ing between CNN, MSNBC, and D.C. news chan­nel 4. I still don’t have words for what hap­pened that after­noon, fifty miles from our home.

Thurs­day my GP called about recent blood work. I must see a hema­tol­o­gist for a bone mar­row biop­sy. “Okay,” I told myself. “I had cataract surgery, then Covid and have been long-haul­ing for almost two months. My vision is in the trash and now I might have can­cer.” When my hus­band came home from work, I asked him to take me to Barnes and Noble to browse children’s books, some­thing that always made me feel better.

Not this time.

I hadn’t writ­ten in months. Yet each morn­ing, dur­ing that misty peri­od between sleep and wake­ful­ness, ideas popped into my mind. New ideas! Old ideas worth pol­ish­ing! I would get up and work! In the cold win­ter light, though, those ideas were revealed as with­ered and drab. Covid stole more than con­cen­tra­tion and moti­va­tion. It robbed me of wonder.

In her tiny lit­tle book, Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, award-win­ning children’s author Kather­ine Run­dell remarks that won­der is an essen­tial ele­ment in children’s books … and in children’s writers:

In a world which prizes a pose of exhaust­ed know­ing­ness, children’s fic­tion allows itself the unso­phis­ti­cat­ed stance of awe. Eva Ibbot­son escaped Vien­na in 1934, after her mother’s writ­ing was banned by Hitler; her work is full of an unabashed aston­ish­ment at the sheer fact of exis­tence. Jour­ney to the Riv­er Sea (2001) has a kind of won­der that oth­er kinds of fic­tion might be too self-con­scious to allow themselves.”

Journey to the River SeaEva Ibbot­son (1925 to 2010) had lupus and could only write a few hours, fin­gers near­ly too stiff to hold a pen. A depar­ture from her “rompy” children’s ghost sto­ries, Jour­ney to the Riv­er Sea hon­ored her late ecol­o­gist hus­band. She set the book in South Amer­i­ca, a coun­try she’d nev­er vis­it­ed. If Eva Ibbot­son could work sad­dled with grief and ill­ness, lack of trav­el resources, and had escaped Nazis, what was my excuse?

Too many months house­bound with no out­side con­tact, too much fear, too many prob­lems. I didn’t care about children’s books any­more. Yet deep inside, I cared that I didn’t care. Could I reclaim won­der, not let the world wear me down? In her diary, Anaïs Nin con­fides her own struggle:

I believe one writes because one has to cre­ate a world in which one can live. I couldn’t live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my par­ents, the world of war, the world of pol­i­tics. I had to cre­ate a world of my own, like a cli­mate, a coun­try, an atmos­phere in which I could breathe, reign, and recre­ate myself when destroyed by living.”

Start­ing now, I’ll immerse myself in the worlds dreamed up by Kather­ine Run­dell, Eva Ibbot­son, and oth­er brave children’s writ­ers new to me. Then I’ll start build­ing a place I can live in, one that will regen­er­ate won­der and awe, and let me write again. Fin­gers crossed.

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Connie Van Hoven
3 years ago

In need of some won­der myself the oth­er day I re-read Stu­art Lit­tle. At the end of the book as Stu­art leaves in search of Mar­ga­lo, a repair­man tells him, “a per­son who is look­ing for some­thing doesn’t trav­el very fast.” Stu­art agrees… “the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and some­how he felt he was head­ed in the right direc­tion.” Wish­ing you bright skies!

candice ransom
Reply to  Connie Van Hoven
3 years ago

The repair­man was right … it’s not a quick fix or a quick trip. But, like Stu­art, I believe I’m head­ing in the right direc­tion! Thanks for remind­ing me to re-read Stu­art Lit­tle myself!

3 years ago

Can­dace, have you read WINTERING by Kather­ine May? It’s new. It’s worth buy­ing. I think you might love it. (Not a chil­dren’s book, but speaks beau­ti­ful­ly to all the things in this col­umn. I found it life-changing.)

candice ransom
3 years ago

Melanie: I have looked at Win­ter­ing a few times, read parts of it. I may pick it up again, but at the moment read­ing about her grief is not where I want to be. I think once I’ve climbed out of this pit a bit more, I’ll give it anoth­er try. Thanks for think­ing of me – we all can always use a book suggestion!

Joyce Sidman
3 years ago

Can­dace, you have put your fin­ger on what many of us are feel­ing: worn out by the world, unable to reset our won­der-starved brains. Thank you for the inspi­ra­tion to try again! And so sor­ry that you have had such a chal­leng­ing year with health issues. Wish­ing you health and hope.

David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
3 years ago

Hop­ing that as we turn to spring, won­der will rise for you again on the hori­zon, Candace.

2 years ago

Dear Can­dice, some months ago I found your blog from last Dec. telling the sto­ry of your long haul with covid. I hope you are on the upswing now, that dark­er days are behind. You are an inspi­ra­tion to us all. be well–