By Bernardo Marçolla, author of All You Can Imagine
What to write about for children? It’s a question I often ask myself. To find the answer, I look for clues in the questions I asked when I was a child.
Without going into the number (or merit) of the years I have accumulated, I can state that when I was a boy the world was quite different from what it is today. Not only were the technologies different, but also (and perhaps mainly) the forms of sociability and interaction. Still, I believe that the essence of the questions I was asking at that time still lingers.
I remember very clearly some of the experiences I had with books that were offered to me, and of children’s theater plays that I was able to watch. Although the intention behind these experiences was the best possible, they often left me feeling deeply embarrassed, perhaps because I felt excessively “infantilized.” I clearly remember a time when my family offered several books for me to read. Even though I read them all, my feeling was that they were superficial stories—at least most of the time. I didn’t want to read about the little detective mouse who cracked cases. I didn’t want to know that all animals poop. I didn’t want a book full of beautiful color images but little more. I wanted sense, meaning, content.
From an early age, I wanted to better understand the world and the meaning of being here. And perhaps, for that very reason, the books that have remained most in my memory are those that I did not understand immediately, but which stirred something up within me. Books that gave me clues about something more significant, about questions and ideas related to the fact that we are alive. Books that, even for children, could be reread many times throughout life, at different ages. Books whose meanings are not so obvious, or pragmatic—but which touch what is most true, which is the mystery involved in living itself.
Looking back, I don’t think I was the only child with such wishes or expectations. And because of that realization, I believe it is important for adults to remember their own experiences when they were children before they fall into the temptation to idealize children’s universe. I think we habitually underestimate the capacity and potential of children. This is dangerous, because by underestimating their potential, we diminish the richness of the content we offer them. We try to save them from questions for which even we do not have the answers—and instead we offer them only those small certainties we cling to feel more secure ourselves.
But the anxieties and the existential yearnings of children—and of all of us—are always there, whether they are heard and acknowledged or not. And they will remain with us for a lifetime, and may be more or less valuable, depending on how much access each of us has to them. They are the raw material of dreams, which can ache like emptiness or shine through creation.
Yes, it is important that we teach children everything we know, everything that must be learned to move around the world in the best way possible. But it is essential that we go further: that we teach about what we do not yet know, about what we are still learning, about Life itself, about the mysteries to which we still rehearse answers, about the miracle and the mystery of being here, about how everything is so complex and yet so simple.
I propose we change our mindset about what is or is not immediately useful to children, and revise our priorities about what we should teach them. Because, in fact, the most important things cannot be taught—they must be learned by each of us. This is solitary and nontransferable work. When we talk about things that seem to have no pragmatic importance, we are really strengthening the internal elements and the tools that allow children to start building their own framework of ideas about existence. And that is the great task that Life delegates to us, from the first to the last second of our journey on this planet.
Having said all that, I want to tell you a secret. All my life I wrote for adults, in an academic context and in a way that brought me great satisfaction. About two years ago, out of a dream (literally), I had the idea of writing (and drawing) for children. And some books have sprung up, in a way that has made me feel even more accomplished than when I wrote for adults. It seems that this has been my happiest way to respond to Life’s calls. But what is the secret I referred to? Well, I am now writing for children—but also for adults. Because there is something for them in my books too.
My dream is that my books can be read by adults of two types. First, by the adults who are part of a child’s life, like their parents and teachers. But in order for them to really read what’s in my books, they need to refrain from any prior idea of what to expect from a children’s book. Because they are not just children’s books. And there is also the second group of adults that I would very much like to read my books: Those who read them when they were children. This is a dream for the future, but it is my most ambitious dream—that my little readers today can revisit my books in the future. There—who knows?—they may find great and beautiful surprises. They can build new senses. Other senses may be confirmed and strengthened. Connections can be established. They will discover, then, that we are not the ones who read the book; the book is what reads us.
Bernardo Marçolla is an author and illustrator who holds degrees in psychology and literature and has over 10 years of experience as a professor of psychology. Since 2012, he has been an analyst in the human resources area of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, and in 2017, he published the book Psychology and Ecology: Nature, Subjectivity, and Its Intersections. The ideas in that book inspired him to create accessible books for children on big, metaphysical concepts. He loves chocolate and still has not given up on learning to draw a little better. He lives in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with his wife and two cats.
Free Spirit books by Bernardo:
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