Rereading Beloved Children’s Books in the Time of Coronavirus
One of the greatest joys of becoming a parent was the opportunity to share my favourite children’s books with my daughters. When my firstborn, Tiferet, was just a few days old and I was up at night nursing her by the moonlight, I read her all of my favourite childhood books in instalments—just so she could get used to the sound of my voice. By the time Tiferet was three months old, she had already ‘read’ L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, three books that kindled my love of literature and inspired me to become a writer at a young age.
With the lockdown in place and preschools closed for more than eight weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve been spending most of my time at home looking after my two ‘little princesses’: Tiferet, now 4, and Maayan, aged 2. I have, as a result, mostly been reading children’s books. I find much comfort in revisiting beloved books from my childhood, offering me a true sense of belonging, a homecoming of sorts, particularly during these uncertain times.
Tiferet loves to take possession of my old books, announcing: ‘These were once yours, but now they are mine.’ I know it is one of the most meaningful gifts I can give her, making me appreciate the value of the book as a physical object, something that would be impossible in a fully digitised age. As Anne would say, it ‘gives me a thrill’ to see that my own books are still used and that my daughters love them as much as I did, even though there are so many other distractions claiming their attention these days. There is something truly magical about holding a book in your hands—particularly one that was read by your own mother at your age—something in the shape, the texture, the smell, that a screen could never replace. Even my two-year-old loves to take my books off the shelf and flip through the pages until she comes to the illustrations, telling the story in her own words.
In addition to the old editions published more than thirty years ago, we have acquired a series of adaptations based on these classics, such as a picture book and a bedtime story featuring Anne, as well as a series of board books by Kelly Hill with embroidered scenes from Anne of Green Gables, teaching children about colours, numbers, feelings, and the letters of the alphabet. My daughters also enjoy playing with the Anne doll my parents bought for me as a souvenir during our family trip to Prince Edward Island, dressing her in her puffed-sleeve dress and braiding her red hair. They eagerly await their turn (and the lifting of international travel bans) to travel to Canada to visit Anne, constantly spinning the globe in order to gauge the distance between Australia and Prince Edward Island.
I first encountered Anne as a six-year-old, right after my family moved to Canada from Israel. It was love at first sight. When I woke up early on Sunday mornings, I would tune in to the Japanese anime series, exquisitely executed with delicate depictions of Prince Edward Island and an evocative soundtrack. Dubbed into French, the program enhanced my language skills and strengthened my identification with Canadian society and culture. At that time, I could only watch one episode each week and was held in suspense all week long until the following Sunday. I have now found the same series on YouTube, dubbed into both English and Hebrew, and my daughters can choose the episodes they want to watch (usually Anne and Diana’s Tea Party).
When I learned in third grade that this television series was based on a book, I asked the school librarian if I could borrow it. To my surprise, she did not have it, but called me in a few weeks later and showed me a beautifully illustrated abridged version of the novel, in which she had affixed a plaque indicating that the book had been purchased in my honour. It was after reading this book that I first told my parents that I wanted to be a writer when I grow up, just like Anne. I have not changed my mind since and am finally working on my first novel as part of my doctoral dissertation.
With the girls at home for two months, I sought different channels to keep them entertained. To my great joy, the Orna Porat Children’s Theatre made several full-length productions available online. One day, my daughters were watching a play called Heroine, when all of a sudden I heard the name Sara Crewe and realised that it is actually an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. My daughters have come to admire Sara and, ever since, I’ve been reading them one chapter each evening at bedtime from the book that was once mine. I was excited to discover the 1939 Little Princess film, starring Shirley Temple, and show my daughter Tiferet what we mean when we tell her that she has a head full of Shirley Temple curls.
When I heard that a new Secret Garden motion picture was about to be released, I wanted to introduce my daughters to this magical story. A previous version of the movie was made in 1993, when I was in elementary school, and the following year a Secret Garden storybook with stills from the movie was on offer through the Scholastic brochure. I persuaded my parents to order this book for me—I wanted it because it came with a key-shaped pendant that could unlock the garden gate—and it is this same book that I’ve been rereading to my daughters over the past few weeks.
I remember how pleased I was to be selected for the lead role of Mary Lennox when I enrolled in an extracurricular drama course in sixth grade. I am now delighted to watch my own daughters dressing up and acting out scenes from the books we’ve been reading together, despite their limited vocabulary. I’m happy to see how much they identify with these characters and gratified that I have been able to transmit to them my passion for these works—works that have accompanied me since childhood and that continue to inspire my own creative endeavours.
While children’s books often deal with profound emotional struggles and difficult situations, they also offer a glimmer of hope and a model of fortitude—much needed in this period of sickness and solitude. Through these books I have been able to present my young, impressionable daughters with positive female role models, young girls who are intelligent, resourceful, kind, compassionate, and blessed with huge imaginations. When Sara Crewe loses her fortune and is relegated to the attic as a maid, she imagines a warm fire burning in the fireplace and a feast on the table, cheering up her friend Becky with fantastical stories. Likewise, my daughters and I have enlisted our imaginations and the power of storytelling to envision a different reality for ourselves and to find joy in our confinement.
Just as the Secret Garden helped heal Mary’s invalid cousin Colin, so did our outdoor expeditions lift our spirits. We enjoyed taking long strolls in the park (the playground equipment was sealed off), riding our bikes, and having picnics by the beach. We learned to perceive the wonders of nature and the healing properties of a little Vitamin D, said to be beneficial in the case of COVID-19.
As for myself, I have been attempting to make progress with Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu in the few minutes each day when my daughters play together, in addition to midnight readings of the Zohar, once I have ascertained that they are sound asleep, dreaming of the enchanted lands to which we journeyed together that day.
Merav Fima’s prose and poetry have appeared in a number of anthologies and literary journals, including: Verge; Poetica Magazine; and Parchment: A Journal of Contemporary Canadian Jewish Writing. Her short story, ‘Bride Immaculate’, won the 2014 Energheia Literary Competition (Matera, Italy) and ‘Rose among the Thorns’ was a finalist in the Tiferet literary journal’s 2019 fiction contest. She is the translator of Gal Ventura’s scholarly monograph Maternal Breast-Feeding and Its Substitutes in Nineteenth-Century French Art (Brill) and her book reviews have appeared in the Australian Book Review and Colloquy. She is currently at work on her first novel as part of her doctoral dissertation in Creative Writing at Monash University.