5 min read

How children’s books challenge us to hope harder

Reading an award-winning children’s book challenges Elizabeth Wainwright much more than expected - to imagine and hope.

Elizabeth Wainwright is a writer, coach and walking guide. She's a former district councillor and has a background in international development.

A close up of face, showing an eye, mostly obscured by a closely-held open book.

This year, the Waterstones book of the year prize was awarded to Impossible Creatures, a fantasy book for children by Katherine Rundell. This was not the children’s book of the year; this was overall book of the year – it beat novels and non-fiction books for adults. I felt momentarily but deeply joyful when I heard the news and was curious why.  

During the pandemic, I found myself unable to read the non-fiction books I usually turn too. Even adult fiction felt heavy. It was children’s books and authors I turned to. Philip Pullman, Dodie Smith, Alan Garner, Ursula K Le Guin. Others new to me. On reflection, I wasn’t reading these books because they were in any way easier, because they weren’t – they asked me to think and hope and imagine much harder than a lot of adult books, despite everything the news would have me believe. And it is for that very reason that I sought these books out. The Waterstones prize made me think a bit more about this – and why it might matter now especially.  

Imagination helps us to confront and solve problems – it is not an indulgence, it is essential for the becoming world, and for being the people we are called to be. 

First, I thought about my time as a District Councillor in local government. Here, I quickly learned all sorts of things about planning, environment, community, working across opposition and more. I needed to call on my perseverance, patience, strategic thinking. But the things that I found myself calling on again and again were imagination and relationship-building. Building relationships – especially with people who weren’t like me – was the only way to get things done.  And imagination because it’s the thing that recreates, that sees things as they could be not as they are. Albert Einstein said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, and I’ve seen how that’s true. It did not feel enough, for example, to try to fix problems of dwindling budgets with more cuts and more inefficient meetings. Instead, imagination asked me to think about what this budget-setting process might look like at its best, and how the wider community might help us decide priorities, and how we might restructure our work so that the District doesn’t just scrape by, but thrives. It asked me to step out of business-as-usual, and imagine business-as-it-could-be.  

Jesus too shows us the importance of imagination – he so often called out who he saw people to be, not who they were. And he points us now towards what is yet to come. He calls us to wait, and to trust in his arrival – however distant it might feel. Children’s books often do this too: Frodo trusting that the ring would be destroyed, imagining life outside of the grip of the darkness of Mordor, despite all evidence to the contrary. Bastian’s imagination helping to save Fantasia in the Neverending Story. Jo March showing the possibility of another kind of life in Little Women. Imagination helps us to confront and solve problems – it is not an indulgence, it is essential for the becoming world, and for being the people we are called to be.  

I think the best children’s books do the same thing – they ask us to look up, to look out, to feel the whisper of the voice behind us urging us on to something more beautiful. 

Second, the children’s books I read during lockdown gave me hope in a way that books for adults didn’t at the time. Hope is, I think, innately tied to imagination. It asks us to look ahead, even when things aren’t clear, and walk forward. Rebecca Solnit explores hope, optimism, and activism in her short book Hope In the Dark. She says,  

“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”  

I think the best children’s literature shows us how to hope, and shows us what right action can look like when we invoke that hope. In Rundell’s Impossible Creatures, Mal and Christopher must save the ‘Archipelago’ – where mythical creatures still live – and the world beyond them from a growing darkness. Hope shines bright, reminding the reader that it is not naïve but necessary and world-changing, if we let it be. Hope changes things. In the New Testament, Paul tells that along with faith and love, hope will remain. When it feels like the world – fictional, or real – is falling away, hope will remain. Coupled with imagination, bound with faith and love, made active with hands and hearts, it might just pull us through to things we cannot yet see.  

When she won the National Book Award, Ursula K Le Guin underlined the necessity of imagination and hope right now:  

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.” 

Jesus was the ultimate realist of a larger reality. He asks us to love in the face of hate, to believe that food and wine can come from faith, to believe so hard in love – not as a pink heart-shaped commodity, but as a world-shaking force – that we might literally see resurrection. Jesus lived in a particular place, at a particular time, grounded in people and soil and society, but always pointing to the bigger truth he knew, and to a world that did not yet exist. I think the best children’s books do the same thing – they ask us to look up, to look out, to feel the whisper of the voice behind us urging us on to something more beautiful. Importantly, this is not a rejection of the world as it is – we are called to love our neighbours here and now, to build the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. But in what is, there is the seed of what could be, there is a light that shines in places that are still dark. I think the gospel, and the best children’s books, help us to see that light and see what it might illuminate. Jesus knew that children’s minds were perhaps better at seeing this light – he even says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Allowing ourselves to imagine, to hope, is perhaps the only way we’ll take the kingdom of heaven seriously here on earth.  

Katherine Rundell herself has pointed out that children’s books don’t just make good readers, they make good people. I think that with imagination, hope, courage, and more, they help call forth the people we are becoming, and the world that could become. That is why I turned to them during lockdowns, that is why I turn to them now as parts of our world seem dark, and that is why I turn again and again to Jesus – the ultimate realist of a larger reality.  

4 min read

What makes fans tick?

Fandom’s remarkable fusing.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Scottish football fans wearing kilts march down a street singing and waving their arms alogt.
Scotland's Tartan Army of football fans.

"A fat, sarcastic Star Trek fan: you must be a devil with the ladies." 

This put down of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons neatly sums up a prevailing attitude to fans.  To be a committed fan is to devote yourself to a niche pastime; to be weird and nerdy and, simply, not cool.  At its worst, the fan becomes a fanatic, from which the noun is derived; an obsessive who stalks the object of their passion online and, at its most dangerous, offline. 

Times are changing, though, and the internet is chiefly responsible.  Where once fans could feel isolated and able only to relate to fellow afficionados slowly via the postal system, now they can find people who share their love in a handful of clicks and build relationships in real time.  A lot of anguish is spent on how the internet allows people to find extremist chat rooms where abhorrent behaviour is normalised; less attention is given to the wonder of being able to find fellow lovers online of Massey Ferguson tractors, Australian mullets or Rubik’s Cubes.  Many fans feel less alone online, building a new sense of belonging and purpose – a realisation that others will take them seriously. 

Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

In Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging (Picador, 2024), the academic Michael Bond gives a perceptive and generous insight into the world of fandom.  There are Beliebers, Directioners, Trekkers, Swifties, Janeites, Ricardians.  For the uninitiated, that’s lovers of Justin Bieber, One Direction, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, Richard the Third; though strangely one of the biggest bases of all simply goes by the title Star Wars fans.  Bond spends some time looking at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson.  Professor Gayle Stever has researched the pop star’s fans and found them, like many other fans, to be ‘normal people carrying on normal lives with functioning relationships and jobs, who just had this passion for Michael Jackson’.  Despite the discomfort of idolising a celebrity who lived, and died, with serious child abuse allegations made against him, they saw Jackson as ‘the target of racist abuse and unwarranted criticism throughout his career’. 

Fans often identify very personally with their idols.  Cosplaying conventions allow fans to reinvent themselves and Houston University studies have shown that people can ‘feel less lonely and less anxious in the face of rejection simply by thinking of a favourite TV show’. 

But what of football fans?  Many find the aggressive tribalism involved hard to accept.  I have observed young male fans of London Premier League teams chanting loudly at train stations in a way that made young women nearby shrink away, making me wonder whether my opening line from The Simpsons ought to be re-purposed.  The ritualised conduct of football crowds – the fist pumping, jumping and embracing at a goal, the verbal and hand abuse of opposing players and referees, and the chants that defy pre-match announcements about tolerance at games – can look bizarre and scary.  Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

‘... the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.’ 

Emma John

The deeper the love for a club, the greater the joy and the pain at success and failure.  It is a high-risk investment that many stake because it makes them feel so alive.  The peerless interpreter of football fandom, Nick Hornby, says that football is a context where watching becomes doing’.  Anyone whose leg has involuntarily jerked as a player reaches for the ball will grasp that. 

I wonder if some football fans who identify as Christian struggle with the secret reality of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend?  Should a win on a football pitch matter that much, when so many things are so much more important?  They may aspire to the whimsy of Ecclesiastes (there is a time to win and a time to lose, the author nearly said) but feel the coursing testosterone of Samson instead. 

God made us playful, and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play.  There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of its finest exponents, like the choreography of Michael Jackson himself.  If we are called to life in all its fulness, isn’t this also a part of that fulness (even if some games are a stretch)?  

In recent interviews, Nick Hornby has said he couldn’t write Fever Pitch again, his pained love letter to Arsenal FC; middle age has brought a new perspective.  Writing in Prospect magazine (May 2024), sports journalist Emma John says: ‘I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory…the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity’. 

At least, until the final penalty shoot-out, when for the diehard fan it’s absolutely all about the earthly moment of victory.