In many of the world’s traditions, the start of the new year has long been set apart as a time of rest. In China, the custom of not working during the Lunar New Year echoes back to the agricultural past when farmers rested from work before a new planting season began. One of the ancient rituals of Oshogatsu (the Japanese New Year) is abstinence from all labor for three days, and the ancient Egyptians also embraced breathing space during their Wepet-Renpet (“Opening of the Year”) festival. As we slowly enter 2022, tranquility may seem counterintuitive, but our ancestors knew how wise it was to seek refuge.
Exploring the realm of tranquility in children’s literature yields interesting findings. A number of books have been published that teach children about the sleeping habits of animals, such as: Sleep: how nature gets it Rest by Kate Prendergast and Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler. Others, like nightcap by Nancy Redd and Nneka Myers, My bed: enchanting ways to fall asleep around the world by Rebecca Bond and Salley Mavor, and How do you say good night? by Cindy Jin and Shirley Ng-Benitez reveal how beddy-bye differs — and is similar in some ways — across cultures. And, of course, there’s no shortage of bedtime stories.
However, children need more than just an education in the sociology of sleep, and they need more than just sleep-inducing books that calm their prefrontal cortex at night and prepare their conscious minds for the transition to dreamland. Children’s books that express the sanctity, joy and indispensability of tranquility are surprisingly rare, but must be added to the studio of childhood.
Today’s life is full of environmental stresses – tensions so ubiquitous that most adults hardly notice them anymore. But environmental stressors—noise (including noise from social media), traffic, crowds, the 24-hour news cycle, overschedule, etc.—are acutely felt by children. Children’s literature has a responsibility to address and denormalize today’s frenetic norm. It is not without reason that periods of rest and rejuvenation are embedded in the communal and calendar rituals of most cultures and religions; yet we don’t often talk meaningfully to children about this elusive – and endangered – heritage of tranquility.
The Italian author Italo Calvino wrote that “Boredness in childhood is a special kind of boredom. It is a boredom full of dreams, a kind of projection to another place, to another reality.” This idea – essentially that boredom is a prison for kids to use their imaginations out of – is at the heart of many children’s books, such as I like to be bored by Ingrid Chabbert and Sébastien Chebret and The reservations by Claire Alexander. It’s worth making more books that frame boredom in a very different way – as a simple invitation to rest. Meanwhile, the growing number of children’s books on mindfulness is helping children slow down and notice the world around them. However, these outward-looking, activity-based stories must be balanced by perspectives that encourage children to find their inner refuge and embrace their need for regular rest.
Not that rest should be confused with inactivity. Tranquility is in fact an inner state of harmony and freedom from the pressures of life, no matter what we do. Still, it’s valuable to show young readers that doing nothing (or very little) is sometimes valuable and worthy of respect. For this reason, the picture book Let’s do everything and nothing by Julia Kuo, which beautifully balances a mother and daughter’s outdoor adventures and their hours of quiet, peaceful intimacy, is remarkable.
More and more books for young readers are being published that alert children to the injustices and pressing mysteries of the world, many of which seek to instill a sense of activism. But raising empathetic, activist, empowered children without instilling strong, established habits of rest and renewal is a terrible neglect of duty.
Summer Edward is an editor for young readers†