What Rereading Childhood Books Teaches Adults About Themselves
Whether they delight or disappoint, old books provide touchstones for tracking personal growth.
When I return to my parents’ house and the neighborhood where I grew up, the tension between sameness and difference is disorienting. The gym is still there, but the bookstore where I hung out after school is now a Target. There are new neighbors renovating the house next door. My parents might turn one of our childhood bedrooms into a study. I see versions of my old self in local kids, running around the back alley or aimlessly browsing our local Sephora. They make me feel both nostalgic and relieved to be an adult.
That’s when I find myself reaching for a comforting set of pastel-colored spines on my childhood bookshelf: L. M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables series. My mom first read it to me when I was a toddler, and I’ve been rereading it ever since. For many years, the main draw was Anne’s love interest, Gilbert Blythe, whom I had a crush on. But now I read it more for the compelling female friendships—“bosom friends,” as Anne would call them—and the gorgeous descriptions of the jewel-toned countryside. Most of all, Anne’s home of Avonlea, animated by Anne’s idealism and exuberance, feels like a refuge from the real world, where those traits can be hard to find.
People’s favorite childhood stories often stick with them throughout their lives. When the book-centric social media site Goodreads tracked the books most reread by its users, many of them were children’s books, including J. K. Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series, C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
For many, having kids of their own provides an opportunity to share these beloved stories with the next generation. But revisiting them alone as adults can also provide comfort, relaxation, and the pleasure of rediscovery. Not only do rereaders rediscover the story, but they may also rediscover themselves.
Rereading “reminds us that we can experience something intensely and not be seeing everything at the time. And going back, we see something different,” says Jill Campbell, an English professor at Yale. “It’s a way of thinking more about a book that’s had an impact on you, but it’s also a way of thinking about your own life, memories, and experiences. The continuities and the differences.”
The literary critic J. Hillis Miller once wrote about revisiting a beloved childhood book, Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson, much later in life. The book tells of a family shipwrecked on a desert island, where they must fend for themselves in the wild. Miller was immediately brought back to “that wonderful, safely uninhabited, tropical island, teeming with every sort of bird, beast, fish, tree, and plant,” he writes.
The experience also brings him back to his childhood, transcending the passage of time. He remembers camping trips with his family, where “equipped with no more than you could carry on your back, you could ‘set up camp,’ cut some fragrant balsam boughs for bedding, make a camp fire for cooking and heat and, in short, create a whole new domestic world in the wilderness,” he writes. “I can still remember the pleasure of falling asleep in the open-fronted lean-to with the other children, wrapped in my blanket (no sleeping bags then), smelling the balsam, and listening to the murmur of the adults’ voices as they sat talking by the dying campfire.”
There is an allure to the repetition of rereading, submitting to the rhythms of a narrative, place, and characters you know well, and the familiar emotions they evoke. Rereading also has a different pace. I tear through a book on the first read, to find out what happens next, but rereading feels mellower and more leisurely, even while relearning the parts I’ve forgotten.
The takeaways are often different too, when reading a book through the lens of adulthood. Rosalie Knecht, a writer and licensed therapist who writes Literary Hub’s “Dear Book Therapist” advice column, has carried her copy of William Steig’s Dominic, inscribed to her uncle and dated “Christmas 1973,” with her through many moves. Dominic follows a dog on an adventure, which ultimately ends in a garden that feels like home, though he’s never encountered it before.
“What it is is: He’s found love,” she says. That didn’t mean anything to her as a child, she says, “but when you’re an adult it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, it is like that.’”
Those adult pleasures can also be comingled with disappointment if the book doesn’t live up to the sentimental memory you have of it. Campbell, the Yale professor, still owns her childhood copy of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. She read it to her son when he was young, and recalls it was the first book that ever made him cry.
To this day she says she admires the writing, humor, and characters of the classic, and she even includes it in the curriculum for a class she teaches about children’s books. But she and her students have noticed that the character Fern, who as a young girl saves and cares for Wilbur the pig, grows up to prioritize a crush on a boy instead.
The book is “about the kinds of powers children have, their powers to listen and attend, to care and fight for things,” Campbell says. It also “has this limited view of what girls can do when they grow up. But I think you can have both those experiences of reading at the same time.”
Another potential disappointment is that rereading can reveal how your childhood canon excludes other perspectives, Campbell notes. She’s added Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese and Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House to her syllabus, books for young people that respectively center around Asian American and 19th-century Native American characters. And she says she’s found that many of her students are reading them for the first time in her class—they weren’t exposed to these stories growing up.
When childhood favorites retain their magic though, they can serve as an anchor over the course of one’s life. Well-loved books stay the same even as so much else changes. That constancy can be comforting. In another childhood favorite of mine, Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice, I know exactly how the protagonist Aly’s life is going to shake out, even if I don’t know exactly how mine will. She will overthrow the colonial regime every time, install a female ruler, and then marry her boyfriend—once he turns from a crow into a man.
In a 2012 study that looked at why people reread books, rewatch movies, and revisit the same places, the researchers interviewed 23 participants about which experiences they chose to repeat, why, and how they felt during it. They found that repeat experiences “allow consumers an active synthesis of time and serve as catalysts for existential reflection.” Childhood books offer an opportunity to sit down in the river of time, if just for a moment, and ponder the full scope of one’s life. For one woman in the study, who often rewatched the 1999 romantic drama Message in a Bottle, the movie helped her process an upsetting breakup.
Knecht, the writer and therapist, says of rereading that “when you’re feeling stagnant, like you’ve made no progress, it gives a shape to that experience and suggests it will pass.” In that way, it can be therapeutic because “therapy is about telling your story and having someone challenge you sometimes about the way you’re telling that story,” she says, “until you get it into a shape that you can live with and move forward with.”
For the literary critic Miller, rereading The Swiss Family Robinson seemed to remind him of why he chose his profession in the first place. Like the family Robinson did on the island, “the reader of the book creates within his or her imagination a new realm,” he writes, a world that is “more real, and certainly more worthy to be lived in, than the ‘real world.’” Rereading the book for the first time in about 65 years, he writes, “I have been as enchanted, or almost, as I remember myself being at my first reading, or about the age of ten.”