Updated: Jul 17
Willow the Wonderer is an enchanting picture book about the search for happiness. It has been wonderful to see the warmth with which our readers have embraced the picture book since it release, with Willow the Wonderer maintaining a five star rating for10 straight months now. A question that has come up a number of times in reviews and conversations though is 'what is the right age to talk about happiness with children? Is it too deep and philosophical a subject for the young ones?' These question goes to the heart of why Darren and I decided to pick up our pens and pencils and produce the Willow the Wonderer picture books. We share our thoughts below.
Willow the Wonderer is a genre defying children's book
Willow the Wonderer is an enchanting picture book about the search for happiness. It is beautifully illustrated, has quirky rhymes and even makes counting fun.
It also tackles the most existential of all questions in our human experience - what is happiness and where can we find it?
The book is by no means a definitive guide to happiness … but it does offer our readers a resolution. The story ends with an insight into the nature and source of happiness - or as we like to think of it, a seed of wisdom on happiness.
What is the right age to talk about happiness with children?
A questions that has come up a number of times is whether it is too early to be discussing the 'deeper philosophy' about happiness with young children?
It's a fair question and goes to the heart of why Darren and I produced this picture book in the first place:
We feel that it's never too early to plant seeds of wisdom in young minds.
The stories we read as children leave an indelible mark
I can say from my own lived experience that the children's books that I read as a child have been amongst the most influential in my life. Even if there were elements that I was not able to intellectually grasp or explain at the time, at some level it became embedded in my psyche and influenced - rightly or wrongly - my outlook on life.
It's those childhood conditionings that have also been the hardest to change in my adult years.
The childrens' books that we read when young leave an indelible mark - so why not leave positive markers?
Happiness is hardly a new subject in children's literature
The idea of happiness features time and time again in the classic children's books, cartoons and movies we've all grown up with. It's hardly a new topic.
Remember all those 'happily ever after' stories?
Seducing us with magic and the enduring drama of good versus evil, these stories also subliminally planted the idea that everlasting happiness arises after one, having overcome all hardships, ends up with substantial wealth and fortune, fame and beauty, and ideally, a partner endowed in all of the above.
Consciously and unconsciously we find ourselves chasing this dream well into our adulthood ... until the inevitable vicissitudes of life (and a fair amount of suffering) finally teaches us to recognise the deeper wisdom of life.
The grand narratives we grew up with are incomplete
Before we started working on the picture book, Darren and I had quite a few DMCs (deep and meaning conversations) about our lives; this was during the first COVID lockdown so we had plenty of time on our hands.
We couldn't help but feel that 'grand narratives' we had grown up with had let us down. At best they were incomplete and at worst, utterly misleading.
This became the raison d'être for us to pick up our pens and sharpen our pencils to start working on Willow the Wonderer - a a story that we wish we'd grown up with.
On reflection I think the biggest issue with the grand narratives in our societies is they only tell one side of the story; the emphasis it seems more often than not is on finding fulfillment through 'acquiring' things, whether it be wealth, property or relationships.
To be clear, I do not think that there is anything wrong with wanting to be financially stable and having all the comforts of life, including the company of a loving partner.
However, it's also possible that these things, by themselves, don't bring about lasting contentment. Indeed our Western societies are full of people who have achieved all the above - yet still suffer greatly from lack of contentment (and so they keep on acquiring more and more). Mental illness has also grown to be biggest health issue of our time.
I remember a mystic once humourously point out that the current generation of humans have the most material comforts than any before them - yet we are also the most miserable to have every lived!
So what's missing?
There are other narratives out there which have a markedly different emphasis. They can be found through the ages in both, Western philosophical traditions and Eastern contemplative traditions.
Instead of asking us to look externally and focus on acquiring things, they suggest that we look within and deeply examine our inner experience as human beings.
In doing so they ask us to recognise the incredible faculty that we have as conscious beings to not only create but also control our own mental states, and ultimately shape our inner experience.
Indeed some go so far as to say (and demonstrate through accomplished practitioners) that our inner 'subjective' state is so powerful that it can override the stimulus we experience 'objectively' in the external world.
Recognising that we all have an inner world which colours our reality - and is one that we have the ability to control and shape - is a powerful and empowering insight.
It opens up the possibility of experiencing and being in positive states of mind - happy, joyful, content - regardless of our external situation, which we often have no real control over. It also shifts the power away from others and puts it squarely back in our hands.
These are stories we wish we'd grown up with
This deeper philosophy (or mind science as it's also becoming known) expressed in the manner and words used above, is indeed not something a child who is still learning to count can process ... We get that.
However, an enchanting tale about a young child who wakes up wondering about happiness and goes off searching for it here there and everywhere, only to finally realise that he was looking in the wrong place ... Now that is something that a child can both understand and remember, especially when told with a melodious rhyme and beautiful imagery that makes for great picture books :)
What the story ultimately does is plant a seed of age-old universal wisdom on happiness somewhere in our young readers' mind - one that hopefully blossoms with time and provides them with guidance when they need it the most.
Darren and I produced Willow the Wonderer because it's a story that we wish we had grown up with. Who knows how much time and anguish it would have saved us during those early adult years spent chasing the ghosts of 'happily ever after' ...
Give children the benefit of the doubt
I will end by saying that one of the most important rules that children's book authors live by is to never 'talk down' to a child.
Who is to say what a child can or cannot grasp; they may not have the vocabulary to express themselves fully but that does not mean that they don't have an innate intuition to understand things.
Science is beginning to expand our understanding of brain development - even reading to babies in the womb has been shown to promote brain activity and aid in early literacy skills and language development.
Its worth remembering though that Neuroscience still has a very long way to go. Scientific materialism, the dominant scientific paradigm of our age, has also not resolved the 'hard problem of consciousness' - yet.
With time and convergence of different fields and traditions, many more discoveries will no doubt be made that will expand our understanding. In the interim, I feel it's best not to underestimate children.
Expose them to as many different stories and ideas whilst they are growing up - and their minds are at their fungible best. Hopefully all these coalesce and help them develop a balanced outlook on life.
What do our readers think?
Willow the Wonderer has been embraced by readers of all age. The picture book has been consistently receiving five star ratings and reviews since we published it ten months ago.
Judging by the reviews and feedback, most people seem to agree - it's never too early to plant a seed of wisdom.
When we started off working on 'Willow the Wonderer', Darren and I talked about it as a story we wish we'd grown up with. Ten months on it seems these are stories that, at some level, we've been yearning for.
Tell us what you think? Is it ever too early to talk about happiness to a child?