For 40 years I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for the kind of lamp post under which a faun might be found.
A Victorian-style gas lamp that shone day and night in a snowy wood was the landmark to the enchanted country of Narnia and has burnt brightly in my mind ever since I first read The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.
Through the decades the C.S.Lewis classic has retained its power to transport, right down to the gentle brush of fur against cheek as young protagonists push through the coats into a closet world where it remains forever winter, never Christmas.
Even the belated understanding that it was chock-a-block full of Christian symbolism and was, in fact, a heavy-handed religious allegory could not dispel its magic.
It seems nothing we read in adulthood can destroy the enchantment of a story absorbed in youth.
Far from pure escapism, the real power of children’s literature – particularly the fantasy genre – is that it encourages kids to make connections through metaphor to their own social situations.
The brussels sprouts of reality, the kale of consequence, are made as digestible as fairy bread while trotting along with a unicorn through a lilac wood.
It’s no coincidence many of the most-loved children’s books have at their heart characters who are displaced, marginalised, lost, lonely and generally misunderstood.
It is 30 years since Roald Dahl sat down to write the first draft of Matilda.
The story of a lonely girl with precocious powers and truly awful parents was Dahl’s 16th novel for children and, by all accounts, the one he found most difficult to craft.
According to his daughter, Lucy, the great author believed the writing was on the wall for books because of new technologies and he wanted Matilda to make people care.
And care they did, with the book selling many millions of copies, winning hearts across nations after it was eventually published in 1988 – two years before its author died.
Inevitably, in 1996 came the movie starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as Matilda’s parents and Mara Wilson as the child star.
Now, at long last, Matilda, the universally acclaimed musical with songs by our own wild-haired genius Tim Minchin, is about to open in Melbourne.
The musician and comedian has described Matilda as “an avatar for all our ambitions when we are little and powerless. She’s perfect in the face of the horrible people around her”.
Psychological studies have shown that when reading about characters we love, we subconsciously adopt their behaviour and become a little more like them.
While that makes me somewhere between a hobbit and Hercule Poirot, Tim … well, he’s been immersed in Matilda for more than five years now.
He may not be able to perform telekinesis but he can certainly help shift attitudes and generate debate, as demonstrated by his satirical song calling for Cardinal George Pell to return to Australia to give evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Because, to borrow from Matilda, “somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world”.