On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
Rabindranath Tagore

It is interesting that when Donald Winnicott uses this quotation at the head of his chapter ‘The Location of Cultural Experience’ he misquotes it as ‘On the seashore of endless worlds children play.’ This, I suggest, is because for Winnicott there can be no true meeting without play, and for him an ‘important feature of playing….is that in playing, and perhaps only in playing, the child or adult is free to be creative.’ Reading as a form of play for both children and adults is rarely discussed, and therefore a significant link between literature and psychoanalysis is largely overlooked. The fact that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been so widely read by adults has kick – started a debate about crossover fiction and opened up the field of the importance of books and stories through childhood and throughout life. I am suggesting a thread from Winnicott’s idea of transitional phenomena to the pleasure found in reading, and I use a vignette of a patient to illustrate my point.

Winnicott’s last book, published posthumously, is titled Playing and Reality. In it he brings together several of his most important ideas about play and creativity. In his introduction he describes the book as a development of his 1951 paper ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, an area to which little serious attention had been paid until then, despite the fact that parents observed that children often had some special object which was of great importance to them. Linus, from the Peanuts cartoon, with his blanket is a good example as being almost universally recognised, and also because it does not have to be a toy.

Winnicott enlarges on his central theme of what is inside and what is outside through the symbolism of this first not-me object. It is … well known that after a few months infants of either sex become fond of playing with dolls, and that most mothers allow their infants some special
object and expect them to become, as it were, addicted to such objects. It must seem to the infant to give warmth, or to move, or to have texture, or to do something that seems to show it has vitality or reality of its own. It comes from without from our point of view, but not so from the point of view of the baby. Neither does it come from within; it is not a hallucination.

It is, he suggests, the first object of imaginative play, the first not-me object, and he summarises the special qualities in the relationship between the infant and this object.

  1. The infant assumes rights over the object and we agree to this assumption.
  2. The object is affectionately cuddled as well as being excitedly loved and mutilated.
  3. It must never change, unless changed by the infant.
  4. It must survive instinctual loving, and also hating…
  5. Yet it must seem to the infant to give warmth…..

Its fate is to be gradually allowed to lose its importance so that in the course of years it becomes not forgotten and not mourned. It loses meaning, and this is because the significance of the object has become diffused, has become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common’, that is to say, over the whole cultural field.

In other words, the subject widens out into that of play, and of artistic creativity and appreciation, and of religious feeling, and of dreaming……The symbolism and creative imagination can be used in solitary play, for example, with imaginary characters, or shared with others. Winnicott does not specifically mention reading, but reading is par excellence both something shared and something solitary; shared because there are always two people involved: the writer and the reader, solitary because it is likely to take place alone.

The following vignette from my work with one patient is an example not only of how this woman moved from her security blanket to finding security in other areas, but also of how her play with and from books became far more important to her than toys. The fact that she was an only child certainly played a part as she lacked the companionship of siblings.

Sophie had had a piece of blanket from as far back as she could remember. She was told, although she could not remember, that when she was very young she carried it everywhere with her, held to her nose as she sucked her fingers. This, presumably, became less when she started school and began life outside the immediate family. What she does remember is that she needed it at bedtime until it was lost in a house move when she was nine. Sophie had read from an early age and at that point books took over. Up to then it had been books as well as her piece of blanket, now it was just books. As she does not recall any great trauma at the loss of her blanket it may well be that she had already reached the stage that Winnicott
describes as ‘the external world shared by at least two persons in common’.

Sophie was the only child of professional parents. She was at a day school and went home to a house in which, while it was not empty, she was for the most part alone. She was aware that most of her contemporaries had siblings and perhaps a mother at home which pointed up her own solitariness. Her house was full of books, and even as a teenager she realised that her own collection of books far outnumbered those of her friends, as well as having access to her parents’ large library. Despite loving reading from as long as she could remember, she had never enjoyed being read to. Anyone reading to her would have been an intrusion into the deeply personal relationship she had with the characters in the story. Karen Armstrong writing of a novel says ‘It projects [readers] into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not “real” and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling.’ This, for Sophie, was the joy of a book: she could escape her rather solitary existence and live in a world of companions and friends.

From about the age of nine she did more. Like many pre-school children Sophie had had an imaginary companion that she sometimes played with but who she does not think was a very big part of her life. However, moving to a new house in a different city and going to a new school had, she remembers, a profound effect on her emotional well being, leaving her for a while very lonely and insecure. Inspired by the books she read she developed a whole world of imaginary people among whom she lived. She referred to this other life as The Secret Game, recognising that others might
find it strange or weird. Some, she told me, were lesser secret games, based on books which she especially loved: The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge, was a particular favourite.

Sophie’s main concept was huge and complex. She and her (fantasy) twin sister were part of an imaginary family loosely based on the large family of one of her friends. As in her friend’s family, and harking back to her own early childhood, there was a nurse who had complete charge of the children: the parents were quite remote, as were her real parents. She had a great collection of imaginary animals, loosely based on that of Maria Merryweather, the heroine of The Little White Horse. Sophie’s imaginary collection included two monkeys as well as a very big dog who was her protector, similar to Wrolf, Maria’s lion/dog.

As well as the family and the menagerie Sophie invented an entire boarding school, pupils, classes, and teachers, modelled mostly, it seems, on the Chalet School stories, but with a good amount of Enid Blyton. This she felt part of in term time, after school hours, when alone and doing her homework, music practise and so on. During holidays she restricted herself to her ‘family’. These companions, and especially her ‘twin’, kept loneliness at bay. However, even though this inner life was quite real to her she was well aware of the distinction between fantasy and reality, and naming it The Secret Game makes this quite clear. It needed to be kept secret from those who would not understand. Had she not been aware of the difference, fantasy could have tipped into psychosis.

The next developmental leap for Sophie was the result of a serious illness which confined her to bed for three months. Almost without her being aware of it this plunge into a new and sudden reality resulted in the whole imaginary world disappearing. As Winnicott says of the transitional object ‘it lost meaning. It was not forgotten, but it was not mourned.’ It is likely that not only did she have a lot to assimilate in the world of reality but also having people around her and caring for her meant that she had less time on her own. Books, however, were still of huge importance to her: a way of escaping from the monotony of life in bed to an active wider world. Shortly after her recovery she went to university and the ‘real’ world took over with lectures, other interests such as music and drama, various societies and being part of a vibrant community. This is an account of how one woman moved along what might be called a trajectory of transitional phenomena, making use of fantasy along the way. She had successfully made the long journey from security blanket to shared culture. What remained was not just a love of books but a residual need for a book at bedtime, just as she had once needed her security blanket.

I suggest that it is essential for children to be allowed to play with literature, that is, to read what they want. My patient needed the security of the world she found in Elizabeth Goudge’s writing and also the companionship of virtual peers she found in school stories. Parents and teachers will certainly select reading material for children, but it is also important to let child readers choose what they want and need at any given time. In their choice of reading material children may be seeking security, companionship, adventure, and even subversive books like Horrid Henry
where children can fantasise about behaving in ways they know are fantasy and would be unacceptable in real life. Jack Zipes, a foremost writer on children’s literature, expressed horror that his daughter was reading a series of novels entitled The Sweet Valley Twins and wondered where they had gone wrong as parents that she should choose such inferior reading. On the contrary, I suggest, he had succeeded in teaching her the value of reading thus enabling her to choose the books she wanted: possibly even needed, at that time when, aged nine, she and her parents were spending a year in Paris. Stories set in her own country and written in her own language may have helped her to cope with the unfamiliarity of her situation. A younger child might have turned to a security blanket.

My patient used and loved the books available when she was a child. Today’s children have a different selection but play is still very much part of how books are used. In particular the Harry Potter series has demonstrated huge potential for many kinds of play, not only the events and merchandise available, but, far more interesting in my view, as a means for children to use with their own imagination. They offer both action and security: each novel is an adventure and a conflict between good and evil, but in each there is also containment in the safe and familiar structure of school life.

The books are about children coping with dilemmas, with relationships, with the usual problems of life, and as such they can have a therapeutic value. Colman Noctor’s paper ‘Putting Harry Potter on the Couch’ in the journal Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry describes how he used the Harry Potter books to facilitate a group of troubled teenagers to identify and discuss their problems. Members of the group were able to use the text to identify their own issues such as problems with authority, lack of parental support, content of dreams, themes of loss.

Marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Sunday Times interviewed six young adults who talk about how important the series was to them as young readers. Their accounts are various: ‘I had no safe space, except with a book’, one said. Another, bullied at school, identified with Neville Longbottom, who comes through to be one of the bravest and most admired students by the end of the series. One reader whose mother was terminally ill found that sharing the stories gave them both space to deal with the impending loss.

It is no coincidence that Parental Pathways, an organisation working to support parents and children using the principles of psychoanalysis, has combined with Children’s Books Ireland in the conferences they have mounted in 2017 and 2018. Their founders say ‘we have come to realise that children’s literature is often a bridge between brain development and the ability to relate.’ It also offers a space in which to explore all emotions and feelings, including, perhaps especially, disturbing ones. For Winnicott there had to be both boundary and space which is what a book
offers. Like a transitional object, it can be carried around, always there when needed, offering adventure or security.

Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate. 2006.
Colman Noctor, ‘Putting Harry Potter on the Couch’ in Clinical Child Psychologyand Psychiatry, 11.4. (2006) 578-589.
Winnicott, D.W., Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock. 1971.
Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. London: Routledge. 2001.

This article is based on my paper ‘From Security Blanket to Literature – a Case Study,’ given at a conference ‘The Child and the Book’ in Wroclaw in 2016.


Winning author, Mary Pyle

Mary Pyle, M.A., H.Dip.Ed., is a founder member of the Irish Forum for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and of the Irish Institute for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Trinity College Dublin, and has been Chair of each. She is a training analyst, lecturer and clinical supervisor, and is also a qualified Group Analyst (London Institute of Group Analysis). Now, partially retired she is working towards a PhD. on Harry Potter and the Unconscious. This stems from her particular interest in the link between literature and psychoanalysis.