TELL ME A STORY!
You hear this from every child who can talk. You answer, “Once upon a time….” The fascination never leaves, no matter how old we are. Children listen with rapt attention from the age of six months. Telling it is better than reading it, you can look the storyteller in the eye. The advantage of reading it is that the words are exactly the same every time.
When you are under six and soaking up everything like a sponge you want perfect repetition with even the intonations unchanged. You want to expect what is going to happen, and you want to feel the glow of the words. Adults love the flow of words, but they do want the stories to vary. “I’ve heard that one before” squelches the teller only if you are an adult. Somewhere in the growth process there is a changeover.
The story is probably the most universal of all literary forms. You find it in every society, no matter how isolated, and as far back in history as we can know. Preliterate societies trained their storytellers as experts. They were able to retain the memory of the small child, and were highly respected. Through them history was preserved with extreme precision, genealogies were kept up to date, knowledge of farming or herding kept most specifically. They travelled about, spreading the knowledge, spreading the stories. Some stories, like Cinderella, are known in various versions all over the world.
Some stories are true, some could be true, some are impossible, many are like dreams. We love them all. Children probably dream at a very early age, so have experience in dealing with unreality. They seem to handle it quite well, they are not fazed by the Three Bears though they have possibly never seen a bear. Goldilocks goes walking into the woods not knowing what she will find just as they do every day of their lives.
The Brothers Grimm were researching grammar when they compiled their wonderful stories. They went into the small villages where lived the illiterates who have the fine memories. There they found stories that go back undoubtedly to the Old Stone Age. The dragons may very well have been the last of the lone dinosaurs. When we hear and tell these stories we touch our past in some mysterious way. It is not surprising that they appeal to children.
Adults do not tell each other stories of this type. They are reserved for children, passed on by the children who remember them exactly, grow up and repeat them to other children. They embody the lore of our society. The childhood fear of abandonment is there in Hansel and Gretel. The fear of facing a stepmother is there in Cinderella. Such stories are probably helpful since they force children to face their fears. After all, they all live happily ever afterward, don’t they?
This sort of folklore personifies all human emotions, and children know all human emotions by the time they are two years, with the possible exception of sex. They can identify with Jack as he climbs the beanstalk and outwits the giant. They love to hear about the youngest child in the family, the one who is called a simpleton, turn out the most successful. One loves to think of having a Fairy Godmother on hand to fulfill all your dreams.
The repetitive stories such as Henny Penny are probably some of the oldest. The rhythm of the words preserves them intact. Children love them the most at the time they are constructing language. The sound of the words is as important as any of the events.
Children love the true stories, stories of your childhood, of their own earlier days, stories of their grandparents, stories of your own youthful adventures. Parents should tell these, enhance them if you wish. Stories should not lose in the telling of them. The spirit is always there even if every fact is not completely accurate. The stories reflect your own hopes and dreams which the children are so eager to know. They need them in order to build their own.
There is much good modern literature for children today, a trip to the library can put you in touch. Look for the Newbery Prize books. Choose stories which are well written, where the words trip of the tongue like music. When the ears are so sensitive there is no place for trashy literature.
After listening to a good number of stories the children look for the familiar format, the “once upon a time” beginning, the situation, the conflict, the climax and the moral. Adult stories do not need a happy ending, but they keep the other things quite well.
Children love to make up their own stories. They tell them to anyone who will listen, even the dog. Adults should listen with delight if they possibly can. You can learn much about you child from this. Write them down and let the children read them later.
Stories from Greek and Roman mythology are important for the understanding of much modern literature. These stories and probably not suitable for children under seven or eight. Before that they don’t want the gods to be squabbling over Troy. These are very powerful stories and should not be omitted from childhood experience. To hear the mythological stories of any culture is to have a glimpse into its very soul.
Teenagers and preteens love adventure stories, stories where they can identify with both male and female heroes who go through harrowing experiences to save their families or their country in time of danger, stories of victory over the forces of nature, storms at sea. For these children do not forget biography, the life stories of noble people to emulate. We all like to think of ourselves as heroes, so let’s hear how it is done.
Stories put us in touch with the depths of human experience, those things we cannot possibly put into words.
by Marietta Rawson