Editorial: Storytelling

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Opening Children’s Eyes to Ideas

Editing this issue has opened our eyes. We started off with the intention of reviewing books for children and families. We used that phrase because we recognised that parents (and others) often read books to children, or with them. It is a shared activity. We were told that children are never too young to look at the pictures, and later they may learn to read along with the story-teller.

We then asked people which books they recommended for reading with children. What we received was mainly contributors’ own memories of books which had affected them, and a number of points emerged.

The first was that some books were turning points in people’s lives - interesting them in reading, for example, or driving home the power of words, as noted by Steve Robinson on reading Winnie the Pooh, or stimulating their imaginations to realise the possibility of alternative realities, as in Looking for Atlantis described by Mike Littlewood.

The strength of these memories was striking. It reminded us of the late Baroness Lucy Faithfull, who - not long before her death - was hunting for a copy of The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald, a book she had started to read as a child in India, but had never finished. After a fruitless hunt round Hay-on-Wye, we contacted a friend who was able to sell her a copy, enabling her to resolve unfinished business from childhood.

Next there was the content of the books. Many were not the classics such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but books we had not heard of. Their content had, however, spoken to the contributors as children; it had touched a nerve.

There was the fantasy of escape to somewhere else - the Peter Pan model, though the book was not mentioned, or The Wonderful Isle of Ulla-Gapoo, mentioned by Adrianne Jones.

There was the return to security and happiness after difficulties, often expressed as a journey, as in Black Beauty, described by Joan Mason or The Story of Ferdinand, mentioned by Nicola Hilliard.

There was the realisation of the power of the imagination, the openings created by fantasy, as in tigers turning to ghi in Little Black Sambo, recalled by Diane Stevenson.

Most of the books were for younger children. This may be because parents (and others) opened the eyes of contributors to ideas when they were at a certain stage of development. We suspect that another factor might be because of the tradition of bedtime stories - part of the settling process, the preparation for sleep and the associations of warmth, care and security - mentioned in Katy Hayden’s piece about nannying.

There are large numbers of excellent books for older children and young people now, but perhaps there were fewer in the days when the contributors were children. There were books about children - Huckleberry Finn or Little Women, for example, but were they written for children? We’ve included one review of an Edwardian book for boys, recently republished - The Hero of Garside School.

Of course, quite a few families never had a book in the house, and it was at school that children had stories read to them. This did not mean that the children never had stories told to them at home. We had contributions which mentioned the oral tradition, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears described by Carol Kelly - obtainable in book form, but so well known that it can be passed down from parent to child without a book. We were told of a bookless family where the father (and later grandfather) did not read to the children but told them his own stories about a pair of badgers called Bill and Myrtle. There was also the use of group story-telling as a way of helping children express themselves, recalled by Cynthia Childs.

So it may be the telling of stories that arouses the imagination for children, with books as an excellent medium to help in the story-telling. While in no way denigrating the oral tradition, we are pleased that charities such as Bookstart are making books widely available to families with little children.

So this Editorial has focused on story-telling, but it would be remiss to omit the non-fiction. In particular we would commend the excellent series of books for children and young people which Dorling Kindersley (DK) have produced in recent years. There is nothing cheap about them except the price. Their content is good; their design is brilliant; they are well produced; and their prices are very reasonable for their size and content. If we were dishing out prizes to children’s publishers, they would get a gold.

We hope that you enjoy reading the contributions in this issue. If you have not contributed and would like to do so, send us an email. And if you want to buy books, it will earn a few pence for the Webmag if you contact Amazon through this website.

Enjoy your reading.

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