Wednesday, July 6, 2011

we read to find ourselves; or, a bit of grumbling for the day

I believe in stories. I believe in the power of stories to help us understand and to explain humanity to ourselves. And I get really, really snippy when people take stories and try to make them nothing more than moral lessons. This is an old issue, I know.

This past weekend, I was down at the A-Space trying a banana whip (holy crap, so good!) for the first time, and there was a box of free stuff that someone had dumped. And in this box was this book:

Anyone remember the Great Illustrated Classics? These are sort of like them, with a twist: they're part of a series called "Classic Stories and Essential Values," put out by...Chick-Fil-A.

Some of them are obvious: Pinocchio is, of course, about honesty. And Pollyanna is about hope. But then there's Gulliver's Travels, which, according to this series, is about peace. I...what? Also, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is about the value of orderliness.

We could certainly teach kids about honesty from Pinocchio, hope from Pollyanna, initiative from The Swiss Family Robinson, and fairness from The Prince and the Pauper. In fact, these may be main themes in some of these stories. But to bowdlerize these stories, simplify the language, and boil them down so we can say "here's a story about kindness!" sort of...defeats the purpose.

Stories are about discovery, in many cases. We unravel them slowly, through character and plot and language. When a kid reads Pinocchio in full, he or she will probably see that Pinocchio's troubles come from his lies (the real story, from what I recall, is a lot more disturbing than the Disney film). We don't need to label the book as "a boy learns about honesty" or whatever--it's going to come through. 

I'm not sure what my point is here. I don't think we need to turn every story into a teachable moment, or at least we don't have to say, here, kid, let's read a story and talk about honesty or kindness or what-have-you. And, yes, I realize that at different points in history, stories were used for moral instruction and that writers wrote for that purpose. But I think stories can stand alone, that they teach us as they are without someone wielding the anvil and telling us "hey, this is what this story's about."  Stories, good stories, don't just operate on one level, right? They allow us to unfold them and look at them from all angles. And sometimes they make us say, hey, I never thought about it that way, and sometimes they make us say, hey, this thing is unjust and I just had my eyes open. And, well, that's good.

When my dad read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to me when I was a kid, I didn't see the themes of redemption and resurrection; that didn't come until later (and, yeah, I know there are problematic things about Narnia, but they remain some of my favorites). Instead, I wanted to be Lucy, going into a closet and finding a hidden world. I wanted to be Peter the High King, or Jill, who works through her fear, or Puddleglum, who has one of the best moments of the series in The Silver Chair. (My favorite character is Edmund, who gets forgiveness despite everything). Reading those stories made me want more stories. They made me, eventually, want to write stories. And if that's not a good in and of itself, I don't know what is.

ETA: Also, Sherman Alexie on YA books. Awesome.


  1. Also, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is about the value of orderliness.
    These people can't be serious. (Can they?)

    So all I have to say to that is "Fiddle-de-de."

    Any atory worth the reader's time is not going to able to be summed up into a nice moral lesson. And children aren't fools; they know that.

    And Puddleglum is one of my favorites, too.

  2. Oh, they're dead serious.

    One of the more valuable things I've learned is "trust your reader." And that includes children, who are much smarter than we think they are.