It seems to me that as our world has changed from the hunter-gatherers we once were to the high-paced technological world we are today one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the way a story can impact your life.
After all, isn’t that what the ancient cave drawings were? They were telling a story. It’s also clear to me that this isn’t a vein of teaching that is reserved strictly for the classroom. We begin telling stories to our children in infancy and continue listening to stories our entire lives.
Any night of the week at my house finds my daughter cuddled in the crook of our arms, cozy in her footie pajamas reading a book. Right now, we are in a transition period. We’ve left the simple board books like Goodnight Moon behind, but we’re far from chapter books, like Little House on the Prairie, and even farther from Harry Potter. But as we’ve moved from those simple rhymes into books that have actual stories behind them, I find myself strangely moved as I recall the lessons they imparted upon me when I was a child, even if I don’t remember reading the actual books.
Sometimes as we read these slightly complex moral tales, I wonder how much my 2-year-old is actually taking in. Is it possible for children, let alone adults, to learn from anecdote? If we read “Green Eggs and Ham” enough times, will she really be willing to try something new, even if it looks kind of strange? Does she know that “The Little Engine That Could” is forcibly convincing herself that she is the master of her own limits? Is it the slightly creepy “Wild Things” that are giving her nightmares, or are they telling her to use her imagination when times get tough?
Almost by definition, a children’s book must be teaching something. Whether it is something academic like the alphabet or something moral like being kind to others, somewhere someone decided we had to take every second we could to impart these important lessons upon our impressionable children.
I wonder, in our current world of high-paced entertainment, if adult fiction requires as many guidelines. That’s not to say we don’t get lessons out of the stories we read as adults, we do. But when talking about the books we read as children, I find that there is a special brightness when these stories from our past resurface. As if we are remembering a moment in our lives where a good story utterly changed our world.
I’m sure that since I was a child, there have been volumes of wonderful chapter books written that are more time-appropriate for children today than the ones that I read. Even so, I can’t help but anticipate the day when my daughter might want to read “Little House on the Prairie” or “Anne of Green Gables”. Books we read as adults rarely inspire the kind of emotions we hold for those stories that most likely did change our view of our world when we were young. I think the stories we read as adults are still woven with the life lessons we were taught as children, they are just not quite as apparent to less impressionable grown-ups. Be nice to strangers, inner beauty is what’s important, share, say please and thank you, everybody uses the potty; we’re all really very alike, but different too.
At this stage in my daughter’s life, I still have 100 percent authority over which moral lessons she is getting from her books. I know this period will not last. As long as it does, perhaps I’ll be able to instill enough of these ideas into her subconscious that if she ever finds herself lost, she’ll remember that it was “Winnie the Pooh” who taught her that sometimes you have to get lost first to find your way home. Or when faced with a hard challenge, a mantra from the distant past may surface in her head: “I think I can I think I can I think I can.”