A feminine focus

Read Me a Story…. Please! Sally Davey

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of story times. My parents were both good story-tellers, and thought it was important that the four of us begin life loving books - so they read us stories. And it was fun. At bedtime and other times we would curl up with favourites from their own childhood - Winnie-the-Pooh, Milly-Molly-Mandy and Alice in Wonderland. We worked our way through Grimm's fairy tales, and branched out into the newly-published Dr Seuss, wonderful for reading out loud with his marvellous use of rhythm.

Later, when we could read ourselves, my mother would go to town (we lived in the country) and bring back a big bag of books from the public library for us every two weeks or so. Reading stories was a love we all developed; but it began with the enthusiastic way our parents read stories to us. We could tell they thought it important - not only did they read to us, but they also set an example by reading avidly themselves. Over the years, I've seen this pattern worked out in countless other families. Parents who read stories to their children are being an encouragement in creativity, in the use of imagination; and they are imparting the most precious tool of learning - an inquiring mind that reads, and gains knowledge.

Need To Read Out Loud

It seems to me that it's not enough to put books in front of children; they need to be read out loud, so that children are shown how to enjoy them. Some families I know read stories out loud together long after the children can read themselves. I've spent evenings with such families, where around the dinner table or the fireplace, parents and children have sat together and listened to one of them reading aloud from Little Women, Heidi, or The Chronicles of Narnia. There is a world of value in this. To take but one reason, many stories have interesting cultural or historical settings that, if explained, greatly enhance the child's appreciation of the story and its meaning. It is also a way families can have fun together; and learn to learn together.

Stories Are About People

But why are stories themselves so interesting - and so potentially valuable? Stories are about people, which after all, is the most fascinating topic imaginable! Even stories about animals are really stories about people with loves, fears, and the ability to learn from their mistakes: for children, these people just have a furry skin. The point is that because the stories are about the lives and relationships of people, we can all identify with them. When Winnie-the-Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit's hole because he got fat eating too much honey, everyone sees in this situation the consequences of their own habits of overdoing it - whatever they may be! Or, when Sam-I-Am refuses to eat green eggs and ham simply because he thinks they look yuck, we find it hilarious that he (like all of us) loves them when he can finally be persuaded to try them.

Stories Are About What Matters To People

Stories are one of the most important ways truths about life are handed down from one generation to the next. And it's been so since ancient times. Think about the Old Testament - it's full of stories about people, obeying God, trusting Him despite terrible circumstances, sinning grievously. And in all of these stories we see the consequences of people's obedience or disobedience worked out in their lives. We can enter into the lessons of these stories so vividly because they are about real people living life as we so often do. One theologian (Richard Pratt), writing on the interpretation of Old Testament narrative, aptly gave his book the title, He Gave Us Stories, because of this very point. We can imagine how Abraham felt when called on to sacrifice Isaac; we can understand how David was tempted to sin with Bathsheba, and then to cover up his sin. They were real people, and so are we; all subject to sin, and yet capable of heroic faith, should God so help us. God teaches us through His stories.

The same principle applies with other stories, if they are good ones. Well-drawn characters and situations illustrate some of the big questions in life and some possible answers for them. Take losing your parents, for example. This is what happened to Anne of Green Gables before the beginning of her story. It would have been possible for Anne to have become a withdrawn, bitter, self-pitying little girl. Life in an orphanage and then being sent out to work with a couple of older single farming people was hardly a happy start in life for a little girl. But, as L.M. Montgomery masterfully tells her story, Anne becomes a delightful addition to Matthew and Marilla's household. Not only this, she grows up to be a transforming influence for good in the lives of all those around her. Her happy, sweet nature cheers the lonely, encourages critics and gossips to build others up instead of tearing them down, and befriends the bitter, depressed and grieving. Anne is a great example of what we can do to transform the lives of others.

Then, take Huckleberry Finn. Here is a rather uncouth, cheeky and definitely dishonest little boy. His love of mischief and his disrespect for the kind old widow he lives with get him into all sorts of unnecessary trouble. And that is the whole point of his story: Mark Twain has created a believable character with whom we can sympathise (Huck is an orphan, he has learned some bad habits, and we love him with all his naughtiness and cheek!), but we can see, quite clearly, that the problems Huck gets into are of his own making. There are oceans of lessons we can all learn from this story. Huckleberry Finn would be great for reading out loud as a family; though the Southern American dialogue would take a lot of adult dramatic talent to bring the story across at its best!

Another example, a favourite of my family's, and this time taken from another cultural setting, is Richmal Crompton's William stories. Here is a thoroughly naughty, dirt-loving English schoolboy (aged about 11), having all the advantages of a good family who try to teach him manners, but somehow he is always at the centre of embarrassing disasters for his parents and older brother and sister. The lessons in William's life are more than one-dimensional. We don't simply see a practical joker getting his just deserts for messing up a prim little girl's party dress at a “proper” afternoon tea, we also see the snobbishness and pretentiousness of other characters being cut down to size. William is terrifically funny, and great entertainment, but as we read what happens to him we see human nature being dealt with in sensible ways. Well worth reading!

Good Stories Have Real Characters

Good stories all have this in common: they are told in such a way that the characters are believable. Writers need to understand the way people are. So the writer must have understood the way a child, a man or a woman thinks and behaves if he or she is to create a character whose mind and heart we can enter as we read. And that is what our imagination always wants to do as we read a story - it wants to make us Anne in Anne of Green Gables, or George or Julian in Enid Blyton's Famous Five. And we can't do that if they are wooden, poorly-drawn characters. This is one of the important tests for a story to stand the test of time through the generations. It simply doesn't matter if a story was the favourite of your great-grandfather: if it was well-told, you will enjoy it too. If it comes from another culture and time, you will have fun filling yourself and your children in on the setting to make the story “come alive.” The important thing in good use of story times is that the story be well-told. So how do we find, and choose, good stories?

Finding Good Stories

The simplest route is, naturally, to go back to the stories you enjoyed hearing and reading as a child. In all likelihood, the good older stories will still be in print. Over time, poorer quality stories fade into oblivion, and only what is really good remains. You can always find Winnie-the-Pooh or Dr Seuss. Ask your parents what they read you; ask other parents in the half-generation ahead. They will remember what is good and give you ideas.

But often, and especially as your children grow older and start choosing books for themselves, you'll find yourself asking - what is good? How do I know it is suitable? Is it portraying the right morals? I've sometimes heard parents saying they don't find the public library “safe” for their children. Are books from the Christian fiction market better, safer? I don't really think so. What is needed, instead, is discernment, so that we assess all stories in the right way. You will have noticed that none of the stories I've mentioned (except the Old Testament and The Chronicles of Narnia) are what you would call Christian stories. Not even Anne of Green Gables (Anne's church life doesn't seem to have much effect on her naturally sunny character; and she makes little active effort to pass on the faith to her children or other people). Yet, they are good stories. The characters are well-drawn; there is a clear and well-developed theme; there are important lessons about human nature to be learned in them; and the use of language is imaginative, and varied, and will teach the children who read it how to express themselves well.

Christian” Books Are Often Not Good

All too often, so-called “Christian” stories (the ones on the market now) are poorly-written stories when set against the above criteria; and for this reason I suspect very few will stand the test of time. Furthermore, they are only Christian insofar as the characters claim to know Jesus. But what effect is this knowledge having on their lives? Do they go to church? (In some stories they don't). Do they make difficult moral choices based on their faith? Do they share the gospel in a helpful way with others? Sadly, in many stories they do neither. For this reason, I actually think there is more profit for families in reading well-written stories that raise important questions about human character and life; provided the opportunities raised by the stories are used for discussions about the faith. And, really and truly, there are so many such wonderful opportunities with good stories. It doesn't take much imagination to think what lessons a believing parent could draw from Anne, Huck Finn, or William. Children will identify well with these characters, and you can start asking questions such as: Anne's love made Mrs X very happy, and Mrs X stopped being so bitter, but was that enough to make Mrs X eternally happy? What if Anne moved out of town? And so on.

Precious Rewards

Story times, at any age in a child's life, are wonderful opportunities for lessons in the faith. Looking back, over the years, I can truly say I have benefited from them, and I have seen many other children do likewise. Obviously, it takes time, energy, thought and sometimes homework on the part of parents. But the rewards, more precious even than the times themselves, are eternal.

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Faith in Focus / NZ Reformed Church / thirty@paradise.net.nz / Copyright 2001