Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Endless Possibilities of Story & Literature

I presented a plenary address yesterday at the Love To Read conference in Sydney Australia. It was was the initiative of MindChamps. I was one of three speakers, the others being Brian Caswell and Libby Gleeson. The other two speakers wer well known Australian children's authors, with many award-winning books.

In my presentation, I suggested that story is a central part of life. Even in ancient cultures, story was integral to life. In the presentation, I argued that story helps to define and influence who we are, what we believe and how we live.

Above: My father Henry Cairney
I discussed the place of literature in my life. I shared how I had not lived in a family home where I had been read to, nor were there many books. But on reflection - in my middle age - I had realized that while being read to was not part of my childhood experiences, story did have a key place in my early life. My Father and Grandfather were in effect constant story 'tellers'. In particular, my early life at home was filled with music, yarns and anecdotes.  Contemporary music was a big part of my household, with parents who were both musicians, singers and entertainers. Often this music was in the form of ballads, especially Scottish, Irish and Italian ballads, and the popular songs of film, radio and the popular culture of the day.

As well, my father was a great storyteller. Most centred on his childhood living in Victorian tenement housing just outside Glasgow in Scotland prior to WWI, and then a 'bag hut' on the fringes of Newcastle after the war. His stories also featured the journey by sea to Australia, the battles with his 9 brothers and the tenth child, his sister Margaret, who died age 2. As well, he often spoke of how his mother cared for 10 children for two years in Scotland, while his father was in Australia establishing a house and working as a miner. He also spun yarns about his sporting achievements, the depression, WWII, and the union movement in which he was a leader of a militant movement. The famous Rothury Riot, where he was part of the band. This lead the miners as they marched towards the mine where the workers had been locked out.  

My Grandfather, who I stayed with every school holidays, also shared stories constantly with me about war, politics, literature and the Bible. My grandfather was of Scottish and English stock and would recite from memory the great poetry of Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, the literature of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, Sir Walter Scott, and verses from the biblical Psalms and Proverbs.

The spoken stories of my father, grandfather and others had a big impact on me. And while I had little literature shared at home, my world was rich with narrative. So narrative in whatever form can help to shape us as people, learners and language users.

Three Ways Reading and Story Changes Lives

  • Telling stories expands our world and teaches us many things about language, and the world
  • Literature enriches our lives intellectually and emotionally
  • Literature transforms us as learners, language users & people

1. Telling stories expands our world and teachers us many things about language, life and the world
Story helps us to grasp the very nature of the human condition. It offers a means to see relationships portrayed and human qualities displayed in narrative. It helps us to understand and grasp the richness of what it is to be human. Through story we can be confronted by all the human emotions, including fear, hope, love, forgiveness, trust, failure, despair, loneliness, and joy.

Reading and being told stories also helps us to understand that language and story can have varied purposes and can be written and communicated in varied forms. By being told stories we can begin to grasp the difference between the poetic, narrative, fantasy, the satirical, ironic and so on.

Being immersed in story also helps us to see demonstrated:
  • The varied genres of language;
  • How language works beyond the literal;
  • That language can be used symbolically; metaphorically, it has varied forms;
  • That story can be truth and fiction;
  • That narrative helps us to begin to know what to fear, love, avoid and so on. It offers lessons for life as well as language; and
  • Finally, it is important remember that we can experience story in varied ways, including oral and written storytelling, anecdote, jokes, songs and more.
Stories teach, move, challenge, awaken, and confront. And as they do so, they also serve as a means to shape and change the trajectories of children’s lives.

2. Literature also enriches our lives

As well as expanding our knowledge of language and the world story can ‘enrich’ our lives? In effect they expand us, broaden our view of the world, and self. Deepen our sense of compassion, love, hope, help us to deal with fears?

In Charlotte’s Web, just before Charlotte dies she speaks to Wilbur as she knows her time is nearing an end and she says to him:

“You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing...after all, what's a life anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die...By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.” Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

These words in and of themselves, are the type of language in story that can enrich and change us. They help us to see life differently. Our lives are enriched as we ponder the words of a fictitious spider.

A spider talks, and weaves webs rich in language as a pig is rescued, love grows, people are moved and touched to wonder as death comes and life goes on for others.

My Place (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins) In 1988 Nadia Wheatley wrote a book that was intended to disrupted the one-dimensional nature of the planned Bi-centenary celebration of Australia’s foundation. We were to remembers 200 years of human history, only to forget a nation and people who for 50,000 years nurtured the land, built a rich culture, developed multiple languages, cultivated the land, developed stories, song, rituals, family, kinship and more.

The Legend of Moondyne Joe (Mark Greenwood, Frane Lessac) – The story of a beloved scoundrel and expert bushman of early Australian convict history. There wasn’t a cell built that could contain him, and Joe often led the troopers on wild chases through the Moondyne Hills. This is the story of a colourful Australian bushranger that children to understand just part of Australia’s European colonial history.

Storm Boy (Colin Thiele) – Thiele takes us to a magical place – The Coorong - to enrich our understanding of nature’s balance and help us to imagine the wonder of it all before it’s lost due to human intervention.

Thunderwith (Libby Hathorn) – Hathorn takes us on a journey with Lara who after the death of her mother moves in with her Dad who for 11 years has been building another family. But this new blended family make her feel like an intruder, and a bully at school doesn’t help either. One night a mysterious dog appears in a storm which gives the story a metaphysical dimension.

‘Wilfrid, Gordon, McDonald Partridge’ (Mem Fox & Julie Vivas) - Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge lives next door to a nursing home. When he finds out that his special friend, Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper is losing her memory he sets out to find what a memory is. In an age when many families are touched by Alzheimer disease this is a book that opens up the beauty of age, not just the pain of death, as well as the power of relationships.

‘Where the Forest Meets the Sea’ – Jeannie Baker’s timeless book raises one of the great ethical issues of our time. What price the loss of rainforests? What is the true cost of environmental degradation as human intervention ‘eats away’ at some of our most wondrous natural resources.

‘A Canadian Year’ – Tania McCartney’s wonderfully simple books from varied countries, tell of life from the child’s perspective. How do Canadian children play? What is school like? Sport? Holidays? We visit this distant place and peer into their lives. These books enrich our understanding of children from around the world.

‘Wonder’ by Raquel J. Palacio – The story of August Pullman, born with a facial difference that kept him from school until the 5th grade. This is a challenging story about ignorance, resilience, bravery, understanding, hope, acceptance and kindness. Auggie’s story cannot be read without a box of tissues (just like the Movie of the same name).

Lemony Snicket: The Composer is dead’ - In this perplexing murder mystery, everyone seems to have a motive, everyone has an alibi, and nearly everyone is a musical instrument. But the composer is still dead. Lemony Snicket is a wonderful entrĂ©e to the world of satire and humour. And if your children like this they’ll also love ‘A series of unfortunate events’.

‘George and the Ghost’ (Catriona Hoy & Cassia Thomas)

Are ghosts real? George has a ghost as a friend, but he isn't sure he believes in Ghost any more. He asks Ghost to prove he is real by weighing himself, having his photo taken and showing he takes up space. Can Ghost be real if he can't be seen, weighed, he doesn’t take up space…What does it mean to be real and imaginary? What is it ‘to be’!

‘Niko Draws a Feeling’ (Bob Raczka & Simone Shin) Niko draws to understand himself. But no-one understands his drawing for they see it just as scribble. Until one day, a girl moves in across the road and cracks the seal on Niko’s lonely life and sees beyond the symbols to the boy within. One of my favourite books of 2017.

3. Literature also transforms us as learners, language users & people

As stories expand our world and teach us many things, and as they enrich us as humans, they also begin to transform us as people.  Literature also has a special role in enhancing our humanity; of opening our eyes to the world. Books can sharpen our eyes to see beauty in surprising places as well as to identify injustice and human folly. They introduce us to social and ethical issues that really matter and deeply challenge us.

I believe that a life rich in story and literature can help us to grow into better people, more responsive to and responsible for our world and our fellow human beings.

Above: 'The Day War Came'

One perfect example of a book that does this is an illustrated poem written by Nicola Davies. Nicola wrote the poem in response to the UK government’s decision not to allow lone refugee children a safe haven in the UK. The poem was published in the Guardian and later a children’s book was born.

The confronts us with the realization that at times government will make decisions pragmatically that can fail consider the consequences of their policies. This is a powerful story about a little girl has her home bombed from around her. As she runs from the carnage around her, to her school to seek safety, finds just a hole in the ground. In her words: “War took everything. War took everyone.”

She flees alone on a lonely journey that involves walking across fields, over mountains and fields, on trucks and in buses, in a leaky boat and then a lonely camp where she finds an empty hut, with a blanket and ‘crawled inside’. When she finds her way to a school there is no room for her and others like her as the teacher says: “There is no room for you, you see. There is no chair for you to sit on. You have to go away… [for] war had got here too.”

But help comes from an unexpected place as children from the school find chairs so she “could come to school”.

Books can indeed transform us through the power of story.

Summing up

As Barbara Hardy said:

“We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative”

Children begin life with an innate potential to imagine, create, seek meaning, express themselves, and ask why? And story is a key vehicle that teaches, enriches and indeed can transform us.

Story helps us to grasp what it is to be human, and literature is one of its most powerful vehicles to touch and change our lives. From birth, we should flood our children’s worlds with stories and interaction. We have an obligation to help to shape in character, to be people who understand their world, feel at home in it, develop identities that contribute to it, and who as a consequence, lead fulfilled lives.

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