I love the creative freedom independent publishing gives me. Here’s one of my micro stories. I hope you like it!
First posted on my author blog.
The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. And when it comes to children’s literature the power of words to shape the attitudes of the child reader is awesome. Should well-written stories (classics, even) be scrubbed clean of sexism and racism? The characters with derogatory names re-invented? Should the offending books just be piled up in a public place and burned? Might be tempting, rather than have your child read that Mary in The Secret Garden thinks that “blacks are not people”.
But what about the role of those outdated books in highlighting thoughtless attitudes and in educating children in the way things used to be? In The Daily Beast the suggestion is that if publishers, librarians or teachers simply withdraw offensive books then they are of course indulging in censorship, which could lead to a distortion of history. Anna-Marie Crowhurst is a great fan of Enid Blyton and as a child adored the quirky, outdated language and the jolly japes the children got up to. But she clearly grew up in a thoroughly enlighted household because at the age of nine she already knew that a story in which girls always did the cooking was “silly”. To my shame there is a host of classic children’s literature out there which reveals racist and sexist attitudes which I hadn’t ever spotted. Do we bin them all? If so we would be depriving children of E. Nesbit, the Barbar stories, Tintin, TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, to name but a few.
The Greater Good is a really thoughtful and interesting American website which reiterates the idea that—with a few exceptions—many stories are simply reflecting the times they were written in and can be seen as history up for discussion. The valid point is made that very few people are wholly bad or wholly good and therefore many stories are simply introducing young readers to a complex world. Laura Inglis Wilder, writing about the Americans setting up a homeland in the mid West, wrote about real life as she and her family saw it. Her own history. And that included indigenous people who were described as “dirty and thieving”. Fertile ground for discussions with children: Why did people think like that? Does that make them bad people? Are we different now? Why?
Of course an enlightened and positive antidote is to actively promote books which combat racism and sexism. I found a great website called A Mighty Girl which suggests lots of books containing strong and successful girls and women, including the true stories of Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday and Malala. I particularly like the choice of the word “mighty”, which makes a change from “feisty” and “strong”. The Guardian offers an extensive list of children’s books which promote diversity, including one with the lovely title Amazing Grace, another about the life of Stephen Lawrence, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story called The Unforgotten Coat. I love the idea that a children’s book can challenge and educate us all on the subject of difference in its widest sense, and that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue. How lucky we are to live in an age where these things are openly discussed by children, parents, teachers, writers and publishers. Now what about a children’s picture book about combatting the rise of racism since Brexit?
We have decided to showcase some samples of our writing on a new page called Our Work. These samples can be anything from stories for children or Young Adults, experimental or traditional pieces, poetry…
I wrote Wolf Winter as part of my MA portfolio, when my tutor Nicola Davies, who writes fantastic books about animals and the natural world, suggested I put myself into the head of an animal and try to see things from its perspective.
My fur is grey against the gleam
Of snowdrifts in a frosted wood
And all the day I burn for food.
I rest and run.
Dusk falls cold on glittering snow.
I dig a hole, I crawl beneath,
I lie there shivering to my teeth.
I warm and sleep.
At dawn I cross a frozen lake.
I sniff the air for scent of food,
Some passed by days ago – no good.
I ache and burn.
I wonder where my brothers are.
Too long without them; different pain.
I seek the sky and howl again.
I prowl and search.
I sniff around the water’s edge
Where reeds have hardened into spikes.
My breath comes trailing spumes of white.
I wait and turn.
The doe is damaged, stumbling, slow.
I smell her long before she knows
Or even sees me, and I close.
I tear and eat.
The evening brings my brothers’ trace.
I scent their passage on the rain,
I tip my head and howl again.
I wait and wait.
I watch the deep violet sky.
A white moon rises. Now the snow
Is smooth and silvered where I go.
I pad and prowl.
Then high upon the mountain trail
Beyond the frozen waterfall,
I hear a distant answering call.
I run and run.
Who doesn’t love fairy tales? From that lyrical “Once upon a time”, which tells us we’re entering another realm, to the “Happily ever after”, which we all seek, children and adults alike. Of course there are fairy tales with unhappy endings, too – but you won’t see many of those on Disney.
Sara Graça da Silva, a social scientist/folklorist with New University of Lisbon, and Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist with Durham University, have conducted a phylogenetic analysis of common fairy tales, using a technique that traces linguistic attributes back to their origins. The origins appear to be much older than modern linguists and anthropologists believed.
The part of the report that caught my attention was: “they started with 275 fairy tales, each rooted in magic, and whittled them down to 76 basic stories…”
Each rooted in magic. I loved that. I don’t know about you, but I find all creative writing to be rooted in magic. That doesn’t mean it has to be about spells and fantasy. All sorts of magic can be yielded by a blank page and a quiet afternoon – though maybe not so quiet if you count the barking dogs, beeping mobile and husband yelling, “I said dinner’s ready!”
I’ve found that, like in so many fairy tales, what we end up with in our own writing is not what we started with, after all the editing and changing and rewriting is done. But, hopefully, we retain the core of the story we’re trying to tell. That’s where the magic is.
Physics teaches us that a pure element cannot be destroyed. I think fairy tales are literary creativity in its purest form and no matter how we rewrite them, edit them, disinfect or Disneyfy them, they will endure. The core remains. Stripped to its core element, the fairy tale is pure story.
Here’s how one core element changed over the centuries: Cinderella started life as Yeh-hsien, believed to have been written down by Tuan Ch’eng-shih in mid 9th century China. In the original version there was no fairy godmother; a magic fish helped Cinders. In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s version, a hazel tree helped her, the ugly sisters cut off their toes and heels so their feet would fit the shoe, and their eyes were pecked out by doves. Can you imagine the collective fits of apoplexy at a Disney editorial meeting if they read that story board? I’d love to see it. 🙂
Yeh-hsien went on to be called Zezolla by Giambattista Basile in 17th century Naples, then Cerentola. Joseph Jacobs called her the Cinder Maid. Charles Perrault (end of 17th century) introduced the fairy godmother and the pumpkins and mice… And what story do you think the film Pretty Woman depicts? Same core, different clothes.
If Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid Tehrani are right and fairy tales are more ancient than we thought (Wilhem Grimm also believed this), then these core stories are even more embedded in our psyches than we thought. Which is great news for all story tellers.
Fairy tales teach us much more than the ultimately unchanging human condition – they hold good lessons for writers too: keep structure and plot simple. Remember, “character is destiny”, and be aware that rhyme, rhythm and poetic sentence structure are important. Symbolism is universal. The words “once”, “long ago”, “far away” and “for ever and ever” can give us instant access to the reader’s unconscious, especially children.
I’m delighted that, as a storyteller, I’m carrying on an ancient tradition and, yes, I believe it is rooted in magic. As writers, we can take these cores and dress them in whatever finery we choose. And that feels magical, too.
Pictures courtesy of pixabay.com
I’ve returned from an exhilarating weekend of stories at the international Storytelling Festival Beyond the Border, St Donat’s, South Wales. Listening to oral stories is, for me, important and enriching and makes a fine change from the written word. Some of my highlights at this year’s festival were:
Ben Haggarty keeping his audience spellbound on Sunday morning in an open- air cliff top setting. He dressed all in black and told tales of the devil, very well suited to his commanding tone and presence.
On Saturday, luscious Italian Paola Balbi wore red, her rich voice and swaying hips adding colour to her stories of medieval naughtiness. Beowulf, from The Telling Theatre of Denmark was part-theatre, part-telling: spare, virile and unmistakably Scandinavian. Eerie percussion accompanied Grendel’s passage amongst the trees, through the squelching bog, into the feasting hall and the Danish tellers Andersen and Ejsing used their words with all the precision of a singing sword.
I chatted with Dorset storyteller Martin Maudsley about sharing stories and how a storyteller can take ownership of a traditional tale. They craft and embellish it until, by twists and turns, it becomes something new and exciting, unmistakably their own, in much the same way as a writer strives to find their ‘voice’ on the page. The resulting performance/creative piece has an honesty and truthfulness which audiences can’t help but respond to. All in all, the message is: be yourself, write from the heart and find a voice that’s truly your own (we knew that anyway, but I guess it’s always good to be reminded).
The importance of authenticity was also flagged up by Melvin Burgess in the talk he gave to MA students and tutors at Bath Spa University this summer. He spoke about his process of interviewing ‘real people’ as part of his research for novels such as Junk, Nicholas Dane and Kill All Enemies. Many of the characters in these books are so powerful because the author has taken time to understand the people behind the stories, and the bittersweet voices of Gemma, Tar and Billy are some of the most authentic I’ve read.