Stories have always been at the heart of my life. From the earliest days of having them read to me, to learning to read myself… and then I was off and running! I’ve often been accused of being a ‘book addict’, but my argument is that it’s at least a non-lethal addiction, and certainly less expensive than some alternatives.
Image taken from here (used without permission but with grateful thanks).
As a species, we have always told stories. The camp-fire tale is one of the oldest, and most fundamentally thrilling fiction (maybe) out there. It developed into the ballad, the urban myth, the mass-marketed best-seller. And from time to time, great stories are told that really make an impact on the wider world – whether re-telling the Hero’s Journey (eg Harry Potter) or reflecting society back at itself in the form of entertainment: almost a subtle satire, as the Ancient Greeks knew.
The Druids were famed for their storytelling. The Bard, wandering the land carrying the tales of the tribes, as well as forming new histories based on current events. From intentionally formal anecdotes to mythological allegories, he (or she) held the secrets of land and people, and was valued accordingly. The Bard would be welcomed at hearth and table from ancient times up to the middle ages, until the advent of the printing press. And while books are my passion, an imaginative experience inside my head, nothing compares to having a tale told – as live theatre can/not compare to a movie. It’s a skill that is as rare in the modern world as it ever was – true inspiration cannot be taught, it must be experienced and developed.
The popularity of different themes in modern children’s storytelling comes in waves. The ‘Choose Your Own Adventure‘ books of the 80s, I recall, as well as Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl; Diana Wynne Jones in the ’90s. Then, of course, the aforementioned Potter deluge, itself performing the minor miracle of getting otherwise apathetic kids back into bookstores and libraries. Recently, however, an altogether different trend has been forming.
I’m not sure if it was the first, but when I encountered ‘The Hunger Games‘, I was, like so many others, both shocked and drawn in. From the ancient tale of Theseus, combined with the popcorn, throwaway soundbites of reality television, this story (and now movie) is no magical Potterverse. There seems to be a new wave of books for Young Adults (a relatively new genre in itself) looking at dystopian futures… and, in the process, performing the original role of a ‘viral’ story that passes from mouth to mouth: that of the learning experience.
An ancient tale is pushed into the future, by way of a satire on modern habits. We are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in a given situation – this is hardly a true children’s book, but it carries a clear moral, like any good fairytale. I do wonder if parents know what their youngsters are reading – and I’m amazed (and very glad) that the movie was made at all!
Because these books are teaching young people to THINK. They’re encouraging the ‘outsider’ to take pride in themselves, to use their skills to survive – something that every kid learns early on in the schoolroom, with its political cliques and strange ‘norms’. It may be considered escapist fiction, but these tales are actively encouraging the questioning of authority, the importance of individual thought, and the strength to speak up and act against a failed system. This is almost revolutionary. Not the punk kicking-out of the ’80s, but articulate and active anarchism, in its truest sense.
The news often speaks to us these days of young people in gangs, getting shot or stabbed for trivial reasons, but rarely goes into detail as to the reasons behind it. Far easier to blame ‘society.’ But writers – notably John Wyndham and Roald Dahl again – have always known that in each generation, adults who have distanced themselves from their children (not always by choice) can feel afraid, threatened by the strangeness of these curious, active, questioning strangers in their homes. The Childcatcher still scares us – that somehow warped adult whose specific function is to Shut Children Up (we never do find out what he does with those he’s caught, do we?).
Children challenge, in their quest to make sense of the world. Adults should, but many seem to forget how. Sometimes it may be easier to allow the television to become a nanny, but that won’t be enough. Censors have never understood that banning something, or allowing it to be omitted, simply encourages folk to go looking for what they’re not permitted to see.
Many parents I know today delight in teaching their youngsters, encouraging them to explore, read, play. If you’re old enough to ask questions, you’re old enough to hear answers – but they must be conveyed in a way that enables understanding. Television is a mass-market medium, and cannot always provide this.
But while advertisements and a certain type of children’s television seems to actively encourage being ‘one of the herd’ – having the latest style of clothes, make-up, trendy toys, shoes and so forth – there are these quietly subversive texts appearing. Very well written indeed (far removed from the insipid, unquestioning escapism of a certain glittering vampire series), their voices are being heard.
What stories are we telling, then? With our cynical whingeing (look at any national News broadcast), sense of doom rather than optimism, lack of encouragement to do anything because everything is depressed – in mind, body, spirit and bank account.
Or are we following the example of these children who live in worlds far worse than we could ever realize (I hope)… and discovering our own skills, our priorities, what we need to know and do to actively survive? It’s not about greed, acquisition, consumption – it’s about discovery, true friendship, inner truth, and living life well against adversity.
The world may have gone mad, but the storyteller still walks among us. Are you listening? And what is your tale adding to that of those around?
– The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
– The Hunt, by Andrew Fukuda
– The Mall, by S.L. Grey
– Wither, by Lauren DeStefano
– The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge
And general dystopian fiction of the moment to choose from at Goodreads.
Image found on random search on pInterest (if source available, please let me know to update)