Why do kids love stories . . . rant (part 1)

10Dec10

I know, most of what I write is about why kids love the stories they do, but I haven’t gone off on a rant for a while, so I guess I should. I’ll probably talk about a little Beatrix Potter story when I finish my rant, just because she’s wonderful. But today, I’ll rant.

Most people faced with a question like, “Why do kids love these books or those stories?” get into a recursive mess of an answer: “Well, it’s a good story,” or “it’s interesting.” Yep. What makes it a good story and what makes it interesting to kids. Why are Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon and The Cat In The Hat such classics? Why have there been Cinderella (and here and here) stories for (literally) thousands of years across dozens of languages? What does a story about a very poor young orphaned girl with nasty stepsisters who ends up marrying a prince say that is so universal? And what’s with the shoe?? It’s there in a 2000 year old Egyptian version, too.

I’m not going to go too far afield though about any one story today, because I want to look at what they all have in common. Here’s what I said about Cinderella:

Think about Cinderella in the context of a 5 year-old, coming out of the oedipal conflict and struggling with a need for her parents’ love and the conviction that, because she gets angry and frustrated with them that she is somehow flawed and doesn’t deserve that love. And perhaps her parents love her siblings more because they aren’t harboring those evil thoughts, because they aren’t, in some profound way, flawed. She was noble in the past, but is now an ash-girl. Certainly, she’s treated that way by her (step) mother and (step) siblings. One can also think about the story in terms of an adolescent, with that overlay of sexuality . . .

There’s a lot going on in Cinderella on several developmental levels, from the sibling rivalry through sexual coming of age. Although, revisiting the story I think that the coming of age level of the story probably resonates more with a latency age–seven to twelve or so–girl. How does a story like that relate to something like Goodnight Moon, which is a simple picture book with a child who isn’t pictured saying goodnight to the things in her room/world? Here’s what I had to say about Goodnight Moon:

I think about Goodnight Moon, and Margaret Wise Brown’s soft, rhythmic repetitive words and Clement Hurd’s gentle repetition of the Great Green Room where each scene is a little bit darker, but still warm and familiar. And where was I when Goodnight Moon was read? In my mother’s arms, in bed. Maybe a little scared of the dark, a little scared of being alone and of giving up the shiney new day . . . but the Goodnight Moon lets me rehearse that scary scenario in a safe, comfortable way.

What about the other books? Of course, Where The Wild Things Are is the story of a three to five year old’s time out–how Max deals with his aggression toward his mother. And The Cat In The Hat books all tell the story of children about four to seven years old who are alone when the Cat comes and does things they’d love to do but are afraid of, and the tension is always “What will Mother say/think/do when she comes back?”. The Cat has to represent the unbridled wishes of the child and the story is about mom’s voice becoming part of the fabric of the kids’ lives . . . becoming a conscience.

The books, though wonderful, don’t feel as rich as the fairy tales; they don’t work on quite as many levels. But they do share the fact that they’re loved by children, that they’ve been retold and pirated and made into movies because they’re loved by children, because they sell books.

Why are they loved? They all say different things, they all talk about kids of different ages and to kids of different ages. None has a moral, though some try to impose one on Cinderella, a shallow and somewhat muddled one about the neglected child being rewarded and evil punished.

I’ll finish up next time.

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