Why are Stories So Important?
Children are natural storytellers, perhaps some of the best on the planet.
Before they even learn how to write, they are already going on wild adventures, reenacting scenes from their favorite books and movies, exploring, and creating elaborate worlds for their toys, friends, and imagined characters to inhabit. We see this all the time in the way children play.
When I was a kid, I used to beg my dad to let the grass grow a little longer every summer so I could hide my Jurassic Park dinosaurs in the lawn and recreate the raptor chase from The Lost World.
Going all the way back to preschool, I would put on my Star Trek: The Next Generation captain's uniform and push our red wagon down the hill, pretending I was a bobsledder.
Sadly, I never did become a bobsledder, nor was I driven to pursue a career in paleontology as a result of watching Jurassic Park. However, I did learn from these stories and grow from my own imagination. I developed a perspective on the world from the resilience of Jamaican bobsledders and the courage of fictional star captains.
Of course, I learned early on that there was a difference between Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Enterprise and the 1988 Jamaican bobsledding team featured in Cool Runnings. One was fictional. The others were based on real people and real events.
However, both fictional and non-fictional stories played an important role in my development as both a child and an eventual writer.
At a young age we imagine, dream, and pretend without anyone ever having to teach us or show us how.
As human beings, we are created to be creative. We are storytelling creatures by nature. I believe this comes as part of being made in the image of God, the ultimate Creator and master storyteller.
Sometimes, the stories we tell are entirely fictional. They involve dreaming of the "what if's" or exploring and playing with a world of possibilities. We often make up events that never happened to characters who never existed, and somehow, those lies speak to readers of all ages.
As storytellers, we convey profound truth through the stories we create and choose to tell. Even a fictional tale of imagined characters and made up events can illustrate real truth about what it means to be human, how we interact with each other, and how we relate to our Creator and the mysteries of life and the universe.
That doesn't mean that every story is good, well-written, or honest. As a writer, I am perfectly confident in saying that not all stories are are written for children either. In fact, some can be downright harmful, confusing, or misleading.
Children are easily influenced, which is why there is an added responsibility on the storyteller to be honest, even in their fiction.
Good role models, both on and off the page, are essential. This is where are children encounter the values that will guide them for the rest of their lives.
The kinds of stories our children read, watch, and listen to do matter.
Our children don't become Hobbits, mermaids, or superheroes by reading about them or pretending to be them. They are human boys and girls. That will not change. But they can learn to identify positive (and sometimes negative) attributes that they latch onto, see in themselves, and want to pursue in their own life.
Whether true or fictional, stories are some of the most important building blocks for these discoveries.
We often reserve the title of fantasy for stories dealing with magical realms, dragons, and superpowers, but all stories are essentially fantasy in nature. Stanley Yelnats IV digging holes in the dessert (Holes) is as much a fantasy as James Henry Trotter's adventures in the giant peach (James and the Giant Peach).
In each adventure, the main character discovers something about themself, others, and the world they left behind through their encounters with strange characters, other worlds, and unexpected challenges.
For example, in Neil Gaiman's modern fairy tale, Coraline, Gaiman takes his main character on a journey through a magical door and into a world that mirrors her own.
The story begins in a humble flat in the rural countryside where Coraline lives with her parents. We quickly realize, though, that this environment is not suitable for a young explorer like Coraline.
Coraline's new house is cold and dreary. Her parents spend all day in their studies, typing away on their computers, too preoccupied, too busy, and too distracted to notice Coraline or share in her adventures. Everything about Coraline’s world is like one of her dad’s recipes, disgusting and boring.
She lives in a house she cannot call home, and like many children, she feels alone in her own world. It's no surprise that her discovery of a door to another world is a welcome, though unexpected, invitation to perhaps change her circumstances.
In the other world, everything is colorful and warm, and here the food is delicious. In this world she can have whatever she wants.
This magic, at first glance, amplifies the undesirables of the life she's left behind. But as Coraline begins to explore the other side of the mysterious door, she discovers that it is fun but also incredibly dangerous.
In the vein of many classic fairy tales and ancient myths, the hero must peel back the layers of illusion and fantasy to uncover the more sinister nature of those who mean to do her harm.
Coraline was once captivated by the possibilities of the other world, as most children would be, but she soon becomes captive to it, struggling to escape the clutches of the black-button-eyed other mother. Once she has escaped, Coraline then learns that her real parents have been taken hostage by the other mother. Even parents need rescuing sometimes too.
However, in order to rescue her mom and dad, Coraline must face her greatest fear and return to the other world.
Here, the main theme of Coraline shines through.
Bravery is not found in the absence of fear. It is found in being afraid but doing the right thing anyway.
In her bravery and perilous adventures in the other world, Coraline learns that she would much rather live with her imperfect parents in the real world than live with the soulless other mother in the fictional one.
“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
Life will never be perfect. Coraline won't get everything she wants. Her parents will never be everything she wants them to be. They will be too busy to participate in all of her adventures and will continue making horrible dinners, but they will be her parents. They will love her, and that's what matters most.
Her perspective has changed.
Fiction, fairy tales, mythical journeys, and an occasional run-in with a Jedi, Hobbit, or friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, often involve some form of physical change.
The scrawny kid who goes into the super lab with the radioactive spider is not the same one who emerges with a nasty bug bite and a new six pack to show for it.
The Hobbit who leaves the Shire to destroy the One Ring is very different than the Hobbit who returns a year later.
Likewise, the reader who picks up a book, the little girl who goes into the movie theater, or the shy boy playing with toy dinosaurs in the backyard are never quite the same when their story or adventure is over.
The Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, the Darling children of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Alice in Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland, and Coraline in Gaiman's Coraline must all eventually return to the real world at some point, as readers must inevitably break from the story and return to their regular lives.
However, like the fictional heroes in these stories, readers will have discovered something about themselves during their time in the world of the story that can influence how they see themselves and interact with others in the real one.
Coraline learns that she truly loves her parents but also that she is braver than even she knew.
Change for readers may not be physical. It doesn't have to be.
A shy boy braving his first day at a new school or dealing with the emotions of his first crush may be just as new and uncomfortable as a kid trying to control his new superpowers or figuring out how he's going to save the world.
Our children encounter more change in their early years than anyone.
Stories, however, can provide a mirror for self-examination, a lens for observation, and a laboratory for the foundation of worldview, the fostering of life goals, and the development of essential life skills, tools, and even the weapons to battle real darkness and evil in their own life.
They are one of the few environments where children especially are encouraged to grow and evaluate life without the real consequences of a much more tangible and unforgiving world.
There's a reason why Coraline opens with the famous quote from GK Chesterton.
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist; but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
The real world can be a dark, dangerous and dreary place for children. A story may provide a temporary escape, but it can also help the child and child at heart find hope, courage, and the means to face and defeat dragons, real and figurative, when the real world is not safe.
Thank you for taking a few minutes out of your day to read this post. As always, if you enjoyed my perspectives, hit the heart icon below, share this post with a fellow storyteller, artist, or explorer, or subscribe for news, updates, and exclusive content.