What About Story? A Conversation With Jean Lee

A few weeks ago, Jean Lee and I started a conversation about storytelling and its purpose in our lives. While it began as a debate, the viewpoints that we shared had more similarities than differences. Note that “AJ” signifies my replies and “JL” marks when Jean is speaking. My sincerest thanks to Jean for coming up with this idea.


  1. What purpose do you think stories have?

JL- For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of the reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

2.  With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment truly involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make all the adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

3.  Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

My favorite children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

4. Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading, and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

5. What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- LOL! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

6. Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

7. What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue; but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

8. Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

JL-Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

9. How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture, however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the forceable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

10. Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

Playing Teacher, Ky Adams- Fellow Fridays

According to my parents, I have been playing “teacher” since I was very young. When I couldn’t corral parents, siblings, cousins or the dog into being my “students”, I would line up stuffed animals and dolls and “teach” them.

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No surprise then that my entire career has been teaching in one way or another. I started my professional life as a Kindergarten teacher and I will never forget the 2nd day of my first year of teaching when the mother of one of my students came to speak to me when she brought her son to class. She told me how much her son loved Kindergarten the day before and that he told her I read them four books. He told her what each one was about. And then she said… “If I had known he liked books so much, I would have read to him.”

I was stunned! But I learned that not everyone views books and reading in the same way. There are many homes where no books are present. Not everyone comes to it from the point of view of an educator. I am so thankful that there are many groups who have done much in the past few years to encourage reading to young children. Many hospitals now even give books to new parents when they leave the hospital with their new baby.

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Even the smallest children learn so much from being read to. They learn about the rhythms and cadences of language. They learn vocabulary. They learn the mechanics of reading: we go from the left to the right and top to bottom. And of course it’s always wonderful to be snuggled on a lap and read to!

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I’m a firm believer that every child should have books that they own and learn to take care of and read over and over. My Zana books are broken up into easy chapters and have lots of pictures to keep young readers engaged. I love early chapter books for young readers, they make them feel “big” and accomplished as readers and they encourage children to stay with a book over several readings. You have to remember the story line and where you left off. Beginning chapter books teach many critical skills like logic (I wonder how that character will get out of this?) Sequencing (understanding how the elements of a story or an event happened in sequence). They can give children valuable insight into decision making. (Well, that didn’t work; I bet she tries something else.)

Zana 1 Cover

I have always been passionate about encouraging young people to read all books but my particular love is science, space and the future. My series of “Zana’s Space Adventures” is a way to get children thinking about the future and space and what our roles will be in it. I created a funny world where a young girl can take off in her own rocket to have space adventures with her sidekick robot Ira and still be home in time for dinner.

Zana 1 back

This creates a problem at home for me because my husband is a NASA engineer. He is a wonderful proof reader and he will check manuscripts for grammatical errors and then he’ll say something like; “Now you know this could never really happen… right?” LOL, bless his heart! I tell him that’s why they call it “fiction” honey! And who is to say what is possible in the future? People who drove a horse and buggy never dreamed of the possibilities of flight.

World in hands

Children are our future scientists, diplomats, policy makers and inventors. Let’s give them tools that foster creativity, imagination, and problem solving. Our world is complex and only becoming more so, we are going to need some creative thinkers!


Ky’s Books are available at Amazon.com

Follow Ky on Twitter: @GKyAdams

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Sandra Bennett, Australian Children’s Author- Fellow Friday

Picture Books Are Wonderful Conversation Starters

Have you ever been afraid of the dark?

Frightened of monsters hidden under your bed or in your wardrobe?

Picture books can be a wonderful way to start a conversation with children about ways of facing those fears or sorting through other emotions.

Why not read a picture book and start a discussion today?

I realized the power of picture books and their potential to start a dialogue when I was teaching a year 5 class one day. It was one of those moments when I needed an impromptu lesson, so I grabbed a picture book out of my trusty resource bag and began to read aloud. The initial class response was stunned silence. What was I thinking reading them something with pictures and very few words! It didn’t take them long to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience. After reading the story, the real work began. A lengthy conversation ensued that lead to some amazing writing of their own. I had re-opened the world of picture books to 10 and 11 year old students.

 

Curtin South Preschool

What was this amazing picture book that enlightened and brought so much wonder to our classroom? One of my favourites, “Diary of a Wombat” by Jackie French. Written so simplistically, yet capturing the character of a wombat so magnificently.

Since then I’ve now written two Australian picture books myself. My goal, is to introduce unusual Australian creatures to children around the world while opening opportunities for conversations with parents and teachers. Through my stories children can learn a little about Australia’s environment, the animals that call it home and something about themselves along the way. Each book finishes with a few fun facts about the characters contained in the story.

My newest release is “Frazzled Freya.” A rather timid frill neck lizard so scared of shadows and unknown monsters she is too frightened to join in all the fun and games with her desert friends. Set in the harsh Australian Outback, the vivid yet earthy colours used by my illustrator, Dianna Budd, depict perfectly the heat of the sun Freya is desperate to avoid.

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Parents, teachers and children can read along and discover Freya’s journey to triumph as she conquers her fear with a little help from a few unusual desert friends. The story provides an excellent opportunity to begin talking to your little ones about facing their fears, trying new experiences and stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Emma the Eager Emu,” tells the tale of a very unusual bird who can’t understand why she is so different from all her friends at flying school. She is desperate to learn to fly and be just like everyone else. An assortment of colourful yet different species of Australian birds come to Emma’s aid. Through her tenacity to never give up, Emma eventually learns the significance of individualism and discovers her own special way of doing things. This is another wonderful conversation starter as children struggle to fit into peer groups at school and learn to understand and embrace their own unique qualities and differences.

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Is there a topic you feel you would like to discuss with your child? I’ll bet you can find a picture book to help lead you into the conversation. So, pick up a picture book today, snuggle with your child tonight, share the book and read aloud together. If you’re a teacher, don’t be afraid to use a picture book in a middle grade classroom. You just might be surprised by the conversation it helps start.


Sandra’s Website

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Grab your copy of Frazzled Freya here or Emma the Eager Emu here

 

Rosie Russel, Author Interview

Hey everyone. Today I’d like to introduce you to friend  and a fellow Kidlit author Rosie Russel. Just to change up the format a little bit, this was an interview. I kind of liked the power! 😉


When and why did you start writing for children?

I worked as a substitute teacher in elementary and middle school classrooms in our district for fifteen years. The one thing I loved the most, was spending time reading to the children. Also, helping them write their own stories was a thrill to me.

When our grandson was born, it was time for me to be close by to help out with him. During that time, I spent many hours reading to him, just like I did when our sons were young. I knew I always wanted to try writing my own children’s stories. When I set my mind to it, it was not hard at all to come up with my own tales. I love it when I can use real life situations, memories, people I know and love, and items in my stories. They all have a special meaning to me.

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Most of your books are pre-school to first grade, what are the pleasures and the challenges of writing for this age group?

Yes, four of my titles are Early Readers and two of my titles are for third grade and up.

Many people will say to me, “writing children’s books must be easy?” It is in some ways, but many times, it’s difficult. The sentences have to be rich and very precise. For children learning how to read new words, comprehending, and learning punctuation, it has to be as perfect as possible. Also, not telling the reader everything is hard, as you want them to arrive at their own conclusions. Two of my titles are very repetitive, which are my “Beasley” books. It’s my hope that the reader will “own” the words by the time they are done with those two stories.

Who does your illustrations?

I illustrate all my own books using a Wacom Pen Tablet. I have around four different kinds of programs to help me get the right look for each story. I have watched many videos on how to draw faces, hands, expressions, and so much more. Some of the programs I use have added features for me to include. I’m very picky on the final result and sometimes will work as long as a week or more getting one page exactly the way I want it. It just takes a lot of hours of practicing. I encourage everyone to give digital drawing a try, it’s a lot of fun!

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Do you have a goal to your work, a personal statement or a grand purpose?

My personal statement is “Engaging young reader’s one book at a time.” My goal is for children to read books and to be engage in the story. I feel if a child loves a certain story or even the illustrations, it will draw them back to more books and more reading. I worked with many “struggling readers” over the years and I always could tell what stories took and what stories didn’t. If a book is not clear in the meaning, they may give up.

What is your favorite thing that you have created? What is your least favorite?

I am partial to all of my stories as each one of them holds a special memory or situation that has really happened. (Just for the record, the Maggie, Millie, and Merrie” tales did not really happened.) The first one was based on a dream I had when I was young. The second one is based on something fun my sister and friend played growing up. I’d better stop before I give anything away.

The “Avi and Jackson Best Friends” title is a rhyming book based on our sons growing up. I wrote it just for them and never intended to even sell it. After we discussed it, I was thrilled they didn’t mind for me to make it public. It didn’t take long before I knew this was something I wanted to do full time.

What advice do you have for other authors out there?

I would suggest to other authors to always keep learning as much as they can every day. At first I felt frustrated because I felt like there was so much to do and not enough time. So now I say to myself, one step at a time.

Also, building a platform for yourself and your books is important.

I would also suggest for authors to visit with other authors and share ideas and situations that arise. Most all of the authors I have met are very supportive of one another and it’s a great feeling knowing you are not alone.


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