Understanding what stories mean to us strengthens our work with children and books, Richard Hill invites you to reflect on
The Importance of Stories
Stories are to the spirit and the mind what food and exercise are to the body. They are nothing short of life-giving.
Stop and think about it. For the next ten minutes – the time it will take you to read this – stop and think about how stories play a part in your life. Not you as a label (teacher, parent. student. head, librarian, lecturer) but you as you, the person. The one with all the emotions and feelings (all those anxieties, depressions, rages, triumphs and laughter), the fantasizing, day-dreaming, night-dreaming one: anti the logical, analysing. intellectual one too (with all those plans and decisions to make). Think of yourself as the changed and changing you – when once you were a student, now a teacher: when you were not married, now married, or vice versa: when you didn’t have children. now have; when you were young, now older. Think of the times of growing and also of the times when nothing seemed to change: times of’ happiness. times of crisis and times in between.
For throughout all this stories have played their crucial role – both stories that we tell ourselves, and stories that come to us from others, especially from the storytellers amongst us in society. So why are stories important: how do they play the part they do in our lives: why do I claim for them the same life-giving importance as food; what has this to do with children? Why do we make such a fuss about making books available to our children?
To answer these questions, in particular why stories and story experience are so important, we have to tackle some fairly fundamental notions. Notion one is a basic one which involves our extraordinary ability to communicate, with ourselves and with each other. It’s what makes us unique in the living universe at least as we know it. We know of no other species which communicates with itself in so many ways or at so many levels. Communicating, the giving and receiving of messages, involves memory, our ability to order and organize. and our natural liking for the social life whether in the fancily. the community or the wider world. Most of all though our communicating involves language – all out- languages. There is that of the body with its huge repertoire of physical signals, verbal language with all its nuances anti, of course, the whole range of visual and encoded language like pictures, music and words.
Communicating has as many purposes as it has means of expression. From the simple `pass the salt’ through to the worlds highest arts (you can snake your own decision about what you consider them to be), the intention is to convey a message. It’s also important to remember that as much communicating goes on inside oneself, as goes out to people around one. Dreams, fantasizing, reflecting, meditating, thinking, working things out, are all forms of our internal communicating. We probably ‘talk to ourselves more than anybody else, and from the earliest age too.
It is here that we come to the crux. For what I am asking you to consider, as notion two, is that stories are much more than our conventional idea of them, for example as fiction in books, or plays, or someone telling a story. Rather that stories are nothing less than the means by which we narrate, account and describe our lives, in play, in gossip. conversation and >jokes, in painting, in drama, films, music, and in print. Apart from our own stories which are usually recounted in talk or thought, we get much of our story experience from especially gifted storytellers– people like painters. musicians and writers. Their particular talent is to give form to and express precisely in words, pictures, action and sounds that we struggle to convey in our own stories. Each kind of story has its own power, its own characteristics.
Notion three is about the role of stories, the part they play in our lives. Given that stories can be widely defined, they can then the more easily be viewed as one of the most direct ways in which we put ourselves in touch with feelings and experience. They are the means by which we can identify and describe ourselves either in our own stories or in stories that we read, watch, see or hear.
Let me try to illustrate this with sonic examples. Remember the times you have fallen in, or out, of love. How readily then did you devour films. plays, books. music and art on the same theme? Also how much did you talk to others about your own feelings about the experience: how much time did you sit going over things in your own mind recounting or rehearsing events?
Remember the times of deep personal crisis: how one’s confidence disappears; how painful inner struggles can be; how difficult it is to tell other people just how you feel, or even how difficult it is to understand your own feelings. Sooner or later in times like this you begin to tell someone else what’s wrong. Gradually you begin to tell the story of what happened, how you think it happened, and sometimes what you think you must do about it. Very often at the same time you may have come across a book, or seen a film or heard some music which said, better than you ever could, just how you felt. In this way stories and their communication help us redefine our perspectives, enable us to come to terms with whatever experience we are undergoing. It is only when we are in touch with what we feel and with what we think that we continue to grow, continue to live. When we are not in touch and when we don’t communicate, we are generally in trouble.
The specific kind of stories we are most concerned with are the ones in books. I count both fiction and non-fiction as stories. When I was a student I studied history which was one old story after another and jolly good stories they were too. I also have no doubt that other disciplines are mostly stories too – sequential descriptions of how, why or what things were, are or will be. The theories of relativity, nuclear fission and black holes are complicated stories but still stories nevertheless. The plots and characters are a little hard to come by but when a good storyteller like Bronowski, Nigel Calder or Patrick Moore explains, I am as rivetted as if I were reading a good novel.
From here it’s a small step to realize that story experience is the same for everyone including children. Not only is it the same but, given a wide definition of stories and their role in our lives, it is certain that all children, with the possible exception of the most severely mentally handicapped, possess a great deal of story experience long before, for example, they master the skill of reading. This is of the utmost importance because that story experience can be used as a very sound basis and as a tremendous opportunity in bringing children to know the pleasures and excitements to be had from the story experience of books. The uniqueness of book stories is of course the province of another article, though it is touched on in Jill Bennett’s piece in Talking Point on page 17.
In order to capitalize on the story experience already possessed by children, it is essential, it seems to me, to understand the role and importance of stories in our own lives. The best place to start is with yourself and with your own story experience. If you come to understand that, you will come to understand equally well the importance of stories for children too. Stop and think about it.
Richard Hill (born 1944) was appointed Director of the SBA in 1979; but this was in no way his first contact with schools, books or school bookshops. He was a pupil at Eltham Green School, one of the first big London comprehensives, and from there went on to get what he refers to as `a fair to middling’ history degree from the LSE. Teacher training at Avery Hill followed and then work in primary schools. In 1969 he joined Penguin as part of the late and still lamented Penguin Education and later was made marketing manager for Puffin books. In this job, he was responsible for some of the most imaginative attempts to get books to children of the past ten years, not least that travelling extravaganza, the Puffin Pageants that popped up in Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol and wowed literally thousands of children, their teachers and parents. It was at Penguin too that Richard became involved with the early days of the movement of school bookshops, and he helped set up the SBA in 1976. He has been a member of the board of directors ever since.
He likes: doing up his Victorian villa. grappling with an over-large garden, music of all sorts, promoting children’s books, having good times with friends and reading stories.
He hates: talking in public (though he is getting used to it) and people being pompous and precious about books, especially children’s books.
Richard is married to Angie (who took over as School Bookshop Officer from Belinda Hick) and they are expecting their first baby in June.
Moving into the second stage of its development, the SBA has at its head a person with considerable experience and enormous commitment and enthusiasm.