In the latest of her regular series describing children’s early responses to stories and language, Virginia Lowe observes her children differentiate between the real and the pretend in stories.
N: Is the Wiz-a-Woz alive?
V: No, pretend.
N: Are the other things alive?
V: No, it’s only a pretend story.
N: Are they alive in the story?
This was to a school musical of The Wizard of Oz. Nicholas who was four years, five months (4y5m) already knew the book and had seen the film. There is no record of how I answered this, but I presume I said yes, ignoring the Wizard’s pretend status (he’s an ordinary man, in the book).
Many people believe Piaget’s statement that children are not interested in reality, until they are in the concrete operational stage, at about seven. Most people avoid talking to their children about it, consequently children often do not have the words to query it themselves. Even some very sympathetic children’s literature people feel that knowing the imaginary status of a character will spoil the story for the child. This was certainly not so in our experience. I think being able to tell reality from pretence is a very important life-skill, and the sooner they learn it the better. That is not to say that we taught it to them, but we answered all questions as honestly as possible and I was always watching for an interest in reality, making a point of recording it in the reading journal.
Only when writing my thesis (the children now were about 16 and 19) did I realise that many of the ways we used ‘real’ must have been confusing to them: cream; fire (the open fire not a heater); griffins (on the cathedrals of Europe); Cinderella (Perrault compared with the Muppet version); Winnie the Pooh (Milne not Disney).
Nicholas had the words and concepts presented to him almost from birth. His sister (three years older) often explained to him of nursery rhymes, ‘It’s just nonsense, Little Man’, or sang him lullabies featuring animals which are distinguished as ‘real’ or ‘toy’.
He was 2y5m when he started querying anthropomorphised animals in his beloved Scarry (Best Word Book Ever). ‘Pussy-cats don’t have kites!’, ‘Dogs can’t drive!’ and by 2y8m, more generally, ‘But animals don’t do that!’ And at 2y7m he told us of Seuss’s A fish in a tree/How can that be?, ‘It’s just a word!’ An audio tape of nursery songs brought the talking aspect to his attention. ‘A frog he would a-wooing go’ had been a favourite for some time, but at 3y3m he suddenly remarked, ‘It must be pretend ’cos it’s really people. They can’t talk, can they? Animals can’t talk’.
Teasing by his sister involved reality too. To a picture of a skeleton,
R: It will get you!
N: No, it’s in a book. It’s stuck down! (2y8m)
He reversed this teasing a year later. To a picture of a sea sponge,
N: That’s poisonous. If you saw a real one of those and you touched it, you’d die!
R: I am touching a real one.
N: That’s not a real one. It’s just a page of it! (4y0m)
Gradually he worked out his own terminology. He used it first in The Quinkins (one of Tresize and Roughsey’s dreaming stories). The first opening has indigenes drawing the spirit creatures on a rock shelter, which fascinated him. ‘Are they alive, Mummy?’ then ‘They’re drawing pictures of what’s Quinkins actually’ (4y5m). It was the next day that he saw The Wizard of Oz play and first used his query about the characters, which was common parlance with him from then on: ‘Is it alive in the story?’
I had taken him, with Rebecca and a friend, to the film of The Wizard of Oz, when he was only 2y3m. This turned out to be a disaster (I hadn’t seen it myself). ‘Me scared witches’ become a phrase thereafter, to any book that involved witches, and at four (two years after seeing the film) he had a recurring nightmare of his grandmother coming into his room, with a green face. He also had a long lasting fear of houses being blown away, holes in them, walls being broken down, demolitions – which I presumed also originated with the film.
I had bought the book (with Denison’s original illustrations) a couple of days later, and he had heard some read (mainly to his sister) and of course looked at the pictures. We had also read the Hoffman Rapunzel several times. So witches made a deep impression on him – Rapunzel and the Wizard of Oz film doubtless reinforcing each other. At 2y4m, the first recognisable face he drew was in a birthday card for his friend Justin. ‘Dat’s scary witch. Got orange eyes,’ he said at first, then changed it to copy Rebecca who said that he’d said ‘that’s a wicked witch’ as a quote from Rapunzel.
When they were 4y4m and 7y7m we borrowed an audio version of The Wizard of Oz. At the witch, John held both children to him and could feel their hearts thumping madly.
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. See www.createakidsbook.com.au for further details. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978-0-4153-9724-7, £29.99 pbk).
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L Frank Baum, Oxford Children’s Classics, 978-0-1927-3831-8, £4.99 pbk