National Share a Story Month is all about raising the profile of stories, the joy of sharing them and the fun this can be. Although NSSM is over for this year, the message and ideas it embodies are relevant all year round. Jo Cotterill explores the importance of stories and friendship in this guest post.
One of the questions children most often ask me is, ‘What’s your favourite book?’ I’m rubbish at answering this question because how, out of the many thousands of books I must have read over the years, could I pick just one?
So sometimes, to give myself more time to answer, I ask the child the same question. And then something amazing happens. The child – doesn’t matter how old, doesn’t matter where from – lights up. Something inside them BURNS to tell me about their favourite book, or the book they’ve just finished reading. And sometimes, that leads on to my asking if they’ve read THIS or THAT, and at some point, we find a book we’ve both read and loved, and BAM – that’s it. We’re linked. By a story that someone else has created, by characters that have been dreamed up by a person we may never have met. That child – the one so impressed by me, a published author – is now on an equal footing with me, because we both love the same thing.
Stories are incredible. Stories make us feel. Stories open up worlds inside our minds and hearts, and that’s very special. But what makes it even more special is when you find another person who has opened up the same world and is living in it too. Whenever I meet another person who adores Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, I am warmed by an unspoken kinship. I may have nothing else in common with that person, but our love of those books brings us together.
Since before we had ways of recording them, humans have told and shared stories. In my book Looking at the Stars, a girl uses stories to bring hope to people in desperate conditions in a refugee camp. In my latest novel A Library of Lemons, two girls find friendship and healing through a shared love of words and stories:
Mae looks very serious now. There is something in her eyes. Recognition. ‘I knew you were a kindred spirit,’ she whispers.
I take a breath and let it out very slowly. ‘You’ve read Anne of Green Gables.’
‘Of course I have. We’re like Anne and Diana.’ She grins suddenly, and it’s like the sun has come out.
We have become friends and I didn’t even mean to.
Some children live very difficult lives. Every child, at some point, will face scary, uncomfortable or confusing situations. Many children can’t express or explore their emotions safely or easily, which makes for deep unhappiness and loneliness. The statistics on children’s mental health are frightening. An author friend of mine who regularly goes into school is constantly shocked by the things the children confess to her after she talks about the issues in her books.
And yet – the children talk to her specifically because they have been discussing stories. Stories open doors; show children (and adults) a possible avenue of communication. Far from making children isolated or lonely, reading arms them with an arsenal of knowledge, from compassion to intellectualism. Real life can be accessed through imaginary life. And imaginary life can be retreated into as a safe place when the real world is too overwhelming.
Finding someone who shares the same imaginary life as you is possibly the most magical form of human interaction we have. Connections and community and inclusivity are what make our species strong and good and great. And children are naturally brilliant at it! Just put them into a book group and watch them ignite with passion. That’s my favourite part of meeting readers, and it doesn’t matter to me if the passion is for my own books or someone else’s. The fire in their eyes lifts my own spirits every time and reminds me of the power of stories to bring us together.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.