The Stories That Shape Us

Guest post by Hollie Hughes

Back when my first book was published, I could easily foresee a future where my work as a children’s author would take me into schools.  What I could not have guessed was, just over a year later, my work would begin to take me into prisons too. One of the greatest privileges of my job is my involvement with the brilliant bedtime stories project – run by Stratford Literary Festival – which aims to support parents in prison to write, and send home, a bedtime story for their children.

Many of these parents worry that what they write won’t be ‘good enough’ so I always start with a story of my own.  It begins with a little girl who rarely sees her father but, when she does, he makes up fantastical adventure stories for her in which she is always the heroine.  Although other adults must surely have read to her too, the only story times she will grow up to remember are those with her dad. And, even though I don’t remember much of the content (although undoubtably they involved dinosaurs!), I will never forget that he did it.  I tell them that what they are going to do that day is create something that money can’t buy – a priceless gift, that their child will remember always. In this way, the stories are always more than ‘good enough’ because they will never be anything short of perfect in the hearts of the children who receive them.  And this is a relief to these parents because if, as The Beatles sang, all you need is love – love is mostly all they have to offer.  

There’ve been times in my own life when love is all I’ve had to give too.  We never had much money when the children were little, or since, but sometimes I think we gave them something better.  From their earliest days, we shared with them our love of the outdoors – the woods, the beach, the park, they’re all free.  We went on bug hunts, we built homes for pixies, we made characters and stories out of shells and sandcastles – and, when we got home, we did all this again and more through the books we shared.  So I will be forever indebted for the days when, with empty purse, I could still take the children into the warmth of the library and let them fill their boots.

Years earlier, when I trained as a youth worker, I had read about experiential learning – the cycle of experience, reflection, abstract conceptualisation (or theorising!) and active experimentation that shapes our development.  It seemed such an obvious concept to me then (as all theories with any truth do) but never was it more evident than when my children were little and I began to appreciate just how quickly the wheel was spinning for them (and us!) in their earliest days.  We were providing all sorts of experiences in the outside world, but it was often through stories that they made sense of those experiences and applied them to their own day to day lives and futures. Even more magically, they could sometimes complete a whole learning cycle purely through books – in this way, reading and stories could be used by their ever spinning brains as a substitute almost for concrete experience itself.  This is how reading enhances empathy – it enables us to walk the path of another’s experience; allowing us to learn from their life as well as our own. The stories that shake us are the stories that shape us.

One such story that shaped me was Deborah Cadbury’s excellent ‘The Dinosaur Hunters’.  Told mainly from the perspective of Gideon Mantell, it also introduces perhaps the greatest dinosaur hunter of all time – Mary Anning.  Despite her pivotal influence in our understanding of prehistory, Mary was both poor and a woman – and the scientific community side-lined her accordingly.  Through Cadbury’s book, I felt a closeness and kinship with Mary that has lingered long since. I cannot ever go out fossiling without thinking of her – whether in her home town of Lyme Regis, or in my go-to fossil hunting spot of Walton-on-the-Naze.  She was never more at the forefront of my mind than when writing The Girl and the Dinosaur.

But maybe Mary’s story resonated on a deeper level – the cautiously negotiated path she trod between self-sufficiency and loneliness; her independence of spirit, coupled with her dissonant need for acceptance.  I suspect there are many writers who would recognise something of themselves in Mary – and maybe even in mine and Sarah Massini’s Marianne too.

My affinity with Mary’s story tells me not just something about why I wrote The Girl and the Dinosaur, but also something about why I eventually decided to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a writer.  Through reading her story, it became a part of me – so that part of her experience became a part of mine also. When I eventually decided to commit to writing, it was me mostly – but with a pinch of Mary and all the other heroines that had spoken to me through the years thrown in too.  

I’m not suggesting that books can, or should, be used as the sole source of experience – but they can provide sustenance, and stability, when the wheel is spinning too fast.  They can help us face the challenges of the future, and they are one of the best tools we have for making sense of and learning from the past. There are many ways of helping children round the learning cycle, but bedtime stories are often the easiest route day by day.  Because, most times, reading and chatting about a bedtime story is something at least that most of us can do. It is not everything, but it is something. It is achievable. And, at the end of a day, week or month that has been fraught on every level, it may just be ‘good enough’.

The Girl and the Dinosaur is written by Hollie Hughes, Illustrated by Sarah Massini, and published by Bloomsbury.

The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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