Why We Imbibe Lessons From the Stories We Read at a Young Age

by Naomi Howarth

The meanings of stories can far outlast the ritual of bedtime and lights out. When the bedside lamp is switched off, and the door closed, stories can linger like fireflies and nestle comfortably in our memories – the generosity of the Rainbow Fish, the inner strength of the gentle BFG, the reckless curiosity of Icarus are lessons that have always stayed with me.  

I was recently asked why the books I have written have strong morals and messages. 

The simple answer is that the stories I grew up with, and remained with me, are those with simple but eloquent lessons. There is longevity in tales that have a universal message and no more so than those in beloved folk tales. The sense of awe and romanticism of hearing tales told hundreds of years ago and passed down through generations is a great thing in itself, but having that human connection with people of the past is astonishing – their struggles and successes, sadnesses and joy are not so very different from ours, despite the age gap. This becomes so apparent in story telling. Universality and connection triumph over time and place. 

As Angela Carter put it – ‘Fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world.’ 

You only have to look at the breadth of tales with moral meanings to realise their popularity. From the parables told in the Bible, to the inevitable happy-ever-after-post-struggle of every film in Disney’s back catalogue, these stories are doing something right. 

As a child, you are given an endless list of what to do and what not to do. Everything from your sock length to your school lunches are determined by someone else – your figures of authority. By stepping into a story, you are allowed a refreshing sense of freedom – you are not being told what is right or wrong, but rather you are being invited by the storyteller to develop your own moral compass. Stories can give children a respectful distance to work things out for themselves – the trails and triumphs of characters they see on the page, and why certain scenarios and consequences come about. These stories are a safe place for children to consider cause and effect, through the character’s journeys.

It is easy to presume that it is just the vivid illustrations, or flowing words in picture books that attract children to their favourite stories, like magpies to shine. It is not the moral message that is the first thing that leads children to leaf through a book, or request the same story for the fifth time that week. It is the artwork, language and story- the morals come second. Learning to trust the storyteller through their language, the world and the characters they have created is first and foremost, and by doing that, by the time the moral is revealed, the reader is already invested, and most likely open to learning the lessons that the story offers. 

There is no doubt that children can be intoxicated with the colour and details on a page, but I have learnt not to underestimate the insight a young audience can have about the messages that the story relays. Working with groups of school children I am always bowled over by their perception and interpretation of the stories. In the group discussions we have had after book readings, the understanding of the message, and empathy for the characters are always volunteered.

This has led me to question why stories are able to create empathy in the reader. Why does the concept of putting yourself in a character’s shoes work so effectively, which is after all what you often do as a reader? After discussing this with an Occupational Therapist who works with children on the Autism Spectrum, she suggested that stories can be used to help children develop greater social understanding- almost a practical guide for playing out scenarios. Stories can nurture relationships through example.

Through powerful tales, it is the lessons that are the thing that seems to linger longer in our minds. Did I remember that Rainbow fish gave all his scales away bar one? No, not until I revisited the story. But did I remember that he chose to share his beauty with his companions – yes, that definitely stuck. And this is why I believe that in their gentle, entreating way, the best stories can guide and inform our nature and experience. 

This is a guest post and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the FCBG. 

Naomi Howarth was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and studied Costume for Performance at the London College of Fashion, where she graduated with a First in 2010. She worked in the film industry for eighteen months before deciding to pursue a career in illustration. In 2014 she was mentored by Catherine Rayner as part of Booktrust Scotland’s Picture Hooks scheme. Naomi’s illustrations combine lithography with watercolour, and she has a strong interest in myth, legend and folklore. The Crow’s Tale, her first published book, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second picture book, Tug of War, is a funny, heartwarming retelling of a well-known folk tale and teaches that wit and  wisdom are more important than size and physical strength, and friendship is what matters most. (Paperback August 2018).  Her new book, The Night Dragon, is an original story about a kind little dragon who learns that she can bring beauty and joy into the world simply by finding the bravery to be herself. All three books are published by LIncoln Children’s Books. 

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