Saturday, January 4, 2014

You’ll never believe what happened.

As a children’s book writer, you should care deeply about story.  And you know who takes story seriously, especially oral storytelling? 

North America’s native people, that’s who.

One of the best tellers-about-story and its lifelong significance is an author I have followed for years, Thomas King.

“The truth about stories is that

that’s all we are.”

That’s the thesis of King’s 2003 Massey Lectures, a series of five talks he gave about the importance of story in shaping our beliefs. 

He points out some important things you might not have noticed – for instance, when gauging literacy in adults, studies tend to ask how many books they’ve read recently… but never ask how many stories they’ve heard recently.  Storytelling and the oral tradition aren’t considered part of literacy.  They’re not taken seriously at the university level. 

That’s a mistake.

He explains how you grow up seeing the world differently depending on the kind of creation story you are raised listening to, and provides, for contrast, a deeply fun and funny rendition of the Native story, “The Woman who Fell to Earth,” along with a strict and harsh retelling of the traditional Genesis creation story. 

Here is part of the Genesis story, as told by King:

…whatever you wish to call it, the rule has been broken, and that is the end of the garden. God seals it off and places an angel with a fiery sword at the entrance and tosses Adam and Eve into a howling wilderness to fend for themselves, a wilderness in which sickness and death, hate and hunger are their constant companions.

image Now, I’m a big fan of the Genesis narrative – don’t get me wrong.  But what version of it are we telling our children?  In my book, The Family Torah, I wrestled with this carefully to make sure I wasn’t make the narrative too bitter, harsh or scary, and to make sure that a loving, nurturing God was the overriding presence throughout the book.  It should all be about rule (law) and punishment, or you’re telling it all wrong.

Here is King’s opening of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, a native creation narrative:

Back at the beginning of imagination, the world we know as earth was nothing but water, while above the earth, somewhere in space, was a larger, more ancient world.  And on that world was a woman.
A crazy woman.
Well, she wasn’t exactly crazy. She was more nosy.  Curious. The kind of curious that doesn’t give up. The kind that follows you around. Now, we all know that being curious is healthy, but being curious can get you into trouble.

The Woman Who Fell to Earth is the clear winner in King’s retelling, which is fair enough given how well it’s told.  It’s full of curiosity, full of fun, and yes, full of wisdom as well.

“You have to be careful with the stories you tell,” writes King.  “And you have to watch out for the stories you are told.”  The stories you tell and are told, the stories you share with your children and your readers… those stories are going to live on in some way and shape them as people.

I wish I could include more here, but I don’t want to overwhelm you.  Plus, King’s a better storyteller than I am:  his words are best told in his own voice. 

I will include one more story, one he incorporates, with small but significant changes, at the beginning of each of the five Massey Lectures in the series.

There is a story I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of
the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Sometimes in the order of events. Other times it’s the dialogue or the response of the audience. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away.
One time, it was in Prince Rupert I think, a young girl in the audience asked about the turtle and the earth.
If the earth was on the back of a turtle, what was below the turtle? Another turtle, the storyteller told her. And below that turtle? Another turtle. And below that?  Another turtle.
The girl began to laugh, enjoying the game, I imagine.
So how many turtles are there? she wanted to know. The storyteller shrugged. No one knows for sure, he told her, but it’s turtles all the way down.

image You can  – make that should – download and read the full first chapter (ie first lecture) of his Massey Lectures book from House of Anansi Press here (this is a venerable and important Canadian publishing house).  Link is working as of today, but I can’t guarantee it will work forever.  If you like it, consider buying the full book.  It’s a great read.

You can also listen to him give all five lectures FREE at CBC Canada’s website.

Incidentally, the entire first chapter is called “You’ll never believe what happened” is always a great way to start.  I believe that deeply.  Even if you don’t use those exact words, shouldn’t each story be told in a way that communicates the same near-breathless excitement, a (yes, I’ll say it) childlike irrepressibility?

Is there a book or story you wrote that you just couldn’t wait to share?  How do you offer readers, both parents and children, the certainty that they’re about to sit down and enjoy a great story?  And in what ways are you “careful,” as King suggests, with the stories you tell? 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod,

    I love Native American legends and tales! And I agree with King that the oral tradition is very important. Thank you for posting this. Best wishes for 2014!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of three poetry books, a scholarly book, and the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback--2006, paperback--2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition--2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app--2012)
    Website is


As always, I love to hear from you.