Telling Tales vs. Storytelling

Okay, I don’t actually have a clever post about the difference between those two phrases, but I just wanted to make the point that, when someone says “X Country Tells Better Children’s Stories Than Y” they a) probably haven’t read/researched as widely as they should have to support their thesis, b) are maybe looking for the hits, and c) are probably telling tales. Storytelling, on the other hand, is the art and science of writing a story as perfectly and as wonderfully as Sherman Alexie who, of course, was not mentioned in this train-wreck of an article. (I used Do Not Link so they won’t get the hits, but do approach with some chocolate handy. In case you need something sweet after that whole … experience.)

For those of you who don’t want to read the article, it posits that British storytelling is clearly superior to that of American storytelling, particularly within the context of children’s literature.

There are several things wrong with that article.

1. “Harry Potter vs. Huckleberry Finn”

Why is the author comparing Harry Potter (contemporary fantasy series, marketed for children) with Huckleberry Finn (fiction published in 1884, marketed for all audiences since children’s literature was not a thing then)?

Like, hello, apple, meet orange. Those two works aren’t even remotely comparable and I hope you see why from the stuff in parentheses.

2. Frame of Reference

Here are some of the British books that the author has chosen to talk about:

The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter,The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mary Poppins, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dark Is Rising, Peter Pan, The Golden Compass …

Here are some of the American books that the author looks at:

Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Pollyanna, The Little Engine That Could, Wizard of Oz, The Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are, The Hunger Games, The Giver, Divergent, The Maze Runner …

Apart from the fact–as the lovely S. E. Sinkhorn has noted–that Britain has centuries (including a few hundred years of brutal colonization and mining of resources and stories that the US does not ??yet?? have) on America’s 250 years, both lists are … oh that’s right … very white. Also, while (almost) all of the British stories are fantasy novels with secondary worlds, (almost) none of these American classics/staples are in the same genre. For that matter, there isn’t even a clear year-range. They are all, also, painfully mainstream and may not account for so many other brilliant stories that are definitely being read by younger audiences. This is not how you thesis, okay? This is a skewed frame of reference.

3. Rules, Safety, Didacticism, and Morality

The article argues (repeatedly) that

“(if) British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.”

At this point, the author looks at books like Where the Wild Things Are and Sarah, Plain and Tall (both, older than HP), but of course, neglects to look at books like The Hunger Games until the very end, in a completely different context.

Now, I agree that classic American children’s literature is often didactic, but please don’t pretend that Mr. Clive S. Susan-Likes-Lipstick-Now-So-She-Got-Booted-From-Narnia Lewis isn’t trying to teach his readers something. Also, Narnia is full of Christian imagery and it’s not even well-disguised! Oh. You think I’m being unfair by talking about an older popular work? Fine. Let’s pick a new one. Pop quiz: what are the only festivals ever listed in Harry Potter?

Hint: They sure as hell didn’t celebrate Diwali.

Besides, when it comes to moving away from safety and towards some semblance of equality and hope (in stories as well as in publishing), both Britain and America have a long way to go.

4. Harry Potter: The (Ongoing) Phenomenon

Speaking of moving forward …. look, I am a huge Potter fan. I love that world and I love those characters but you only have to take a look at the dominant culture within Harry Potter to understand (part of) why it is as popular as it is and why it took, literally, years for people to acknowledge its diversity problem.

Harry Potter, Doctor Who, MerlinSherlock Holmes … yes, well done Britain with its storytelling that rides on the back of having forced the English language upon pretty much every country that has had the displeasure of playing host to them, but what has Britain done with these stories, exactly? Has Britain–aside from throwing me a bone with the casting of a WOC for the role of stage!Hermione–evolved in its story-telling, except for regurgitating the same straight/white/overlord fantasies except now featuring smartphones? That is a thesis question I’d like answered. Because here’s the thing: Harry Potter may be an exceptional story but so is Akata Witch. (And those, by the way, are two comparable stories.) As is Carry On. As is ShadowshaperThe Darkest Part of the Forest. Ms. Marvel. The list grows ever-longer with each month.

And while Harry Potter remains a stagnant (albeit significant) pool in the imagination of this article’s author, contemporary American (AND OTHER COUNTRIES’) writers have seen the Chosen One trope for the fresh, flowing river of creativity that it is and have been fashioning some seriously incredible characters and stories. Plus, they are relentlessly working towards publishing stories that best reflect this world’s people. Pay. Attention.

(And, oh, I am not even going to get into the argument about missing mythologies. British stories being inspired by Gaelic mythology is one thing. American stories curiously lacking in African American and/or Native American stories is a whole tangle of history and ongoing politics like OMG this is why we even HAVE We Need Diverse Books. Again, go read S. E. Sinkhorn’s tweets please.)

5. Landscape

Oh man, this bit wasn’t even an argument. It was a postcard for Scotland which, I mean, I get it, okay? It’s pretty. But have you ever read a book that deals with geography as FANTASTICALLY as Sherman Alexie? Because, seriously, get on that.

6. Fantasy and Realism

Another point the author tries to make is that British stories are more popular because of their dedication to fantasy and to hope, and that American stories aren’t quite as popular because they aren’t “real” fantasy fans. (Or something like that. At this point, it was a little sad, this article.) The author cites how even Wizard of Oz has Dorothy unmaking the wizard and … that’s … bad? How? Wizard of Oz (and later, cartoons like Scooby-Doo) show its viewers that sometimes what looks scary is just some old dude in a mask. Unmasking cowards to prevent their stupidity from affecting the world may step outside the fantasy briefly to embrace reality, but it is also an act of courage and power–something that most readers often need in their real lives.

(Don’t let the GIF undercut my point.)

Besides, Dorothy’s going home is barely the end of the story. Oz continues to interest people, so much so, that Gregory Maguire happened and then, so did Idina Menzel. *says a prayer of thanks to all the gods*

You want to talk lapses in fantasy? How about the all too real racism present in Peter Pan? No one is disagreeing with Bruno Bettelheim’s assertion that fantasy is important for children, but please, take a minute to ask whose fantasy this is? Is it a fantasy that welcomes anyone other than people who look like the authors? Either the children that Bettelheim speaks of refers to all children or … it doesn’t.

Besides, dedication to fantasy/breaking the rules isn’t merely about rejecting reality. One of the many reasons Harry Potter did so well is not because Rowling took us away from our reality, but because it systematically questions why the world is the way it is, how it came to be this broken, and figures out how to move forward. This is, coincidentally, also why The Hunger Games is so beloved.

7. Living on Hope

I can not and will not argue with the author’s assertion that hope is important. It is. I will, however, disagree that we need more hope today than ever. The author presents American dystopian fiction as a new kind of fantasy story, one that is modelled to best deal with fears of terrorism that (apparently) plague kids’ minds today, post 9/11. Look, things have been often crappy in the past (the author mentions slavery pretty casually but obviously that word holds no real meaning to them), and things are sometimes ugly now, but kids have always faced a variety of challenges: from unwanted pregnancy to the death of a loved one, from police brutality to rape, from failing geometry to having an unwelcome crush on someone … It is just that only some kids’ fears are addressed in the books they read. “We need more hope now more than ever”? Are you kidding me? There are kids who are beaten to death for holding the wrong person’s hand. They die for hope, but rarely receive any. I don’t want the marketability of hope to be how we gauge the value of a book, especially if it is hope that is born out of just one type of fear. (One tinged, I may add, with xenophobia.) We will always need hope, but what we need more is proof that a future exists for all of us.

BTW, when I said this wasn’t a post about the difference between those two phrases in my title? I might just have figured it out. In all probability, “telling tales” did not always mean “lying through your teeth”. In all probability, it looks down on folklore, the orality of it, and how this was one of the primary ways of community-building and the sharing of hope. The act of telling a tale is basically storytelling at its most direct and powerful. The children’s lit community–whatever country its people reside in–would do well to stop patting itself on the back for being “better” and instead, busy itself with welcoming new tellers of tales, celebrating them, and rewarding the skill with which they deliver their stories.

We are only beginning to tell stories that encompass all our fears and all our triumphs–I sincerely hope we do not have to glorify or fall back on a seemingly-superior canon to move forward.

So, to recap, that post wasn’t “telling tales”. It was, in fact, one long, terrible mistake.


4 responses to “Telling Tales vs. Storytelling

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