Stories Matter

Early images that come to us through stories stay with us well into our adult lives. So the stories we tell through our books matter – October 2020

Stories Matter

Radhika Menon, Publishing Director, Tulika Publishers

Article for the inaugural quarterly newsletter for school and community librarians by Bookworm Trust, Goa, October 2020

We all take stories for granted. We listen to stories even before we understand words, and we tell stories as soon as we learn to speak. Stories are all around us – in books, films, art, music, dance… And now with a click, tap or swipe we read, create and exchange stories.

But I stopped taking stories for granted when we started publishing children’s books. Our vision was to create books that are contemporary and inclusive, reflecting a diverse and plural culture in every respect. Children’s books have always mirrored a culture, and children reading them grow up with a sense of self embedded in that culture. We all know that early images that come to us through stories, stay with us well into our adult lives. So the stories we tell through our books matter.

The best authors and illustrators are drawn by the possibilities of offering a better world to children through their stories – stories about kindness and friendship or loss and loneliness, about sameness and differences, about caring for the environment… through fantasy, folktales, fables, poetry… They could be funny, silly or serious and contemplative. But above all they have to be good stories, imaginatively told. These are the ones that nourish and enrich young minds, and sometimes affect them deeply.

The Mountain that Loved a Bird by Alice McLerran (2006), for example, transformed a little boy in a small town in Kerala.

The book is about a barren mountain which is visited one year by a little bird called Joy. The lonely mountain asks the bird to stay. Joy cannot stay, but she promises to come back every spring. She brings a seed the next time she comes and drops it on the mountainside. She returns each spring with seeds and, over time, the mountain grows green and lush and many plants and animals flourish there.

The little boy in Kerala used to be a bully. The other children in his class were afraid of him and kept away. One day the children came to the teacher. They were very agitated, some were crying. They said that the bully had climbed a tree and knocked down a bird’s nest with eggs in it and all the eggs had broken. The teacher didn’t say anything to the boy, but at the end of the day, she called him aside and gave him a book from the class library – the Malayalam translation of The Mountain that Loved a Bird. The boy took it home. He kept it with him for many days.

Soon, everyone noticed a remarkable change in him. He no longer bullied the other children, and he was gentler with everyone – especially with the animals and birds!

This account appeared in a magazine, narrated by the teacher herself and is a remarkable example of how impressionable children are in their responses to stories. The early stories they grow up with really domatter.

It is also important to offer children different kinds of stories. Reading and listening to those within their own comfort zones is very limiting. We need diverse stories, what the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories".

Such stories offer the possibility of helping young readers extend their ideas and sympathies beyond their own circumstances. Today, more than ever before, we are all well aware of what happens when we are bombarded with one kind of narrative every day – “the danger of a single story”, as Chimamanda Adichie so famously put it. Stories are being used to dispossess and malign people, to destroy their dignity and to create divisions where none existed. The only way we can counter this is to be discerning and critical about the kinds of narratives we accept and reject. Growing up with diverse stories empowers us to do this.

Will such stories in books help children be more empathetic in their dealings with each other?  And will such children create a better future? We don’t know. Any influence that stories and books have may be small, rather than world changing.  This is a matter of hope, not expectation. 

Stories matter because they offer hope.