Last week I took my baby grandson on a walk along a greenway that passes by the edge of my neighborhood. As I pushed the stroller through a woodsy stretch, noting the change and fall of the leaves, listening to the blue jay who announced my arrival, I was suddenly startled by the sight of a ghoulish face peering through the trees. The face was bright blue, as lean as a skull, with eyes full of malice. It had been painted on the round end of a log, part of a tree that had fallen victim to the wind and rain of hurricane Irene, and positioned so that it seemed to hover in the trees at the edge of the path. After recovering from the abrupt rise in my heartbeat brought on by the unexpected vision, I paused a while to admire it and then strolled on, pleased that a little art had slipped itself into my nature walk.
As I continued walking, I began to think about the subject of the painting, the nightmare-inspiring face of a creature from beyond the grave, or certainly beyond the reach of mortal power. I don’t know who the artist is or what inspired the piece, but I’d bet the painter is a teenager. I’m making this assumption, in part, because the painting took me back to a discussion I had in one of my middle school workshops a couple of weeks ago. It was the first workshop after summer break. The students were 8th graders, most of whom have been in my storytelling program for a couple of years, so the conversation was lively and comfortable. We talked about what we had done over the summer and, since we’re all story lovers, the conversation turned to what we’ve been reading.
All of the students were reading Young Adult novels about vampires, werewolves, and wizards, or about the sinister four horsemen of adolescence: humiliation, depression, disease, and death. I have to say that, at the time of the conversation, I wasn’t surprised or alarmed to find that my students are drawn to books about the dark side. I was also drawn to darkness at their age. What I though as I walked (and watched the peaceful little face of my grandson) was, how ironic that our children are drawn to the very things we, as teachers and parents and grandparents, try hardest to hide from them. We want so much to preserve their innocence, to delay for as long as possible their awareness of sadness and evil in life, that I think sometimes we risk sending them into the world unprepared for the dark reality they’re bound to confront. In fact, their fascination with evil may be a survival mechanism that protects them from our over protectiveness.
When I first began telling stories to children outside of my house, I remember a lot of discussion among parents, teachers, and, I suppose, scholars and psychologists, about whether traditional folktales were appropriate literature for little ones. When I looked at children’s books, I found that many of the traditional stories from my own childhood had been cleaned up by authors and editors. Wolves no longer ate pigs, grandmothers, or little girls; sadistic step-sisters became spiteful but comical oafs; murderous mothers were no longer punished; and no one ever died. I remember trying to navigate my way through this controversy. On the one hand, I knew that the authentic, non-Bowdlerized versions of traditional stories speak to some deep part of the human soul and assist in its development. On the other hand, I wanted to work, so I didn’t want to gain the reputation of the storyteller who scared little kids. I found my way through this mist in an elementary school in a Northern NJ city where, for four years, I told stories to a group of children, looping with them from kindergarten through third grade.
The project was part of a study to see if children who were exposed to storytelling through their primary school years would show a measurable difference in literacy skills from students who didn’t receive the services of a storyteller. The control groups were the grade levels on either side of the students with whom I worked. The study was, I believe, inconclusive. There was anecdotal evidence from teachers of improvement in individual students’ abilities to listen, speak, and maintain focus during the storytelling sessions, but because of budget restraints, these sessions were limited to two forty-five minute workshops a month. Also, due to the transient nature of the school population, less than a third of the original students were still in the school at the conclusion of the study.
However, regardless of what anyone else learned through the study, I learned a great deal about the lives of my students. For example, one day, in the spring of their the second grade year, I told them “One My Darling,” a story from Diane Wolkstein’s Haitian folktale collection, The Magic Orange Tree. In this story, which shares motifs with “Cinderella” and “The Seven Little Kids,” an ogre runs off with the Bad Mother’s three darlings, leaving only her fourth, despised, daughter behind. After this event, the story follows the fortune of the fourth daughter without ever revealing the fate of the three abducted girls.
When the story ended, the children asked the inevitable question, “What happened to the three darlings?”
I answered, as I always do after this story, “The story doesn’t say. What do you think?”
Usually students think the ogre ate the three girls and I point out that, although that’s a possibility, there may be other answers, other stories. This usually leads the class into a story making activity in which they invent endings for the ogre and the other girls.
However, on this day when the question was asked, a little boy promptly answered,
“They probably got raped.”
I looked from the solemn face of the child to the horrified face of his teacher, and then to the twenty-some other faces in the classroom. A few children looked puzzled, a couple nodded sagely, and the rest sat looking expectantly at me. I knew I couldn’t ignore the little boy’s response, but I also didn’t feel equipped to talk about rape with seven year olds.
So, after a second, I just said, “Maybe. What else?”
“The ogre probably ate them,” said another student.
And so the conversation continued along the usual lines. With a couple of important exceptions. First, the teacher learned that at least one of her second graders knew something about rape. (This may not have been significant, but if it was, the door had been opened for further investigation). And second, the kids realized that they could say things in the storytelling discussion that they couldn’t say in other places. This realization opened a door into the out-of-school lives of the students that, among other things, reinforced my belief that children need a balance of darkness and light in their literary experiences. Young as they were, these children welcomed the opportunity to talk about scary things in a safe environment. My unexpurgated folktales gave them that opportunity.
In my final months with those students I learned that many of them had first hand knowledge of the darkest content of the stories I had been discouraged from telling them. They had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse, witnessed the effects of drugs and alcohol, heard gunshots, seen neighbors or relatives arrested, lost loved ones to illness and violence, and lived in homes where there was not enough to eat. I think that we parents and teachers often forget that all of our kids live in a scary world, and even those living in the most secure homes and neighborhoods are exposed to fearful things. To pretend that these things don’t exist, to hush our children’s tears and reassure their fears by saying we’ll protect them isn’t ultimately comforting. Our children will face darkness on their life journeys. ‘Real’ literature helps prepare them for those encounters and gives them a fighting chance of surviving them.