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Too steeped in stories?

Stories are important—but not for themselves

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Mitali Perkins writes books for young readers. And reads them. Further, she believes you should read them too. Steeped in Stories, a brief book with unexpected depths, explains how classic children’s literature can not only shape young minds but enrich adult sensibilities, especially as we reread the books we loved as a child.

Perkins was only seven when her parents emigrated from Bengal to Queens. Anxious and homesick, she connected with American culture first through the public library. Stacks of books on the fire escape beguiled her through many an afternoon. Imperceptibly, strands of 19th-century Boston and turn-of-the century Prince Edward Island entwined with her Bengali roots as Jo March and Anne Shirley entered her world. Later, as a university student in California, Perkins began asking big questions and found that the classic literature of her childhood had much to say.

Adults may disdain children’s books partly because “grown-up literati are suspicious of stories with happy endings.” But that, according to Perkins, is one of their greatest benefits: “Why is building hope considered less of a literary accomplishment than crushing it?”

Classic stories endure because they tell us something about ourselves and what we value—or should value. Morality is essential: “Stories are by nature didactic,” writes Perkins. They all, in some way, teach or reinforce a concept of the good, true, and beautiful. To illustrate her point, she explores seven classic tales, from Heidi to The Hobbit, in the light of the cardinal virtues: faith, hope, love, courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Perkins acknowledges that children’s classics have come under fire for white-centeredness and insensitive depictions of other races and ethnic groups. She became more aware of these as an adult than she was as a child, but that only illustrates how impressionable children are and how careful writers should be to portray other groups fairly.

Universal literacy is a Eurocentric phenomenon, so perhaps it’s not surprising that “whiteness” has dominated publishing. Praiseworthy efforts are underway to include the stories of other cultures. Rick Riordan, whose bestselling Percy Jackson books spin Greek and Roman mythology into a contemporary setting, lends his name to Rick Riordan Pre­sents: a series of novels by diverse authors based on Asian, Indian, and Meso-American myths.

Children should expand their views beyond their own cultural circle—that’s one reason for literature. Recently, however, story itself has become something of a talisman among literary types as more novels, particularly children’s novels, are about story. This year’s Newbery Medal—the world’s oldest award for children’s literature—went to The Last Cuentista, a science-fiction novel about a band of space refugees fleeing Earth before a comet demolishes it. Their journey to a new planet takes centuries, during which the caretakers, who were assigned to watch over the specialists sleeping in hyper-suspension, evolve into a collective. They are ruled by a soulless “director” who has outlawed all pursuits that serve no practical purpose—storytelling in particular. The protagonist, awakened from her long sleep into this grim reality, discovers that the stories (cuentos) instilled in her by her beloved grandmother serve a purpose not practical, but vital.

Last year’s Newbery winner, When You Trap a Tiger, explored a similar theme in a magical-realism setting. In her acceptance speech, author Tae Keller affirmed, “We tell stories because they connect us to the world and guide us back to ourselves. Stories show us who we are.” She stopped short of saying that stories save us, but other authors have claimed just that. “I think all stories have value,” says a character in The Last Cuentista. “Readers and listeners should decide whether stories speak to them or not.”

But there’s the rub. In The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down, literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall describes how “we’re forever swimming through a turbulent sea of narrative, with rival stories churning against each other and buffeting us around.” Elevating story as story is dangerous, as false narratives (such as, Jews control the world) have inspired some of history’s worst crimes.

Stories matter, but not for themselves. They serve a greater purpose: to illuminate the good, as Mitali Perkins says, but also to point us to the greatest story of all.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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