Monday, 30 January 2017

The power of shared stories - Lari Don

I received an email from a teacher at the end of last week which took my breath away. The email itself was a fairly mundane reply to queries about the school timetable and class sizes - we’re organising an author visit – but the PS was astounding. Here it is:

 PS - We've just had a very interesting class discussion on the morality of Yann's possession spell in First Aid for Fairies. One of the children made a connection with Trump's new torture agenda (our news article of the week) - who knew a book written almost a decade ago could be so topical?

To clarify, this is a class of primary age children, reading one of my adventure novels (First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts, published in 2008), then the pupils, and their clearly superb teacher, bounced off it to discuss morality, ethics and world affairs.

I didn’t write that scene with any huge political goal in mind. Actually, this was my first novel, so I wrote it with no idea of whether anyone would ever read it, let alone discuss it. Honestly, I wrote it to discover how dark I could go with a children’s story, how flawed I could make a character and still care about him, how far I could stretch the magic that I was just learning to play with.

I didn’t write it to prompt discussions about right wing conservatism, abuse of power and the ethics of information gathering.

I am astounded, amazed, impressed and humbled that these primary age children were prompted by my words to think, to discuss, to make connections, and to discover their own opinions…

But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. This is after all what books and stories are for. This is what shared reading, and discussing stories together, should be for. Not specifically for dissecting the flaws of Donald Trump’s presidency (though, please go ahead and do that…) but for giving us shared vocabulary, and shared experiences within the safe environment of a story, so we can explore other issues together.

Stories help us think. Shared stories help us think together.

At this point I should probably explain: Yann is a centaur. In the relevant scene, this half-horse half-human from Greek myth (who is also a fairly grumpy Scottish pre-teen) uses dark magic to compel a weasel to spy for him, causing the weasel obvious pain and distress. The scene is set in tunnels under Edinburgh, which are being used by a minotaur as his temporary Scottish labyrinth, and the centaur’s use of dark magic is witnessed by his own friends – a selkie, a fairy, a phoenix and a token human girl - causing them to question his use and abuse of power.

As you can probably tell, First Aid For Fairies is a fantasy. It’s not set in contemporary real-life America, or the Middle East, or Guantanamo Bay. It’s a fantasy. And the fact that this wonderful teacher used this scene to encourage her pupils to talk about ethics and link them to current global concerns, proves something that I’ve always believed. Fantasy and fairy tales – stories set in magical worlds safely distant from our day-to-day lives – are very strong tools to allow us to examine our real world.

So, the power of class novels to prompt discussion, the power of fantasy to give us a new way to look at reality - this PS gave me pause to think about both of those issues. But the main reason this PS took my breath away was because it reminded me of the awesome responsibility of writing for children.

I don’t write stories with messages, I write stories with ambushes, chases and magic spells. But I also choose to write about characters and situations that allow me to explore questions which fascinate and concern me. I write because I want readers to enjoy the stories I imagine, I don’t write with the intention of teaching moral lessons (never, ever!) But I am incredibly moved and impressed if my books prompt young readers to explore their own questions.

It’s a privilege, an honour and a huge responsibility writing for kids, and it’s important to be reminded of that regularly. It’s also a very heavy weight to carry. But I suspect if we didn’t recognise the size of the responsibility, and occasionally stagger under its weight, we shouldn’t be doing it…

So, having almost recovered from this email, I’m now very much looking forward to meeting this thoughtful and wonderful class, and their amazing teacher, in a few weeks’ time.

But first, I’m off to explore questions of identity and choice, lightly disguised as a trilogy about shapeshifters… 

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 


Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely post, Lari.

Lynne Benton said...

How brilliant! Well done, Lari - you could evidently see into the future when you wrote that...!

Susan Price said...

Fantasy and fairy tales – stories set in magical worlds safely distant from our day-to-day lives – are very strong tools to allow us to examine our real world.

Of course they are! Fantasy, sci-fi, historical novels - they are always about our here and now, however hard we try to get away from it. In fact, the very directions we move in, as we struggle to get away from our own times, reveal something about our here and now.

It's why I can never understand people who dismiss 'speculative' and 'fantasy' fiction as silly and unrealistic while apparently thinking the crime Fiction, thrillers and romance novels they read are 'realistic.'

Great post. And I hope you survive discussions with that very switched on primary class!

Lari Don said...

thanks all - glad you liked the post, and yes, absolutely Susan - this just shows that fantasy is anything but silly or frivolous.