Monday, 16 March 2015

The Tale of the Sellotape Snail (& The Power of Story) by Tess Berry-Hart

It’s late summer.  I’m wandering around the garden – I call it a garden, but it’s really more of an enclosed yard, bounded with ancient hedges and whiskery hawthorn where the sun never reaches, and spiders, slugs and other animals lurk in the perennial dusk.  My three-year old son is crouched in a corner like a frog, knees almost level with his ears, talking and gesticulating excitedly to himself. As I pass him, a dull squidgy crunch echoes underfoot.

“NOOO MUMMY!” Benjy’s horrified voice erupts from behind me. “You’ve TRODDEN on the SNAIL!”

I lift my foot.  Underneath my shoe is a greeny-grey globule, peppered with shards of smashed black and brown shell, out of which a colourless ooze trickles dismally.

Benjy peers at it anxiously. “You’ve hurt him, Mummy.  You’ve hurt him really bad.”

Quickly I take a leaf and scrape the snail carcass onto the wall.  Benjy scrambles up to see. The smashed gastropod lies pitifully in the sunlight. Desperately I wish a passing bird would swoop down and carry it off, but no such luck.

“Mummy, you need to Sellotape him. He’s got a hurt on his shell.”

I turn and look at Benjy. Huge blue eyes look back at me trustingly. He’s on safe ground here. Mummy knows how to patch a book together with Sellotape, stitch buttons back on shirts and Velcro onto trainers. For him this is just another adventure but frankly, kid, this is beyond me, and even the most experienced surgeon.

“Mumm-MEE!”  Benjy sees the look on my face, and realises the situation’s serious.  He’s starting to escalate.  Then I see – joy of joys – another speckled shell nestling in the shadowy crevice of a brick wall.

“Sellotape! That’s a really good idea, sweetheart.  Why don’t you go into the house and get me a roll?”

Benjy turns and bolts into the house for the craft box – he knows where it’s kept – and quickly I flick Snail 1 into the bushes and switch it for its mightily surprised body-double Snail 2. Moments later Benjy arrives, waving the Sellotape roll, and I bite off a large piece and stick it ostentatiously onto the new snail.

“There we are, sweetie.”

Benjy peers at it suspiciously – the substituted snail is darker in colour and even to his three-year-old eyes the transformation from shattered road accident to gleaming new model is, frankly, excessive – but as two little horns start to emerge from its shell and wave around reprovingly, a smile lights up his face. “Well done, Mummy, he’s all better now!”

Later I’m putting him to bed when a little voice emerges from the shadows.


“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Can you tell me the story of the Sellotape Snail?”

I can see the questions forming in his little brain. What had happened to the snail? Had he done the right thing? Would the snail be all right? If the snail was – or was not – all right, what were the implications for him as a little boy in a huge wide world filled with random and sometimes incomprehensible events? The idea of a story simply finishing – to a child who simply exists in the moment and has only the loosest understanding of time – is inconceivable.

The power of story to modify expectations of behaviour or help children through transition periods and outline for them what to expect has developed rapidly over the last twenty years since Carol Grey developed the concept of social stories. Social stories – simple written stories, illustrated with pictures or in comic strip form – are often written for children with autism or behavioural issues so that they can learn about events, reactions and the emotions of other people as well as themselves. According to primary school reading specialist Tiffany Jean-Baptiste: “As adults, it’s very easy for us to understand why things happen, but for children it’s not so clear. Social stories explain, in a very supportive way, what the situation is, why the situation is the way it is, what the child is expected to do, and how people will feel if they do the right thing or the wrong thing.” So for example, Lydia, who is having trouble sitting down in class, would read: “My name is Lydia. I have trouble sitting down in class. All my friends come to school to learn. If I don’t sit down then they can’t learn and they will get upset with me. If I sit down then they will be happy with me and I will be happy too.”

In the traditional sense of stories then, children also learn empathy towards others and details about experiences that they have never had; it’s a safe way of rehearsing events in case a similar situation should ever happen. Deep inside us we all have a psychological need for story – for our own narratives and sense of meaning in life; the literary devices of sympathetic hero, the challenge, the struggle and resolution/ return are all part of our deep innate need to empathise and learn.  According to Peter Guber, writer and producer (The Kids Are All Right, Bernie, Rain Man, The Color Purple), "stories are not just a form of entertainment, they’re the highest form of consciousness." Stories are the reason that we have survived as a species, because they make us understand ourselves in a way that pure information and logic cannot. Stories are easier to remember than facts, and give us the framework to understand our world. Stories aren’t an accessory to real life, they ARE real life. The power of story is “unlocked by our [brain’s] ability to form mental representations of our experiences. Mental representations allow us to simulate events, to enjoy the experiences of others, and to learn from them, without having to endure all experiences ourselves.”

Amazingly, according to Guber’s informative article, it appears that storytelling is not even simply a social or a literary device, it’s actually the way our brains function. In general, the brain is packed with small localised processors – governing motor control, different emotions, cognitive representation, vision, etc – but with no “central command post”. Instead, events are experienced at the neural level as discrete segmented pieces of information. A processor in the left hemisphere of the brain interprets all these millions of pieces of sensory data and is our “built-in-storyteller”, forming rationalisations on external events based on interpreting the information and synthesising it into a story. It generates explanations using actions, perceptions and memories, resulting in the sense of psychological unity and a subjective sense of oneself as a person. We create ourselves through stories – we literally become our own stories using our brain’s own narrative.

So, with sufficient prompting from Benjy, a tale emerges.

“AJ the snail – (yes, I know) – was on his way to visit his three cousins behind the Terrible Trees. He was very tired and he sat down for a rest. Then one of the Big People came, whose name was Mummy The Snail Smasher, and trod on him.  AJ’s shell was broken and he was very sad and cried because it hurt. But Benjy the little boy had seen his accident and wanted to help him get better. So Benjy ran all the way to get some Sellotape and put it on AJ’s shell to mend it. AJ was very happy because he could go and visit his cousins, and Benjy was very happy too because he had made a new friend.”

So it is that the Tale of the Sellotape Snail, along with The Day I Got Lost At The Supermarket For Five Minutes and My Little Brother Daniel (Breaks My Jigsaws) are still favourite bedtime stories for Benjy, just as much as The Gruffalo and The Way Back Home.

And the next time someone asks me why I make up stories for a living, I shall tell them that making up stories is in fact the highest form of consciousness!

Have you ever used the power of story with your little ones? (or indeed, your not-so-little-ones?) Let me know how!


Nick Green said...

Such a very powerful story indeed. Thank you for that.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Thanks Nick! I was so excited to find out how our brains worked, if only in very layman terms!

Anonymous said...

What I find fascinating is how children with an autistic spectrum disorder can learn how other people think and feel through stories when cold hard logic fails. Amazing!