We have kept a lot of our children’s books. They represent such good value in terms of revisit rate, and they remind us of happy times.
I just had another look at Creation Stories retold by Ann Pilling and illustrated by Michael foreman (Walker, 1997). The first story tells how, before there was anything else, there was an egg. A giant popped out and grew (over the next eighteen thousand years) pushing the land and sky apart until he could rely on them to stay in their place, at which point he went on to other tasks like carving valleys and mountains. When he died, all of his body parts were used in some way; his hair for forests, bones for rocks, and his tears formed the rivers.
I am impressed by the multiple layers of wisdom in this tale. At the level of content (and with a nod to the likely purchaser) it acknowledges the tiring job of the parent in creating and maintaining the space in which offspring can grow. It also introduces us to the importance of sustainability.
But at the level of process we realise that those who developed and treasured this story chose, for their progenitor, not an immortal but a flesh-and-blood being very much like us. Someone who can get tired and weep; Someone who dies and decays, and for whom it is possible to grieve.
Also, we are not invited to believe this story as a literal representation of fact, or required to believe the improbable; Dogma, immortality, and unreachable qualities, are not held up as objects of devotion or aspiration.
In this way generations are taught the importance of symbolic truth and the ordinariness of cosmic events, as well as the crucial role that narrative has in making sense of our existence and contextualising our experience.
We can take reassurance from the fact that stories will do this important job for us, particularly if they are obviously located in the symbolic realm, rather than the concrete. It is better if these stories don’t take themselves too seriously. Stories that are too eager to convince us of their truth and too bullying in their insistence upon compliance are harder to make friends with; are less adaptable; are more likely to drive us from our neighbour over issues of difference.
A parent reading this story to their child might stand to learn at least as much as the child, if not more. And I generally think that that is the mark of a proper children’s story.