Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Many parents look to books to help kids build character and learn life lessons. Today, I’ll explore the concept of truth in storytelling as a way to help your family find – and enjoy – quality books.
Truth in storytelling is when a book, movie or song is so honest that it feels like the storyteller is speaking directly to us. A true story doesn’t need an obvious “moral,” although it may have one. Rather, there’s a credibility to the storytelling itself and it’s up to us to apply its universal truth to our individual life. The story simmers in our soul, waiting for us to access its “lessons.”
What is your favorite movie? Most likely, it’s a movie that lingers in your memory. It struck a chord the first time you watched it. Years later, it still resonates when you watch it again. You laugh. You cry. You identify with a character. Certain lines of wisdom, delivered by talented actors, echo in your ears long after the movie’s closing credits roll.
English novelist Jane Austen died in 1817. The timeless truth of Austen’s voice explains the strong market for her stories over 200 years after her death. Austen would be the world’s wealthiest woman if she were alive today and compensated every time her works, including Pride and Prejudice, are repurposed. Her tales are perennially re-spun into movies, books and plays. Her words are peddled as souvenirs, stationery and clothing. (The long elapse of time since her death renders Austen’s works in the “public domain.”) Yet the modern retakes have not supplanted demand for Austen’s original writing.
Austen was only 41-years-old when she died. But her authentic voice will outlive most humans who walk this earth.
“Wisdom is better than wit, and in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.”– JANE AUSTEN
Barnyards and Broomsticks
“I love E. B. White!” a middle grade teacher recently enthused when we discussed our mutual love for children’s books. She’s not alone. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is considered one of the greatest children’s books of all time – beloved by many children, parents, teachers and librarians.
It may come as a surprise that E. B. White had no moral message in mind when he wrote Charlotte’s Web. In 1971, he wrote: “I just want to add that there is no symbolism in Charlotte’s Web. And there is no political meaning in the story. It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love …”
Why, then, do so many people believe children can learn “life lessons” from Charlotte’s Web?
When a storyteller speaks the truth about the world, as E. B. White did, readers discover life lessons regardless of whether the author intended to impart such wisdom. By “truth about the world,” I don’t mean literal, scientific explanations of how things work, but that the story smells of authenticity.
“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”– Charlotte the spider to Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web
Pigs, geese and spiders don’t really talk – at least they never let us hear them talking – as they do in Charlotte’s Web. We laugh and cry while reading Charlotte’s Web because the love, friendship and self-sacrifice in the barnyard is real.
Children don’t fly on broomsticks in “real life” like they do in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Children love Harry Potter because, at heart, they know that “taking flight” through spirituality, humor or dreaming is just as real as being glued to Earth by facts, including gravity – the force that we can’t see, smell, taste, touch or hear.
Fairytales – whether set in an American barn or a British boarding school – bring a metaphorical magnifying glass to the world that helps kids learn truths about life in an organic, fun way.
Finding Books that Build Character
Here’s three questions to consider while searching for high-quality children’s books:
1.) Am I a brave reader? Reading truthful books takes courage because they sometimes make us feel uncomfortable.
2.) Is this author being truthful? Does it feel like the “life lessons” flow organically? Or, does it feel like propaganda and hidden messages weigh down the story?
3) Have I eliminated reader bias and outside influence? It’s easy to dislike a book when it’s not our favorite genre – or because we are unfamiliar with the setting. It can also be tempting to form an opinion of a book based on strong negative reviews rather than taking time to read the book ourselves.
Life Lessons in Children’s Literature
Below are five examples of books that expose children to “life lessons” through truthful storytelling.
- A little girl with a fondness for toads meets a mysterious stranger who will stop at nothing to wield a dangerous superpower. Natalie Babbit’s children’s tale, Tuck Everlasting, raises questions like: To what ends would we go if perpetual youth were within our grasp? Why do we fear death?
- If we had a superpower, would we be tempted to wield it for selfish or nefarious ends? Why does coveting money turn people callous? What is familial love? Children reading Matilda by Roald Dahl may ask these questions while enjoying a laugh-out-loud tale.
- If we lost the people dearest to us, what would we do to bring them back – even as a mirage? Why do we exhaust enormous energy yearning – instead of living? Children encounter questions like these in the first book of J. K. Rowling’s fantasy series: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
- How do we view animals after reading a working horse’s perspective in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty? If someone is cruel to innocent horses, might they also be mean to humans?
- If we treat others with harshness, how might they respond to us? If we show empathy, what mysterious delights might we find in friendship and nature? Questions like these arise as we watch petulant children discover there’s more to life than throwing tantrums in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
Happily Ever After…
I’ve argued that a good story speaks truth. What, then, is a “bad story”? That’s difficult, if not impossible, to define. Perhaps a bad story is one that – at core – is a dishonest story.
Truth is healing and unsettling. Authors sometimes lose confidence that readers will be able to handle the truth, and so they write down to readers.
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”– E. B. WHITE
Give your children stories that speak the truth, and they will inevitably learn life lessons.
What is your family’s favorite book? Drop me a line, I’d love to hear!