How Stories Save Us

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Pam Allyn Founder and Executive Director, LitWorld & LitLife; author; literacy and education expert and advocate

All of life is a journey, a journey away from home and a journey back. All of great literature too is about journeys: characters set off on expeditions and adventures, only to find that supper's still hot when they return, whether it's Homer's Odyssey or Where the Wild Things Are. Here is the longing inside all of us: that we are fearless enough to embark upon those adventures, but that as we go we are inspired and propelled by a sense of home waiting for us at the other end. In great children's literature, we see countless examples of children on their own. From Harold, who brandishes the purple crayon in his pjs and creates new worlds with it (Harold and the Purple Crayon), to Eloise who rides up and down the elevator in the Plaza (Eloise) to Madeline all alone in the hospital (Madeline) to Harry and Hermione and Ron conquering the Death Eaters (Harry Potter), there is something truly poignant, heartbreaking and profoundly courageous about these characters. They resemble the children we know, or the children we were or the children we hope to be.

The bunny in Goodnight, Moon recounts the objects around him to stave off that darkness. The badger Frances in Bedtime for Frances pads into her father's bedroom to be sure he's still there. Children seek the strategies that will carry them into the alone times with fortitude.

The sound of the human voice combined with the power of a good story, the "read aloud" is profoundly powerful in the sustenance it gives, not only to the child but to the speaker. The act of reading aloud to someone says: I am with you. It is years later and still my mother's voice reading Blueberries for Sal is what carries me along, not just the text, but her voice with the text.

As a literacy educator, I read to children in many parts of the world. I have collected images of the lifechanging moments (mine and theirs) I have witnessed that just this small act of sharing words can create. At The Children's Village, a residential school for foster care children, the first time I read aloud The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss to Ron, a sixteen-year-old who was just learning to read broke down and cried. He said: "No one ever read to me before." In Kenya, I read aloud from Biscuit by Alyssa Capucilli. A tiny six year old put her hand on mine. "Again, please, again", she whispered to me, after, her eyes hungry and alive with the love of it. And in Liberia, the teachers there had never seen a picture book before. When I read to them from the pages of Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, they clapped and sang an appreciation chant with tears in their eyes. Precious, precious stories.

When our daughters were young, I read to them everywhere. In the bathtub, as I pushed them in the swing on the playground, while we cooked dinner, early in the morning. Yet as the last breath of the daylight pushed its way out of our worlds, the time felt keen to come back together, on the couch, in bed around the pages of the book. Conversation spilled out. Small tremors of the day resurfaced. The book was the jumping off point for the conversations. Joy and sorrow all could be shared more easily when we talked through the lost bunny (Knuffle Bunny, Mo Willems) or the recurring character Alfie who got himself out of every scrape (Alfie Gets in First, Rosemary Wells).

The power of story cannot be underestimated. Everyone has one. What children's literature does is affirm the power of those stories. By sitting down with a child or young adult and reading to him, we celebrate the strength of those stories and remind ourselves that no matter how dark the world gets, the path is lit by the power of words.

My favorites lately:

For celebrating and discussing humanity:
My People, Langston Hughes, Charles R. Smith, Jr.
A photographic interpretation of the great Langston Hughes poem. "The night is beautiful/So the faces of my people."

To build awareness of nature:
Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Know, Steve Jenkins
Jenkins shares insights about how animals protect themselves in the wild.

Funny, Funny
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney
The development of a sense of humor is as important as anything you will cultivate in your child. This book is laugh out loud, the perfect pitch combined with whimsical line drawings is a hit to soothe the jangled nerves of the pre sleep pre adolescent.

Magical Fantasy
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Grace Lin
This talented young author tells a fantasy tale honoring the magic of stories and family. The text is paired with full page full color paintings depicting Minli's adventures. Lin was influenced both by Matisse and by ancient Chinese art. You can see it all here and talk about it too.

History and the Power of Words
The Surrender Tree, Margarita Engle
This collection of poems weaves a narrative around the years 1850-1899 during the years of Cuba's struggle for independence. The journeys that lead us away from home will take us back there. The world is full of the potential for worry, and the coming night brings more of it. But stories give us life force. Words, healing, transformative, can protect us. One of the poems in this collection captures the essence of why we must take the time every day to our children or to find a child to read to, passing on the power of words:

"Protected by words-
Tales of guardian angels,
Mermaids, witches,
Giants, ghosts."