To celebrate National Storytelling Week (Feb 1-8th) today I have a guest post from Kathryn Erskine, the winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her novel, Mockingbird.
This week saw the UK paperback publication of Seeing Red, a powerful story of family, friendship, and race relations in the American South. “An important book”, “This wonderful story offers lots to think about”.
Kathryn wrote us this piece about the importance of story. Leave a comment below telling us what you thought about this to be in with a chance of winning you own copy of Seeing Red.
The Importance of Story: Yours, Your Family’s, and Your World’s
“Story is what makes us human. Through our individual and family stories we can better understand and empathize with people we’ve never even met. Storytelling binds us together as a family, as a society, as humans.
Story is important because it’s a way for children to explore their fears, take risks, be the hero — or the villain — and find out what happens. Story teaches empathy. How does it feel to have autism, albinism, be a minority, be bullied for the religion you follow? Story can comfort us if we’re going through the same ordeal as the protagonist, or enlighten those of us who haven’t had those experiences but will likely deal with those who do. Story can teach a skill or teach us about ourselves or show us how to think in new ways, to see different cultures, and cultures within cultures. Story can teach us societal norms and traditions, or it can take us into a fantasy world that, though unreal, can be an allegorical window into our own world. Story can also make us laugh — at antics, at characters, at ourselves.
Even though I write for young readers, my goal is to tell a story for all ages, a story with heart and authenticity that makes it universal. Adults, after all, may be the librarians choosing the books, teachers assigning the books, or parents reading the books aloud. And adults, whatever age, have something in common — we were all children ourselves, children who loved stories. Who doesn’t enjoy being read to? Recorded books are not just for harried commuters. They can be savored in quiet moments. Stories soothe and inspire, and we can all use that.Stories can be as simple as relating what happened to you twenty minutes ago or twenty years ago. It can be passing down a family legend that has been embellished over the years or a family secret that has been preserved intact. Hearing family stories is particularly fun if they’re about adults doing embarrassing things as children. I loved those stories about my own mother and my children plead to hear the ones about me. Why? Again, because it makes us human. “Please tell us about when you got locked in the school bathroom, or rode your bike into the pond, or went door to door selling stale candy telling people your family needed money!”
Your history, your family history is a part of who you are and makes you what you’ll become — even if you completely reject it. That, in itself, plays a role in forming who you decide to be.
In Seeing Red, a story set in the post-Civil Rights era in the United States, young Red Porter gradually pieces together his community’s role in racism from a map, a scrap of paper, a grave marker, a Bible, a teacher and an elderly friend. This African-American friend, Miss Georgia, is able to tell Red how her grandfather was killed and their land taken away — a practice not uncommon after the U.S. Civil War — but even she doesn’t know all the details. As Red keeps digging, he resolves to reveal the killer and see that Miss Georgia’s land is returned. He’s determined to do as the sign above his family’s repair shop says: “Porter’s: We Fix It Right!”
Seeing Red is not just a story but has stories within stories. There are memories of his father that help shape Red and guide him now. There are real life stories of America’s past, like Emmett Till, Rosenwald schools, Massive Resistance. Those stories are an important part of our present and future because they’re what brought us to where we are now. The past doesn’t dictate our future but it’s up to us to respond to it and forge a new path.
The importance of story telling in Seeing Red, like many books, is to allow readers to think and feel. In this case, it’s to prevent history from repeating itself with other distinct groups in other parts of the world, and even specifically with African Americans in the United States, where the country may look very different from its 1970’s self but still has room to progress.Story asks, “How would you handle this situation? What role would you have played? What do you want the story’s world to look like? What role will you play in your own world?” Because it’s the real life Reds out there, the readers of this book, who will determine our future world.
The best stories make us laugh and cry, rejoice and regret and, often, resolve to make our world a better place. They give us characters who are so real we feel as if they are friends or family — or perhaps even ourselves. They show us who we were, who we are, and who we could be. In the end, story not only makes us human, but also reveals and encourages our very humanity.”