I’m grateful to introduce Liz Cottrill to the Story Warren family. I met Liz through a mutual book-loving, book-selling friend. I was on the hunt for a living book about Rembrandt, and Liz was helping my friend run her bookstore for the day. Not only was I introduced to what has become one of our favorite books, but I was also introduced to Liz and her daughter, Emily (author of Simply Charlotte Mason Picture Study Portfolios). The Cottrills knowledge and love of great books is inspirational. I’d suggest visiting their Living Books Library blog and bookmarking for future use – they have much wisdom and experience to share. – – Julie Silander
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If there is anything a child is born to naturally crave and enjoy, it is a story. Once their physical needs are met, love and security are established, the instinctive delight in a story emerges as a sure and certain reality.
It is also a certainty in life that there will be trouble. No matter how we as parents strive to shield our children from pain, problems, and difficulties of every kind, it is an impossible pursuit. Though we know that trials produce character, one of our natural inclinations is to avoid them and forestall our child’s exposure to hardship of any sort. No one can argue that safety, protection, and sheltering of our children is a good and right desire.
But trouble does come despite our best efforts. This is where my first assertion that children love stories comes in. That inborn need for story is a great help in training our children up to be strong and secure, as well as to cope with the unavoidable troubles they will face.
If we take our cues from our Heavenly Father, we know not only that there is no greater love and security than He lavishes upon us, but we also know that He does not assure us of a trouble-free life. Neither has He left us without a story. Indeed, our very life is part of His eternal story. His Word is one grand story of truth, beauty and goodness played out in the lives of ordinary men and women who suffer and struggle, as well as persevere and overcome the common and uncommon miseries of life, those shared by us all and with which we readily identify. It is truly for our comfort and encouragement to see that these heroes of the faith were fallible and flawed, weak and selfish, just as we know ourselves to be. This is both why we love stories and need stories. Being made in the image of God, we are shaped to be story lovers, to understand and receive insight, instruction, and inspiration from them. Don’t forget the parables of Jesus.
As parents, it is essential for us to grasp the importance, the necessity for stories for our children’s sake. Truly, stories are our ally in nurturing our children’s souls, in strengthening them for the daily battles we all must encounter, and in preparing them to live the happily ever after we desire for them with all our parental heart.
I don’t have to stretch far for examples. Just yesterday afternoon, my five-year-old grandson burst out onto the porch to inform me of the exciting game he was playing with his sisters and cousins. It seemed that someone had been kidnapped, and he was going after the “bad guys” and was confident of a certain victory. And why shouldn’t he have been—after all, it was his story and he was the hero.
Contrast this very common play with a disturbing attitude in some children who have stated very matter- of-factly to me that they don’t want any fiction books because “fiction is fake.” What villain has sown this insidious lie into their trusting, credulous minds? Someone, or some very many ones, have informed them that facts are all important, the only essentials for getting along in life. Apparently these know-all and know-better influential people in their lives have convinced them that life is all about getting degrees, careers, and that a pack of facts is going to be the ticket to get there. I wonder why then, the all-knowing Creator has seen fit not to just leave us with two stone tablets, but has given us the stories of Jacob and Samson, Elijah and Daniel, the fisherman Peter and the apostle Paul? To the objection that these were all “real” characters, I ask you then why Jesus taught by means of those “made up” parables, why the prophet Nathan “made up” a story about a rich man and a nonexistent lamb?
Facts only go down smoothly if swallowed with a good helping of true-to-life descriptions mixed with some fantastical possibilities. And who says fiction is not true? It is a fact that Tom Sawyer never lived and breathed, never painted that fence or conned his friends into doing his job for him, but what child hasn’t found himself the victim of such manipulative friends at some time or other? For that matter, what child hasn’t longed, on some self-pitying day, when he has been singled out and misunderstood by some adult in his life not dreamed of running away and returning to view his own funeral as Tom, to relish sweet vindication at the inordinate grief and repentance of some heartless authority?
One reason fiction resonates with us is the very way in which it rings of truth. We all recognize truth when it strikes that chord of familiar feeling and experience. The fact is, stories help us cope. They provide essential and endless working out of the perils of life, a means of making it through the land mines of the unknown and subtly and winsomely instruct us in how to deal with the myriad messes of our days.
As a child, I may have believed my parents when they said they would always take care of me, but the fact is they couldn’t possibly do that, as sincere as they were, and I came to understand that even if the unthinkable occurred and I were to be abandoned, lost, or separated from them by death, I might still survive and even find life worthwhile. How did I perceive such truth? The fact is, I learned this from Heidi, Lassie Come Home, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, The Incredible Journey, and too many other stories to count; the fact is, I discovered treachery, infidelity, and the inconstancy of friends in the pages of A Bargain for Frances, Peter Pan, and Treasure Island; the fact is, I faced the ultimate pain of death and permanent separation in Roller Skates, Little Women, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In these stories I could try misery on for size, step into sorrow, pretend and practice feelings and ideas far outside the scope of my very, very ordinary life. Sure the experiences were “fake,” sure the people weren’t real, sure I closed the book and had to go set the table and do my homework. However, it is just as sure that wealth of “fake” experience equipped me in some mysterious and very real way for the tragedies and trials of life that have just as surely come to visit me on many an unexpected day.
The stories of my childhood were an incomparable gift for living. This gift cannot be given with books written exclusively about pretty and perfect story children and families. Children do not believe those kind of “fake”, not to mention dull and insipid, stories. No child worth his salt tolerates untruth for very long. They are not as naive as we think. They know the difference between reality and fantasy and rightly see no need to dissect the two. The only result of giving children squeaky clean and fluffy stories is the guarantee that we are sowing mistrust and unbelief into the souls of the very ones we wish to ground in the truth.
To deny your child this rich supply of stories to learn to cope and practice life is cruel. It is as sure a truth as the confidence we have in the sun coming up every day that our children need to slay dragons, hunt down kidnappers, and rescue captive princesses. After all, God has done so for us. He has gently sown the hardest truths and instructors into our lives through His living stories and ensured that we were born to love and learn and live through stories. Of course He did. He had to, because we were being written into the story of all stories, about a stranded and helpless people who needed divine rescue to be able to live happily ever after.
Here are some of my favorite stories that have taught me and my children:
Heidi, Johanna Spyri
Lassie Come Home, Eric Knight
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Incredible Journey, Sheila Burnford
A Bargain for Frances, Russell Hoban
Peter Pan, James Barrie
Treasure Island, R.L. Stevenson
Roller Skates, Ruth Sawyer
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith