In my interview about the winning of the special prize for a children’s story in the Commonwealth Foundation short story competition, the interviewer made reference to my comment, that my stories ‘celebrate children’s potential to be the heroes/heroines of their own lives'. She asked what I meant by this and how The Happiness Dress (the award winning story) demonstrated this. I’d like to look at this in greater detail for the purposes of the blog, and by so doing, be able to examine this quality in other stories.
What is the nature of the hero/heroine? The dictionary tells us a hero is a person admired for courage, outstanding achievements. We could also justify the concept by saying that the ‘hero’ of a story is the protagonist, and so clearly if the child is the protagonist … However we need look no further than literature for our understanding of the hero/heroine and the heroic deed – ‘saving the day’, ‘overcoming great odds’ – in traditional fairy tales and folktales, the knight slaying the dragon and saving the princess. If we apply this to ourselves/our children it could be slaying the imaginary dragons in situations, that which is against us, which could hold us back. This is getting deep for children’s stories, right? No, not really. The little challenges in children’s lives loom large for them.
When I first started writing, the consultant with whom we were working asked in how many of our stories does the child find the solution to the problem himself/herself, or is he/she always assisted or directed by an adult? (The ‘happily ever after’ phenomenon which can also be delivered by the unseen hands of the narrator). I thought, ‘This man does not know our customs. Everybody knows in any good/God fearing West Indian family an adult is in charge and has to eventually save the day’. And I went right on writing, because you can’t always follow these people that ‘come from foreign’. (By then, freed from mental slavery, we knew that.) And indeed, in children’s lives adults do have to protect them, guide them towards a solution, and save them, if needs be.
But I guess I never forgot the question, or is it that I evolved? I began to understand that we can create situations where the child grows into the hero/heroine, discovers a heroic solution. The child is empowered.
This is what happens to Carolyne in The Happiness Dress (see previous post for synopsis of the story). Yes, she discovers, aided by her Dad, that she can be happy about her dress in spite of the opinions expressed by her Mum , her Grandma and her Aunt. However, she discovers for herself, while listening carefully to her Dad, that the other family members have things that make them happy too, and she knows her Dad likes none of these things. This information sets her free. Most importantly, she confirms what she already knows – she is her Dad’s 'heart string'. To know that one is loved with all certainty is better than any contrived ‘happily ever after ending’. Carolyne is empowered! So the final sentences: Carolyne just grinned. She knew that. are powerful and satisfying to the reader, and indicate by the expression of these feelings that Carolyne can walk tall as if she has indeed slayed dragons and saved herself. And since she wrote the end of the story, I didn’t even have to contrive her overcoming.
People think writing children’s stories is some simple, easy thing. You’ve heard that, right? It is not; children deserve that as much attention be taken with their stories as would be taken with an adult novel. The child doesn’t need to recognize the many layers in a story. The layers of meaning will come later, or not, but the layers create the finished picture. The child just needs needs to enjoy the story, just needs that satisfying feeling of reading a story where the ending spreads like joy from the tips of the toes to the tips of the fingers and creates a bubbling-up-joy in the heart and mind.
Happy Heroes Day, Heroes Weekend, Heroes Week, and as someone suggested in one of the newspapers, Heroes Month!
For You Tube interview done by St. Andrew High School Grade 7 girls with me please go to the Emrie James museum blog http://sahsmuseum.blogspot.com/ It was my first such technological interview, and quite unexpected, but I think we managed. I was very impressed with the girls, our future leaders.