Stories That Survive

Kenza Marland talks to authors, publishers and teachers to ask why certain stories stand the test of time. Illustration by Mhairi Braden.

"Without stories we wouldn't be human beings at all" - Phillip Pullman

Netflix are nearing 100 million subscribers worldwide, and as of March this year, Facebook is approaching the two billion mark. Five new profiles are created every second on the social network. Phones, laptops, televisions, tablets and eBooks are no longer luxuries- they’re necessities. Through them we are consuming stories insatiably. We gaze in on the lives of a cast of characters and their carefully constructed narratives. Now, most of our fiction isn’t told through the pages of a crinkly paperback. Instead its medium is an Instagram account and a Facebook timeline. 

Human history has proven that we are a species who needs stories. We love stories. They explain our existence. Throughout our lives, we carry with us our own personal narratives, as if Michael Aspel sits infinitely adding pages to a giant book titled ‘This is Your Life’. There are those stories many use to explain reality, such as God’s creation of the world-stories so powerful they can result in war. Or Post-modernism’s grand narratives: stories about stories, such as patriarchy and the Enlightenment. 

But what about the stories we read, or were read to us as children? From Aesop’s fables (around 600 BC), to Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812), these have commonly been tales of moral guidance, advice, fantasy and escape, dating back further than the Bible. Some of our most loved books today were published at the start of the last century or earlier: The Little Princess, (1905), The Secret Garden (1911), Stig of the Dump (1963), The Narnia Chronicles (1950’s), Alice in Wonderland (1865). How have they survived this long? Are they important to our survival?

"I believe that fairy tales and folktales like the Grimm tales are the remnants of more ancient mythological stories that have been told and retold over the years"

The seven Harry Potter books have sold more than 450 million copies; a figure which can start to take on those tech company stats. It seems, for now, children’s stories are surviving- thriving even. According to The Guardian, sales of children’s books rose by 11% between 2014-15, and The Bookseller recorded another 7% rise in the first quarter of 2016. 

I spoke to Charlie Higson, comedian, writer and performer on BBC 2’s The Fast Show, and the author of the Young Bond series, which has sold millions of copies to children worldwide. I also had a chat with children’s publisher and founder of Frilly Fish publishing house, Sharon Hutton, and two primary school teachers, Flora Linklater and Chris McMillan. 

They told me about their differing experiences with children, and children’s literature- as we try to understand whether stories will have a role in our digital world.  

How important do you think children’s books play in a child’s development? 

CM: It is still absolutely critical. It is vital to language acquisition. Coming from a family that reads or doesn’t read is arguably the third biggest predictor of academic success after finance, housing and familial physical and mental health.

CH: I think the intimate experience you get from reading a book is like no other. You can get attached to a book in a physical and emotional way. And it’s only through a book that you can get inside somebody else’s head and understand what they’re thinking and feeling. 

Why do you think we so often seem to return to such classics in children’s literature? The popularity of books such as Alice in Wonderland or The Little Prince, for example, seems unlikely to deplete. What do you think a children’s book needs to ‘stand the test of time’ as such?

CH: That’s a tricky question. I would argue that Alice in Wonderland is not particularly read by modern kids, nor is The Wind in The Willows. Some of the language and behaviour in these books is quite hard for today’s kids to grasp. That being said, so many other books that were written back in the day are now completely forgotten, so these books do have great staying power. If you look at the stories that endure, they tend to be the fantasy ones. In a fantasy book the world is always explained to the reader and they have a more timeless feel.

SH: This interest in classics is led by generations.  If a book was a classic in the childhood of an adult, they will read the book to their children. Publishers feed on this statistic and have become inventive in republishing a ‘classic’ in any number of new formats. To stand the test of time a book needs to have been popular at the time of it’s original publication and the story’s message needs to be relevant today.  

CM: The quality of the writing, something in the tone and access to another world. They also each have a degree of originality which is getting harder to replicate in an oversaturated market.

FL: Fantastical stories are often timeless and so won’t be held back by being old… also there is a tendency for adults to introduce books which they loved themselves and with the enthusiasm they felt for them as children so they are often passed down in this way. 

I remember it coming up in our teacher training that we shouldn’t be limited by our own loves, and should also embrace new literature which can often be as good but possibly overlooked because we didn’t experience it ourselves as children…

What role do you think illustration plays in children’s books? Do you think it is significant that we often drop this element in adult fiction?

CM: It is what children remember most from their earliest reading and it supports the less expert reader until they can visualise descriptive prose.

FL: No one would remember Roald Dahl the same way without Quentin Blake’s illustrations which brought them alive!

SH: In many cases the illustrator is as equal in importance to a picture book as the author

Charlie, an author such as J.K Rowling, for example, is clearly influenced by/adopts fairy tale tropes that have been around in children’s books for hundreds of years. The Young Bond books are, of course, not fantasy in the same way. Would you say Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or any of these kind of mythic characters and narrative patterns had any influence on your writing?

CH: I believe that fairy tale stories and folktales like the Grimm tales are the remnants of more ancient mythological stories that have been told and retold over the years. Ogres and fairy kings and witches and imps were probably originally gods and goddesses. Humans have always used stories to help understand the world.  

I think every story we tell these days in the West has its roots in either Greek mythology or the European folktales. They are archetypal stories, about heroes and heroines, parents and children, good and evil, love and jealousy, power and glory, kings and queens and peasants. These tales are so ingrained in our culture that even if we don’t know the original stories they inform everything we read. 

I use these mythological ideas in all the books I write. After all, James Bond is a hero, and his roots go right back to the likes of Achilles and Odysseus. He sets off on his quest, falls in love with a fair maiden, who becomes his prize, and defeats the monster. It’s a tale as old time, as they say.

Some argue that many people feel a stronger connection with their favourite childhood books, they are in some ways more significant. Do you agree? 

CH: I think if you’ve owned a book as a child you will have spent hours and hours reading it and rereading, poring over every details – particularly if it’s illustrated. You will go back to it in times of stress, as a familiar and comforting object. You will have developed a relationship with it just like you did with your favourite teddy or doll. So, it’s going to stay with you.

I vividly remember getting so involved in books that I wouldn’t want them to ever end. And enjoying a book involves nearly all your senses. You’re using your vision to read it and look at the pictures, you’re holding a solid object, and books even have their own distinctive smells. On top of all that you’re engaging your imagination and your subconscious. 

Books are very powerful things. Read them at your peril.