The world is broken. Reading the news is enough to tell us that. Introducing our children to this broken world can be overwhelming, since there is a usually a large gap between the actual state of the world and the state of the world as it should be.
Stories are a central way we explain the world’s problems to children. Stories often function as a proxy memory for children. For example, Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series grows up in front of the reader. His final choice at the end of the last book demonstrates that he has abandoned the foolish dreams of his youth for self-sacrificing maturity. The child reader (and the adult, too) lives vicariously through Taran’s experiences, which function as “memories,” when she encounters the story. These memories shape the moral imagination of children in mysterious and powerful ways. This is why the “coming of age” motif is so popular in children’s literature.
Too often, however, the stories my children find on the shelves of the local library or bookstore do little to offer meaningful proxy memories. These books are like cotton candy. They offer stories that are exciting, but offer little in the way of revelation of the truth about the world.
Stories shape our moral imaginations.
Within the last few years I’ve come across a series of stories that stretch the minds and souls of readers young and old. As the author claims, they are “new stories with an old soul.” In his Green Ember series, S. D. Smith has managed to teach profound truths about humanity through a world of rabbits with swords. I was privileged to interview Smith about his writing and his forthcoming book.
Among the more beautiful aspects in his fictional world is the confidence among the rabbits that their war-ravaged world will be set aright. The characters recite a repeated refrain, “It will not be so in the mended wood.” I asked Smith about the significance of this eschatological phrase and how it became so important in the storyline.
That is the accidental heart of the story. It was uncovered as I wrote and wasn’t something I intended in the writing. It bubbled up (naturally) from my own heart’s longings for the coming kingdom of Christ wherein the world will be put right. It is not, however, an allegory, or anything so dominating as that.
I doubt any honest critic would say it is an element that doesn’t fit organically in the world of the stories. I don’t want readers to constantly be taken out of the adventure to think about their “real lives.” I do think it’s sweet when the “spillover” that comes in the aftermath, or in reflection, harmonizes with the real hope of the real world, which is a far more fantastic tale than any every invented. And it’s true!
Smith came back to the question of the truthfulness of his fantastic world later in the interview, when I asked him about what he felt was the overarching message of his stories. His response was worthwhile to consider:
I want my stories to be a delightful, truthful experience that takes readers through darkness, but shows them light. By truthful, I don’t mean, ‘actually happened,’ but that the stories don’t lie about the world as God made it. They are faithful to reality and honest, not misleading. My stories aren’t tracts, aren’t sneaky vehicles for conveying particular truths (about vocation, salvation, or even the kingdom). They are just stories. But I believe in the power of stories.
In his responses Smith reveals his deep engagement with the world as a culture maker. He creates stories that shape the imagination, clearly showing what is wrong in the world while pointing to the need for redemption and restoration. In that sense, the fantastical stories Smith produces are truer than many history books that strive to shape the reader’s perception in a way inconsistent with reality.
In a recent article, Russell Moore argued that stories are essential to ethics. And stories do shape our moral imaginations. Moore writes, “We tell ourselves stories to justify our actions, and often we convince ourselves of false stories. We can even lull our consciences by repeating these false stories.”
The literature we choose for our children gives them proxy memories that help them to respond to difficulties and successes in their own lives. Scripture is filled with stories in part because the images stories evoke have the power to shape us in ways that we do not always recognize. For example, we may find ourselves speaking boldly for the oppressed at our own peril because Esther showed us how to risk everything for the good of others.
Similarly, Smith’s world of anthropomorphic rabbits has the potential to teach children about the purpose of vocation, the wretchedness of treachery and the suffering of losing a family. Though his stories are fictional, they teach important truths. The didactic power of the Green Ember series is only enhanced because Smith’s concern is for the truth and not the lesson.
Stories are powerful. They shape our minds in ways we often do not notice. Often they help us see how best to live when faith and culture meet. I’m looking forward to the arrival of the newest book from S. D. Smith, which I’m sure will teach me something even as I read it to my children.
Learn More about “Reading and The Good Life” at The Wisdom Forum.
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