Read it to me again!

One of my best memories from childhood is being read stories. Books of all kinds and not just at bedtimes, sometimes there would be a Sunday afternoon tale and when I got a little older I was even allowed to stay up later on our family holiday and have a book read to me. I have vivid recollections of The Hobbit, a lady who spat in an Agatha Christie novel, my excitement at seeing a very large grasshopper just like Gerald Durrell (we were reading My Family and Other Animals that year), and some hilarious French related anecdotes in H.E Bates’s collection Perfick! Perfick! our laughter seemed to cause great confusion to the couple we rented a gite from in France that summer! But happy memories aside, there is, believe it or not, another reason for this anecdote. I wonder today how many people still get the pleasure of being read to by their parents? Hearing the accents (which they can never quite copy) of Treebeard or feeling they really are in the world Where the Wild Things are?

Children need stories as much as the milk they grow up on. Despite the rubbish about the detrimental impact of fantasy on kids that Dawkins might have you believe.

He might be right about the maths but it seems to be lacking in logic to me. Sure

“There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable”

And while he might claim that fairy tales are bad medicine, by “instilling a false belief in the supernatural” I beg to differ. I think stories are the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine (which is life and growing up) go down. Stories sweeten reality for children and grown ups alike.

Fantasy let’s us escape and embrace the impossible – and why not. Like the storm of The Tempest, whether the pages of a story are troublesome or not we are sure to emerge different yes, but with “no harm done”.

Can you think back to a time where you snuggled up in bed and read a story to a child, clutching at the pages and spinning the tale to yourself as much as them? In fact, if you think about it, grown ups reading to children – great as it is – brings them together whilst pushing them apart. Let me explain the paradox. Children like fantasy a) to escape but more importantly b) to use it as a launch pad to grow up faster and hit adulthood. Basically having enjoyed the world the child wants to get out. In contrast the grown up adopts a Peter Pan approach. The childhood tale is an escape a release into an easier simpler life a place grow ups want to rest their weary limbs and enjoy the atmosphere. Nostalgia pulls them back. Essentially while the past pulls grown ups back in, the future tugs children out. Filled with the spirit of adventure children yearn for more beyond the page, but adults would rather return to the simpler framework of the fantasy world.

It’s a bit like roller-coasters or heights really: when you’re too young to know the danger they’re fun and exciting with views and the thrill, but then you start to think about the world outside and the nitty gritty aspects of adulthood which a child cannot comprehend. Suddenly, as well as the view you think about the drop and the sheer cliff face. Fantasy provides escape for wistful adults whose melancholic approach leaves them wanting a visa for never never land. But for energetic children who want to grow up it’s a launch pad for something greater. The adventure of adulthood. The reading experience whilst shared is totally different for adult and child. Like the children in Narnia we long to return, adults and children alike. Hence the common refrain, “read it to me again!”

You have to be careful though, children notice any little change in the story. Woe betide the storyteller who pitches white-riding hood, or worse goes on a hunt for a beard not a bear (it seems that one letter make all the difference), or worse still reads We’re Going on a Bear Hunt allowing them to go under or over not through the thick oozy mud! You’ve got to go through it!

That’s the beauty of literature surely. Sure once you’ve set the tale you’ve got to stick to it (otherwise you’re messing with the fabric of the fantasy) but the best part is everyone gets something different from a story. We all bring something different to the table.

Take Shakespeare, he’s a classic example. I can go and watch or read a play and see something entirely different to the person sat next to me. I went to see Henry IV part 2 at the RSC a few weeks ago and there was a brilliant moment after the play where Hal came out to speak to the audience and asked a group of school children what they’d made of the performance.


“Why did you have to make it so long?” Was perhaps my favourite question of the evening. (Spoken by a young girl who can only have been about eight, and looked exhausted. The boy next to her was snoring.. Yes I’m serious).It’s true Henry IV is an unusual play to pick for those kids first viewing of Shakespeare but they seemed to have enjoyed it despite their sleepiness. That is, after all, the point. It was refreshing to hear their thoughts. Shakespeare virgins, as most of them were, and children in their characteristic bluntness, which I’m all for (cut the terribly polite awkwardly phrased politically correct point please) made me think. These are future scholars in the making and if they loved the production it can only be a good thing, I think.

It’s no good getting too obsessed with Shakespeare and children though – you don’t want to turn them off the bard before they’re crawling. I’m all for the children’s Shakespeare books. My favourite ones (yes I realise I’m perhaps not quite the target audience..) about at the moment are adapted by Matthews with great illustrations by Tony Ross (the one behind the stories of a naughty princess).

The books paint great pictures of Henry V and Hamlet in particular. But there’s been a tradition for years adapting Shakespeare for the younger reader, spanning from Lamb through to Nesbit and beyond. Definitely food for thought and a future post. It’s good stuff. Bring on the cartoons I say, and I want to know when we get an instalment of blue 3D Shakespeare. Avatar did it for Pocahontas so it can’t be too long now… On the flip side books are also being written for the pushy parent or Shakespeare enthusiast alike with titles like How to Teach your Child Shakespeare? that do what they say on the tin. I’m all for Shakespeare seminars, and I think he’s a great bloke for young and old. Just don’t force it. Read kids Romeo and Juliet with children tucked up and ready for bed. Let them escape into Shakespeare without the expectations (that whole being-the-most-important-playwright paraphernalia). We need more people asking why Falstaff appears to have a bit of an obesity issue..

What I’m saying is, stories are launch pads for ideas they jet us off to lands afar and we grow in fictional fields before we land back firmly in reality. But we have to want to fly off on the magic carpet, the best response you can get at a concert is a call for encore of the final movement of a symphony. It’s the same with books. The best stories are those you can’t put down. The ones you never want to end and you cry “again again! Read it again!” It’s the same with Shakespeare with all sorts of worlds open to us within the “wooden O” as the fiction is played out in front of us, just like the book read to us as a child we enter into the action: we’re scared of the witches and walking trees like Macbeth (watch out for further encounters in The Lord of the Rings) or wary of what people say, thanks to the lessons Mr Lear taught us. But we can learn them elsewhere. Sure Shakespeare is great but maybe leave him until potty training time at least. So long as they’re reading it can never be a bad thing. Nothing beats the look of glee on a child’s face at the end of a story, Shakespeare or otherwise. Followed swiftly by the plea to “read it again, please!”


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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