This week has been designated national storytelling week, and that has turned my mind to the ancient art of oral storytelling. More specifically, it has set me thinking about books in which oral storytelling plays an important part – and what those books can tell us about the power of stories. I thought I would share my thoughts on three such books in particular.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a story about storytelling is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In this story Scheherazade saves her own life through the power of storytelling – by beginning a new story to the cruel sultan each night, but leaving it unfinished so that he has no choice but to leave her alive until the next day so he can hear the end of the story. This clever ploy rings so true because we have all felt that total absorption in a well-told story, and the almost desperate need to hear it through to its conclusion. Stories matter to us for so many reasons, but one of the most important factors has to be the fact that stories are complete in themselves, that they do come to an end, and then leave us to make sense of what we have heard. In our own lives we yearn to impose narrative order, looking for happy ever afters and final resolutions – but of course that is not how life works.
Of course this is not to say that stories always end neatly, or in the way we might expect. A recent book in which oral storytelling plays an important part is Patrick Ness’s wonderful A Monster Calls. Here, the monster that comes to Conor tells him a series of stories, which twist off in unexpected directions, challenging all Conor’s assumptions and certainties. As Conor comes to realize, “Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn’t expect.” But for the monster and, eventually, for Conor, stories are about Truth – and while the stories go off in unexpected directions, they are never random directions: they are always heading towards the right ending, the ending that carries the Truth of that particular story. This has to be one of the most magical parts of storytelling, and the one that is hardest to analyse – that sense of completeness, of rightness, at the end of a well-formed story. The ending can be funny, or heart-warming, or startling, or heart-breaking – but it will just in some undefinable way feel right.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s new novel, The Positively Last Performance, published next week, is also packed with stories. In this wonderful, rich novel, Gracie and her parents move into a disused theatre in a seaside town. Only Gracie can see and hear the many ghosts that live there, and as she urges them all in turn to tell her how they got to be there, the power of the stories they tell transforms everything – for themselves, for the theatre, and for Gracie. This is a book in which the stories told fulfil a myriad different functions – they entertain (of course), they inform, they share secrets, they help the storytellers make sense of their own experiences, and they bring teller and listeners together in a truly meaningful way. It leaves us with a real sense of how storytelling is a powerful shared experience, and can be equally powerful for teller and audience. (And of course, it’s an enormously entertaining, enjoyable story in its own right – do get hold of a copy!)
These are three extraordinary books in which oral storytelling plays an important part, each of which illuminates the power of storytelling in a different way. Of course there are also many books in which books themselves – real or imaginary – play an important part, and I will come back to some of those in another blog post soon. In the meantime, I am sure there are many more wonderful books in which the characters tell each other stories with all sorts of differing effects – I would love to hear your favourites.
Liz Cross, Head of Publishing, OUP Children’s Books
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