Babies are international.
Lying in his cot, babbling, a baby speaks the consonants and vowels of every race in the world. Only as he grows older does he learn the restrictions of patriotism, and in our country become English.
Learning to speak one’s language is at first a process of throwing away. A baby offers his mother one sound after another, and some she doesn’t like, and some leave her indifferent, and some make her look very grave. But now and then one fills her with delight, and then the baby is filled with delight. More and more important people come running, all full of this magical delight, to hear this powerful sound, this one, out of the baby’s vast international language, so that the baby says it again, and remembers it is well-liked.
How he has to limit himself!
“Goodbye, West Indian, Rumanian, Russian, Greek, Israeli, whom I joyfully hailed when I came innocent into the world, when my toe was in my mouth and the sky was in my grasp, when all sounds were alike to me and I didn’t know I was only English. Now I am two years old and we no longer speak the same language!”
Yet though they have had to give up their international language, two-year-olds still share the same stories. All over the world the same nursery story echoes, here in one language, there in another, and the children chant the same refrain.
I have concentrated here on the gleeful ones. Small children have a wonderful sense of humour that is often beaten down by the pressure of school and society, and that needs to be fed from the start if it is to survive to appreciate human beings for what they are and can be, and to cock a snook at pretentiousness.
It has been difficult to fit a story to its original country, and sometimes I have wondered if there was any point trying. All I have done finally is to give a suggestion – that this maybe the country where such-and-such a tale started. At least this reminds us that our riches are not only of our making. The tales are not translations. I have retold them in English idiom so that English-speaking children will enjoy them. This is not scholarly of me, but it is deliberate. I thought it better that the tales should live with gusto, than die pedantically. I hope scholars will forgive me.
I think we do not tell stories nearly often enough to children nowadays. As soon as they can read, we punish them.
“Now that you can read for yourself,” we say, “you needn’t bother me any more.”
But children need stories to be read to them for years after they can read. There is always much more in telling a story to children of any age than just the story.
In this book I am concerned only with small ones. When a child of this age listens to a story, he is experiencing so much. He is feeling the warmth of your body, your softness and your strength. He is experiencing the wonder of how those miraculous words come out of your mouth, and, if he is very young, he will put up a hand and feel them as they come. (Only as a lover, many years later, will that child, boy or girl, trace another’s face so wonderingly.) He is remembering the good things you have done together, that make you smile together when you come to certain parts of the story, pats of whose meaning is secret to you two. He is experiencing, as he does over and over again, that good things come from you to him. If we say story-telling is a gift, we mean exactly that – not that only certain people can tell stories properly, but that whoever does it for a child gives something wonderful and precious.
Tell the stories slowly, taking your time. Make the most of the words, enjoying them – “Squoooooontum,” “Sqeeeeeeentum.” Make everything happen as you say it. “Then he walked, and he walked, and he walked” – perhaps you sway to the left and the right and the left again, as you say it, and the children, listening, do the same. “But mind you don’t look in my bag” – and here you may shake a stern finger in time with the words, and the children, listening, frown and crinkle their brows and do the same. “Halvor!” you cry, making the sound come, drawn-out, from a long way off through a forest of trees, and the children will listen for an echo. “Go away!” you shout, with the magnificent, unworried power of the husband of that anxious housewife… “And they did” you finish; and the children nod, matter-of-factly, meaning, “Well, naturally they would.”
The phrase that is absolutely predictable, that comes in with every story, is “And this is the way I tell it.” It is the part every child will say with you, sure of its reliability, eagerly trusting in its ritual, settling down after it with a sigh of contentment because everything is as it should be. You must never miss this out, or think it unimportant. If you do, on just one occasion, you will have to start again and “do it properly.” And if you have never said it at all, you have been spoiling your ship for a ha’porth of tar. For with such a secure and familiar magic sign, anything at all can happen, however wild, and still stay controlled.
I wanted George Him to illustrate this book because I knew he would do as an artist what I was trying to do as a writer. He brings his own gaiety, exuberance, and resilience. His picture of the story of Mr Fox, winding all the consequent events into one swirling curve – his picture of the story of Higgledy-Piggledy, with all the frenzied rooms seen at once like a doll’s house – that intriguing “pudding tree” with the puddings growing in basins like acorns, and Kisander the cat smirking like an impresario beneath the branches – all of them catch both the wildness and the control, each so essential. They are pictures “for reading,” he says, not just for looking at: there are so many details to ponder on that add to the story.
Yet even so, there are sad parts in stories sometimes, and frightening parts. The same part may make one child laugh, and another cry. One child I heard of had Little Black Sambo read to him. All the other children in the family had loved the story so, as it came down to them; but he was found feverishly and agitatedly and tearfully wrapping the tiny book in masses of paper and yards of string to post away quickly to “some other little boy” who could perhaps stand it better. Many children cannot bear in the Brunhoff books that Babar’s mother should be killed, and Babar left alone. A child is a slightly different child each day – sometimes sad, sometimes overshadowed, sometimes asking questions you cannot hear; and a story may delight him one day, yet be too much to bear another. Then, when the personal, private fear has passed, it may delight him again. If the teller of the tales is close to the child, every fleeting expression on the child’s face, every tension in the child’s body will mould the flow of the tale.
There is one story here, Little Dog Turpie, that is loved unreservedly by all the children I tell it to, except one; and when I tell it to him, I have to tell it in a warm, laughing way, that tells him that he and I are together on this, and we’ll see the little old man and the little old woman and Little Dog Turpie safely through. Sometimes it helps a child like this if you join in and all say a story together, particularly the frightening bits. “Don’t you dare come onto my bridge!” you all roar, and feel very strong and in command of everything.
Sometimes you can both make an imperious gesture. These ways are good, because in shouting and doing the child can get rid of his fear, and because actually taking part in a story that frightens him or saddens him gives him power, and he grows a little, and also because in that same moment he realises it is just a story and chuckles suddenly with delight. But sometimes you may just have to alter the story a bit, thought in this case you must write the new words firmly into the text, otherwise a new reader might come along before the child is ready and read out something devastating.
Sometimes you will be telling the story to a group of children. They will be sitting in front of you in a row, or in several rows, their faces very grave, their eyes fixed on you. So many faces you will have to watch for signs of strain, so many faces you will have to speak right into, telling your personal tale to each one child! But sometimes all the faces will break into glee, or the children leap to their feet and declaim with delight the jingle that has come so many times before and makes the story everybody’s, not only the teller’s.
“Don’t tell it with the book – tell it with your mouth”
When you know the story by heart and, as one little girl said, “don’t tell it with the book – tell it with your mouth”, when you can speak right into the child, the printed words will still be there. And sometimes, at the child’s demand, you will find you trace them with your finger as you tell the tale; and sometimes, of course, the child will do the telling, hopefully and flourishingly giving a familiar word to a magic printed pattern; and so, without ever being pressed, the child will learn to read a little, because reading is part of shared delight, because reading brings new friends and enchanting happenings and deeper understanding into his world. And of course the pictures are still there too, always there, those wild-controlled pictures, to be chuckled over and heaved over with screwed-up shoulders and screwed-up eyes, or drunk in gravely with absorbed inwardly-radiant concentration.
I said earlier that these stories survive all over the world, and have done so for a very long time. Yet even I have poked my fingers into history, as everyone does, by the choice I have made, and by my own shifting emphasis. There are no stories here of children abandoned by their parents, nor any acceptance of the superiority of boys, or the habit of giving away girls as prizes. Folk tales have always changed, as the society that made them and received them back has changed. And every storyteller plays his part, writing or telling.
©Leila Berg, 1966