Here’s a curious thought for storytellers and purveyors of stories to consider: Neuroscientists tell us that the brain does not distinguish between imagining an experience and actually doing it. That’s why athletes are taught to imagine improving their technique as part of their training. It’s why psychologists working with people with phobias teach their patients to imagine the thing they fear as preparation for actually facing it.
Surely it’s also why stories carry so much power!
And that’s an interesting point, the power stories carry. Especially for children’s writers.
Once upon a time, stories for children were didactic, little more. Children in stories who did bad things came to bad ends, sometimes spectacularly bad ends. Morals were stamped in the middle of the reader’s/listener’s forehead with a resounding thump. Did the adults disseminating these stories assume that the stories they were telling had power? Absolutely. The power to scare the . . . well, the you-know-what out of the little blighters.
Fast forward to the mid twentieth century. Children’s stories were beginning to be more literary. By which I mean they were more nuanced, less overtly didactic. And while happy endings were the rule, the characters were no longer required to be either models of exemplary behavior or severely punished if they stepped out of line. (Unless the main character was gay, in which case, of course, he died by the end of the story . . . a heartfelt solution to an intractable problem.)
But while this was the standard we literati approved, the debate still flourished. Was it acceptable for characters in stories intended for young people to behave in ways we didn’t want our own children to emulate and not “learn their lesson” by the end of the story? Judy Blume’s Forever created even more of an uproar than that enjoyed by her earlier books. The young characters had sex—very modest sex by today’s standards—and weren’t even punished at the story’s end! No one got pregnant or diseased or even felt badly used. How could this be allowed to happen in a book intended for teens?
Professionals in the children’s book world—authors, teachers, librarians—defended the offending books. Young people understand the difference, we all insisted, between an imagined action and a real one. And if material in a story is too strong for a young reader’s psyche, he/she will either put the book aside or simply pass over the difficult passage, uncomprehending. Books, at least those written and edited and selected by adults who care about children, do not/cannot do damage.
When some of my stories were challenged I ran that defense, too.
Yet . . . I always thought there was a bit of a cheat factor in what we were all saying. On the one hand, we claimed that our stories did great good. They deepened our readers, informed them, enlarged them. And we always pointed out that the right kind of parents, of teachers, wanted children asking questions.
On the other hand, if this deepening, informing, enlarging truly had so much power, how could we assume that it would never take young readers someplace we wouldn’t have chosen for them? How could we have it both ways?
And to add to the dilemma, now we’re told that there is no difference, as far as our brains are concerned, between an imagined experience and a real one.
One of the defenses I have always used for my own challenged books is that the media constantly inundates our children with images, ideas, assumptions that are far less wholesome than anything in my most daring stories. Books, any books, are models of propriety next to what passes before our children’s eyes every day on television. Our books, after all, are produced by well-intentioned writers and passed through careful editors. And I can attest to how well intentioned children’s writers are and how very careful the editors.
But now we’re also told that reading or listening to a story keeps the brain active, engaged, while watching one on film gives a straight-line reading on a brain monitor—and justification for the term “vegging out.” So that means books actually have more impact than the barrage that reaches our children through other media. Books set off our imaginations . . . imagined experience that our brain doesn’t distinguish from the real thing.
Also a bit scary!