"Every Thursday a man comes in and takes stories from the children. . . This man is a very weird man."--Maynard, ten-years-old.
This weird man was part of a team of graduate students in psychology who collected stories from New York City elementary school students over thirty years ago. These stories were first published in Brian Sutton-Smith's The Folkstories of Children, which will be re-released in paperback and ebook this summer.
Throughout this blog series, we've seen how young minds develop by looking at their rhymes and tales. Last week's stories highlighted the children's ability to tell stories from different perspectives. The final post in our series focuses on positive transformations and conflict resolution. Like many of the stories in The Folkstories of Children, the imagined worlds of children aged nine through ten are populated by fanciful characters such as Squirm the Worm, the sour cream monster, Princess Belanda, robots, robbers, and "kangophants." The stories also reflect the reality of growing up during a turbulent time in American history. Olive's story about Henry Tick, who lives "in a hippie's hair," pokes fun at the counter culture. Jonathan's Wonderman tales of interplanetary travel still ring of Apollo mission glory. On the more troubling side, a few of the stories reveal kids' preoccupation with concerns such as money, death, and sex. Yet, in spite of the conflicts at the heart of each narrative, hope is common theme.
The following story may not seem especially sophisticated. Unlike other works in the collection, it does not contain different chapters, political references, or clever word play. But demonstrates a high level of plot development.
Once there was an alligator who lived in New York City and all the children were his friends and he wouldn't hurt anybody. And one day he got a note saying, "Mr. Alligator, I hate you." And Mr. Alligator always kept feeling bad because everybody liked him. But while he was walking through the grocery story he saw a little girl writing a note. The note said, "Mr. Alligator, I hate you." And he asked the little girl why he hated him. The girl said, "Because you are taking my friends away from me. They always want to play with you." Mr. Alligaor said, "Why don't you play with me too?" And she said, "My mother doesn't like alligators and won't let me. She thinks they'll bite." So Mr. Alligator went to the little girl's house and said to the mother, "I'm not going to bite anybody." And the little girl's mother said, "All right, I can see that." The alligator said, "Good, so everybody else can play with me."--Martin, ten-years-old.
Martin can imagine a world in which communication overcomes misunderstanding, and so his alligator tale ends happily. "The most basic human mind is a storytelling one," says Brian Sutton-Smith in the introduction to The Folkstories of Children. Indeed, through his research, we see that even two-year-olds exercise the ability to describe "life as as episodes of excitement and drama." The dreams of 350 children were brought to life in the words they shared with The Folkstories of Children researchers. Sutton-Smith admits that "their stories beggar and will long outlast our meagar attempts at theoretical interpretation." Still, we hope that these children of the seventies are now all living happily ever after.