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What Children's Stories Teach Us About the Cultures That Tell Them

by Tereza Jarnikova Sep 24, 2013

You can learn quite a bit about a country based on the way it tucks its children into bed.

I thought about this recently while trying to fall asleep on a plane to Moscow. I wasn’t particularly successful, so instead I nestled into the cramped seat and watched the animated children’s cartoons on offer through half-closed eyes. One, called the “Amorous Crow,” was about a crow who flew around the forest getting the animals to fall in love with her and discarding them one by one. In it, a rabbit, a fox, and a bear all fall in love with the crow in turn, get heartbroken, and console each other.

At one point, the bear says, “Can’t she go love somewhere else? We lived quite well before love!” The animals mock each other’s vanities and personal inadequacies in the face of their collective heartbreak, eventually shrugging their shoulders and coming to terms with their loveless fate. It’s cynical, darkly funny, and utterly devoid of anything approaching a happy ending.

The underlying message here seemed to be that life often does not have a happy ending, so why should children’s stories? (Do you want to lie to children?) Though I am not Russian and know my second- and third-hand experiences of Russia necessarily fall short of any deep understanding of the culture, I thought I could see something of my Russian friends’ cynically good-humoured worldview in the crow story. At the very least, I definitely couldn’t imagine a cartoon like that being shown to American schoolchildren.

By way of comparison, I thought back to my own Czech childhood and the stories I was told as a small kid. We Czechs are really rather lucky in our fairytales. The national televison network televises a 10-minute bedtime story every night, right before the national news, so before you hear about parliament fraud, you might hear something funny and whimsical about, say, two rabbits who live in a hat or two dwarves who live in a stump. This nightly tradition is universally beloved, and almost everyone remembers watching the bedtime stories as a kid, introduced each time by Evening Boy, a little cartoon boy with a newspaper hat. Water sprites and wood nymphs abound in many of them, the same water sprites and wood nymphs that have roamed our country’s mythological subconscious for centuries and yet didn’t seem out of place broadcast by my family’s crackly television set in 1997.

My personal favourite Czech fairytale figure is Rumcajs, a woods-dwelling bandit who spends his days talking to animals, taking care of the forest, and thwarting the snooty duke and duchess who live in the castle. One story has him abducted by the duchess and turned into a perfumed duke, only to be saved when his wife shows up and smokes his pipe, the smell bringing him to his senses. (Beatthat storyline as entertainment for 6-year-olds.)

The benefits of smoking a pipe aside, the broader point here is that our Czech fairytales do reflect us. We live in an old landscape of cobblestones and shingled roofs and Gothic churches, and one can see why people used to believe that fairies lived in the surrounding woods. The gentle humour and lyricism of these stories probably say good things about our national povaha, roughly translated as character, which is a subject Czechs never tire of talking about (usually in markedly self-deprecating terms).

I think that travellers wanting to understand the places they travel to might be better off putting down Lonely Planet historical summaries and visiting the children’s section of the local library.

Later, growing up partly in the US, my brother and I were introduced to a vast array of children’s stories, courtesy of the public school system. I’m pretty sure I learned English by watching Sesame Street (other life skills: brushing my teeth, basic familiarity with the alphabet and woolly mammoths, the importance of getting along with others). Some of the stories our teachers read us were quintessentially American — The Little Engine that Could, for example, uses a small train chugging up a big hill panting “I think I can, I think I can” to teach a lesson about believing in yourself and working hard to achieve your goals. It’s a distillation of the American can-do attitude, and though I liked it at storytime, I can’t imagine it resonating at all with a Czech audience — it’s too blithely optimistic.

There were plenty of others — the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, Johnny Appleseed, the entire Dr. Seuss anthology. I’m not sure what underlying tie made them all ineffably but indisputably American — Americanness, so often unmistakable, is for me anyway a hard notion to summarize.

Of course, plenty of children’s stories exist in multiple cultures. A generation of kids across the world grew up with the Disney fairytales, which are often Technicolor versions of old stories. Snow White and Cinderella, for example, can be found in the books of fairytales the German Brothers Grimm published in 1812 and were considerably darker and bleaker in the original. (The Wikipedia list of Brothers Grimm stories is good reading material for a rainy day, by the way. Titles like Donkey Cabbages and A Girl Without Hands suggest life could be a bit bleak back in 19th-century Germany.) Even where stories aren’t universal, storylines and characters are — almost every culture has its own enchanted princess, its struggling hero, and a whole closetful of monsters.

Then there’s the case of someone writing a silly book for children somewhere that resonates across the world. A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland have both been translated into over 50 languages. Tove Jansson’s idiosyncratic Swedish stories about the magical Moomintroll family have been translated over 40 times. (These don’t seem to be very well-known in North America, for some reason, but I wholly and unreservedly recommend them to readers of any age. It’s impossible not to like bizarre little creatures that say things like, “I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream!”) Antoine de St. Exupery’s The Little Prince has been translated into 250 languages, suggesting readers all over the world resonate with the simple story of a boy, an imaginary sheep, and a rose trying to understand the world of adults.

To me, the universal appeal of the great children’s stories is heartening — it suggests that as humans we have more in common than we sometimes think.

Children’s stories offer a unique lens on the groups of people that tell them precisely because they’re not meant to be serious. In reading one, you see a culture at its silliest, most whimsical, most escapist. You see what it’s trying to teach its children — Rumcajs the woods-loving bandit and Dr. Seuss’s Horton who hears a Who are both in some way role models for what it means to be a stand-up human being, but they go about it in very different ways. Children’s stories are a space where the expectation to be serious or sophisticated falls away, which allows them all sorts of possibilities of different things to say and ways to say them. I think that travellers wanting to understand the places they travel to might be better off putting down Lonely Planet historical summaries and visiting the children’s section of the local library.

The world of fairytales is vast, and I couldn’t dream to cover its scope in an anthology, let alone an article. You can of course find pessimistic stories by American authors and optimistic stories by Russian authors and all manner of strange and wonderful things under the lid of the seething kettle of children’s entertainment. Nor is it easy to say how precisely a culture influences its children’s stories — any one-sentence conclusions would likely be simplistic. Nevertheless, the whole culture-and-storytelling mess seems fun and productive to think about.

In any case, it’s probably a good idea not to fall in love with a crow.

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