Wood's Homes Blog

The art of stories and storytelling: How narratives grow us as people

March 12, 2019
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
The art of stories and storytelling:  How narratives grow us as people

I don’t know about you, but when it’s particularly cold outside (and it has been COLD), my favourite thing to do is curl up in front of a fire with a blanket and a good book.

This has always been my go-to for self-care and relaxation, and it has me thinking about the importance of stories in the lives of families and children. Francis Spufford in his book  A Life in Reading, sagely said that “the words we take into ourselves help to shape us,” describing how he developed through reading books, but also how books helped him manage a difficult childhood in many ways.

Much has already been written about the value of literacy and reading; Rebecca Solnit even wrote a book of illustrated letters to children about why they should read -  proof that images themselves can be as effective as words in the art of storytelling. 

There is even a form of bibliotherapy wherein certain books may be prescribed as a means of coping with difficult life events, and books have long been known to contribute to the development of empathy, resilience and personal reflection.  Here you can even find a list of books that teach children about kindness.

In our education system, reading has been used to develop language and vocabulary, but also to understand complex social problems (think about the use of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ in many school curriculums).  Many of us can reflect on books that we have read or grew up with that taught us valuable lessons about life and love and becoming an individual in this complicated world.  I have written previously about how for some children, reading was a source of connection to family and home (check this link out). I still have a copy of the book my older brother read aloud to me whenever I was sick. I gifted a new copy to his children.

We have been using books as part of a therapeutic intervention in Mothers in Mind for mothers with trauma histories who have very young children. We know that children do better in households when they have books available to them. These are specifically chosen for their relational value – they teach about unconditional love, complicated feelings and how to manage them, and even self-esteem. The books are given out freely each week because books are expensive and don’t often make the cut when families have to decide between the necessities of life and a book. Although it’s an expensive part of delivering this program, it’s also one of the most valuable components of the intervention.  

But there is another side to literature as well since it’s long been used as a component of mainstream social control - who decides what gets published? And in some ways, the ways in which certain stories get told, while others stay hidden is an important area to consider. Chimamanda Adichie tells her own powerful story about how the stories that might not get told can be equally problematic which is why a message about reading should really be about storytelling and all the many ways that stories can be told without books. Check this out.   

We need to think about what our children are (and are not) reading and what is it teaching them? And are we getting enough diversity into the books our children are reading? Are our children being exposed to more than ‘a single story’? Fortunately for the internet, we have the luxury of being able to locate books that incorporate specific issues. 

See this link for books that include characters with disabilities, and this one that incorporates a range of diverse characters. A wonderful list can be found here of books for children by Indigenous writers. The important thing is exposure to difference when it comes to teaching acceptance in our cultures.  For example I have been reading books for young adults that address the issue of mental health in adolescence to consider messages about stigma (but that’s for another post).    

When it comes to young adults, do we even know what our teens are reading?  It’s true that some of the books that our young people are reading will not necessarily be to our liking – books about futurist worlds that include gaming, hybrid species and of course, vampires and zombies.  And not all of our children want to share a private world with us, so we should always ask: ‘Is this something I should be reading too, so we can talk about it?’  When I was joining my blended family, one of the things I was most grateful for was having read so much young adult fiction (the perks of my profession) as it offered me a unique gateway for connection that I still treasure to this day.  But we all have our limits, we don’t all have the luxury of time, or often the desire to read books now that online media and Netflix takes up so much of our time (there are lots of opportunities for connection there too). Check out my blog post on 13 Reasons Why.   

And not all stories need to be read, many cultures have a long history of oral storytelling that have kept children and adults rapt for generations. It is considered an art form in itself; visit this link. The National Film Board of Canada has made some Indigenous legends into short videos see one from 1973 here and if you want to learn more about this topic, visit this blog.   

The art of storytelling is starting to be integrated into treatment practice among some non-profit social service organizations in Calgary. Wood’s Homes’ Indigenous Liaison Tye Rhyno regularly shares some of the stories he has learned with the youth and families he works with, and is finding its power.  And he intends to increase the number of stories shared here from other nations and regions, thus benefitting the healing journey of many.  Storytelling, he says, is a beautiful way to educate about the history of the land, the climate, the animals in the territory, and other connections.

Stay tuned for a future blog post on the many ways this somewhat forgotten method of communicating is being used to help young people and their families find healing.

If this isn’t enough to get you thinking and inspired about the ways that stories, storytelling and reading enrich our lives, might I recommend a trip to the place where you can get it all – Calgary’s amazing new public library.