Growing up in the 90’s, I became obsessed with a children’s T.V. show called ORSON AND OLIVIA (brought in from the UK to Australian shores). It featured two orphans growing up in 19th century London always looking for food and even selling rats for coins. Orson and Olivia were two of my favourite childhood characters, one touch away from the T.V. screen and appearing almost as though they were real-life friends. Everyday after school, I would wait patiently in front of the television screen for the jovial chimes of Big Ben to signal the start of the show. The vibrant city of London with it’s rich cafes and dirty streets would come alive and showcased a whole new world full of possibilities. It revealed how diverse and culturally different their world was. It facilitated an endless stream of ideas and instilled a heightened sense for the imagination. It highlighted just how different their life was compared to my own and did a fantastic job at expressing what orphan kids value the most.
The thought of eating air and rummaging for scraps inside dustbins became very real. I peered through delicious windowpanes. I caught rats with cold fingers. I lived on a tiny boat as they cooked hot sausages with their newfound friends who eventually became family.
And I survived with them.
It’s good for children to understand that stories can range from the whimsical and fantastic to something very real and tangible. Stories can help promote emotional intelligence, such as living vicariously through the lives of struggling orphans, and can help to improve creativity, such as seeing the world on the other side of closed London doors. Stories help older children develop their own ideas and opinions on topics such as food, poverty and shelter. And the best stories often do this in a way in that even the youngest child can be involved and even appreciate the story more as they grow older.
In writing my own stories, I aim to write something with that in the back of my mind, in books that are especially emotionally challenging to spur on creativity and inspiration, and to create a space for children to develop their own ideals. I want to create something that is intrinsically rich, that may not touch on all the important topics at once, but one by one, reveal what I believe to be important.
It’s also a fine line to tread. We want to open a child’s mind to universal ideals and endless possibilities but at the same time not overstep my boundaries as a writer. It is sometimes easy to steer towards a strong lesson or moral rather than invoking a sense of wonder. After all, we are not aiming to preach to children but rather entertain, inform, comfort and enlighten.
Children will want to learn more about life, themselves and others. Children’s stories encourage children to reach out and communicate their own thoughts and feelings. It instils a sense of learning and promotes active participation from a young age.
Children will learn to respond to the magic within stories and develop their own informed opinions, especially within stories that are emotionally complex. Emotional intelligence and emotional awareness is something that is not often introduced or even explored within children’s stories, and it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate to an extent in my own books. In THE TWIG AND THE THREE-LEGGED PIG, children are transported to a fantasy world where both a talking twig and an endearing three-legged pig are surrounded by a not-so-friendly bird, bunny and bee. The twig may want something more than what he is asking, and the three-legged pig may want something entirely different rather than having another leg. Children will be required to listen and fully absorb themselves in a new world in order to understand and appreciate what the twig and the three-legged pig are really after. In A PHOENIX FOR SALE (currently being revised), children are transported to a Victorian fantasy setting and are searching for wild animals in order to survive. Children will learn about the importance of money, family and a warm home through the eyes of someone less fortunate than themselves.
It is important for children to learn about various cultures, whether it’s two orphans growing up and dreaming of scones and marmalade as it is to learn about their own. It is also important to expand a child’s mind under strange and exciting new worlds, such as transporting them to Ancient China or to The Victorian Period or a fantasy classic. Appreciating cultural differences, learning acceptance and tolerance and understanding one’s own cultural identity helps build confidence and a sense of self.
Whether it’s coping with feelings, instilling a sense of learning, encouraging creativity, offering insights into different values, traditions and ideals or developing one’s confidence and emotional intelligence, children’s books and children’s stories are often a safe place to start.