Where Pictures Fail Stories

Several years ago, we went on a campout with our three boys (at the time) and were delighted to have a professional storyteller there who enchanted us all with a few great tales.  I don’t remember much about what the actual stories were, but I do remember looking around at the faces of everyone listening… children and adults in rapt, wide-eyed attention. And a tiny seed burst through my wintry soil where the idea was frozen that picture books are the best medium for everything. Had that storyteller been reading us a tale, even one with fantastic pictures, the effect would’ve been quite different and the moment much more prosaic, in a librarian’s 10-am-story-hour sort of way.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this: no matter much I absolutely love picture books… not all things should be in pictures.  I’m not talking about the obvious, like cartoon depictions of the Holocaust or anything of that nature; that should be a given.  I’m thinking about some things that are so fantastical, yet so noble, they deserve to be lived out in our minds only.  Or simply tales that are suited for telling, not showing! I know it seems inconceivable almost to admit that.  But this idea started percolating in my head after I read what is hands down the most complete picture book about Hercules done by Robert Byrd. The Twelve Labors of Hercules details it all.  The blood, the guts, the glory. The thing is… I don’t think those things all should be shown in picture.  What Hercules teaches children, and indeed all mankind, is mostly about a lesson of perseverance.  (To be completely fair, the story gets weird at the end;the Greeks weren’t in the business of moral formation with their tales… they were simply passing on folklore.)  Think of some of the famous Greek monsters he and others (e.g. Ulysses) encountered: Cerberus (a three-headed dog from Hell) or Scylla (a six-headed man-eating monster) for example.

I think the mind of the child in some psychological way, knows its own limits of fear development. What I mean is that if a child never SEES Scylla or Cerberus, the imaginings alone are enough to awe him into a healthy sort of fear.  But once a picture book makes those monsters incarnate with a printed picture… it gets burned into their minds.  A movie takes the damage even further of course.  (We recently studied the Donner Party’s ill-fated crossing of the mountains and my 10 and 8 year olds were properly disturbed after hearing how cannibalism happened… but then we started watching a documentary-with live actor enactments- and though nothing direct was shown, the discussion of it, and the actors’ crazed look in his eye and the pan of entrails in the background horrified my children into tears and nightmares for the next couple nights.  We quickly turned the movie off but the damage was done and my guilt is residual.)

I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m sort of glad not all that many myths get put into picture books.  I love the stories of course, and there’s no contesting that some of the books out there are breathtakingly beautiful.  But I will not make it a goal of mine to deliberately collect such books.  There is a very real, and perhaps under-recognized difference between books and stories.  Some things really ought to be left in the story realm.  Professional storytellers really do have a noble profession! The telling of tales from the mind is really an art form.  I think that while we feast regularly on picture books here, it’s important to pull out some of our dusty old collections of fairy tales (think Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books) and myths (I know of no better than the assortment from William Russell.) if we weren’t born of the spontaneous story-telling ilk (i.e. Irish). If you do want to impress your kids however, think of a famous tale you know and simply change out the names and details to make it your own and tell it at bedtime straight from the heart, in a pace that it deserves.

“Storytellers are the most powerful people on earth. They might not be the best paid– but they are the most powerful. Storytellers have the power to move the human heart– and there is no greater power on earth.” 

― Laurie H. Hutzler