Saturday, 12 December 2009

“Once upon a time there was a girl and the girl was very married.”

Once upon a time there was a girl and the girl was very married. And she danced to the music with her marrier. And then there was a big bad wolf sneaking while she was dancing. And then they looked behind them and then they saw a wolf and the wolf gobbled them up. And then they was alive again. And then they went home and they saw a broken chair. So much they liked the broken chair it broked into little pieces. And then they sitted on their new settee.
(Bethany, aged 4)

Although I imagine that in future this blog will be mostly dedicated to film, I came across something recently that has compelled me to devote my inaugural post to a different subject. However, while in one sense the topic is unrepresentative of what will likely follow, in another sense it is almost too on-the-nose in relation to what I envisage this blog to be for: a forum for loose attempts at, as Frank Kermode puts it, “making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”.

So, to begin…

Last week I saw a show by the London-based children’s educational theatre company MakeBelieve Arts called The Woman Who Cooked Everything. A large part of the performance consisted of stories dreamt up by children between the ages of 3 and 5. The stories were produced using the ‘helicopter technique’ of storytelling and story-acting originally developed by the kindergarten teacher and education researcher Vivian Paley (who has written books with such magnificent titles as Bad Guys Don't Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four). The show’s accompanying book describes this technique as follows: “Children dictate their stories to a workshop leader who scribes their words verbatim. At the end of the session the class gather together and act out the stories of their peers”.

This sounds to me like a wonderful technique: it invites the children’s imaginations to run wild, gives them the satisfaction of being listened to intently, encourages them to interpret one medium into another, and lets them see their work be performed. That’s not what I want to focus on here, however. Instead I want to look at the stories themselves. This is because what the ‘helicopter technique’ also apparently produces is some of the most baffling, hilarious and fascinating narratives you could ever hope to encounter.

This is surely down to the verbal and unedited nature of the storytelling. These stories are not what you get when a teacher tries to get a child to write a story with pen and paper, or helps them to construct a narrative: this is an expression of the moment-by-moment thought processes of very young children as they struggle with the conflicting demands of their early understanding of story structure, their minimal yet deeply-felt life experience, their limited abilities with language, and the sheer batshit craziness of their fantasy worlds. The results are astonishing on a number of levels. Always inventive, often incoherent – yet clearly indicative of a strong desire to make sense of the world around them – these stories are bursting at the seams both with entertainment value and matters of critical interest.

I’m no child psychologist, nor am I particularly well-versed in children’s literature. I’m simply a fan and critic of popular culture with an addiction to close analysis and a particular interest in the ways in which narrative conventions both reflect and shape our view of the world. As such, on the one hand I want to look at a few of the stories contained in The Woman Who Cooked Everything with a view to bringing out some of the tensions they seem to display between unfettered imagination and conventionalised narrative form. Equally, I also just want to share with others what a treat it is to come across stories of such unfathomable, contradictory, delicious absurdity.

The story that gives the collection and the performance its name goes as follows:

Once there was a woman who liked to cook. She liked to cook everything.
(Millie, aged 4)

Yes…?! Setting up an undeniably intriguing conceit and then denying us any closure whatsoever by finishing before the narrative has even really got started, this is one of the most elliptical and un-story-like stories of the bunch. Yet, even here, we see the use of that most familiar of literary conventions: the setting of the scene with ‘Once there was…’ But the presence of this turn of phrase, which inevitably brings with it expectations of a traditional tale to follow, makes the arbitrariness of the ending even more confusing: we want to know the consequences, the effects stemming from this cause, but are instead left only with blank page. This is a more radical form of storytelling than the most postmodern of novels could hope to achieve: not only does the story simply stop rather than conclude, it also barely begins.

More mind-boggling still, however, is this mini-masterpiece from Alice, aged 3:

He got in again, and he got out again, He got in again, he got out again, He got in again, he got out again, he got in again, he got out this time. He went in this time and closed the lid.

I love this story. To begin with, there is the fact that it begins when ‘he’ (who, you might ask? We will never know) gets in ‘again’, thus implying a prior chain of events which doubtless consist of yet more getting into and out of whatever it is that is being got into and out of (what, you might ask? We will never know). It feels as if there is an actual, existing character’s life here, which we are joining in medias res – as if in Alice’s imagination this world is already concrete enough that she needn’t bother setting the scene, and that this is merely the third or fourth chapter of an ongoing story rather than an entire story in itself. Alice has actually achieved here the goal of much realist fiction: she has made it seem as if we are looking through a ‘window’ onto an existing world rather than at a ‘picture frame’ containing a world constructed specially for our benefit. Yet, if we look closely, there are also formal strategies that point to an inkling of classical order. To put a stop to the hypnotic repetition by using the (again) nonsensically concrete phrase ‘this time’ (full stop) is a stroke of bizarre genius for the way it implies significance without any hint of a reason for doing so (perhaps Alice understands why...? We will never know). Yet, structurally, the use of repetition-then-difference is something that poetry has been doing for hundreds of years – something I’m sure Alice doesn’t know, yet clearly also somehow feels to be correct. There is also even some ‘book-ending’ (i.e.: the end echoing the beginning) through the isolated uses of ‘and’ in the first and last sentences. Finally, the sudden revelation of a 'lid' at the end acts both as a surprising climax and, through being the last word, as a sort of lid to the story itself: against all odds, this story actually feels resolutely concluded.

Some of the more abstract stories, on the other hand, achieve a kind of closure by making us experience something like the sort of transcendence we expect from romantic poetry. See, for example:

One day flying pencils fly. And then they explode like fireworks. Then they vanish forever.
(Osayi, aged 5)

Or, even more poignantly (that use of ‘vanish’!):

Twinkle, twinkle, and the twinkle just disappears. The girl was sleeping and she go to her bed. And then the little girl just ran away. And she ran away and there was a fish eat her. And the fish just disappeared. And the fish just run away and see the stars. And then big eyes were coming; A dragon! And the dragon just run away and see the stars. Twinkle, twinkle.
(Daniella, aged 5)

Both these tales encourage the feeling that – were they written by adults rather than 5-year-olds – there should be something metaphorical at play here. That we know there almost certainly isn’t doesn’t necessarily detract from the sense that these stories are self-contained and oddly meaningful by virtue of an emotional logic that transcends their literal meaning, whether intended or not.

However, the use in the ‘twinkle, twinkle’ story of another instance of ‘book-ending’ is one more testament to how often familiar narrative tropes recur. For instance, twenty of the forty stories in the collection begin with some variation on ‘Once upon a time’, ‘once there was…’, ‘one day…’, and so on. This is obviously something the kids have picked up from stories they’ve encountered: they know that this is how stories are supposed to begin. As we saw in ‘the woman who cooked everything’ though, part of these stories' charm is witnessing how such a solid beginning can quickly unravel when told by a person who has learned some of the notes, but not the music, of conventional storytelling. Take, for instance, the basic story structure of ‘equilibrium – disruption – new equilibrium’. Most of the children seem to know that a story needs some kind of antagonism, or at least change in status-quo, in order to achieve the tension necessary for narrative. But, equally - thankfully, as it turns out - they haven’t yet mastered the arts of either plausibility or consistency. For instance:

Once upon a time there was a fairy ghost. And then the fairy ghost turned into a lion. And then the flowers came down from above. Some children came along and the children said, “Please can we have some flowers?” And the lion said “RRRAAAA”.
(Georgia, aged 4)

(As an aside – let’s first acknowledge the brilliance of ‘fairy ghost’, a creature referred to in such a matter-of-fact way that we know Georgia can picture it, and also know we’d love to be able to too: is this a type of ghost that is also a fairy, or a fairy that died and became a ghost...?) We see here a definite linear development, but one not bound by anything resembling causality. The fairy ghost turns into a lion not because, say, a witch has cast a spell, or even because it has performed a transformation on itself, but just because. Then flowers descend ‘from above’ – strange, to be sure, but perhaps fair enough according to the principles of just because that govern this story. Now some new characters - the group of children - enter the story and (probably understandably) want some of the aforementioned flowers – a wish answered with an entirely naturalistic roar from the lion - who was, of course, so recently a fairy ghost. Impeccably linear, near classical in its movement from one equilibrium (a fairy ghost minding its own business) to a new equilibrium (a lion being the apparent guardian of the flowers-from-above), yet utterly inexplicable at the same time: the tension here between structure and (by adult standards) insanity is a beautiful thing to behold.

Another nice tension in a number of the stories is that between surreal situations and the entirely rational way they are recounted by the author. For example:

One day there was a little girl. She lived inside a prince and she couldn’t get out. And when she got up her legs were too tight because the prince folded up his legs and that was the end.
(Shamari, aged 4)

Clearly, this is a wonderfully odd twist on stories about little girls and princes. However, it also treats its central situation in a fascinatingly naturalistic manner that actually invites us to relate to the girl’s situation: yes, we think, our legs would be too tight if we were inside a prince and he folded his legs. (Let’s note too, again, the desire for solid closure despite all the craziness: ‘and that was the end’.) Or, another example:

Once upon a time a little girl was walking in the pond and a dinosaur came to gobble her up, and she was running as fast as she can, but she went out of breath. Then she was trying to go home and the dinosaur took her home. And she said, “Thank you,” to the dinosaur. And she hugged him. And she told her mum that she went too far. And her mum said “Who bring you back?” And she said, “The dinosaur.”
(Judith, aged 4)

Apart from the requisite ‘once upon a time’, this story seems almost procedural in its straightforwardness, as if Judith were merely relating to a journalist, step by step, the events leading up to this little girl returning safely home (the constant repetition of ‘and’ obviously helps here). There is also something beautiful about the way the pay-off manages to make a story about a dinosaur giving a little girl a ride appear borderline banal by doing something that endings are never meant to do: reiterating exactly what the reader already knows.

Speaking of endings, it’s interesting to note that, while ‘Once upon a time’ gets a great amount of play, not a single one of the stories ends with the equally famous ‘happily ever after’. (Could it be that this phrase has accrued so much negative press over the years that now not even children’s writers use it so regularly as they once did?) However, despite the fact that the language of the happy ending isn’t used, its broader meanings and tonal functions have certainly been internalised, since many of the stories beguilingly present us with some potentially very unhappy situations suddenly and inexplicably being reversed to enable the story to end on an upbeat note. For example:

The tiger comes and the lion tried to eat the tiger. And the wind blow them over. And they was stuck together, rolling, and then they was friends again.
(Usaf, aged 3)


Once upon a time there was a little butterfly and it was flying all around the garden. And the sun was in its eyes. And it started to rain. And the sun died. And the butterfly died too. And it came alive again as a caterpillar. And the butterfly is back to life as a beautiful baby butterfly. And it was so happy.
(Jessica, aged 5)


There was a giant and Action Man killed the giant. And then Superman came to the rescue. And Superman was trying to shoot the flying birds but he couldn’t. Then Action Man was dead. Superman started to fight, then he saw the flying birds but he never killed them. He took them home because they were cold.
(Faisal, aged 5)

The self-consciously unconvincing ‘happy ending’ has long been loved by critics of Hollywood cinema for the way it highlights the supposed artificiality of the convention (probably most famously in the films of Douglas Sirk). What we have here is similar, but of a slightly different order. Clearly, the sudden turnarounds are unbelievable, and thus make us notice the convention as a convention; however, just as obviously, there’s no ironic intent here. As such, the artificiality feels neither cynical nor a cop-out, but is rather allowed to be charming and moving in its naïveté – a balance often strived for by happy endings, but seldom achieved so convincingly as it can be by someone who actually is naïve.

I want to finish by looking at what can happen when not only the structural, but also the potentially ideological, functions of a convention have been internalised – as seen in this bizarre and wonderful story by Freya, aged 4:

The princess was locked away in a castle. Then the girl rescued her. Then the girl gives her some money. The giant takes the girl into his cave. Then the girl goes back to her house, then the girl and the princess is running away from the giant. They haven’t got very far when they meet a big serpent. Then the little girl does run on ahead with the princess. Then the giant gets the princess and then the giant is dead and the little girl is married.

You’ll notice that there is no man in the story - except for perhaps the giant, who we can probably assume is supposed to be male. Yet the princess is certainly threatened by forces that would usually be embodied by a male villain, and which would traditionally pose an implied sexual threat: she is locked away in a castle, taken into a cave, and even – in what in any other circumstances would seem an excessively Freudian touch – accosted by a ‘big serpent’. Given the lack of men, it is thus rather surprising that the little girl is suddenly revealed to be married at the end of the story. Again, Freya has no doubt learnt that marriage is how stories about princesses are supposed to finish. Of course, it isn’t difficult to see that this convention – especially when constantly repeated to children – has rather pointed ideological overtones (as feminist critics have always pointed out). However, the fact that Freya provides this conclusion without having the ability to adequately prepare for it means that the story both draws attention to the arbitrary nature of the marriage-as-happy-ending, and even allows for some almost subversive meanings to emerge. Instead of a prince, it is here a little girl who saves the princess from the castle, flees alongside her, and even (inexplicably, but quite brilliantly) gives her some money. Judging from the set-up, then, it’s hard not to infer that at the end of the story the girl has in fact married… the princess!

I’m not arguing that this story is any kind of evidence for Freya expressing some of Freud’s “constitutional bisexuality”, but rather simply that, as I have said, the tensions between the unruliness of a child’s mind and the strictures imposed by narrative form can yield joyous and unexpected pleasures. Some of these are comic, some are melancholic, and some (apparently!) are borderline political. It’s enough, at least, to make you want to see what kinds of narratives might be written by a generation of children raised not on books written for them by adults, but on stories such as these. I have a feeling that what would be produced is a lot of happy endings, but endings that are happy in rather different ways, and for rather different reasons, than any we're used to seeing.


  1. This is a really good first post. I look forward to reading more. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much, Catherine! I'm a big fan of your blog too, so that means a lot.

  3. Ahh, how honoured she must feel that her performance set you off wirting about stories!

    It is a magical show, isn't it! Based on magical stories!

  4. It truly is. I hope I've managed to do the stories justice. Thanks for reading!