Princess of Springs Blog

Illustration by Martina Peluso from the upcoming The Princess of the Springs

American academic Jack Zipes is what a British newspaper calls the ‘Merlin of folklore studies.’  He has spent his life stepping inside stories and has written and edited scores of books, including The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales and The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature. He is passionate about fairy tales, their meaning and their importance. He believes in the power of fairy tales to hold up a mirror to our lives and show us ‘the gaps between truth and falsehood in our immediate society.’ Like all of us at Barefoot, Jack is convinced that story is not a commodity or entertainment but a means to explore and express ideas. So how lucky a few of the Barefoot Books Oxford office’s editorial team felt when we had the chance to listen to him talk at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) in London.

Jack started by asking us about our own stories. Who tells them? Are they our own? Then he talked about the stories we share. Our traditional tales, changing and evolving as they are told again and again over time, are always based on what’s happening in each new era. Can we relate to the outcomes they show us? Too often, storytelling today is manipulated by advertising campaigns in order to sell us stuff : if you’re lonely, a new phone will make you new friends, just cook your family a delicious ready-meal – in a brand new oven for the best results! – to get them to live happily ever after and just look at how amazingly these new hair products can transform your life! All these happy endings are about getting the product, rather than self-discovery and resolution.

little red riding hood barefoot books blog

Illustration by Celia Chauffrey from Little Red Riding Hood

We listened as the light faded outside the big windows of the room where we sat. Jack Zipes urged us all to be Utopians – to dream and create our own stories. He wants us to engage with stories and then think of counter-tales which ask questions of our traditional tales as they stand. He challenges us to think what if, for example, Red Riding Hood knew how to do karate? What if she could trick the wolf? What would happen then? I thought of our new Princess Stories (our new Early Readers series, first two titles to be published in Autumn 2014). These are princesses who take their destiny into their own hands: they choose the men they want, they take it upon themselves to resolve problems and injustices, they follow their own dreams.

By demanding that we question the narratives we know, Jack Zipes persuades us to see the stories in the world all around us more clearly (like the advertising ones above). That way, we are more likely to understand them for what they are. It’s as if we step outside the story for a moment, so as to step back in with a clearer perception of what it’s all about.

Mouse that roared blog

Illustration by Niamh Sharkey from The Gigantic Turnip

Jack urges us to take over the storytelling of our own lives, not to let others tell the story for us: to develop into active, not passive, consumers, find and create the stories that we want, which are not necessarily the ones we’re told. Stories become collaborative and listening to each other’s stories becomes integral to understanding each other better, and that big world outside.

As someone in the audience said, the building we sat in was its own story. It’s an abandoned school which CLPE fought to get funding for and have made a place where those who love children’s books can come and explore, learn and deepen their love of stories. So perhaps dreams can come true if you tell the story well enough!

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