The (other) lion king: Pages from a mother’s diary
“Once I was playing with my little friends. There was a cat, a squirrel, a birdie and a dog. They were all my friends. We were all playing in the park. A cat was doing meow-meow. The squirrel ran very fast on the trees, eating leaves and a birdie was flying in the sky. A doggie was also running and barking. Suddenly, we all heard a loud sound, a lion sound “aaaroaaarrrr…….” (enacts with hands and facial expressions). We all got very scared.”
This is an excerpt from the story “The Lion King”, but it has nothing to do with THE Lion King and that would surely make this a copyright violation. Neither is the story inspired by anything local, Panchtantra, Jataka katha, or Tinkle. This is an extract from a small collection of stories cherished by me. The author of these tales is my daughter, this was narrated when she was three years and four months old. Although the plot is unchanged, she did use both Hindi and English in her rendition that I have translated. Her favourite time for story-telling was from the throne, while she was answering the call of nature!
About two years later, she narrates a story I titled ‘The Dream’:
“One day my sisters, brothers, friends and many other children were going somewhere. We were all enjoying (ourselves). We were going for a picnic. An uncle brought a big bus. We boarded the bus. It started moving very fast. After some time we reached a park. All of us got down the bus and we started playing. Somebody was running, some children were taking rides. We all were playing. Then we ate our snacks and became very tired. Hmmm…. after that I opened my eyes and to my surprise it was a dream! And I saw my mummy sitting next to me.”
With this introduction for this Friday’s post, I will address the issue of creative expressions of children, especially children’s literature, to be distinguished from writing FOR children. As part of my course work during my Masters, I had worked on a seminar on stories by children. This was my first independent project and I was excited to explore how children expressed themselves. At that time, the internet had just been introduced, and we had very little access to online resources, so I decided to visit libraries which were meant for children. The Children’s Book Trust, Bal Bhawan and National Book Trust in New Delhi, were valuable sources for my project. I also collected children’s magazines and newspapers from the local market. School magazines also proved to be fruitful for my quest to explore children’s writings. To my surprise, at that time, most of the material was created by adults for children. As a young scholar in the field, I had expected that such resources would naturally use a significant number of children’s creative expressions along with what adults believed children should be reading. It was a tough challenge to fulfill my project requirements, to find work done by exclusively by children or collaboratively with adults. Mostly, the material available were stories that had been simplified by reducing sentence length, simpler vocabulary with sketches that had been made to look like they were done by children, but essentially all the stuff out there was versions of what adults believed children would enjoy and should be reading! I found only a few isolated instances of stories, diary entries and poems by children. These articles fascinated me and sparked a sustained interest in children’s writing for children. I believed that these stories would offer something special to literature for children, namely, children’s versions of the world around them.
From my perspective, writing is an individual expression of compiled thoughts, emotions, notions and imaginary ideas, interwoven with the nuances of daily life experiences. Reading through these isolated creations I began mapping children’s ideas. An analysis of children’s expression displayed interesting developmental patterns and a remarkable diversity in style of writing, language use and themes. Some of the differences by age showed that the under-fives wrote mostly about and around themselves, perhaps we can call their writing egocentric! In every case, children themselves were the central character of the story. They talked about things in their immediate environment, someone familiar, or something that they valued as a prized possession. Sentences were short and simple. Animism was evidenced, for instance, one child wrote about a cloud that was smiling. Enjoyment was expressed through repetitions, nonsense words and simple rhymes.
Slightly older children emerged as somewhat more confident. There was curiosity, eagerness and a search for explanations for life events. Further, they displayed an emerging understanding of social and emotional experiences. Enhanced cognitive capacities and language facilitated smoother communication of ideas. There was a shift from a focus on the I to other people. At this age, one could see some evidence of themes related to justice, happiness and other social phenomena. One example was a poem on “Feelings” that I had come across.
By the time the children are around ten, social influences became even stronger. I was able to discern imagination, ideals, realism and advancing knowledge. Narratives about cultural events, current affairs, sports and adventurous experiences were some of the customary creations by children. Learning to express themselves independently by becoming active members of institutions like schools and sports clubs was also evidenced. Columns written by student reporters in NIE (News in Education, a pioneering initiative of the Times of India) presented their understanding of the events they were experiencing.
Adolescent writing was even more elaborate and realistic, it seemed. Fairy tales were left behind, and the stories echoed formal dialogue. There was a clear shift from simple riddles to abstract ideas as the narratives became more complex. With an abundance of vocabulary and a control over grammar, adolescents displayed the capacity for a nuanced maneuvering of language. Moreover, their writing displayed multiple shades of thoughts and emotions. For example: ‘Just one tear’ – a book written in diary-entry style described the experiences of turbulent emotions that a young boy had gone through.
From my project report, a poem ‘Feelings’ written by a 9 year-old child (anonymous) in a school magazine.
What are feelings?
Some are good some are bad
Some are happy some are sad
With good feeling we tend to gain
With bad feelings we get pain
So what are feelings?
They are like waves which go here and there
I believed that opportunities to narrate stories endows an individual to convey thoughts, attitudes and ideas in a unique manner. An author opens the window of imagination to the reader with each phrase and I believe that this is a unique way of accessing a child’s mind at any age. Each expression of emotion, fantasy, or reality demonstrates a child’s experience of that phenomenon and the meanings they attach to it within the context as it is understood by the child. This is evidenced in ‘The Dream’ mentioned above. Personification of the central characters while creating a story and weaving a whole imaginative plot around it reflects the author’s perspective on the theme. Furthermore, the social context of children’s lives, the landscape of the roles and relationships is another important feature. In the case of my daughter’s stories, the nuanced references she has to the different relationships that are important to her is, I believe, an element that is not often encountered in stories that are available for children.
When I became a parent myself, I had this constant urge to capture, understand and appreciate my daughter’s perspectives about the world as she was experiencing it. Frankly, many times we as well as our extended family (all of who are closely involved in her upbringing) are amazed at her dexterity in handling her thoughts and expressions. We also make the effort to take her to places that will trigger more creative expressions through active participation in different experiences. One of the favourite activities at family get-to-gethers is listening to her version of an experience after the event. Her stories of travelling through different experiences, we are able to get a peek into her private world. Although she has moved beyond her Lion King impressions, we all cherish this story since it was one of her first! If you have a child or children who you can travel with, Bon voyage!
Susan Engels writes that “Children use stories to understand their world….or even invent their world” and this world and the language used within this world can be quite “opaque” to adults because of the symbolic nature. These are used to guide the way in which children engage with the world around them, and children can get lost in these words which could even carry them away from a story they started with. They can also build a narrative about things that they think can, should or should not happen, all the while creating and expanding the sense of who they are. Quite like ‘The Other Lion King’, this child that Engels quotes narrates:
“Once there was a dog. He loved kids. He was very happy. His name was Ike. He saw this black thing and it was a ship. So he climbed on the ship and the ship took him to Africa. He saw lots and lots of lions and bears and tigers and monkeys. He ran away and went in the bushes and he saw a bushman and the land of Africa. Then he got back on the ship and the ship took him home. Then he saw his mommy. The end!” A five-year-old. (Engels, page 13).
The stories we weave tell us a lot about not only what the child is preoccupied with, but also how. Yet, these expressions are only partially accessible to us. Perhaps that is what makes them so precious. Maybe we should focus more carefully on children’s stories (and by this we mean stories BY children) because we feel that they lack the elegance of language and detail of plot that we expect as adults. Children’s literature needs to be more attentive to literature by children, as our author for this post argues.
Reading this essay triggered a creative spurt in both of us. Pooja wrote her first verse and I remembered mine. Pooja’s words make an attempt to capture her daughter’s intense and extensive preoccupation: story-telling. The six-year-old has constant conversations with real and imaginary creatures. Just last week, she was engaged in a drama with flowers, where each flower was a person, with a distinct name and point of view. Unfortunately, this is her private world and the mumbling cannot always be accessed. She is also a bit self-conscious when she becomes aware that someone is watching or filming her. She also takes known stories and twists them around to change the ending as she was heard giving a new twist to ‘The Three Little Pigs’. Evidently, she didn’t like the conclusion! Here is Pooja’s poem, she says it is her first attempt in the excitement of talking about her children, as readers should keep that in mind!
I dance, I sway; I read, I play
With every move, I ‘ve a story to say!
Dolls come alive; witches have a vibe;
In my world everyone has a tribe!
Continents are far; Stars are near;
The moon has a face, with a smudge and a smear!
Kites in the sky, ocean waves up high;
Pick me up and help me fly!
I dance, I sway; I read, I play;
With every move, I have a story to say!!
Pooja – 20th March, 2018
So many of our memories are constructed around the stories we hear about ourselves. Somewhere in the deep recesses on my memory, there are fragments of a verse that I remember my mother telling me about. Apparently, I composed a verse as a young child that related to my imaginings about my birth. I was often teased about this by my family, but my mother would always have an expression of deep affection when she told (and retold) this story. I have some snatches of images and sounds associated with the memory but it is hard for me to discern whether these were episodes of my narration or my mother’s re-telling. My mother had an incredible memory and I trusted it more than I do mine, so I do believe the verse is genuine. It is also very personal and feels almost embryonic. I don’t know how accurate this is, but since the hair has turned grey, I can say that it must be an approximation. It displays an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a distaste for hospitals for sure. My sister conforms the authenticity of this memory!
Mera Janm (recently titled)
Sooie tootne lagi
Nurse rone lagi
Doctor marne laga
Chaand nikalne laga
…..Aur main born hone lagi
A very young Nandita
Translation – My Birth
The needle snapped,
The nurses wept.
The doctor, he dies
And the moon began to rise,
……………And I was being born
 Engles, S. (1995). Stories Children Tell. New York: Freeman
Try this link for some funny stories by children: https://www.mumsnet.com/features/funniest-stories-told-by-kids