28 Feb Morris Gleitzman on the Importance of Stories
Introducing Australia’s 2018 Children’s Laureate, Morris Gleitzman.
When I think of Morris Gleitzman, I think of Misery Guts, Blabber Mouth, Wicked! and Bumface – books that are some of the cornerstones of my lifelong love affair with stories. Book have shaped how I view the world and the direction I took in life. That’s why I couldn’t think of a theme to better fit Morris Gleitzman’s appointment as Australian Children’s Laureate for 2018 and 2019 than ‘Stories Make Us – Stories Create Our Future’.
For the past 30 or so years, Morris Gleitzman has been a constant presence in children’s fiction, exploring a range of subjects in unexpected, funny and confronting ways. At the heart of each of his books is his belief that stories need to equip readers with a strength “to embrace an often dark and uncertain world with optimism, resolve and creativity.”
I was lucky enough to be able to pick his brain on these very things – on darkness, laughter and how stories shape us and the future.
Here’s part one:
On the responsibility of stories…
A rule I laid down for myself at the very beginning of my career was I wouldn’t stop myself from writing about any part of the world that young people share, but I would never write a story in which the main character felt worse about themselves and their place in the world at the end compared to the beginning.
I’ve often written about problems that a character is not able to wholly solve. Sometimes, the attempts to solve the problem continue after the end; sometimes they are major global problems that the character has come to understand will take generations to solve, if at all. A part of my reason for writing is to show young people, even if they come to more fully understand how formidable some of the problems they face are, to not give up.
Stories have a unique opportunity and, therefore, responsibility to show all sides of life.
Young people today have greater access to the world than young people in previous generations, through an unprecedented array of communications technologies. But that access has limitations. When we look at our physical and online environments, what we’re seeing is mostly surfaced; it’s tiny parts of the whole. What stories can do is show both the complexity and wholeness of human experience.
I think all of us know from quite a young age that in ourselves is the capacity for the worst that humans are capable of, and the best. Children are encouraged to acknowledge and demonstrate the positive side of that. Often children pick up very young the unstated but strongly implied message that should any darkness be present inside us, it should be shut away, pushed to the perimeters and ignored and perhaps it will go away.
But that’s not really how the human psyche works. I think we’re all better off as individuals and groups, the more we are capable of using our own intellects and personal moral landscapes to decide for ourselves the best course of action.
So stories have the incredible [duty] to allow us to experience, through the imaginative process of reading fiction, both sides of our human natures and potentials.
On having options…
I try to write stories that evoke all sorts of questions and that invite observations of how complex and personal our moral challenges can be. It’s always been very important to me that stories help young people develop a personal and moral process that has nothing to do with pre-existing moral precepts that are handed down by adults from on high as being absolutes.
I want to present young people with a reminder and demonstration that all sides of our natures are always there as possibilities.
I want to give them lots of other options. I want them to be creatively constructing their own views of the world, their own sense of what’s wrong and what’s right, their own judgments, their own set of priorities through obviously their own lived experience and also through the stories they read.
On how stories reflect life…
[Stories] reflect every aspect of life but in terms of their overall shape, in terms of where most stories end up, I think they reflect the more positive possibilities in life. If we’re lucky, we’ll have lots of the good stuff but we almost certainly won’t escape the bad stuff. We’ll probably be capable of enjoying the good stuff better if we make room in our lives for an acknowledgment of the bad stuff – rather than pushing it off into some dark corner and pretending it doesn’t exist. Stories have the capacity to help us understand that it’s worth making room for some painful stuff in our life just as it is to embrace the good stuff as much as possible.
I can only justify and even want to create stories in that part of the human experience for young readers if I’m also making those stories about love, friendship, hope, optimism and constructive creative thinking; and presenting young people with a reminder and demonstration that all sides of our natures are always there as possibilities. But it is not honouring and being truthful about the nature of [the world] to pretend that it will always be concluded with a completely happy ending.
I try to make my stories reflect life which is if we’re lucky, we’ll have lots of the good stuff…but we almost certainly won’t escape the bad stuff.
We’re probably going to be wholler and healthier people – and we’ll probably be capable of enjoying the good stuff better – if we make room in our lives for an acknowledgment of the bad stuff – rather than pushing it off into some dark corner and pretending it doesn’t exist.
Feature Image by Annie Spratt