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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Storyteller's Perspective: Matters of Life and Death

I joined a group of friends last week to go and see The Book of Life, a new animated movie for the Halloween season directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro. Most preliminary reviews I read said that the visuals were absolutely stunning, but the story left some to be desired.
As a storyteller, I beg to differ.

One definitely positive point about this movie is diversity - it introduces kids to a different culture and its colors, its words, its mythology, and its festivities. In the past years Día de los Muertos has often been added to Halloween as if they were the same thing - and they are definitely not. In fact, there has been a lot of discussion around cultural appropriation, and turning a serious, religious holiday from another culture into Halloween party make-up. The movie, while it definitely does not solve the entire problem, did add a very clear, colorful, and original voice to it.



Second: It is about storytelling.
And it is also about death.
The death of loved ones, family members, and ultimately, yourself.
Dark enough for kids yet?
You bet.

One thing storytellers these days have to struggle with is the increasing pressure from parents and educators to avoid all "sensitive topics" - among others, death. We are often asked, or even required, to avoid all casualties in our folktales; even villains have to repent and walk off into the sunset instead of dying in the end. While I definitely see where the people asking us are coming from, it is important to know that their request does not make sense.

As a storyteller, I have had more kids complain that the monster or the villain lived in the end than how many parents asked me not to do it. And not because kids wanted to revel in gore and violence. They simply did not feel safe, and they were anxious for the heroes: What if the wicked witch returns? What if the boogeyman is not really dead? Kids think of death as closure, and as long as a menace is not eliminated, the story does not come to a satisfying happy end.
Now, making said end child-friendly is the storyteller's work; it does not have to sound like a play-by-play from last week's episode of The Walking Dead. BUT there is also no reason why we should avoid the mentioning of death.
Death is something we all live with. It happens. Everywhere. To everyone. And if we never tell stories that psychologically prepare children for dealing with its presence, they will have a lot harder time adjusting to it later on in life. There are many, many stories - funny stories, tricky stories, creepy stories, even stories with happy endings - that talk about death in ways that are accessible and comforting to children.

Much like The Book of Life does.

Quoting Neil Gaiman:

“If you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”

For the end, here is an animated short about Día de los Muertos that has been going around on the Internet lately. Lovely, lovely piece.

As usual, you can find @ TarkabarkaHolgy at:
The Multicolored Diary - Adventures in Storytelling
MopDog - The crazy thing about Hungarians

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful review. I hadn't heqrd of the film before, but I think I will try to see it with my teenage daughter.

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  2. neil is of course the master of dark arts for children. Coraline still gives me the willies. on the other hand, i have learned, from a stint in San Antonio, to love Dia de los Muertos. mostly cuz of the desserts. brightly colored and smothered in sugar.

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  3. I don't write for children or even young adults. In my adult novels I almost always have a character who doesn't make it and it's not always the bad guy.

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  4. Hiya .. exactly .. if we don't experience things we'll never know, and we can't avoid death of any variety ... it's all around us in our daily lives ... great post ... and I'd seen the photo of the Catrinas - in fact used it myself last year .. it came from another blogger. I'll have to keep my eye out for The Book of Life ... cheers Hilary

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