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Posted by Kate, September 17, 2013

We are all born storytellers: a 20 month-old tells a Pip and Posy story

Margaret Atwood, speaking on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 programme, Start the Week, about her book, MaddAddam, said she thinks humans are born storytellers.

She said (9 minutes and 45 seconds into the programme), “I think we are storytellers by nature. And if you look at what children do before the age of, say, four, they will spontaneously understand stories even before they can talk. So we come with that as part of our package – as we come with music, as we come with an interest in images. We pick up language spontaneously. We pick up stories. And I think it must be very, very old, and doubtless conferred an advantage upon us… part of our human inheritance.”

(And on the same programme, Vicky Featherstone, speaking of storytelling in the theatre, said that she was struck by how whole audiences shift in their seats when storytelling in the theatre goes awry. “They know more than we do that something isn’t going right with the story… If it’s not firing on all cylinders and the story needs a bit of editing or a bit of focus, the audience shifts and they feel it physiologically. And that fascinates me, how deeply ingrained our understanding and need for story is.”)

I entirely agree that we are born storytellers – and story-understanders. I speak about this a lot when I am asked to talk to audiences about digital innovation in publishing, and about what stays the same even when media change: the need for story is one of the things that doesn’t change, regardless of revolutions in available media.

A good example of a child as a story-understander, and a storyteller, was sent to us this week by Pam Lamberti, who lives with her husband and daughter Amber in South Africa.

This is what she wrote in her email:

“Hi, Kate

I found your details on the web and hope I am contacting the correct person. I trust you can pass this on to Axel Scheffler.

I want to share a video of my 20 month-old daughter Amber reciting her version of Pip and Posy: The Super Scooter. It is her favourite book by far and she recites these lines to everyone she meets! All of our friends know the answer to the question, “What happened to Posy?” We hear, “Pip helped her,” numerous times a day! A huge thank you to Axel for creating this stunning and engaging book for toddlers. We plan to add more books from the series to our collection soon. The Super Scooter has brought much joy to my daughter all the way down here in sunny South Africa.”

And here’s the video of Amber, which I find fascinating. It’s clear that her parents have gone beyond the text of the book to reinforce Amber’s understanding of the story, discussing the pictures and the story with her. There is no mention in the text of the fact that Pip provides a sticking plaster for Posy, for example, but we see it happening in the picture in the book.

What we can see in the video is, clearly, a sort of “catechism” that Amber knows by heart, and it reminds me of one that my daughter learned at 17 months, not from books, but through our attempt to prepare her for a life-changing event:

Me: “Mummy’s going to go…”

Daughter: “To hospital.”

Me: “And when she comes back she will have a…”

Daughter: “Tiny baby.”

Me: “And you will be a…”

Daughter: “Big sister!”

Like Amber, my daughter told a story that was always the same. The words used, and the story told, were familiar and comforting. Stories helped both toddlers make sense of the world, to order events by reliving them, or imagining them, in words. I wish I could say that I felt that my toddler grasped the import of the story she and I told together in the way that Amber seems to have cottoned on to what’s happening in Pip and Posy, but actually the shock on her face when she did meet her baby sister for the first time suggests that she did not realise that our exchange had real-life implications for her!

Anyway, the point is that, at 20 months, Amber is already telling us stories.