Into the Briar Patch: My relationship with fictional children's literature
I set out trying to write this paper over a month ago. I had a pretty basic question, what do we read to children and why? When my first attempt at finding material supporting reading nonfiction to children was fruitless, I turned to writings on children’s imaginations and imaginative play- specifically Barbie and her role in the formation of a young girl’s imagination. While Barbie’s role in role in imaginative play is interesting, my original question was still unanswered. Since the title of the class is Nonfiction Prose I felt that I should be addressing the reading of Nonfiction to children; but as our recent class discussions have shown, the line between fiction and nonfiction for literary scholars can be difficult to delineate, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction can be even more challenging for children to navigate. After further research it appears that the distinction between nonfiction and fiction from a child’s point of view is irrelevant, children do not listen to stories based on their “factual” merits.
The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris was my favorite set of stories when I was younger. My copy did not have any illustrations, which allowed me to create my own versions of Brer Rabbit. The fact that I had ownership over Brer Rabbit was particularly appealing to my younger self. Every night I choose two stories that were read to me, my parents started this tradition by telling me that I could choose two books but limited me to two stories after I handed them Uncle Remus and told them they could “Just read it to me twice.” The Wonderful Tar Baby Story was my favorite, it required imagination and resulted in a terrific mess, what else could you want in a children’s story? However, the Uncle Remus that had the most profound impact on me was Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch.
In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim describes childhood as a period that is full of anxiety and curiosity. Considering Betelheim’s career this is an accurate statement, “As an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children, my main task was to restore meaning to their lives”. (Bettelheim, 4) Is there a cause and relationship effect between what children read and how they react to their environment; Bettelheim strongly believes that there is a correlation between the two. The link between a fictional tale, in Betelheim’s research fairy tales, and a child’s actual environment is his imagination. If a child reads a story about slaying a dragon and then daydreams and imagines himself within the story he begins to understand the concept of fear and confrontation. There is no surface practicality in reading a story about dragon slaying to a four year old, but the inherent value of reading about situations that one has not encountered is a way for a child to prepare themselves for later challenges. We teach our children through “fiction” to create a “reality” that then allows them to deal with the “facts” of life.
Why read about hardship to children? Upon examination of the content of many fairy tales the range of subjects and characters within these stories is astounding. For example, Snow White. Snow White is hated by her step-mother, forced to leave home and become independent, poisoned and killed, and the rescued by an enchanting prince. One could write a book on each of the above concepts and how they impact children, that is not the point of this paper. It is evident that children are seeking these stories of adversity as they try to understand themselves and their rapidly changing environments. As Smacholdt brilliantly stated when referring to Coles’ the call of stories “We’re all in trouble, one way or the other”…People need stories to make sense of their lives and experiences...” (Serendip, Towards Day 25: The Call of Stories), this statement seems especially true for children. The imperative to read fictional stories, often fairy tales or other fantastic stories, to children is two pronged; these stories emphasize two important lessons firstly, the importance of being self-sufficient and independent, and secondly the necessity to have meaningful human relationships. For me, the emphasis on independence was what I learned from the fictional stories read to me.
In Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch Brer Rabbit is actually captured by Brer Fox, classic Road Runner and Coyote relationship, and about to be served as dinner when he takes control of the situation. As Brer Fox describes all of the ways that he could eat Brer Rabbit, roasting, boiling, Brer Rabbit says that all of those options are better than being thrown in the Briar Patch. Brer Fox, thinking that the worst punishment would be to throw Brer Rabbit in the Briar Patch, hurls him into the patch expecting to hear cries of hurt and pain, but instead hears laughter. It turns out that Brer Rabbit’s favorite place is the Briar Patch and he once again escapes. As Bettelhiem theorized, I used this classic tale of choosing one’s own punishment to thwart a disaster of my own.
One day in Fifth Grade I decided that I was no longer going to where my uniform, plaid jumper, knee socks and accessories, to school. I cleverly told my mom that this particular day at school was a dress down day, as we were going on a field trip. My mom thinking that this was not unusual sent me to school with my dad, I repeated the same story with him, consistency is key. I jumped out of the car behind school so my Dad would not see everyone else in their uniforms and I marched in to class, which is where my day became worse. The plan that I had worked out in my mind only brought me so far as escaping from my parent’s questions about me not wearing a uniform, I had forgotten about what my teacher would say. Actually she didn’t say anything, she took attendance with me in my blue jeans and green t-shirt, and allowed me to go on the field trip. I thought that I had gotten off, was there really not going to be a punishment, could I really follow my own rules? As the class filled out to go to recess I joined my place in line when my teacher politely asked “Where are you going?”
“I was going to go eat lunch and go on the playground.” I responded.
“I would have no problem with you going to recess if you had worn your uniform today. I telephoned your mother and she was shocked, she distinctly remembers you telling her that today was a dress down day. It is not my job to punish you for lying to your mother, but it is my job to make sure that you obey the rules that I issue. For the rest of the month you will eat lunch in class with me and write “I Will Obey My Teacher” in cursive at least one hundred times a day, what you do not finish in that time you can take home. I talked with your mother and she says that you would not mind having the extra homework.”
Clearly something was wrong, I was Brer Rabbitt in this situation and Brer Fox had a death grip on me.
My mother’s punishment allowed me a little more creativity than my school punishment. My acting out in school, according to my mother, was a result of me being to busy. She was going to have to make a choice, either I was giving up ballet or cross country. As stated earlier in class when discussing possible performance options in class, I cannot dance. My ballet instructor once said that when I tondued it “looked like a dog urinating on a fire hydrant”; I was only to happy to give up this up, but I knew that if I showed how relieved I was then my mother would probably make me give up cross country instead. “Mom, I love ballet so much, I just don’t know what I will do if I have to give it up.” My mother stopped taking me to ballet the next day. I have no idea if my mother knows the reverse psychology that I tried to use on her, she probably does, or if she finally recognized my dancing deficiencies, but none of that mattered. I had figured out how to control my own life, the idea of independence liberated me at the time, despite the shackle of written lines that were mine for the rest of the month.
- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, Random House, New York, 1975, 4.
- Serendip, Towards Day 25: The Call of Stories