What are stories for? Ask an average group of young American narrative consumers this question and they most likely won’t know what you mean. What you’ll likely get are blank faces, shrugs.
So, let’s get more specific. What are movies, TV shows, comic books, and novels for? What’s the point? Why watch? Why read? Why do we as a culture bother to spend billions of dollars (and hours) creating and consuming stories?
The consensus answer—regardless of whether the kids asked are active and aggressive readers or merely passive imbibers of whatever happens to be on—will almost always come down to one word and one word only: fun. Why do we watch? For fun. Why do we read? For fun.
Spider-man and Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead all exist for fun. Twilight is fun. Or it isn’t fun. And so this girl is absorbed in the books while that boy sneers and mocks. Personal and peer-group tastes and pleasures are adhered to as if they were indisputable and authoritative.
But the word fun is a simplistic label for what is actually a remarkable and complex experience. Stories make people feel. Stories (particularly novels) take control of and govern the imagination, causing readers to feel things on command. Stories create empathetic and sympathetic bonds between readers and fictional characters, and those bonds are truly real. In fact, they can be more lasting than the bonds between readers and their fellow earth-walking humans because a fictional character is fixed and unchanging. I have deeply admired and looked up to Faramir (from The Two Towers, the second book of the Lord of the Rings series) from my youth, and that admiration has only grown. On the other hand, there are real men whom I long admired, and whom I admire no longer.
Stories create affection and fear and joy, love and hate and relief. Stories can create loyalties and destabilize loyalties. Stories are catechisms for the imagination. Catechisms for emotions, for aspirations. Stories mold instincts and carve grooves of habit in a reader’s judgments.
Stories are dangerous, and that isn’t a bad thing. Rain is dangerous. Sunlight is dangerous. Stories are potent, but that potency can be used for true and good and beautiful ends, or it can be used to attack and destroy and undermine truth and goodness and beauty.
Let a faithful author guide a child’s imagination, and that child will learn (and feel) what it is like to be courageous, to stand against evil, to love what is lovely and honor what is honorable. Hand them the wrong book, and they could learn to numb their own conscience, to gratify and feed darker impulses. The wrong stories catechize imaginations with sickness.
Twilight is a manual for adolescent girls on how to become abused women. Is that man moody and mercurial and vicious? Is he death and danger? Let’s have tens of millions of young girls practice (through emotional connection to a character proxy) envisioning themselves trailing around behind him like kicked puppies, just hoping for a sparkly smile. And let’s have that imagined behavior rewarded. What could go wrong?
Of course, it’s rarely that simple. Books (and stories in general) can weave just a single layer of dissonance through an otherwise harmonic structure. The Hunger Games begins with a girl selflessly offering herself as a substitute for her little sister. Grand. We see beauty there and we bite. We attach to Katniss (our heroine) because she has earned our sympathy, and then we ride with her through her awful and horrific servitude to the debauchery of a corrupt nation. But a switch takes place. We linked up with her when she was driven by selflessness, but she quickly moves into a radical Darwinian selfishness, willing to participate in the murder of innocents in order to preserve herself. Cruciform behavior is subbed out and survival of the fittest (as an ethical justification for bloodshed) is subbed in.
And here we see what happens when a book (and a character) is well-crafted but false. When I criticize the motivation of a character in The Hunger Games, it is easy for people to respond emotionally as if I had insulted their most beloved sister. Because, even though the character isn’t real, the affection and loyalty and pride and worry created in the readers is very real indeed. And once the affections are involved, objective critical discussion is emotionally charged (and zesty).
Critical thinking and imaginative selfcontrol are obviously essential things to give to young readers. We should want to raise children with the ability to resist an author and a narrative, to laugh, criticize, and dismiss folly, no matter how hard a storyteller might be working to feed them falsehood. But the first step is to establish their tastes in truth with stories that will root their instincts and loyalties in goodness and beauty. Feed them narratives that love the lovely and honor the honorable. Let them wander Narnia and Middle-earth and be edified and strengthened and inspired. Give them a strong foundation and stubborn taste. When it comes to story, there’s nothing wrong with being a picky eater.