Finding moral clarity in children’s stories

Mark Stephens on how the simplest stories can get behind our defences and expose ourselves to each other.

“[The] world’s destiny is formed in children’s bedrooms.”

So said Astrid Lindgren, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, referring to the power of kids’ books to transform lives.

Lindgren created Longstocking against the backdrop of World War II. Asked to describe her proudly freckle-faced protagonist, Lindgren summarised: “Pippi represents my own childish longing to meet a person who has power but does not abuse it.”

It’s a reminder that for all their silliness, some children’s stories can get under your skin with their moral clarity. And you often don’t see it coming.

Perhaps my premier example of a children’s story messing with my head is Pam Allen’s Herbert and Harry. The story of two brothers who unwittingly stumble upon buried treasure, Herbert violently excludes Harry from having any claim to the booty. The obsessive Herbert then goes to extraordinary lengths to protect his wealth: digging tunnels, building walls, purchasing guns. The book finishes by juxtaposing two pictures: one lonely old man on a fortified hill, and another surrounded by his family. The accompanying text reads:

Today, Herbert, and Harry are very old men.
Herbert still guards the treasure in his fort on top of the highest mountain in the land.
But still, he cannot sleep.
While Harry, who had no treasure, has always been able to sleep soundly.

This capacity for stories to surprise reminds me of some of the parables of Jesus. At surface level, they appear as quaint stories or clever illustrations of spiritual truths. But actually, parables of Good Samaritans and Prodigal Sons are stories which, in the words of Kierkegaard, “wound you from behind.” Sometimes we need the simplest story to get behind our defences and to expose us to ourselves and each other.