Discovering the depth of children’s stories

StoryFactoryLast week we visited the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, London. It’s billed as “a place for children and their families to play, learn and create stories together”, comprising of two indoor “Story Worlds” and an outdoor “Story Garden” which are exploratory play spaces designed to promote children’s creativity, imagination and literacy. They give an opportunity for role-playing, make-believe and mark-making in a language-rich and story-rich environment. In addition to these, the centre also hosts special events and exhibitions. On our visit one of the events was an interactive multi-sensory storytelling session of You’re Safe With Me, written by Chitra Soundar. The story is about baby animals in the forest who can’t sleep due to the noise of a storm; the storyteller used props that were given to the children which illustrated the different features of a storm.

TigerBut for us the highlight of the day was an exhibition around the Tiger Who Came to Tea, written by Judith Kerr. The name of the exhibition is a little misleading – it focuses on Judith Kerr’s other texts too (including her famous series of Mog the Cat books). In fact, the word “exhibition” is slightly misleading as well and doesn’t accurately reflect the experience. It starts with an immersive storytelling of the Tiger Who Came to Tea. Then, the audience are invited to explore more of Kerr’s stories through a role-play town of locations featured in her books – the vet, the garden, the bedroom (with a crocodile under the bed) and the pond, amongst others.

As we’ve talked about in a previous blog post, sometimes children’s picture books are overlooked because of their supposed simplicity. Whilst The Tiger Who Came To Tea is simplistic in language (Kerr was inspired by Dr Seuss and intended that her stories should have language that children should be able to follow for themselves to help them learn to read), they are not simplistic in execution or message. As one example, perhaps at odds with many reading scheme books, is that Kerr had a policy to “never to put anything into words that children could work out from the pictures: it was, she said, a waste of energy for children learning to read to spend time to decipher the words only to discover it was something they already knew”. As another example, on face-value the story of a tiger coming to tea reads as a funny, if not somewhat unnerving tale of a tiger making an unannounced visit at dinner time and emptying the house of all food and water. Yet we can read the story on another level. Sylvester has considered it in light of Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which documents how Kerr was a German Jewish refugee who fled Germany the day before the election in which Hitler came to power. She says “Unspoken in [the] text is… the particular threat of the knock at the door experienced by Jews in Europe during the Second World War”. The story tells of a huge predator unexpectedly coming in, quickly losing their manners, depleting all the supplies, destroying their surroundings and then leaving, as suddenly as they’d arrived. For this reason Beardsley-Murray argues that “the Tiger really is not really a tiger”, and instead what appears on first glance to be a simple children’s story is a deeper tale of “danger, desire and pleasure.”

If you’ve got young children, we’d definitely recommend a visit to the Discover Children’s Story Centre. The Tiger Who Came to Tea exhibition is on until 5th January 2020. Then from 15th February 2020 a Fairy Tales exhibition will be taking place. And if you go (or have already been) we’d love to know your thoughts.

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