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Imagination Boot Camp: An Essay from Wild Things and Castles in the Sky

[Editor’s note: Our friends at Square Halo books have a brand new collection of essays called Wild Things and Castles in the Sky. Together, these essays form one cohesive guide for choosing books for children. We’re grateful to get to share with you an essay from the book written by Katy Bowser Hutson, which explores themes of wonder, magic, courage, and how fairy tales remind us we’re part of something bigger than we could ever dream.]

My family went to the beach in Florida recently. After a year of quarantine, we jumped at the chance to stay in a friend’s house, be in a new space, and run around on the beach, even though it was winter. We played in the sand. We splashed in the waves, wearing wetsuits to make the February water bearable. On the last day, we piled in the car, exhausted from fun and from throwing ourselves against the enormity of the ocean, our calves sore from navigating shifting sand. We noticed our salty lips as we drove back to the house for hot baths.

The kids were that rare kind of quiet that happens when they are wonderfully spent. As I drove, my husband mused, “I wonder why the ocean is salty.” The thought hung in the air. Then Story, our ten-year-old daughter began, with a dash of bardic flair, “Well, you see, there were two brothers, one rich, and one poor. It was Christmas Eve, and the poor brother didn’t have a bite in the house.” Her six-year-old brother jumped in. “The younger brother asked the older brother for some food for Christmas.” An argument ensued as Story and Del negotiated over who would get to tell the tale. In the end, Story got to tell the main points, and Del was allowed to add color commentary.

They told their dad of a bargain between brothers, a man who met the younger brother en route to Dead Man’s Hall, who then counseled him to bargain for the magic hand-mill behind the door—with the caveat that the magic mill’s owner must know how to make it stop once it had ground out the requested riches. The younger brother escaped from under his brother’s thumb and got the better of him, finally selling the mill for great riches to a traveling skipper. The skipper commanded salt from the magic mill and, in order that he might rest from his perilous travels overseas, ran away to sea before anyone could take the mill from him. But the captain, in his greed and fear, had not asked how to stop the mill.

As Story and Del ended the tale, the ship sank beneath the weight of the salt.

The mill lies at the bottom of the ocean, grinding on to this day.

My husband sat in the front seat and grinned. “Why The Sea Is Salty,” a Norwegian fairy tale first published in the 1840s, was now knit into our story. Our kids know it’s an old story. We can speculate how the story came to be: somebody’s dad in Norway was playing with them at the beach sometime, probably, pulling in his fishing nets, and a child asked, “I wonder why the sea is salty.” Or maybe the dad asked, and the child told the story. The fact remains: the sea is salty, and it is wondrous and worth wondering about. Like hymns and other great works that survive centuries, fairy tales remind us we are part of something bigger. Something magical.

I read “Why The Sea Is Salty” to my children a couple of weeks ago at the beginning of our school day. (We homeschool.) I’ve considered whether to officially include fairy tales as part of our school time. When something is added to our official school day, the kids get suspicious. It becomes obligatory. But fairy tales don’t come with any baggage. I don’t require a narration, and I don’t test. Generally. Okay, this time I did. On a whim, I asked my kids to write a fairy tale; my son had to narrate his for me to write down, and my daughter had to write one. There were two requirements for this fairy tale: it had to explain something inexplicable in the world, and it had to have a twist of magic.

It was effortless for them. Because kids get magic, and kids get wonder.

Our family is not a “books only” family, but books do comprise a large part of our story diet. Books dominate a good bit of square footage (and floor space, and counter space) in our home. We read The Chronicles of Narnia again this year. We are finishing up The Hobbit again and hoping this time the six-year-old and ten-year-old will be up for The Lord of the Rings. We love The Blue Fairy Book and Grimms’ fairy tales. We love D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Greek Myths. I’m finally giving J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Simarillion a shot. Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey I really dig. (You see me blurring the line between fairy tales and myths. I know. I think it’s blurry.)

We are not purists or traditionalists. My daughter also devoured Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories series, which are fun and mischievous takes on Grimms’ and others that Colfer conceived of in childhood. I am thoroughly enjoying Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.

We read fairy tales because they enrich our imaginations. And that is a big deal. I do not believe that fairy tales are tinsel, simply decorating our lives. I do believe that the strength and content of a person’s imagination is of life and death importance. Fairy tales prepare us for life.

A few weeks ago we were all at home when Story called from the living room, “Mama, there are a bunch of cars out front and police yelling, and they just pulled guns out.” We yelled to the kids to run to our bedroom and made them lie low behind our bed. We told them everything we could about what we knew—that God watches over us, and that we have very strong brick walls bullets can’t go through. We prayed for the police officers, and we prayed for whomever they were chasing. We heard helicopters overhead, and the kids were scared. We were scared.

After a while Kenny and I crawled to the front window to see what was going on, and the situation was in hand. Two people were handcuffed. The police had identified a stolen car, and there had been a chase all over town. The culprits had gotten lost in our neighborhood, and the whole situation had come to a head in front of our house.

After talking it out some, we had rest time. We typically separate the kids so that they settle down, but they asked if they could be together, and we kept doors open between us. They looked out the front window where the whole event had happened. They told the story. They came up with scenarios. “What if I had gone out there in Dad’s army helmet from when he was a kid and my bubble gun?” (They laughed.) “What would they have done?” “What if the bad guys took the car because theirs was all rusty? What if this one looked so fast and good?”

I do not believe that fairy tales are tinsel, simply decorating our lives. I do believe that the strength and content of a person’s imagination is of life and death importance. Fairy tales prepare us for life. Katy Bowser Hutson

In Bessel van der Kolk’s wonderful work on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, he tells about visiting friends in New York City shortly after September 11. The morning the first tower fell, the parents had run to their child’s kindergarten and brought their child home. During van der Kolk’s visit, the child showed him a picture he had drawn of the burning tower, the plane, and the people falling. But van der Kolk had a question about the dark circle the child had drawn below the tower. “It’s a trampoline, so next time they won’t get hurt,” the boy said. This child’s imagination was helping him through trauma by imagining a scenario where things could be better next time.

The ability to imagine that we could respond with creativity—that we can do something good to help something awful, that it could be better—is the kind of hopeful thinking that allows us to move through trauma without despairing.

Dr. van der Kolk later says of people frozen in a moment of suffering: “Trauma has shut down their inner compass and robbed them of the imagination they need to create something better.”

Fairy tales do not simply amuse and distract. They arm us. They enrich the arsenals of our imaginations. What does Bilbo do when the dwarves are imprisoned by the elves? What does Saint George do when the dragon captures the well? What do Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum do when the Green Lady enchants Prince Rilian? What do we do in the face of brokenness and evil? Is there any help for us? Sometimes, fairy tales show us that cleverness, bravery, or even conniving will get us out.

I predict the objection, “But we do not live in a world of magic and fairy tales.” To which I strongly disagree. We have forgotten how to look.

Consider this thought of G. K. Chesterton’s:

When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. —G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Fairy tales shake us up; they make us see the world with clean eyes. Imagining a world with dragons reminds me that we live in a world with birds: creatures with jeweled bodies flying everywhere. Magic forests and Ents remind me that we have trees, soaking up and breathing life into our world. Conversely, the major flooding in Nashville this week reminds me of the peril of Saruman’s evil in hastily tearing up old-growth trees.

There is a wonderful TED Talk on the genius of babies, wherein psychologist Alison Gopnik compares their brain chemistry to what happens in an adult’s brain when they travel, when they experience romantic love, and when they have had caffeine. She likens babyhood, with all its highs and lows, to “being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos.” Don’t fairy tales help us recover some of this? To see the world’s wonders anew?

One of the most formative things I’ve heard on books versus movies taught me something about the value of reading fairy tales. When I attended a L’Abri conference as a new mom, I heard Jerram Barrs speak on the seventh Harry Potter book. A mom asked when he thought it was okay to let her children read or watch Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings, or other epic fairy tales. Jerram replied that he read The Lord of the Rings to his grandchildren when they were very young. But he would not let them see Peter Jackson’s movie of the same story until much later. Children, he explained, know very well that there is evil. But they do not need Peter Jackson’s apprehension of evil as he, a grown man, understands it. Let them understand a Ringwraith with a child’s scope of darkness and grapple with it in their own understanding of light and dark.

Fairy tales are light and darkness boot camp.

Children are trying to make sense of the world. It does not make sense without wonder, without heroes, without supernatural beings, or a grand rescue. Frederick Buechner nails this with his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. God is telling the biggest, best, most magical story. We grownups have made tentative sense of things. We’ve made enough peace with mysteries to put them on the shelf and be “productive.” Which is necessary, but perilous. That’s why God gives the world children. They are still skeptical enough to wonder. Their inability to rein in their curiosity waylays curated lessons. They are still wandering off paths into dark, magical woods.

Fairy tales give children a magic saltshaker to season their days; they give them a lexicon of courage and wonder. We grownups know that our children have beanstalks and giants ahead, and that’s why we need fairy tales, too.

Let’s read them together.

Curated and edited by Leslie and Carey Bustard with Théa Rosenburg, Wild Things and Castles in the Sky explores topics like classic literature, imagination, art history, race, poetry, young adult novels, faith, and more. The aim and hope is that these essays would encourage parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends to share the power of a good story with a child they love.

To learn more about the book from its editor, listen to Leslie Bustard’s conversation with Jonathan Rogers on The Habit Podcast.

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