Babies, books and voices: Storytelling and authority

Neil Béchervaise

Storytelling and Authority

The use of the storytelling narrator is frequently engaged to establish historical context in film-making. From the extremes of the 1919 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari through Conan the Barbarian to Woody Allen's Another Woman, viewers are kept consciously aware that they are involved in a story. As Bruner (1986) points out, narrative is one of the two ways we make sense of our world. The features of the story and their importance to us as viewers are nowhere more evident, however, than in a piece of story-telling from the 1971 Australian film, Walkabout. Coincidentally presenting an unlikely wealth of Australian animals during the trek, the sequence clearly illustrates both the complexity and the fundamental value of the story to children of all ages.

In the storytelling sequence of Walkabout, a young aboriginal boy who speaks no English is leading two English-speaking white children, whom he has found lost and close to death, through a lush tropical wilderness, presumably back to civilization.

The aborigine [about 15 years old] leads while the smaller boy [age 10] darts back and forth talking and the teenage sister [also about 15] follows. The white boy is telling a story and, both we as viewers and the older sister presume, the aborigine is listening uncomprehendingly.

But what is really occurring? As we watch, we see the aborigine apparently enjoying the story. Similarly, the excitement and enthusiasm of the storyteller is evidenced. And the older sister? Regardless of her insistence that the storytelling is "a waste of time", she assumes the role of the elder and corrects the details of the story being told. Her intrusion seems, superficially, to be as futile as the storytelling itself but she is, nevertheless, listening intently and critically.

This episode from the film illustrates several points which, I suggest, we often overlook - as parents and, more particularly, as educators. We presume that because the intended recipients of a story cannot decode the language of the story, they are, somehow, impervious to the story itself. If this were the case then we could equally presume that, since babies do not speak English, as we understand it, we need not speak to babies. The patent misconception of this line of thinking has been thoroughly illustrated by numerous researchers from Chomsky (1975) and Halliday (1975) to Heath (1983) and, Berry & Berry (1990) and would need no further consideration if it were not for the fact that the belief tends to be reserved, in many people's minds, for babies. The aborigine in Walkabout is a "baby" only in his comprehension of the English language. Few would suggest that he is a baby in terms of hearing stories - of listening for sense, if not meaning, and of interpreting tone to establish content.

The meaning of the story told by the white boy, complete with its inaccuracies (and corrections), is clear and interesting to the aborigine as we see him. He has learnt, long since, to attach meaning to sound and he has learnt, as Applebee (1978) would observe, the structure of the story - how stories go. He copes with the complexities of the plot and, together with the descriptive asides, he recognises rising and falling action, takes interest in the amendments and waits patiently through interruptions for the continuance. He is as familiar with oral story-telling as, one hopes, is every baby - regardless of its background.

Listeners Shaping Narration

The role of the story-teller's sister is more complex. She is at once an overseer of the heritage from which the story is drawn and a listener - though even as a listener her role is equivocal. I shall return to this point in due course.

As overseer to a heritage of story, the girl sees her responsibility in a similar light to that of an adult - whether elder, parent or teacher. She assumes responsibility for insuring that the content of the story is related accurately, even if pointlessly. As Bahktin (1981) observes, she establishes an "authoritative discourse" which:
permits no play with its borders, no gradual and flexible transitions, no spontaneously creative stylizing variants on it.
(Bahktin, 1981:343)

Having been presented with a story, the girl assumes the power of the red pen (cf. Graves, 1983) and slashes wilfully at every deviation with scant regard for the effect of her guardianship on the transmission of the story itself. Fortunately, both storyteller and listener are made of sterner stuff and they transcend the interruptions.

As keeper of the cultural heritage, the white girl commands and achieves control over the detail of the story. Her efforts to control the audience to whom the story is delivered are less successful, however. While insisting that the aboriginal boy cannot understand the story, she nevertheless allows the story to be told. In a more secure, more censorious environment, she may have even been able to control permission to tell the story (Heath, 1983). Teachers faced with a well-written but inappropriate story will, no doubt, identify readily with her dilemma.

The girl's role as listener is, as previously noted, equivocal. She is, simultaneously, keeper of the cultural heritage, censor, social arbiter and secondary audience. The roles of keeper and censor are essentially elder roles; determination of what is appropriate and exercise of authority. The role of social arbiter, while it is akin to that of censor, requires less sophisticated knowledge and may be illustrated in the difference between the choice of a book by a parent and the same choice by a teacher (the comparison is superficial but it suffices to demonstrate the perceived difference in gravity of the choice). The young girl listening to her brother's story not only corrects it for detail but she makes decisions as to what is important and what is not. More particularly, she makes decisions about what the intended audience, the aboriginal, will understand. In focusing upon content rather than structure, she performs a delightful double-think wherein she judges that there is no point in telling the story because the boy knows no English and, within this apparently practical framework, that he will understand some things less than others (e.g., "He doesn't know what a ladder is."). Her resulting advice to her brother that there is no point in explaining some - rather than other - complex issues and concepts is accepted uncritically by the storyteller who, generally though not always, acquiesces in the wisdom of her viewpoint. His interest appears to lie in the structure of the story, in the import of inflection, in the connotative power of lexicon, in the impact of the telling.

In her fourth major role - as listener - the girl is seen as a secondary audience, a resource to be turned to for verification of story ("Isn't that right?", "Didn't he?"). In this regard, it is essential not only that the girl be listening to the story but that she be more surely versed in its intricacies than the storyteller. The child turning to the adult/teacher for assistance in performing any unfamiliar function expects the adult to be attending to the performance, so must the girl attend as adult/teacher to her young brother's narration. She must not only be listening for immediate content accuracy but she must have an overview of the story which will permit her assistance when required.

Why Tell Stories

The role of the boy as storyteller is, in many ways, the most complex, despite his youth. It is noteworthy that his actual 'telling' of the story is neither disputed nor even commented upon. Some of the reasons for his telling are quite obvious and require little amplification: he is bored; he is frightened of the bush; he enjoys the feel, the structure of stories, even if he has to tell them himself; he wants to show off to his new friend, the aboriginal. Of greater complexity are the opportunities afforded by the situation in which the events occur: there are no real adults present - he recognises that white, urban society still prefers to see rather than hear young children; the audience for his story is usually limited to people of his own age so there is no opportunity for re-telling; oral stories carry much more potential for interpretation and embellishment than written stories. No doubt more possibilities exist but these, at least, show both desire and willingness to enter into the adult world, the world of literature, in a real and meaningful way.

Children, perhaps adults too, are seldom placed in the ideal storytelling situation described here. Their audience is seldom an attentive adult. Instead, young children with the desire to tell stories, to join with their adult peers in literature must provide their own audience. Sometimes the young child reads to and tells stories to a row of dolls, sometimes to an invisible (maybe imaginary) friend - sometimes to the cat. Applebee (1978), Boomer and Spender (1976), Crago and Crago (1983), Heath (1983) and Berry & Berry (1990) provide an even wider sample of story-telling sites. At other times, mother or father becomes the audience. These latter audiences are volatile, however, and best engaged when otherwise occupied (favoured times include during cooking or with head under hood of car). The young story-teller of Walkabout is presented with a prize audience - an adult who listens attentively and a second adult who can be utilized as both editor and resource.

From the viewpoint of the reading educator, a number of compelling observations must arise from any consideration of the story-telling process but the most significant is that it is not the story which is the most important aspect of story-telling. A story can only be told if there is a story-teller and an audience. At a literary level, the storyteller is usually seen to be the author; the reader is the audience and, as Meek (1988) has pointed out, the real story occurs in the inter-text (which operates between the lines, between author and reader, and which is deeply personal).

It is at this inter-textual level, of course, that the storytelling process either works or fails and at which its full complexity is revealed. The relationship between author/storyteller and reader is developed, as Goodman (1976) postulated, on the basis of a depth of shared experience - "Can you remember where the hay-stack used to be?" but it continues to develop only when the audience agrees to accept the storyteller's story, to share the story with its teller, "Well, about 100 yards south of that hay-stack there was a magic wishing tree.". Once we have accepted a girl falling asleep under a tree (a shared experience) we must accept that she can fall down a rabbit hole - after that, all things become possible - if the story-teller is resourceful enough. But the example of story-telling from Walkabout delineates the nexus between story content and story structure, between literal meaning and emotional meaning.

Story Bonding

At a literary level we understand, increasingly, how and why reading is important, how storying is important. What we still have little comprehension of is the primacy of early storying if later development is to occur. The work of Boomer and Spender (1976), Clark (1976), Applebee (1978), Trelease (1984) and, more recently, Berry (1992) strongly suggests that storying, how a story is, begins very early in a child's emotional development, in the pre-speech stage at least when emotional meaning is more important than literal meaning. But it is the determined work of such writers and researchers as Chall (1967), Chan (1974), Meek (1982) which has initiated exploration of possible mechanisms by which this might occur.

A young baby in a nursing mother's arms usually learns quickly to associate mother with food. The knowledge is rapidly expanded to include the identification of mother's voice with the immediacy of food. Mother, through the agency of her voice, represents a source for the removal of discomfort (hunger in this case) even before the baby can properly focus its eyes to receive an accurate image of her. This initial association of voice with comfort seems to establish the primary relationship of speaker to audience which is also fundamental to the success of the story-teller. It is not primarily a question of what the story is but how the story is which arms it with meaning - a case clearly and amusingly exemplified by Tom Selleck in the generally forgettable Three Men and a Baby when he reads an account of a title fight from Sports Illustrated to the baby as a soothing bed-time story ("'s not the story they listen to, it's the tone of voice").

As the comforting, caring adult/parent continues to nurture the developing infant, the rules for storying are further established. While adult/parent works, baby is present. Adult talks to baby, holds baby, reads to baby. The adult/baby bonds are established through the agency of the adult voice while tonal variation rather than specific content determines early comprehension. Ausubel's (1968) reference to the "scripts" which permit schematic association of apparently disparate events provides a useful basis for explanation of early story apprehension. The confusion of the American researcher Lucinda Boggs in 1905 "that children ... to twelve years of age read nonsense text almost as rapidly as significant texts" should provide us with little reason for surprise if we accept the way in which bonding develops - and we need express little concern at the longevity of this apparently futile ability if we recognise that schema extinction implies extinction of a thought process (Rumelhart, 1980).

Once the adult/baby bonding has been established- through the agency of the adult's ability to remove discomfort - the characteristics which establish readership become identifiable. If the adult is a reader then the only slightly more complex but infinitely more important adult/book/baby bonding may be established. The voice of the nurturing adult, the comfort provided and the presence of the book become an inseparable schematic triad (Bechervaise, 1988), the presence of any two parts of which may evoke the presence of the third. And if this triadic bonding with books is established during babyhood then the baby has achieved (or been awarded!) the fundamental first criterion for literacy discrimination - stories are for enjoying.

The storytelling sequence from Walkabout presents a largely unintentional demonstration of the power of storying to evoke enjoyment as a response to narrative. The roles played by active listeners and powerful storytellers are clearly delineated in the obvious and enthusiastic comprehension of the aboriginal boy and the continued insistence of the storyteller's sister that "He can't understand". The nature of the bond which is established between the storyteller and his primary audience is paralleled in the development of the bonding between mother and child when books are first introduced into a baby's environment.

When the role of storytelling is so obvious that it even appears in films then our pale yet ongoing arguments about the value of narrative storying must fade with the literary dawn.


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