I adapted this collection of Andersen’s stories, with moral messages for the current generation of children, in mind (all but The Princess On The Pea – I’m not sure what that one’s meant to be saying to the children of today, but it was a fun classic, difficult to resist).
I left The Ugly Duckling unchanged and unabridged; and what a beacon of identity teaching it is – a relentless, drudging struggle for inclusion, of a vulnerable individual; and, in the end, a glorious revelation that he is, somehow, above all mediocrity, by the very virtue of his ostracized characteristics. Sure, children’s literature has moved on; and, in English, we are truly spoilt for choice, when it comes to the creative metaphors for taking pride in being different, owning your identity, accepting yourself and others, for who we are. I guess what marks out Andersen (and other authors of his age) is his plunge into the darkness, so uncharacteristic of other writing for small children. Yet, it is precisely that child’s opportunity for empathy that sends a clear message across.
The Emperor’s New Clothes – I really can’t think of a contemporary children’s story with such a sophisticated, layered message – ‘if you don’t tell the truth, your lie will be exposed’ – but that’s not all – ‘if you lie for the fear of the loss of status, you will lose it in a most undignified way’ – it’s politics for the beginners, something we stopped talking about between grown-ups, at the school gates, let alone disguising it in children’s stories. There’s more – ‘if you trust others’ convictions, more than your own, others will laugh at you’... ‘if you care about appearance above all else, you will appear ridiculous’... ‘if you let your ambitions get the better of you, you will be left with nothing’... ‘if your clothes are too expensive, you will be naked in the end’... ‘if you underestimate others, you will suffer at their hand’... It keeps on giving. I set it in today’s London; and it works unsurprisingly well.
The Little Match Girl is a story close to my heart. It’s one of those Andersen’s stories, whose age appropriateness really is questionable. I think I heard it too early. The disturbing death of the little girl in the end made me remember the feel of the story, but forget what happened in it. I archived it in my mind, somehow, as a ‘mysterious’ story, for a long time, though I had heard it and should have known it well. Still, I believe, strongly, that it made me much of who I am. It affected me deeply and uncompromisingly. The message of the story cannot be more relevant today than ever; and what an embarrassment that is to our civilisation and the structure of our societies we have arrived to, after so much invention, progress, discovery, productivity, abundance of resources and knowledge! Yes, we still have and watch children die in poverty, in suffering, in loneliness, cold and hunger. Did he know we would, always and forever, when he wrote it? Did he think this was our human nature or hope that his story would effect change in Denmark? However long sighted he may have been, the crux of this story’s ending is our Western move into ignorance – not only by what the story tells us about ourselves, but by our reluctance to expose our children to it. This story is barely told to children these days. We don’t want to upset them. We confuse the ‘loss of innocence’ with the ‘empathy’. I pandered to this, in my adaptation of The Little Match Girl. I don’t regret it. I hope I have created a more accessible ending for today’s children, while still allowing a scope for the image of the consequences of the alternative.
The other three stories I adapted are less known and have suffered a heavier tailoring from my hand and my imagination. I will write about them in my next blog.
Apart from the obvious mental switch from one medium to another, in what other ways are audio books changing our perceptions of literature?
I asked a friend the other day if she bought my book yet; and she got confused. Have I written a book? She knew nothing about it. I would have expected her to get confused by my assumption that she’d buy my audio book at all, but no – her mind just could not imagine a ‘book’, without that hard, rectangular paper object, with letters and pictures to hold in her hands; and flick through, one by one, in the solitary silence of her personal space and the physical evidence of her virtual journey.
Indeed, the romance of our reading habits cannot be matched by the images of hardware plugging our ears, to the disturbing sounds of someone else’s voice eroding our daydreams and distracting us from our own imagination.
No – not if we try to enjoy the literature in the same way.
The recent surge of production in this fast-expanding medium gives audio books a place of practicality, convenience and dry pragmatism, in our minds. We tend to think of it as something borne out of necessity – a response to our fast-paced lives, which have gradually bumped the solitary moments, daydreams and reading-for-pleasure out of our life schedules... Or, maybe, we simply think of books as something that is read – not listened to.
Whatever it is, our sense of comfort with multisensory consumption of literature is only the matter of time, but that’s not all. Audio books do a lot more than replicate a book in a different medium.
What audio books do is create additional layers of literary experience, while still leaving it to the listener’s imagination to create its own vision of the journey.
Human voice is a micro-universe of unique expressive systems, controlled by willpower and breath. Each and every vocal system in our species is different. We are a race which creates by existence. No ‘book’ remains the same, once read out loud; and it changes again, when read by someone else. The sometimes subtle differences in our voices leave deep impressions on the listener, which are often more meaningful than the meanings of the words. These differences are due to the endless combinations of our different body structures and life experiences. Human voice is the window into our souls. Voice and word reveal the complexity of our beings, in bloom.
Technology has done much to change our perceptions and consumption habits, in all ways, including literature. Here, like everywhere, it manipulates. It highlights, distorts, elevates, tunes, asserts... It is our own overpowering tool; and we have to tame it, train it, restrain it – own it. It is the one segment, which stands out of all others, as the defining experiential difference – ‘is something live or recorded?’. Audio books are the recorded versions of the spoken-word art; and, by the virtue of that, they are completely different.
Many audio books these days come without sound effects or music. I think this is a pity. Of course, not all of them call for those additional layers – indeed, they may be distracting – but many of them miss out on it, due to the short production schedules, again, driven by the desire to expand and multiply. Sound effects and music play a vital part in storytelling. They are another phenomenon of unique human endeavour, which helps us define who we are. They, in themselves, are complex, multi-layered creations, often able to stand as stories, on their own.
Weaving the web of storytelling together, these different expressions of our identities are the wonders, discoveries and celebrations of our existence. Call them ‘books’... or maybe something else?
Audio books are a funny little thing, especially for children, nowadays. You’d think that that’s whom they’re cut out for, but not many children listen to audio books, actually. I remember the audio books of my childhood, strongly and fondly. You do, too, I’m sure. They, actually, make some of my earliest memories, now. I listened to ‘Ivica i Marica’ (Hansel and Gretel) and ‘Šuma Striborova’ (Stribor’s Forest), a story of dubious gender morality, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, touted as ‘Croatian Andersen’, funnily enough, over and over – as much, if not more, for the worlds they drew me into with soundscapes, music and narration, as for the story. Being lost in these forests stretched time for me; and made the experience particularly edgy, because I listened to it on my own – I got lost and found on my own AND I controlled the cassette player on my own, rewinding, fast-forwarding, stopping and starting, as I wanted to hear the story. When I catch sight of Zak now, listening to an audio book, I recognise that lost-in-story look of wonder in his eyes, that you get when no one’s watching you.
Today, while audio books are on the rise, as the fastest-growing medium, because adults welcome the consumption of literature ‘on the go’, children’s attention is being consumed by the all-powerful visual media; and parents want to spend the precious time they have with their children, reading the stories themselves. It’s understandable. I imagine, they’d also like to avoid an extra cause for a tantrum, by suggesting the listening to a story, instead of the watching of Netflix on a tablet, while the dinner is being made. Not all! I exaggerate. Still, I have had questions, from willing and enthusiastic parent friends, ‘when do you get him to listen to audio books?’. It’s an honest and fair question. The culture of this enjoyment is, simply, somewhat lost. The screen has taken over.
Obviously, I’m biased, but not nearly as much because I make audio books, as because I despise screen time. The debilitating effect of screen time on children is acknowledged by all of us; and expanding on it will add nothing to its reduction and everything to the increase of the parents’ feeling of guilt. What do we do?! Is there a way out of it?! Really?! Without damaging them in some other way?!
There are many ways and they are all different for all of us, obviously. Some of us go for the all-or-nothing approach – the hard cut of ‘all things screen’, or the go-with-the-flow licence to ‘watch as much as you want’. Others have timers / schedules / content control / technology selection / rewards / punishments... or substitutes.
Well, may I propose a substitute, softened by a still rather high level of stimulus and a potential change of routine or culture? If your child isn’t in the habit of listening to audio books, put one on in the background, while you play a board game, have a meal , help them get dressed or do any other activity, in the day time and TOGETHER! Don’t place emphasis on the audio book as an event, but introduce it as a casual by-the-by, background thing, that it will be! The books we love and, I think, make a great audio-book listening introduction for the very small children of 3 years of age and up, are The Cat in The Hat and Other Stories (Dr Seuss), read by Adrian Edmondson, Beatrix Potter works, read by Vivien Leigh, Mr Men series, read by Arthur Lowe and That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, read by Tamsin Greig. That should be enough to kick start the process. Listening to the soundtracks of the musicals the child is familiar with will also develop that habit that we all have, of having some music in the background. Over the time, their audio-book listening will grow more and more independent and they will ask for the ones they’ve heard and search for the new ones, at their own initiative – at that solo breakfast before school, while painting a new mug, building a train or sitting on one.
But, why are audio books so good for children?! Oh, my, oh, my! They are not good only for children – they are the free Masters degree holding babysitter, with an educational lesson plan, on tap. Audio books open up children’s imagination, in the way that no other medium can. They let the children create their own vision of the world of the story, increase their vocabulary, introduce them to the diversity of voices and interpretations; and, of course, like all stories, improve their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Last, but not least, they are a celebration of a collaborative human endeavour – thought, language, voice, music and technology.
So, next time you’re about to disappear for half an hour behind a stove, instead of flicking on a favourite Netflix program, try suggesting a play with an intricate toy that collected some dust in the recent past; and put a book on, in the background. If it’s good, turn it up – they’re not just for kids.