"SaY" it with a story: 'Once upon a time'
If I’m lucky enough to have a story by a young author sent to me, odds are high it starts with “Once Upon A Time”.
When I started Spin A Yarn it used to make my heart sink a little to read those four words. I fretted it was the sign of being stuck on creative auto-pilot. How wrong I was.
When children begin their own stories with Once Upon A Time they are signalling that we need to listen carefully to what follows. They are telling us, and themselves, to pay attention.
This will not just be any story — it won’t just tell, it will explore and invite. It will delve into emotional truths, and take us on a rollicking adventure at the same time. Once Upon A Time stories are the written equivalent of pretend play.
Once Upon A Time has been used in some form since at least 1380. When children start their stories this way they are staking their claim to that heritage, proudly and rightly placing themselves in a currency of folk. And those rivers run deep and wide — some version of “Once Upon A Time” is the folktale opener of choice from Thailand to Lithuania.
Consider “In some Kingdom, in some land” from the Russian and Ukranian; “A long time ago” in Thai and Swahili; the Korean “On an old day, in the old times”; the Tanzanian and Kenyan “I remember something that our father told me and that is this”; or, my latest favourite, the opener of choice for the Hungarians, Turkish, Persians and more — “Once there was, once there wasn’t.”
What's the most famous children's story opening line in your country!
Storytellers use these set openings to prepare listeners for a different kind of communication. They invite us into a narrative that is nottrue, butholds truth.Which is dreamlike but grounded in reality. A place and time a-part but close at hand.
The wonder of “Once Upon A Time” is it is a time but also no time. It lands you in a specific story, but not in a specific setting, which makes it apply everywhere and every-time. It’s general without being abstract, and defined without being narrow.It asks for, it even begs for, your imaginative re-creation.
Fairy tales deal unabashedly in types — rarely do the characters even have names. This is a deliberate blankness, leaving puppets for your subconscious to embroider into anything it needs.That’s part of why they are so popular, especially with children.
Now I am a full-on kid-book nerd, and can happily say that of all my parenting faults, providing my two with a delicious array of reading material has not been one of them. But I wasn’t especially drawn to traditional fairy tales at the start. I thought my daughter, at 2, was too young. But then she was given a classic treasury as a gift for her second birthday. They were long stories, and not always the best written or most compelling (to my eyes) but she was instantly captivated. She still is, and now her 6 year old brother too.
There’s good reason for the appeal. As Bruno Bettelheim shows in the 1970s classic, “The Uses of Enchantment”
fairy tales allow children to explore big frightening themes with enough distance to be manageable, but enough closeness to feel relevant.
Fairy tales are like the book equivalent of make believe for kids, they are the ‘independent play’ of the story world. Once Upon A Time — it’s close and far all at once. It’s whatever you need it to be.
When children begin their stories with Once Upon a Time they are adding their part to a shared storytelling that has been weaving for thousands of years. They are sending their creations, with a generosity and openness hallmark to young creativity (too often hoarded by adults), out into the long waterway of the tales mankind has told about itself. It holds that hope and promise of reinvention and connection and recurrence. A big holding of story-hands across the world, and down the ages.
So next time you see those four words being typed, scrawled or told turn your inner groan into a cheer. Delight and get excited for what’s to come. Now when I read them, I revel in the opening. It’s the sure upward chug of a roller coaster, steady and familiar before a headlong hurl into the wilds of a young imagination.
Remember, Your Voice. Their Imagination.