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Meg Rosoff: »I´m Going to Tell You a Fairy Tale«

ILB 2017 - SECTION INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN´S AND YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE - OPENING SPEECH

 

The opening speech was held by Meg Rosoff on September 6, 2017, at Haus der Berliner Festspiele. It was published in the FAZ on September 8, 2017, and in an edited version in the Guardian on September 15, 2017.

 
















I’m going to tell you a fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks.  One day, she went for a walk in a dark, dark wood. Soon she came to a pretty cottage. 
Well, actually it was more of a cave.  No, not exactly a cave -- it was more of a narrow tunnel dug in the ground leading to a muddy underground den.  Goldilocks knocked at the mouth of the tunnel and, when no one answered, she crawled down, down, down into the den.

At the table in the kitchen of the den, she found three bowls of porridge. 

Well, let’s be accurate. 

There was no table and no kitchen because bears do not have the fine motor skills to build kitchen units or furniture.  That’s why you never see a bear loading a dishwasher or playing chess.


As for bowls of porridge, that would be untrue – bears don’t like porridge, and besides, they can’t cook. In fact what Goldilocks found were the rotting remains of three dead rabbits. 

Goldilocks was very hungry.  So she tasted the first.

"This rabbit is disgusting!" she said.

She tasted the second rabbit:
"This rabbit is also disgusting!" she said.

She tasted the third rabbit.
"This is the most disgusting rabbit of all!" she said and decided to eat the cheese sandwich she’d brought with her instead. It tasted very nice.

After eating her sandwich she felt sleepy.

So she lay down in the first bed. 
Although really, it wasn’t a bed.  It was a pile of leaves mixed with mud and bear excrement. 

Then she lay down in the second bed, which was pretty much the same.  Finally she lay down in the third bed, another pile of leaves mixed with mud and bear excrement, and fell fast asleep.

As she was sleeping, the three bears came home, crawled down the tunnel and into the cramped den.
"Growl," growled the Papa bear, who weighed 200 kilos and had 10cm razor-sharp claws.

He did not say “Someone’s been eating my porridge” because of course bears can not speak any language other than bear.

"GROWL," growled the Mama bear, who weighed 150 kilos and had teeth capable of ripping human flesh to shreds.

"Grooooowl,” growled the baby bear, who was less dangerous, but whom both parents were genetically programmed to defend to the death.

Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears.  “Help help help!” She screamed.

But it was too late.

They ate her.

The End.

There are many people who believe this is the proper way to tell a fairy story.

With facts.

 

Because facts are true, and a fact-based education will, according to the British government, be far more useful at helping students get jobs once they’ve graduated from university.

Richard Dawkins, world famous atheist and author of The God Delusion, announced a few years ago that:

“Most fairy tales do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.”

Now, I suppose Richard Dawkins was referring to the fact that it is scientifically impossible to spin straw into gold, for giants to live at the top of beanstalks, and for frogs to turn into princes. 
And it is true, that in repeated clinical trials, no scientist has ever managed to change a pumpkin into a golden carriage.

I’m sure you are as shocked by this news as I am.

Fairy tales are dangerous, Dawkins believes. 

Parents, he said, “should be fostering in children a spirit of skepticism instead of filling their heads with fantasy.”

Children’s fantasies are dangerous, in other words. 

Richard Dawkins and the British government are in

philosophical agreement.

 

Creativity, culture and the arts are being systematically

removed from our education system. In recent years there

has been a huge reduction in the number of pupils

studying design, drama, music, painting and sculpture.

 

Students in Britain are being discouraged even from studying literature, in favour of sciences, economics and mathematics – the better to prepare them to go into serious careers -- like business, law, banking and finance. Real careers, where you can make “real” money.

A government education paper encouraging more

students to study economics and engineering reads,

“Think of the impact on productivity and competitiveness!”

 

But what if productivity and competitiveness are not what you care about?

What if you care about improving society?

Or doing something where the goal is not to make more money or to buy a bigger house, or a bigger car, or a more expensive holiday?

Is it possible that what the government tells us about education could be wrong?

It’s certainly half-wrong. Because there’s nothing at all wrong with studying mathematics and science.

But the arts are just as important.

My daughter is studying physics, a subject she loves, but when she compares herself to the geniuses on her course, she becomes very depressed.

“I’ll never be as smart as they are,” she says. 

“That’s probably true,” I tell her, because her course is full of strange geniuses who mutter strangely in the corners of libraries and can barely speak coherent sentences. They are the ones most likely to discover that the universe is really just a huge computer game simulation.

But my daughter reads books. She likes plays and music and fairy tales and TV. She thinks about plot and character and story arc and what connects the beginning of a story with the end. She knows about unexpected plot twists and surprise endings.

Reading books has taught her about imagination and lateral thinking.

 

And this will make her a better scientist – because you need imagination to be a great scientist, just as you need imagination to be a great writer.

People forget this. They think creativity belongs to writers and artists, and you can’t make much money being a writer unless you’re JK Rowling or Stieg Larsson. So you’d better be a banker. 

But imagination and the ability to tell a story will make anyone better at anything.

With a great imagination, you will be a wiser parent, a smarter lawyer, a more compassionate doctor, a better physicist, a wiser teacher, a kinder friend.

As Albert Einstein said, ’If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’‘

For a long time I wondered exactly what Einstein meant by this.

I think he meant that even if you’re trying to figure out the origins of the universe –– even with the deepest most complex and difficult problems in the scientific world, what you are basically doing is telling a story. 

Here’s the story scientists tell:

Seven billion improbably designed creatures are living on a ball made of iron, rocks and silicates, floating in the middle of an unimaginable nothingness.

Really?

Is there a more unlikely story than that?  We accept this scenario without blinking, and then we worry about a bunch of bears eating porridge.

Most scientific explanations for the creation of the universe are stories so weird, you’d have to be a master of science fiction to think them up.  One begins with a huge explosion out of nothingness, which creates a universe that expands and expands and expands for millions of years until one day it loses momentum from the original bang and starts to collapse in on itself so that the entire mass of everything in existence eventually condenses to the size of a raisin.

REALLY?

 

Richard Dawkins thinks that the whole idea of Adam and Eve with a snake in the Garden of Eden is absurd, but what sane person would believe the real story?

At the start of every amazing story – literary or scientific  -- is a person with enough imagination to ask a good question.

A physicist might ask:  “What makes up all that empty space in the universe?” A geneticist might ask, “Is there a different way to cure cancer?” A science fiction writer might ask, “is there life similar to ours in another galaxy?” You might ask, “Will anyone ever want to have sex with me?” or “What do rabbits think about?” or “How can I live in a world where Donald Trump is president?”

Everyone here today is asking questions. Because the job of every individual is not to make tons of money, it’s to gain knowledge, to try to understand ourselves and the world – to take the facts and make connections, to try to imagine what might be, as well as what is.

Our job is to think about the universe, about our planet, how to live on it without destroying it. Our job is to think about why we live and why we die. Why we fall in love with one person and not another. Why there’s war, why some people are black and some white, why some people are rich and some poor. Our job is to re-imagine the past and the future of the human race. To examine all the complicated, frightening or hopeful possibilities in history, in space -- and in here, in the space inside our heads.

And one of the best ways to start asking and thinking up answers to questions like “who am I?” and “what can I do in the world?” is to read books.

Of course I would say that. I’m a writer.

But in my lifetime I’ve lived thousands of different lives. I’ve lived on other continents and other planets. I’ve been a champion runner, a scientist and a stand-up comedian. I’ve survived a concentration camp and fought in terrible wars for the British Empire. I’ve dropped bombs in Viet Nam, traveled across the Pacific on a raft, and advised King Henry VIII not to marry again. I’ve fallen in love with a thousand different people, lived inside the head of a man, a horse, a vampire, a king and an ant. I’ve climbed Mount Everest, lived in China, Japan, California, Brazil, France, Germany, Russia and ten thousand other places.

 

I know what it feels like to be someone other than a middle-class middle-aged American suburban-born person who now lives a somewhat ordinary life in London.

Most of this I have learned by reading books.

Imagine a person who never reads books. Maybe a person like the President of the United States. What might that do to your brain, never to be anyone other than yourself, in your own here and now. To be a person who knows nothing about history, or how it feels to be black, or poor, a refugee, a Muslim, a North Korean, a woman, a homosexual, a warrior – who knows nothing about how it feels to be someone else.

Without stories we are trapped in a static version of ourselves.

Stories give us choices.  In 2013, a sixteen-year-old girl stood up at a book festival I spoke at, and said that she appreciated how teen novels were helping to change the way gender and sex were perceived in her school.  There was less bullying, she said, more acceptance of people who were different. Since 2013, it seems as if nearly our entire idea of gender and sex has changed – what used to be considered strange and unnatural has become understood and acceptable….at least for most of us.

Everyone sitting here today has begun to write his or her own life story. Every day, you write another chapter. Some days there is way too much plot and you’d like to slow down, shut the book for a while. Other times, the story of your life seems impossibly boring -- the hero will never fall in love, or find a career, or figure out how to be a person.

If you get stuck in your own story, sometimes it’s useful to try someone else’s. Read about other lives. Read about heroes and villains and explorers and rebels. Read about soldiers and lovers and kings. Read about slaves and masters. Look for ideas in what you read. Look for themes that make you think, that expand your idea of what the world could be, of what you could be. Don’t accept the idea that you have to be this sort of person or make this much money or accept this society the way it is.

I wake up most days thinking that the world is a mess. I worry about climate change and refugees and World War 3. I worry about Donald Trump and Brexit and sexual slavery and children dying of starvation.

On those days, I try to remember one of my favourite lines from all the books I’ve ever read – it comes from TH White’s The Sword in the Stone, and it’s Merlin talking to the young King Arthur.

“The best thing for being sad is to learn something,” he says.” He continues. “That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling…you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Learn something. Try on different identities. Embrace what is difficult. Have the courage to be odd, unruly, full of ideas, ahead of your time. Be stubborn, be contrary. Be different. Have enormous earth-shattering ideas. Don’t worry if they’re wrong.

As the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett said: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

Your job is to use your imagination to write the story of who you are and who you might be, and make it the best story you can possibly write.

 

In my story, Goldilocks turns on the three snarling bears, and despite their huge claws and sharp teeth, they don’t eat her.

She and the baby bear become friends. They run away together and a few years later, they become lovers. It turns out the bear’s name is Eduardo. Goldilocks and Eduardo have a long and satisfying relationship during which she convinces the bear that perhaps they could live somewhere that’s not quite so muddy.

Eventually Goldilocks and Eduardo have a baby. They name her Estelle, which means star. This baby – half human, half bear – grows up so wise and strong and fierce and brave, that she becomes president of the United States of Earth, and governs wisely over a happy and peaceful world for many many years to come.

 

That’s my fairy tale.

Now go write yours.