...and how we learn about resilience, persistence, and hope from children's literature.
I recently re-read The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth, a very purposeful read after the previous book I had devoured which, while very good, was quite harrowing, and I needed a bit of comfort reading to bolster my drooping spirits.
I can’t recall when I first read The Puzzle Ring – quite possibly when it was brand new out as I have been a KF tragic for quite some time (it all started with Witches of Eileanan when I was spellbound for all time) – but I know I have been recommending it to young readers for years now. I can remember one Y6 girl who quite literally hugged me after I had persuaded her to take it out of the library one day, and she had read it overnight and come back to school the next day so eager to talk about it and share it with all her friends.
I love this book.
In it a young girl braves all sorts of dangers, magical and real, to break a curse that has troubled her family for centuries. As with all KF books it is brilliantly researched and weaves historical events and Scottish mythology into a very contemporary tale with characters that young readers can easily identify with.
I love the persistence and resilience of the main character as she works out how to break the curse, entering boldly into an adventure despite her own fears.
It is one of those books perfect for kids not quite ready to tackle young adult themes and issues, but are confident, interested readers who love a good story.
Incidentally, if you are a teacher, it is a good one to read aloud just for fun with lots of suspense and some great opportunities for trying on a bit of an accent. Sadly, the Australian National Curriculum doesn’t allow much scope for investigating the histories involved, but there are many ways you could incorporate learning from this text into your classroom from other perspectives.
As always, I took what I needed from rereading the story this time around, and lovingly placed it back in its home on my shelves until next time.
Looking for my next book, I ran my hands along the rows of books on my bookshelf, not certain where to go next with my reading pleasure. By sheer chance I picked up another book that has a curse as the central problem, this time The Mulberry Tree written by Allison Rushby.
Once again, this is a great book for confident pre-teen readers and tells the story of a young girl overcoming her own fears and anxieties to solve a longstanding curse that has held a whole village in its thrall for hundreds of years.
In both books, the protagonist was an outsider – a visitor to the old country (be that Scotland or Cambridgeshire) from Australia – who had come into the area and looked at things with fresh eyes.
My next choice (again a re read from my bookshelf) was a little bit different: Frogkisser by Garth Nix, where (with a nod to more than one well-known fairy-tale) the young and, initially, quite unwilling protagonist sets out on a quest which just keeps getting bigger and more complex as she attempts to reverse a curse that turned her sister’s suitor into a frog. Unfortunately for the young man in question, the sister (a princess of course) is not in love with him, so a princess-kiss won’t work (even if they could persuade her to kiss a frog). Yes, it’s complicated, but it is also a very good read!
I started thinking about middle-grade books and curses, and started to spot them all over my shelves. It would seem that breaking a curse is a bit of a rite of passage and a familiar theme for young readers in this group – at least, for those who read the fantasy genre.
In fact, my own book, Wyrd, released with Omnibus Scholastic back in 2018, has its own curse of sorts at the heart of it, although it is not spelled out as such (please pardon the pun). The main character becomes a witch by accident after a spell goes awry and a goodly part of the book is about trying to reverse the spell.
I couldn’t easily find any literature exploring this theme – perhaps that could be the research for my PhD if I ever get around to it – but a quick search on google did bring up plenty of books with curses at the centre of the story (be warned, however, to be explicit in your search terms if you follow suit – my first search brought up a whole heap of stuff on people using swear words in children’s lit, with quite a wide array of opinions on the subject!).
But think back. Story from long ago is rife with warnings about curses and many hero’s journeys revolve around breaking a curse or putting right a wrong that brought the curse into being. Look at tales from Greek mythology, many of the Celtic Faery Tales, even the more ‘modern’ retellings of Fairy Tales brought to us by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, or, to be properly modern, Disney! I just love the story of Brave by Pixar, where the young protagonist brings a curse down on her mother, turning her into a bear, and then has to solve the problem quite quickly before her father kills the bear.
The curse doesn’t even need to be something like the standard fantasy genre curse of a spell or some ill-wishing. Perhaps the ‘curse’ is approached by life circumstances – cursed by poverty or alcoholism or estranged parents or having to attend maths class. Something to overcome for our hero main character.
And – aren’t we all overcoming something, big and small, every day?
Here’s my proposal. Breaking the curse is all about learning resilience, persistence, and, more than anything, hope.
We all need hope in our lives – something that pulls us forward through the dark times, something to work towards as we set goals and work out how to meet them, something to help us believe in ourselves.
Sometimes we all feel cursed – and knowing how to break the curse (keep going when things get tough, look for alternatives, turn to others for help, and hold on to your vision) is a great thing to learn from children’s literature.
What is your best advice for growing resilience, persistence, and hope? How do you ‘break the curse’?