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The trope we refuse to repeat in children's storybooks

Updated: May 30

Three willow the wonderer picture boooks
Willow the Wonderer Storybooks - Changing the Narrative

Let me state it right at the start - The trope we refuse to repeat in children's storybooks is:


Boy meets girl - they fall in love - and they live happily ever after…

 

Replace the genders as you please ... but you get the gist.


This trope is not only common but also persistent and pervasive - in books and across every popular art form like movies, music/songs, etc.



What's behind its enduring appeal?


Let's be honest, even the mildest take on this trope is titillating at some level... The trope appeals to our base instinct and this guarantees its popularity. And this is why many artists, established and debut alike, keep re-hashing it.


The biggest tragedy in all this is that it snuffs out other more interesting, beautiful and critical takes on life and living - ones that may help us develop a more balanced perspective on life.


Love versus Romance


Love itself is a beautiful and nuanced, if not spiritual thing, but rarely is the nobel subject examined (in this trope) at any level of depth or complexity.


Rather the trope always centres on the first bloom of romance - when everything feels like rainbows and sunshine...


That fleeting feeling of infatuation is sold to the willing audiences, time and again, as the eternal truth of everlasting love.

But it's just a story - what harm can it possibly do?


It's not really about any one story - rather the endless repetition of the same one.


When the same story is repeated over and over again - especially to young, developing minds - it gets engrained. At some deep subconcious level of our being, we start believing it to be true and that is when the real problem begins.

It starts to shape our hopes and dreams, goals and even expectations. Before we know it - we are trying to live out the tropes.


Unfortunately for most of us, life gets in the way ...


Rarely, if ever, will the reality of our lives (especially romantic relationships) live up to the ideal standards portrayed by these stories - and that in itself becomes a cause for misery.

 

I blame Disney and applaud Pixar


Where the exploitation of the "happily ever after" trope in children's stories is concerned, there is a clear guilty party: Disney.


They took this trope and mass marketed it relentelessly to children and adults alike.

In more recent times, Disney have tried to redeem themselves through productions like Frozen. I know kids love it but even that seemed like a half hearted attempt to me - There was after all a clear romantic subplot. Some habits are hard worne I guess...

 

I wouldn't give too much credit to Disney though. They only reason they went down that path is because of the precedent set by Pixar (which they have also bought out).


When Pixar entered the world of children's entertainment, they did so with a committment to tell different narratives - and proved beyond doubt that there was a large audience for these.


And yes, Pixar's committment to a different set of narratives was an early inspiration for us as we set up Wise As Stories.


The two paths an artist can take 


For anyone starting off in the Arts - whether as an author, painter, scultor, singer/songwriter etc - you face a choice:

 

  1. You can either regurgitate the same tired old tropes that will no doubt make you a lot of money … OR

  2. Approach your work critically - Examine what has been done and ask what is it missing that you feel a yearning for and can add to. And do that.

 

The latter is obviously the harder road ... but time and again, artists that have chosen to tread on this path have produced works that we still revere to this day. Their art stood the test of time.

 

Van Gogh is a famous example. Did you know that the man never sold a painting while he was alive?

 

So what does approaching the arts critically mean for us?

 

There was no question when Darren and I started Wise As Stories that we’d take this more critical path.

 

In terms of the stories we'd work on: For us it was about grappling with the existential - the stuff that we really try to come to terms as we go about this business of living.

 

Willow the Wonderer examines the nature and source of happiness


The first book in our debut children's book series - Willow the Wonderer - begins with most existential question of all:


What is happiness and where does it lay?

 

kid reading willow the wonderer Picture book
Willow the Wonderer

The question we sometime get asked is whether "the quest for happiness" is a suitable subject for three year olds who may pick up one of our picture books.


I feel that if you can comfortably read kids a "happily ever after" fairy tale, then yes, you can also start to have real conversations about happiness.


The story in this book in particular challenges the conditioning that we all receive as we grow up that leads us to believe that happiness will somehow come from acquiring or attaining something on the outside: When we do the right things, have the right grades, get the right job, get that promotion, marry our soul mate, buy fancy houses/cars/vacations/clothes, have great kids and so on ...


There is no doubt joy to be had in all this but does it ever lead to lasting contentment? And if so, then why do we become restless and start chasing the next thing?


Or could it be that happiness is a state of mind that we all can cultivate within? And if it is an internal state, could it persist regardless of the external conditions of our lives - as many contemplatives, philosophers and now psychologists posit.

Which story would you rather have been told? 


Book Two, Honey Time, counters 'hustle culture'


For the second book in the series, Honey Time, we decided to examine the pace of life and living - and counter the hussle culture that is relentlessly preached from every pedestal these days ...


Again, we have nothing against hard work but running yourself into the ground doesn't help anyone - something we learnt the hard way in our lives ...


It takes an intervention by the Queen Bee, but when our young hero finally slows down and becomes still, a whole new world of wonder opens up right before his eyes.


He gets a feel of what it is like to live in a highly present state - where the mind is focused and sees the world with clarity. He begins to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

He even discovers it a wonderful way to tap into inner, calmer state of mind.


Toddler girl reading Honey Time storybook on bed
Willow the Wonderer - Honey Time

Book Three, Space Odyssey, reminds us of our common humanity


In the third book, Space Odysssey, we wanted to explore the feelings of belonging and connection - but do so at a universal level.


We produced this book against the backdrop of our society which is increasingly fragmenting into warring tribes - each convinced of the righteousness and moral superiority of their cause, and their cause alone ... Nuance, context and the capacity to listen is getting all but lost in the shouting matches that dominate the discourse on traditional and new media platfroms.


Meanwhile, and ironically in this age of internet and instant connectivity, the epidemic of loneliness is increasing globally. Feelings of disconnectedness and questions of belonging plagues many in our society, especially the young.


We felt in our hearts that what we needed to be reminded above all else, was our common humanity.
We needed to acknowledge the basic fact that we all have a common origin and through that share an inherent connection with each other and this planet we call home.

If we exist, we belong. And no one can ever take that away from us.


Young boy in astronaught helmet reading Space Odyssey best picture book
Willow the Wonderer - Space Odyssey

Book Four, The Gift, is a lesson in resilience


The fourth and upcoming book, The Gift, is rooted deep in contemplative philosophy in that it touches on the ephemeral and transcient nature of life and living.


At its heart, The Gift, offers a lesson in resilience - the need to keep going even when the going gets tough - reassured in the wisdom that all things come to pass.

Many prominant social commentators have observed that the younger generation today are not as resilient as the generations that have come before. They lose hope and give up too easy - they also don't seem to want to strive ...


Whilst I don't believe this to be entirely true or fair, I do feel that the younger generation will need to deal with a lot more challenges than what we have.


Unabated climate change, commercialisation of Artificial Intelligence and the changing geopolitics of the world will mean their future is going to be far more turbulent than what we (post war generations) have enjoyed.


As the little ones grow up and navigate the turbulent waters of the future world they'll inherit ... resilience will serve them well.

Cover of The Gift - Best New Children's Book - Featuring a fox and a donkey on the cover. fox is holding out her hand and willow is looking at it - there is a glow there
Willow the Wonderer - The Gift

Why deal with these existential themes in a Picture Book?


In a somewhat ironic way, Picture Books happen to be the perfect format or medium or category in which to deal to these themes.


Kids rarely read picture books on their own. There’s usually an adult there, reading it to them or with them - whether it is their grandma or grandpa, teacher or mum and dad.


The readers of picture books are simultanously a child, still at a tender age of innocence where they have just began to explore and understand their world, and an adult who probably has had all their innocence beaten out of them ... Just kidding ;-)


So the book has the challenging task of speaking to two humans at very different stages of their lives. Some authors and publishers write only with the kid in mind and that is OK but it probably becomes a bit tedious for the long suffering adult in the picture ...


Willow the Wonderer picture books have something for everyone


From our side, we wanted our books to speak to both - the child and the adult - and perhaps become the catalyst for rich conversations about life.


Again this is probably nostalgia from our childhood - Darren with his boomer parents and I with my Indian boomer parents. We love them dearly but talking about deeper issues was never really a thing. Sure, we got the essential disciplines and skills handed down but we never really delved any deeper.


Most families still don't ... The occasion to have deeper and more meaningful conversation about life never seems to arise in the daily hustle and bustle of family life.

So in case people pick up one of the Willow the Wonderer books say during bedtime stories or that sleeper over at grammies or storytime at preschool, we hope that it gives occassion for these conversation - and in the process for our adult readers to reflect and share their life's lessons with their little ones.


I will say though - all Willow the Wonderer stories are tales of high adventure had by a baby donkey in his 70s retro onesie - they are exciting! The illustrations are beautiful and all have hidden things for the little ones to find.


We craft the books so that above everything else, there is a great story that the little ones can thoroughly enjoy!

And who knows. Maybe one day, when the time is just right, the seed of wisdom embedded in the tale will blossom in their minds and offer them the guidance they need to navigate life.


willow the wonderer - best new children's book - three books in the series - willow a donkey is on the cover.
Willow the Wonderer - Has something for everyone

 

Add the best new children's storybooks to your collection - your kids will love you for it!




 

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