How stories can stir us up to be a force for good in the world

Published on: 09 December 2020 Author: Smriti Halls

Our Writer in Residence Smriti Halls is getting ready for Christmas - and the preparations are getting her thinking about how books can stir us up to make a difference...

The front cover of Elephant In My Kitchen and a photo of Smriti Halls

Are you ready for Christmas? I wonder how prepared you feel? Tree decorated? Advent calendar chocolately counting down the days?

One of my favourite traditions begins right at the start of the season - on Stir up Sunday. In times gone by, the Sunday before Advent was when Christmas puddings were mixed, together with hopes, dreams and a silver sixpence. Everyone in the household would take a turn at stirring.

It's a gorgeous tradition and in our house we use a recipe that's been in my husband's family for more than a hundred years - and which involves aromatic spices and fruits along with an alarming quantity of grated potato and carrot. My children take enormous satisfaction in the stodgy stirring and it's a definite joyful signal, ahead of lights and carols and decorations, that Christmas is coming.

The concept of stirring up is actually rooted in the words of a 16th century prayer, calling people to be 'stirred up' to do good works. Just as the dried fruits are stirred together, people are called to be stirred into action. I absolutely love the thought of vigorously cooking up ideas to be stirred into action. Ideas tossing and tumbling around me. The fragrance of spices and orange zest and fruit being turned over with a generous dusting of cinnamon (less so the grated vegetables).

And to my mind, books are like a large wooden spoon. THEY stir US into action. When we bring books to life - or INTO life, to be precise - they can stir us to make change, speak up, speak out and believe in goodness, in ourselves and in each other. They show us battlegrounds where fairness, justice and doing good are positioned on the frontline and where they not only stand a chance... they win.

Restoring

Stories are food for the soul. They nourish us. They are a passport out of gloom and negativity. A way of gaining perspective and restoring our faith in the world and one another. The physical act of reading involves slowing down, taking time, letting our mind be absorbed by ideas and images.

Whether we choose to be whisked away on a whistlestop adventure, or nestle snugly with familiar favourites, or laugh our socks off, they help us feel replenished and restored. To take breath and believe.

Inspiring

Stories feed us with hope. What could be more inspiring than accompanying a mouse who outsmarts a creature ten times its size or a young wizard defying all the odds? Books can be uplifting and joyful. Through the words and pictures we can be reminded that whatever we are experiencing, we are not the first and we are not alone.

Books can be a way of reawakening ourselves to the joy and wonder in our lives. Friendship, courage, love and the things that matter most. They are a great way to feel inspired and optimistic about life.

An illustration of Rafi's big plan from Elephant In My Kitchen

Illustration: Ella Okstad

Empowering

Stories fill us with food for the fight. They can be our whisk and our wooden spoon to make positive change. While alarming statistics on the news can overwhelm us, stories remind us that we are NOT too young or too small or too insignificant to make a difference.

In my book Elephant In My Kitchen!, Rafi's world is turned upside down on discovering that animals have come to live in his house. Not only is there an elephant in his kitchen (presumably hunting down the Christmas pudding), there's a tiger on the toilet and a panda jumping on the bed.... with knickers on his head.

Rafi's frustration turns to sympathy and outrage when he discovers the reason the animals are there - they've nowhere left to live. Habitat destruction and climate change are perhaps difficult subjects to grapple with for the youngest, but every child can empathise with both Rafi's, and consequently the animals', bewilderment at losing their home - and their home comforts.

In this book, I wanted to inspire children to protect our planet and to equip and empower them to do so in practical ways through Rafi's Big Plan - loaded with ideas simple enough for every child to adopt in order to make a difference.

Stirred into action

Bringing books right into our lives has the power to remind us what's possible. It restores our belief in humanity, in the world, in goodness. While it reminds us of the injustices that exist, it pricks at our conscience to be the change that's needed. To be involved, to be engaged, to see the world from the point of view of others.

Stories can stir us up to connect with the issues of our time and ask us to look around. Are we ready to do our bit? By bringing books into our lives, we are being equipped to understand that the powerless can defeat the mighty, that hope can defeat fear, that love wins. This is not just the stuff of fairytales.

An illustration of a Christmas pudding

Well, whether we're baked, steamed or chilled, the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating. Have we been stirred up enough to be ready for action? Which are the books that make YOU feel inspired and empowered? That fill you with good resolutions, a hunger for justice, love for others?

Or perhaps we can simply be stirred into action by the words of the season... 'Peace, goodwill to all.'

Inspiring Books to Stir us into Action

You can read BookTrust's review of Elephant In My Kitchen! here.

You might also like the following books, which were shortlisted for the Little Rebels Children's Book Award 2020 - a prize which celebrates radical fiction for children aged 0-12:

More from Smriti's time as our Writer in Residence

Watch Smriti reading Elephant In My Kitchen! below:


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