Challenging the Single Story: A Closer Look At Narratives

Throughout the course of my semester learning about children’s literature, the concept of the single story was always challenged with every new narrative read in class. The single story is the concept that a person usually consumes one narrative about a people or a thing, and are not aware of other narratives or truths out there. Our hope was to look at direct texts that challenged the notion of the single story and to discuss the different components that made up the overall narrative.

Now, as we’re talking about children’s literature, we are not speaking of a picture book or a light novel solely. There are different narrative forms that people of younger ages read, and even the demographic is slightly more broad than one might think. Within the semester of my course, my class looked at picture books, novels, comics, and graphic novels as the main medium we would focus on, but acknowledged other forms of narratives as well. Just knowing that there are so many different forms a narrative can take, whether the words are accompanied by a large image, or smaller panels of images, or sometimes images with no words at all, already is itself a deconstruction of the single story.

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El Deafo by Cece Bell

 

The earliest discussions we had opened up ideas that we wanted to explore in children’s literature. Some groups chose to talk about concepts grounded in today’s society and culture such as death, disabilities, or as my own group researched, immigration. In fact, the header image of this article is a group of books I found that are immigration stories but as children’s literature, a very fascinating find. Other groups focused on mythology such as mermaids, Yoruba mythology, or Greek mythology.

The young adult book Children of Blood and Bone brings the narrative strategies of African storytelling in the form of high fantasy (which the general audience is used to) and highlights the Yoruba mythology. With a full cast of smart and skillful characters, it challenges the concept of African nations and the lives and beliefs of the individuals from there.

It was both exciting and interesting for me to get to talk about one of my favorite comic series out there as something relevant to the class. I chose to talk about Ms. Marvel, the superhero mantle taken up by the Muslim-American character, Kamala Khan. With Kamala’s story, I focused on her being a child of immigrant parents living in America, and the challenges immigrant children face feeling not part of the “norm.” It was enlightening to view my favorite character through this lens of immigration, and I found a deeper appreciation for the story. At its base level, it’s a comic book with a character who loves junk food, hanging out with friends, and consuming the latest nerdy trend, a narrative any young person living in America can relate to. But a deeper look into Kamala’s characterization, we find that her Muslim faith and her immigrant parents play a huge roll in, not only her upbringing, but the way Kamala approaches her heroic duties.

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Ms. Marvel #2 by G. Willow Wilson

Seeing Children’s Literature challenging the concept of faith and spirituality means that there will be more than a single story of that topic. America is tiptoeing along the Muslim faith and how the nation perceives individuals of that faith, but Kamala Khan is a direct, not so much as an opposition, but a furthering of the idea of what those individuals might be. 

 

During my course this semester we learned about the importance of cultural authenticity and identity within narratives. A story addressing a people or a cultural should be written by an individual either apart of that culture, or who is knowledgable to the point they can do the narrative justice. Children of Blood and Bone is written by a Nigerian-American writer who brings her own culture and mythos to the story she is writing. The writer for Ms. Marvel is a Muslim-American who also practices Islam, she brings this culture into her writing which makes the narrative believable and true. From the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea dealt with the concept of shifting identities and being one thing and then another, but the book still remains a children’s narrative. Importantly, it focuses on using “they” and “them” pronouns in a way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of storytelling, and creates a gateway for young readers to understand shifting identities. The Prince and the Dressmaker seeks to break the mold that boys can’t wear dresses, and the story plays with that concept of gender roles. The dress becomes a moniker symbolizing femininity, but highlights the concept in real life that feminine and masculine traits are fluid among all people. 

Cultural authenticity is the direct opposition to the single story. It encapsulates an idea with the real life evidence needed to back up the narrative. You can’t have a single idea of a person or group when the narrative you’re consuming is expansive. We’re not shoehorning every piece of information into one narrative and calling it cultural authenticity, but more so the real life concepts and facts that creators are tapping into when crafting their narratives. In a wordy kind of way, one culturally authentic narrative begets another.

 

The answer to how my idea of the single story has changed over the course of my semester is a simple yet effective one: my idea of the single story has not changed. I don’t think there should be a single story about anything because at a fundamental level, there cannot be a single story about a character, a group, or an idea. Each concept builds upon another which blossoms into a full narrative, and there are different narratives in different forms for people to consume. To get a bite of a single story is simply like sampling a stereotype to understand something. In the long run, it won’t benefit you or the group you are learning about. In fact, over the course of the semester, my class had found that the notion of a single story is counterintuitive to any narrative. There is not one Cinderella story, there are many variations of that fairy tale. Bound by Donna Jo Napoli is a Cinderella story but through the lens of Chinese characters and Chinese storytelling; a narrative full with mythos and history. This transference of a fairytale into a traditional storytelling brought up the concept of fairy tales versus fables and my class analyzed both of those types of narratives. It could go either way, depending on how the story functions and is distributed, but the concept is still debatable. 

I understand that a person shouldn’t fall prey to the idea of the single story, and I as an individual, have tried to surround myself with stories that are enriched with different viewpoints and ideas. I wasn’t aware of the concept named ‘the single story’ before my Children’s Literature class, but even without naming the concept, I was aware of its existence and consciously pushed against it. So my understanding of the single story after the completion of this class, with the texts read and the discussions we’ve had, was that every one of us has a responsibility to challenge the single story. To thoughtfully analyze the narrative of any form, whether it be a book, a graphic novel, a movie, is a necessary skill to take apart the components of storytelling and follow the lines of narratives that branch off within each other. Being an active and mindful reader allows us to have an open mind when we consume narratives, and only then will other narratives be open to us.

2 thoughts on “Challenging the Single Story: A Closer Look At Narratives

  1. I’m leaving my comment here! Instead of on Blackboard. That feels more authentic. I really loved the way you wove together so many of the things we discussed this semester. I also love your final point–that it’s up to each of us to challenge the notion of the single story. I feel it deeply, as a personal mandate. I think that’s one of the things I realized by becoming a parent, but now I feel really compelled to bring this to my classroom (both for adults and for kiddos).

    On a less “academic” note, I’m really excited to dig in to Ms. Marvel! I didn’t have time during the semester, but I will during the summer. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on her story!

    Like

    1. So happy to see your comment here!

      I felt as though you have been challenging the single story all semester, and you taught us how to challenge it without making that the primary goal. It’s been a ton of fun!
      It was also a lot of fun making this post, digging back into the lessons and what we’ve gleaned from these different texts. I feel as though I’m now a soldier of the cause fighting for more representation of all narratives! hahah

      I’m excited for you to read Ms. Marvel! She’s the best. I can’t wait for you to take this plunge into this other literary world 🙂

      Like

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