Being a writer myself, you can imagine how thrilled I was when last night, Athena wrote — and illustrated! — her very first story. Because there would be no point in having this site if I didn’t share this sort of thing with you, here is that story, with subtitles (Athena has the creative spelling of a six year old) and textual commentary by yours truly.
“The Friends Went to Camp, by Athena Scalzi.”
Commentary: Even at an early age, Athena is aware of the need for presentation — thus, a title page. You can’t teach that. You have to feel it.
“Two little friends went out [to] camp in the forest.”
Commentary: We are introduced to our protagonists, two young girls. By placing these girls in a camp in a forest, the author is suggesting a return to a simpler time — even for young girls, the complexities of modern life are overwhelming. The forest, of course, is a common symbol for a primeval eden; here, the author is placing her protagonists in a literal “state of nature,” a Rousseauean paradise, as it were. Of course, Rousseau noted that the state of nature was often brutal and amoral, and so while our heroines are enjoying their idyllic respite from civilization at the moment, certainly conflict — and danger — is afoot.
“But one day when they went to camp, they saw a bear!”
Commentary: Nature, red in tooth and claw, shows its darker side to our intrepid heroines in the arrival of the bear. As we can see in the illustration, our protagonists are surprised by its appearance — an additional commentary on how the civilized world alienates our senses from the natural world. After all, it is the bear who belongs in the forest primeval; our heroines, plucky as they may be, are the invaders here.
However, the bear symbolism is positive as well: Many aboriginal cultures symbolically equate the bear with primal power, cunning intelligence, and a nurturing, motherly spirit (who does not know of the protective ferocity of a mother bear?). The author is playing a subtle game here — the bear terrifies the girls, yes, but it also represents aspects of natural femininity they would do well to incorporate into their urbanized, denatured world view: A symbol of the struggle every young woman must face as she turns toward womanhood.
“But the bear was getting tired…”
Commentary: But — the author suddenly asks — what are the limits of nature, and of primal power? In stark, graphic terms, the author lets us know that nature and its lessons can take us only so far. The illustration conveys the story here: after earlier pages filled with the color of the forest, the image is here stripped bare of everything but the essentials: The bear, its strength waning, retreating to the blackness of the cave. Just as the bear is filled with symbolic import, so is the cave: It represents death — a natural crypt, if you will — but it can also symbolize birth and renewal. Bears sleep through the darkness of winter, resting until the times are right to again engage the world.
What the author is saying is that while we need to integrate the lessons of nature, we are also more than what is given to us in our natural state. When nature fails or flags — as it inevitably must — our other talents must engage until such time as our natural states are refreshed again. A telling message for young women: Know who you are and be in touch with your nature, but be ready to use all the resources available to you, in all aspects of your life.
“And they were best friends forever, and their names are Becky and Britney.”
Commentary: In a striking move, the author names the heroines of the story only at the end — only after they have gone through their metaphysical exploration of self. Only after we have faced the challenges of life and nature, only after we have encountered the danger of an unexamined life, and, yes, only after we have found strength in friendship can we say who we really are — in effect, to “name” ourselves: A joyous “I am” to the world of nature and civilization.
It’s no coincidence that the author has chosen two young girls to make the journey together: As the other symbols of the story suggest — the nurturing bear, the cave representing rebirth — this particular story of self-discovery in a womanly one, not about sexuality per se, but surely relating to sexual and personal identity. So many female coming of age stories through history have introduced an idealized masculine element in them, as if to suggest a women must have a man to complete her — an idea that, tellingly enough, has few analogues in male coming of age stories (in which women are often prizes to be won).
This tale refutes the implicit diminution of the female in those earlier stories, suggesting an alternate way toward a sense of self: Encompassing, engaged and rooted in friendship. The reward for this journey is self-identity — a “name” — and through self-identity, a social identity as well: These two went into the forest as friends, but emerge as best friends, and best friends forever.
In all, a new, classic tale of growth, female empowerment, personal enlightenment. Not bad for a six year old, I’d say.
Alternately, it could just be story of two girls at camp meeting a sleepy bear. But I think that’s really selling the author short. And I’m just not going to do that.
Personally, I can’t wait for the sequel.