Breaking the Rules

Stone Soup Editors' Notes  /   /  By Gerry Mandel
Stone Soup Magazine
May 2019

Is it ever OK to break the rules? The two main characters in “Life Among the Whispers,” the featured story from the November/December 2014 issue of Stone Soup, make us think about this question. Lise, a girl in her mid-teens, has always obeyed her parents and done the right thing. It’s especially important now, with her dad running for office. Tobias, a year or so older than Lise, may have come from the wrong side of the tracks, but he’s a good kid too. He knows right from wrong, but he can’t help himself. Eleven-year-old author Mathilde Fox-Smith, through her multi-layered story, helps us see that life is not black and white. Sometimes a case can be made for breaking the rules.

Lise loves art. She takes a break from helping with her dad’s campaign to see an art show in a gallery. On her way out, she stumbles on a painting more beautiful than anything she saw in the gallery. She knows it’s graffiti, which is illegal, but how can something so beautiful be wrong? When she returns home, she doesn’t tell her parents why she’s late. And she keeps Tobias’s secret for the next few weeks as the two meet secretly and become friends. Is she wrong?

Tobias is a born artist. He is driven to make art. He says he was tricked into painting graffiti when he was younger, but now he can’t stop. He sees a big blank wall and dreams of covering it with his artwork. Is he wrong?

Laws are written to make our society work for everyone. Laws help keep us safe. They protect our rights and keep us from trampling on someone else’s rights. A law against graffiti prevents any-old-person from painting any-old-thing on a wall. It prevents people from doing damage, or painting something offensive. But this is not what Tobias is doing. In a perfect world, an art-friendly city might offer permits to artists to make murals on blank walls. Then Tobias’s artwork would not be illegal. But the world is not perfect. What to do? In general, it’s a bad idea to take the law into your own hands. It’s a bad idea to keep secrets from your parents. But Tobias isn’t hurting anyone or anything. And Lise’s silence isn’t either.

And there you have the basis of a rich, complex story. Author Mathilde Fox-Smith has made us think. Maybe her story has sparked a discussion in your home or classroom. This is one of the powers of fiction. You think you’re reading an entertaining story about two people who become friends. But beneath the surface, big questions about life are raised. The next time you sit down to write a story, see if you can bring a deeper layer to it. See if you can make us think.

Gerry Mandel
About the Author

Gerry served as editor and co-director of Stone Soup for more than 44 years, from its inception in 1973 through the publication of the July/August 2017 issue.

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