Stories are an important part of childhood because they are the children's first exposure to the power of the imagination. Stories allow things to happen that normally wouldn't in real life, such as animals speaking, fairies turning pumpkins into horse-drawn carriages, and the Stinky Cheese Man "run run run(ing) as fast as he can." There are also stories that seem unrealistic, but can teach valuable lessons about life. Fables by Aesop and Jean de la Fontaine always end with a moral, and fairy tales talk of bravery, creativity in problem solving, and love. Reading stories to kids is a simple way to teach them to imagine and to think.
Later in life, it is still important to read stories. The stories that adults read are often more intellectually stimulating than children's stories, and involve more complicated plots, themes, and messages. Those stories require thinking on a higher level, and often different readers can find different meanings in the same text. This allows for dicussions about the different topics that authors raise, and allow readers to gain insight about various aspects of life.
As a nation, reading does a lot of the same things I mentioned above. When a book such as Fast Food Nation that criticizes our country is published, it opens up the floodgates for dicussions on how to make our country a better place, and gives information that an average American would not be able to obtain. However, I feel that a great part of the population is too busy to read or considers reading a waste of time, and are excluded from these discussions. The Internet is making this easier, both the passing of information and the discussion of issues, but also making it harder to determine what is fact and what is fiction.
When I was younger, I learned to read at a very young age. At first my parents thought that I had just memorized all the books I read to them, but they realized I was actually reading when I read to them a book from the library. I remember reading a book about Pokey the Puppy. My grandma had read it to me once and made a remark about how the puppy stopped to look at the butterfly, even though it wasn't in the author's text. Whenever someone read it out loud to me after that, I had to stop and correct them, and say that Pokey stopped to look at the butterfly. I read a lot of Dr. Seuss books, Golden Books (especially Little Duck's Moving Day right before we moved into our new house), and books about topics my parents found interesting. I didn't read much about history, but I learned a lot about math from reading Math Curse and other books about mathematicians. We also found a series of picture books about inventors. These helped shape who I am today, what my interests and strengths are.
Characteristics of a well-told story (in no particular order):
1. Timelessness: A story should have a message that will always be useful, even after a hundred or more years.
2. Great illustrations: A children's book is all about the illustrations. A story can have a great message, but no one wants to look at the ugly pictures.
3. Message: A story won't last if it has no point, because people will have no reason to tell it.
4. Relateable characters: Even if the character is an animal, they should have a personality that is recognizable, so people have an easier time connecting the story to their own life.
5. Humor: Every story should have a lighthearted moment, even if ultimately the message is depressing. It makes the story much more interesting and feels better to read. (unless you're Maitland.)
6. Complexity: A story should have a level of complexity that makes reading interesting and not boring, but should not be so high that the target audience gets frustrated.
7. Climax: There has to be some point in the story where the suspense is built up the most, whether it's when the clock strikes midnight or when Professor Quirrel asks Harry to give him the stone.