Tell me a story?

17 May 2009
Children's Book Week

“Once upon a time there was a little brown mouse.”

“No, wait! I want the mouse to be blue.”

“Well then, this mouse was blue, except for her tail, which was black. Her coloring was an advantage for the mouse, because she lived in the library, and she could blend in among the books. She would press her body against the spine of a blue book, and shape her tail into script, so it looked like the book’s title. . .”

I have very little skill as a storyteller, despite a lot of practice. My daughter requests stories every day, and the story of the mouse, which we haven’t finished, is our latest endeavor — “our” because it’s most certainly a collaboration. In addition to insisting that this story’s mouse be blue, Meg asked whether the mouse had any parents, and why she didn’t live with them, and if she saw them often, and why she lived in the children’s section. I begin with characters and then try to discover where they’ll take us. Meg’s prompts help form the characters or shape the plot.

There are at least two children’s books famous for their origins as tales told to particular children, and both begin with a request. Just after Edward Bear bump, bump, bumps down the stairs to be introduced as Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin asks for a story for the bear “About himself. Because he’s that sort of Bear.”

Alice and her sisters also “beg a tale”:

Imperious Prima flashes forth
Her edict to “begin it”:
In gentler tone Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it.”
While Tertia interrupts the tale
Not more than once a minute.

“Tertia”/Edith’s interruptions give way to “sudden silence” in the following line, just as Christopher Robin’s questions end after he asks whether the Christopher Robin in the story is himself. I understand the silencing of those voices on the page, as their inclusion in the tale would repeatedly take the reader out of it. But I can’t imagine that in the initial telling, the children would have merely listened.

One of the characteristics of oral tales — not to mention young children — is their interactive nature. There’s a fluidity to stories not present in books. Though a child might ask as many questions about a written tale as an oral one, she has fewer opportunities to shape a story that is already fixed in print.

A story’s interactivity means that it is usually personal to the child, involves play between the adult and child, and allows opportunities for the child to assert her power to direct the action. That’s a remarkable set of possibilities for one activity with my girl, and it probably explains how often I hear: “Tell me a story.”

best friends in children’s books

15 May 2009
Children's Book Week

My declaration yesterday that Mo Willems’ Gerald and Piggie are kid lit’s best-written friends since Frog and Toad was rash. While I do love the duo, had I considered more carefully, I would have qualified that statement: they are one of the best pairs.

How could I have forgotten Houndsley and Catina? Like Gerald and Piggie (and Frog and Toad), their distinctive personalities and voices complement each other. Houndsley seems more introverted and mellow, Catina more extroverted and anxious. While G&P make me laugh, Houndsley and Catina charm and soothe me. Each is careful with the other’s feelings, and though the stories aren’t preachy, together the pair discovers more in each interaction about how to be a good friend.

There are four tales so far in the Houndsley and Catina series, each surprisingly nuanced and poetic for early reader/chapter books, and they present an established, comfortable friendship.

Other favorite friends are Bear and Mouse from A Visitor for Bear. The language here is also part of the appeal, though in this case it’s an expansive vocabulary: “This is impossible! Intolerable! Insufferable!” says Bear, about the persistent Mouse’s efforts to gain his attention. Here, we have a friendship at its sputtering start, and I’m glad to learn that there are more Bear and Mouse books planned. I want to see how they settle into their relationship.

Who are your favorite friends in children’s literature?

Related post:
popular children’s books I hate

popular children’s books I hate

14 May 2009
Children's Book Week

The winners of the 2009 Children’s Choice Book Awards, announced this week, include The Pigeon Wants a Puppy, by Mo Willems, as the Kindergarten to Second Grade Book of the Year. While I’m charmed by the simplicity of Mo Willems’ drawings, and I think his Elephant and Piggie are the best pair of friends in kid lit since Frog and Toad, I don’t like the pleading pigeon. I understand the role reversal. I understand the delight some children experience in saying, rather than hearing, “no, no, no.” I get it. I just don’t enjoy it.

Another popular children’s book that gets on my nerves is The Tale of Despereaux. I was along for the ride through most of the first few chapters, though I bristled every time DiCamillo addressed me as “Reader” — only Charlotte Brontë gets to call me “Reader” (N.B. This is in no small part why I stopped reading the often lovely Gluten-Free Girl). DiCamillo lost me when she asked if I knew the definition of “perfidy,” and admonished me to look up the word in my dictionary just to be sure. I can’t abide a finger-wagging narrator. I kept reading, since I was sharing the story with my girl, despite the tone and the inelegant perspective shifts, but I didn’t get through the whole tale. I adopted a “don’t offer, don’t refuse” policy at storytime, and my daughter lost interest in the story — something she hasn’t done with any other bedtime book.

And I may be banished from the nerddom for telling, but I don’t enjoy The Phantom Tollbooth, either. It’s entirely too clever and at some point the wordplay becomes simply tiresome. Again, I get it. I just don’t like it.

And you? What well-regarded kid’s books would you like never to read again?

finding comics for kids

13 May 2009
Children's Book Week

Sandman and a fifth of Jack are the only appealing things I ever found in a guy’s dorm room. That was 15 years ago, and I haven’t discovered a comic book that’s grabbed me since.

Now I’m in the position of trying to find intelligent comic books that work for a young child and aren’t utterly boring to a grown literature lover. It’s the early childhood version of seeking out Sandman, and serendipity isn’t serving me this time.

Despite the tractor beam that draws any comic in the vicinity into Meg’s grasp, ost of her finds are adult-oriented. Though she has adopted her mom’s Death and Delirium dolls (imagine: muppet-baby-style wide-eyed goth-chick Death and pretty punk Delirium in a 4-year-old’s sling — that’s cognitive dissonance right there), she hasn’t found the Sandman series yet. She has discovered all of her dad’s comic strip collections, though, and they’re only moderately more age appropriate. His tastes run toward clever 80s-90s favorites like The Far Side, Dilbert, Bloom County, and Calvin and Hobbes. One thing those strips have in common is wit, and that’s exactly the reason I can hardly bear to read them to the girl. It’s hard enough to encourage her learn the medium by matching the written with the drawn elements of the story. Add to that the need to explain every joke, and it’s a bit of slog.

I discussed the situation with my friend Bill, who draws the library- and book-focused Unshelved strip, and he thought Meg might just be too young, but suggested Owly (here’s the Unshelved Book Club’s presentation of Owly). Given her driving interest, which I can’t imagine is unique in the realm of little kids, I’d like to identify additional candidates.

What comic books or comic strips do you think might entertain a 4-year-old and her possibly overly picky mom?

audio books: narrated or performed?

12 May 2009
Children's Book Week

Audio books make for pleasant car rides, especially with my girl. Though I’d never listen to hours of Raffi on a road trip (or any other setting, truth be told), I’ll gladly revisit favorite books from my childhood read by talented performers.

A good audio book does require a good narrator. We’ve discovered some gems, like Stephen Fry’s renditions of A Bear Called Paddington and More About Paddington, and Mary Beth Hurt’s reading of The Fledgling. We’ve also borne some disappointments, like Eric Idle narrating Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I like Idle well enough, but Meg wasn’t impressed. “When are they going to start talking?!” she wanted to know, and we finally understood her to mean, “When is the narrator going to adopt the voices of the characters?” I’m glad she’s not so demanding of her parents — she’s since contentedly listened to her dad read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without ever expressing disappointment that the characters weren’t talking — but she wants her audio books performed.

I’ve found that I share her sensibilities. I feel more engaged in the story when the narrator voices the characters, subtle though it may be. This has been harder to find than I expected, so I was delighted to discover a story I remember diving into as a child with a delightful narrator who successfully (for the most part) manages several characters in two accents. Though Kipling was English, I think the story, set in India, benefits from a narrator presenting an accurate Indian voice.

Meg was enchanted. We listened to the story on our way across town, and when it ended on the way back, she asked to start it over. She then had her first experience of something all audio book listeners will recognize: sitting in the car outside our house to hear the story through (once again) to the end.

Go get your free download of Rikki Tikki Tavi read by Sumeet Bharati from But before you do, tell me: What are your favorite audio books?

Related post:
the spiral of children’s literature

10,000 hours

2 April 2009

Malcolm Gladwell can tell a tale. Peter Coclanis at Open Letters Monthly admits as much but takes Gladwell to task for passing storytelling off as science. Best bit: “data is not the plural of anecdote.”

Whether scientifically sound or not, I found one of Gladwell’s assertions especially appealing. He contends that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become truly expert. Since reading this, I’ve adjusted how I think of my vocation. Instead of seeking work at which I am innately proficient, I’ve decided that my “calling” must be something I’d be eager to practice 20 hours a week for the next 10 years in order to become so. Happily, I’m already at it.

On what are you spending 10,000 hours?

Related post:
a meaningful life

the spiral of children’s literature

4 July 2008
Charlotte's Web

I didn’t read Charlotte’s Web as a kid, sadly. Re-reading such books in adulthood is like finding the butter-yellow stuffed elephant you cuddled and carried on car rides. A new buttery elephant encountered first as an adult is likewise endearing and cozy, but it doesn’t smell of warm sleep and grandparents.

I read countless other classic children’s books, though, and they live in me still. I can feel a glass elevator shaking just before it bursts out of the ceiling. I can see a secret island below from a circle of boats lifted high in the air by balloon. I can feel the edge of a windowsill as I climb out into the night to join a great V of geese in flight. (I didn’t notice until now that my most vivid images are from moments of leaving the ground.)

aThe Twenty-One Balloons The Fledgling

I’m reading Charlotte’s Web now to my daughter. We have three versions going. The first is the unabridged audio, so really it’s E.B. White reading his story to both of us. As he reads, Meg is relying on her own mental images to vivify the characters and take her to the Arables’ farm, and she’s hearing a story that is longer than any she’d have the patience for a parent to read to her.

Some Pig

My former-children’s-librarian friend tells me that three-year-olds still need pictures to truly understand what’s going on in a story, though. When I read to her, it’s clear that Meg wants her books to have pictures. So when I saw Some Pig at a bookstore after we were already well into the audio version, I brought it home to share with her. It is a picture book of the second chapter of Charlotte’s Web.

Charlotte's Web

I also have an annotated edition, which I’ve flipped through and plan to explore. I referred to it yesterday after rereading in Some Pig that Wilbur “looked cute when his eyes were closed” and feeling bothered once again that perhaps this wasn’t the original text — maybe an editor added a bit here or shaved a bit there for a younger audience — since I thought the word “cute” pointed to a pen other than White’s. Turning to the annotated page, I saw that White did call Wilbur “cute,” and Peter Neumeyer told me that he knows “of no other instance in White’s voluminous writings in which he uses this word,” so I felt both newly informed and instinctively clever.


The annotated edition reproduces the original Garth Williams drawings, which I like better than the picture book illustrations. I think I’m unduly distracted by visual details in Some Pig. The illustrator shows pastures across the road from the Arable farm enclosed by hedgerows, a landscape which strikes me as more English than American. Nevertheless, I’m pleased by the practice of transforming portions of classic children’s novels into picture books. I introduced Meg to my favorite marmalade-eating bear through a similar volume.

Raising Lifelong Learners

In Raising Lifelong Learners, Lucy Calkins describes this as a spiral: introducing concepts and then revisiting them in greater depth at later ages. I think of the picture-book version of a classic children’s novel as an example of starting a spiral, and I wish there were more points along it.

There is a great distance between picture books and novels, and as far as I can tell, most of the books that lie between are chapter books. Someday Meg will enjoy reading Frog and Toad or Houndsley and Catina on her own, as she now enjoys having them read to her. They are charming stories with dear characters, and I’m happy to read them. But I prefer the greater nuance and complexity of language in picture books and novels, both meant for experienced readers — whether the parent reading to the child or, later, the child reading on her own. In between, we abandon early readers, leaving them to travel the broad paths alone, offering no invitation to explore the rockier byways hand in hand.

In the space between Some Pig and Charlotte’s Web, I wish there were a another version, not a chapter book, but the entire story with vignettes of Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern on every page, similar to E.H. Shepard’s images of Pooh and Piglet and Christopher Robin, which offer a glimpse of the Hundred Acre Wood without elaborating every detail. Such a version would add a turn to the spiral, like Pooh and Piglet chasing a Woozle, or Charlotte spinning her web.

now a major motion picture

2 April 2008

I’m on a fiction jag. More accurately, I’m on a Jane Austen jag. Masterpiece Classics on PBS has been airing “The Complete Jane Austen” and, drawn into the movies, I’ve decided finally to read the books.

My first exposure to – I won’t say experience of – Austen came in high school. As a student, I was focused on getting good grades rather than on learning anything. My report card showed B’s for calculus though I didn’t understand math beyond algebra, and A’s in English though I rarely glanced at the books my teachers assigned. At least, not until it came time to cull quotes for knitting into into long, assigned papers about the books’ themes.

I’m not sure why I avoided the assigned reading, except perhaps that it was assigned. I was a ravenous reader from the start. High school is when I began reading everything I could by an author I liked. As with my current Austen obsession, a movie prompted my first author-focused reading fit. Unlike with Austen, though, I felt drawn to Isak Dinesen because the movie based on her book befuddled me. I’d seen it in junior high, when my mom met questions about what was going on with “You’ll understand when you’re older.” A few years later, roaming about a used book store, I discovered Out of Africa on the shelves and was attracted to the lingering illicit air implied in my mom’s comment, reading it like other kids read the Joy of Sex found hidden under their parents’ mattress.

I don’t yet know how far my interest in Austen will take me, though my obsessiveness about an author can get out of hand. Out of Africa lead to a years-long exploration of Dinesen, which included a transfer from my first university in the big-hair wasteland of Dallas to the University of Washington to study Danish, Dinesen’s first language, with the thought of becoming a Dinesen scholar.

So far, my interest in Austen has resulted in reading three of her novels and seeing nearly every adaptation of any of her works I can get through Netflix.

I’m troubled a bit by watching instead of, or even in addition to, reading, especially when it comes to my daughter. My foremost objection to watching movies based on books is their pernicious tendency to preempt or supplant my own mental images formed while reading, and I worry that my daughter will likewise be stuck forever seeing Tilda Swinton as Narnia’s White Witch. Though as far as Mr. Tumnus goes, you could hardly ask for better than James McAvoy. And maybe her fascination with the movie’s Aslan, which has so far stretched into months of imaginative lion play, will grow into a love for, or even obsession with, C.S. Lewis once she’s a reader herself.

resourceful Northwest towns

3 February 2008
photo: Steve Ringman for The Seattle Times

I’ll stand with farmers (of the small and sustainable school) in almost any fight, but a recent dust-up – forgive me, but it this case it should really be a mud-up – in southwest Washington’s Lewis county has me puzzled.

Folks there are still recovering from early December floods. A few days ago, our Governor said a recovery task force would study how humans contributed to the mess. She emphasized that finger-pointing wouldn’t bring people’s homes back, but that hasn’t stopped anyone so far. It goes something like this: farmers blame environmentalists blame loggers blame God.

In this case, I think the farmers have it wrong.

If a slope is wholly denuded and that slope subsequently slides into a river, does it have anything to do with the lack of trees?

In a Wednesday Seattle Times editorial a candidate for WA commissioner of public lands said, essentially, “duh”:

The damage to Lewis County clearly was made worse by mudslides from the clear-cuts, building up at the base of the hills, bursting from pressure, and sending torrents of dirt, trees and water across a floodplain already stressed from years of development and pavement.

Since I’ve never picked up a pitchfork I guess I’ll be counted among the “urban environmentalist mafia” — as Robert Michael Pyle put it in Where Bigfoot Walks – who prioritize salmon and owls above people. But that isn’t quite right. I prize salmon and owls above land-raping corporations and the public bureaucracies that abet and abide them.

My guess is that Tim Egan would agree. Before he received the National Book Award for his Worst Hard Time about Dustbowl survivors, Egan admired Theodore Winthrop, adventurer and author of The Canoe and the Saddle, enough to wander in Winthrop’s wake around the Northwest.

The troubles of Lewis county, “a declining economy based on logging and mining”, would have fit right into his 1990 book The Good Rain describing slowly dying “resource towns” – those places built up to exploit and export the wealth of the Northwest.

Egan has the talent to keep readers engaged and encouraged even as he laments the clear-cutting, damming, and over-fishing that strips the Northwest of its characteristic elements.

If only Lewis county could become less dependent upon logging, a shift Egan traces in nearby places, such as Hood River, Oregon — once a timber town, now a windsurfing mecca. It would require identifying what is uniquely Lewis county and using that to grow its material wealth while preserving its natural wealth.

That would be resourceful.

stunt books

25 December 2007
Film Club

So, it’s not just food and farm books in which someone does something (or does without something) for a year. An
upcoming memoir about a father and son who watch three movies together each week as a condition of the son’s dropping out of school is also wrapped in the one year ribbon. I learned about the book from an oldish post on the NY Times book blog. Its author is as done with the device as I am. And tellingly, though his real-life example is not, his dreamed up illustration of the cliché is from the world of food — loosely defined:

Like everyone else I know, I’m bone-tired of stunt books of the “Year I Ate Nothing But Gummy Bears” variety.