If anyone missed the tremendous interview Patty Templeton did of me in the previous post, it is now also up on her library’s web site here.
So, I’m back to Pittsburgh now after a little over a week in the Midwest — in my hometown, in fact — where it was a great privilege to be given charge of the Story Hour at the Taylorville Public Library on a Saturday morning. Many, many thanks to the librarians there for their kindness and generosity in allowing me to do that on a very short notice!
Initially, I wondered what I might be getting myself into. I was told that the usual audience at Story Hour was children ages 3-7. Gulp! The typical Cricket age begins at 9, so I knew the listeners would be way too young for any story I’d written.
Friends are among our greatest blessings in life, and I thought immediately of my friend Maggie Murphy, who specializes in writing for that very young age group. I dove for my keyboard and typed “HELP!” Now, you know Maggie: she’s a regular contributor to this blog, albeit under a different name. Anyway, Maggie graciously came to my aid, sent me a whole palette of her stories and permission to choose among them for ones I might read aloud, and gave me some invaluable pointers on how to interact with such a young audience. Everything she sent me would have worked beautifully, but I chose her stories “The Halloween Costume Countdown” (Ladybug, October 2009, delightfully illustrated by Leslie Tryon) and “The Fairy King’s Puzzle” (Spider, June 2007, illustrated by Yoshiko Z. Jaeggi). Both of these tales are a joy to read aloud, requiring different voices and with just the right crowd-pleasing payoffs — and better yet, the latter encourages the listeners to solve a fairy puzzle. Both were quite well received!
I remembered one more gift that helped: for my birthday in 1992, a friend in Japan gave me an extraordinary picture book called Frederick, by Leo Lionni. (It’s a Caldecott Honor Book, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year.) I started off the program by reading it, and the kids were rapt as they studied the pictures. Even the moms leaned forward a little, holding their breath! I’ve always been partial to the book because the main character, a mouse, has my name — even if it’s misspelled — AND he’s a writer . . . or a storyteller, anyway. While all the other mice are busy stockpiling food for the winter, Frederick sits and absorbs the sunlight, the colors, and the words of the world. The others think he’s lazy . . . but when bleak winter comes, and the food runs low, and spirits ebb as the mice are huddled in their cold, dark burrow, then Frederick’s preparations sustain and cheer them. Through his stories, he gives them the warm sunlight, the colors, and the words.
Next, I used several large prints of Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations to introduce The Star Shard. I didn’t try to read any of it, but I let the kids know what Cymbril and her friends were like, and how it was to live on the Thunder Rake. The Urrmsh are always a hit.
Between Maggie’s two stories, we did something I called a “Stretch of the Imagination.” Because the youngest kids were getting a little restless, I had them all stand up from the cushions they were sitting on. I urged them to close their eyes — or not, depending on which way they could imagine better — and then, in our minds, we all became really, really tall — so tall that our heads shot up through the crowns of the trees, out into the brilliant sunlight where the butterflies bounced over the leaves. We all physically stretched as we did this, reaching, rreeaacchhinnggg toward the sky . . . we looked down on the tiny houses, kept stretching up . . . and we grew up through the clouds, into a world of whiteness, fluffy clouds like snowdrifts . . . and in the distance, a huge, gray castle . . . probably the Giant’s castle from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” So as not to bother the Giant, we quickly shrank down, down, scrunching ourselves up as small as we could manage, tucking in our arms and legs, getting smaller and smaller . . .
So small, in fact, that we tumbled through a crack in the floor and ended up in a rooty, earthy place under the ground, where a lantern cast yellow light over the bare dirt. In one corner, a little man in a green coat sat making a shoe, hammering the sole onto it with his hammer, tap, tap, tap. The man, with his red hair and beard, looked up at us and winked.
And we got bigger again, bursting up through the ground, and suddenly we could run faster than any creature in the world. We all ran in place, but in our minds, we outran gazelles and cheetahs. We leaped over rivers, over the green hills, over mountains . . . (Remember illustrations of the Seven League Boots?)
And finally, we were ourselves again, flopping back onto the cushions, and we heard another story.
For the last part of the hour, we moved over to the tables and divided into two groups. I got a volunteer mom to join each table to help keep everyone focused. Then I brought out some wondrous Objects that would help us tell our own story.
We revisited Emily’s illustration of Cymbril and the two cats at the rail of the Rake, and now I asked the children to imagine that it was a different girl. What should we call her? One girl (the first whose hand went up) suggested (after a lot of thought) “Rapunzel.”
Okay. Rapunzel had three cats. You can only see two in the picture, and here’s why:
The cats’ names were Faith, Hope, and Charity. Charity was the bravest. One day, a wicked witch passed along the road in front of the cottage. She was dressed in black rags that flapped in the breeze around her like black flames, and her nose and chin jutted out so far that they nearly met. (The kids went, “Eewww!”) The witch kicked at Charity, and Charity hissed at her. The witch glared angrily and cast a spell on Charity, turning her into a black stone. (At this point, I pulled out a curious, large, smooth black stone that my actual dad actually found once; he always thought it was shaped like a human heart.)
The witch said, “Now you’ll be another part of the path in front of my house,” and she flung the stone into her cart, which was full of other stones, all of different shapes, colors, and sizes. So the wicked witch hobbled on down the road, pulling her cart full of stones, and poor Charity was a smooth, black stone atop the pile.
Faith and Hope wrung their paws, and Rapunzel wrung her hands, and they all consulted together on how they might rescue Charity.
Enter now the two groups of kids: the first table was given a detailed figurine of Gandalf (though 3-7-year-olds don’t recognize Gandalf when they see him, so he was an old man leaning on a staff) and a brass hunting-horn. The second table was given a wind chime made of seashells and a troll doll made of moss. Table 1 had to figure out what Rapunzel and the cats did next to help their friend; Table 2 had to finish the story. Both tables had to use their two Objects as a part of the story. We brought out crayons and paper; if the youngest kids didn’t want to think up story ideas, they could illustrate what was going on.
After we worked for a while, we heard the tables’ reports. It seems that Rapunzel and her cats, hurrying along the road after the witch, met a wise old wizard who, from his belt, pulled a golden horn. When he blew it, it gave them magical courage and speed. The second table wasn’t quite sure how the wind chime and troll fit in, though they drew some excellent pictures of both. Inspired by the first group’s idea, a girl thought that when you heard the chime clinking in the wind, it would make you brave, too. One little boy suggested that Rapunzel hit the black stone, it broke apart, and Charity emerged unharmed and safe again!
Something I noticed is that, in a way, it’s easier to do a program for very small children, because you simply can’t get into theory. At that age, most haven’t learned to write on paper yet. So it becomes all about Story, and we’re all born with an instinct and a longing for that.
God bless the storytellers of every age, and those who love them!