When the evening goes well--every little man eats his dinner, shuts off all electronics at 7, takes a bath (with soap), brushes his teeth (with toothpaste), and resists the temptation to engage in a pillow fight with his brothers...all before 8pm--then the final treat for the day is an hour or so of storytelling, when each well-behaved child gets to hear his favorite tale. That happens occasionally. On those occasions, my sons ask for and get the likes of Amber Brown, The Little Island, The Problem with Chickens, a Pooh story, Yes Day, and one or both of Clive Borely’s Tilly the Turtle and Carlton and the Dolphin.
Amber Brown, for those who don’t know, is Paula Danziger's child narrator who faces many real-life challenges--being split between divorced parents is probably the most challenging--with a quirky and engaging attitude towards it all. The one my kids like is a Thanksgiving story, where she has to choose between spending the holiday with her mother and her fiancé or with her father. The story is as full of mischief as it is of angst and dilemma, and my boys especially love the grossness of this moment:
I come out of the bathroom and watch a little kid barf all over Mrs. McDowell’s desk. It’s the same kid who barfed when we had the skunk smell in our school. I watch Kelly watch the kid barf, and then I watch Kelly barf. The kid barfs again . . . . Oh, great . . . . . Ping-Pong barf. The nightmare continues. I, Amber Brown, don’t barf, but this whole scene is making me feel pretty sick.
They laugh and act out the scene every time I read it. But they also appear quite sensitive to other moments when she’s overwhelmed by her Thanksgiving dilemma and says repeatedly, “I, Amber Brown, just don’t know what to do.”
In another of their favorites--Margaret Wise Brown’s classic poem-like, The Little Island--a vacationing kitten comes to an island and after prowling around for a while and noticing that it’s all surrounded by water, the kitten declares, “What a little land. This little Island is as little as Big is Big.” To his amazement, the island retorts, “So are you.” Not to be outdone, the kitten explains the difference, “But I am part of this big world. My feet are on it.”
"So am I,” said the little island.
“No, you’re not,” said the kitten.
“Water is all around you and cuts you off from the land.”
“Ask any fish,” said the island.
So the kitten caught a fish.
“Answer me this or I’ll eat you up,” said the kitten.
“How is an Island a part of the land?”
“Come with me,” said the fish,
“down into the dark secret places of the sea and I will show you.”
“I can’t swim,” said the cat.
“Show me another way or I’ll eat you up.”
“Then you must take it on faith what I tell you,” said the fish.
“What’s that?” said the cat --”Faith.”
“To believe what I tell you about what you don’t know,” said the fish.
And the fish told the kitten how all land is one land under the sea. The cat’s eyes were shining with the secret of it. And because he loved secrets he believed. And he let the fish go.
My children never fail to ask “so mom, what’s the secret?” And depending on how I feel that particular evening, my answer ranges from somewhat philosophical and rambly (which they usually interrupt with their own explanations) to very philosophical and rambly (which they usually interrupt with a pillow fight). They have very assertively and practically concluded that the kitten is silly and that there’s no secret; the island just fooled the kitten into thinking there is one. And my eight-year-old sometimes adds, staring me straight in the eye, “the kitten is like the child and the island is like the grown up who tries to trick the child with lots of big words and long explanations.”
(As the inimitable Erma Bombeck said: And for this, I have stretch marks.)
The problem with chickens is that sometimes they step out of line and have to be coaxed back in place. That’s the gist of Bruce McMillan’s Icelandic tale about chickens and ladies. The ladies, who live in a village, travel to the city to buy chickens, and at first all is well: the chickens are happy laying eggs, the ladies bake cakes with the eggs, everybody is fat and content. But then it appears the chickens become confused about their identity (“role” for those who think “identity” may be too complex for a children’s tale) and begin to
imitate the ladies.
But the ladies eventually find a way to fix their chicken problem, and (wouldn’t you know it) it involves exercise.
Gunnella’s illustrations truly feed this story.
A few years ago my kids were given the gift of an 18-volume Pooh book collection and each has his favorite Pooh story, but one they all enjoy is Eeyore’s Happy Tail. It begins with the donkey dreaming he’s the life of a party--a funny, singing, dancing jolly sort of donkey. But of course, he awakens from the dream to find he’s still the morose sort of donkey he always is. In trying to figure out why he’s so morose, he observes Tigger’s bouncy tail and compares it with his, which just hangs there, and supposes he’d be a lot happier if he just had a happier tail. He solicits owl’s help to find a happy tail, and after unsuccessfully trying on a few, he comes to realize that (basically) you get the tail that fits you and you have to live with it as best as you can...well sorta. But the beauty of the story is in the trying on of tails, not necessarily in its “reality bites” moral. My kids love Eeyore’s efforts to assume a monkey tail:
Owl flipped through the book once again. “Here’s another happy tail,” he said. “A monkey tail is almost like a hand. The monkey uses it to hang from branches and swing through the trees.” Eeyore imagined himself swinging through the trees by his tail. He almost smiled just thinking about it. Maybe a monkey tail was exactly what he needed. Eeyore wrapped his tail around a tree branch. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated on swinging through the tree like a monkey. After a while Eeyore opened his eyes. “Well, I’ll be,” he said, looking down, “Owl and Pooh look just like ants.” But what Eeyore was seeing were ants, because he had never left the ground.
Another of their favorites, Amy Krouse Rosenthal's and Tom Lichtenheld's Yes Day, has them longing for the day when I’ll say yes to everything they ask. (Dream on, little people).
And one of their most recent favorites is from amongst the Caribbean tales I’ve been gathering for their reading pleasure. It’s Clive Borely’s duo, Tillie the Turtle and Carlton and the Dolphin (featured during Trinidad’s Bocas lit fest). Tillie the Turtle has an exciting bit of action between “bad men” and a turtle trying to lay her eggs in peace in an environment which is growing more and more unsafe and unclean. My kids like the action and they like that the good folk defeat those who try to disturb an animal's habitat. (The green folk in the teaching world must be very proud of them...And I am too. I am.)
I’m even prouder that though they are children who have so far been growing up without supernatural tales, they’ve taken a liking to Carlton and the Dolphin. In the story, a fisherman whose brother was lost at sea is caught in a storm and eventually led to safety by a dolphin who may be a reincarnation of his brother. When I first suggested to my sons that the Dolphin was probably the dead brother in another form of life, two of my sons were skeptical, and still are, but one son understands...
A few days after my sister died, he and I were standing at the window looking out at a tree in our yard when a blue bird lighted on a branch close to the window. The color startled me. I’d never seen a bird that color, except in a zoo maybe. I checked to see if he’d noticed and he appeared to be just as startled. Then he looked at me...wide-eyed
“That’s auntie Gail,” he whispered.
Without hesitation, I nodded, “Yes. It’s auntie Gail.”
My sister was buried in a unique metallic-blue casket--an extravagant, memorable last gift from our parents.