Friday, September 07, 2012

"Classic" Stories

You get on the subway in Boston (or the "T," as we call it), and you see a mother and toddler. The mother is very animatedly telling the child the story of a giant, a magician, and a ukelele. The toddler barely seems to be listening, until you hear her call out lines like "All gone Abi-yo!" and "Ka-ploo-ie water Mommy!" The mother is pointedly trying to ignore all the looks she is getting from fellow passengers, from annoyed to bemused, with some nostalgic looks and the occasional avid listener.

Yep, I'm that Mom.

If you see me out with my daughter on public transportation, chances are I'm telling her Pete Seeger's story, "Abiyoyo," because she's asked me for the umpteenth time that day. (This story needs a post of its own, and it is forthcoming.)

Sometimes, I am telling something else, or reading her a book. When I am telling her a story, it is usually something I deem a "classic" in our dominant American culture. Maybe the "Three Little Pigs" or "The Three Bears."

I get little bemused smiles from fellow riders when I tell these. And it is usually very clear that I've told my daughter these stories a million times, because at just 2 (last week!) she will chime in at appropriate places. People usually only pay attention to these "classics" if they are particularly bored.

Today I had an interesting experience.

I was at a doctor's office in the waiting room. I had brought several books for my daughter, but clearly not the latest obsession: "Chicken Little." It has been her obsession since Tuesday when I took it out of the library for her, and I am already extremely sick of the version I chose on a whim.

(I chose Sally Hobson's version, a book that is beautifully illustrated with bare-bones text. Unfortunately, the text is bare bones enough to have exact repetition through 6 birds and it bores me to no end. So I've been adding to it - a lot! I suspect this is why I am stuck reading it over and over. Also, my daughter seems to think that the ending is happy despite everyone being eaten. I commented at the second reading that that sated fox on the last page looked "pretty happy" so now whenever we get to that page she gleefully calls out "pretty happy!")

I told my daughter that while we didn't have the book with us, I could certainly tell her the story. So I started in, and as it was the first time I've told her this story, I had no patter set for it. It was rough, but she didn't mind.

I got through two animals, and they called us in. An older woman sitting across the way said ruefully, "Aww, I wanted to hear the rest of the story!"

I assured her that we would be out shortly, and I would continue the story. I thought she was playfully humoring me and addressing that comment to my child, or "speaking for her." While in the office, my daughter wanted to hear more, but I jokingly told her that the lady in the waiting room was waiting to hear the rest, and that we would continue out there after the visit. Mostly, I was trying not to hold up the appointment.

Well, we got back out to the waiting room, and I finished up the story. I chose the original ending from the Hobson book, as I hadn't had a chance to think over my choices. (Side note, I am very fond of both the ending and the whole book by Rebecca and Ed Emberley - it just wasn't on the library shelf on Tuesday.)

When I finished, the older lady said, "Thank you. I was raised in a non-American household, and I never heard the story of Chicken Little. I wanted to know how it ended."

And it got me thinking once again about the idea of a "classic story" in our culture.

Classics don't remain so if no one tells them. 

When I was a library student, I volunteered in a school library.  One day, the librarian chose a book for a 1st and 2nd grade storytime that involved mixed-up nursery rhyme characters. And it quickly became clear that most of these kids had no idea what the story was referring to. They had never heard of Humpty Dumpty or Little Bo Peep, so the book meant nothing to them. The librarian had to back up and start in with nursery rhyme books with 6-8 year-olds (and then with the younger kids too).

Now you might wonder why it matters. The thing is, much of our adult cannon relies on small subtle references to classic stories, nursery rhymes, myths, legends, folktales, fairy tales and the like. I would venture to say that is true in most cultures around the world - it is just that the set of references changes. My husband was in Iceland for a computer conference once, and the hosting university had a big talk that assumed that everyone knew the Icelandic sagas of old, because everyone in Iceland certainly did. They were floored to discover that people had never heard of any of the characters, much less the stories themselves. (And now, geek that I am, I am put in mind of the Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok" that includes an alien race which converses only in allusion to shared stories.)

So I feel like I should thank that woman for reminding me why I spend much of my time entertaining my toddler with classic stories, rhymes, and songs from my culture (as well as including other cultures in the mix - but that is a whole other topic) even when I get tired of repeating them. And also for reminding me that what I consider "classic" can be brand new for both adults as well as small children.

Also, it's nice to have the occasional surprise audience member to my daughter's personal storytelling sessions!

I'd love to hear which stories you consider "classics" of your culture, even if you think it is "obvious." This blog seems to get international readership, even though it garners few comments, so what is obvious to you or me, may not be so to another reader.
This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Playing with stories

Over on the blog 365 Great Children's Books (which is a great site for picture book reviews), there is a post called Bringing Books To Life. She writes about the different ways she and her two children (ages 4 years and 17-months) extend books into playtime by bringing stories to life.  She has vivid descriptions of their activities making skits with stuffed animals, reading characters as if they were in a play, and using drawing and building activities to recreate the story.

That blog focuses more on the activities the 4-year-old is doing, so I wanted to talk a bit about how I've done similar things with my nearly 17-month-old since she turned one (i.e. how to scale down these types of literacy play for the very young toddler). Also, I'd like to talk a bit about running "storytime theater" classes with two age groups: 15 months-3 years and 3-5 years. But that will be another post.

Let's begin with my daughter. I've talked before about reading to her beginning when she was a newborn. I've talked a bit about how to extend the text by asking questions, talking about the pictures and pointing out little things on the page, or making comments. But how do you get your young, possibly nonverbal, toddler in on the act? How do you get her to play with books and story?

When my daughter was just over 12 months, I was working on a monster storytime for one of my sideline jobs. A librarian friend offered to loan me her Big Green Monster puppet, pictured below:

It goes along with Ed Emberley's book, Go Away Big Green Monster. The book is made up of die-cut pages, which slowly reveal the monster's full facial features, then has the reader make them "go away" one by one until the monster disappears. (With the excellent last page, which is just text on a black page: "And don't come back! Until I say so.") The puppet has all the same facial features with velcro on them, so that you can put them on and remove them repeatedly.

Well, my little Picasso immediately latched on to both the book and the puppet. At first she was content to help me act out the story as written, but soon she was making her own crazy monster creations. (It reminded me a bit of the Anything Muppets by Jim Henson.) We had to order our own puppet (and several copies of the book, because hoo boy it is easily tearable! I wish there was a board book version...), and soon little squiggly ears and scraggly purple hair were an everyday fact of life. We had to tell people that if she ran up to them and said "Go-way" it didn't mean that she didn't like them, she just wanted to play monster! (Or read the book in her own very non-linear fashion.)

So, I would guess that was where things really began for our daughter. Taking the story off of the page, but still having it tied to the book in her mind. Obviously at 12 or 13 months, pretend play is only kind of on the table, and it is all still very concrete. This puppet looks exactly like the illustrations. But you can mix up how it plays out and it doesn't have to be exactly the same each time.

Skip ahead to 14 or 15 months, and we have the introduction of Sebastian Braun's "Meeow" books - ultimate favorites around here. The explicit point of these books is how to use objects in unexpected ways to play pretend. These came into our house, once again, as a library find when I was prepping a storytime for 2- and 3-year-olds. The first one we brought home was Meeow and the Pots and Pans:
In this one, Meeow and his friends use pots and pans to make a band. It caught my daughter's attention due to the simple text, bold illustrations, a cat as a main character, and the fact that they were banging on pots and pans - something that she can easily relate to. This is an easy one to see how to extend, but we'll return to it later.

When the first book seemed to interest her quite bit, I brought home another one, and this is where it became more interesting. The second Meeow book we brought home was Meeow and the Little Chairs:
In this one, Meeow and his friends line up their chairs and make a train. She was only half paying attention the first time my husband read it to her, and was in fact, wandering around playing. Cat, chairs, that's nice and mildly interesting. But when my husband got to "Ding-ding! Choo-choo! Meeow has made his very own train!", she whirled around, ran over to him and made him read it again. And he tells me she was literally standing there goggle-eyed with her jaw hanging open. Her first twist ending.

Well, after the requisite reading it over and over ten million times for the next few days (with her screaming "kitty train" unintelligibly every time we got to the last page), we decided that we needed to do something to break up all these readings. So we began grabbing her favorite bell when the bell part came up, and waving a juggling scarf as Moo's little green flag. At bathtime, she started lining up her colorful links along the edge of the tub. At first, we couldn't figure out what she was doing, but it had great focus and purpose. Finally, my husband figured it out, and asked her if she was making a train. The look of intense glee when he asked her that was answer enough. She was engaging in her own retelling of the story!

And that's how things go now. A few days ago, she ran to get a wooden spoon to hold while we read the pots and pan books. She giggles when the book asks if they are going to bake a cake. She happily drums on the book with the "kitty band" (which sings "When the Saints Go Marching In" in our house). And once, in a play space where she couldn't figure out the train table, I said to her "Ding-ding! Choo-choo! [Name] has her very own train!", and it clicked.

Engaging in book and story play is a ton of fun as a parent or caregiver. It need not be relegated to older, verbal children capable of real pretend play. Your young toddler may well surprise you in what she can do.

So, go! Play! Be silly.  Let me know how it goes.

(I will make a later post about how this plays out in a group setting in the storytime theater classes I teach occasionally.)

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.