Ask the Kids: What Makes a Great Story

It’s week two of fall break, and yes, now I remember what it’s like to have all three kids around all the time.  It’s basically impossible to write with everyone in and out and bored and playing and loud and…louder.  So.  Since I can’t write as much as usual, I figured I should take advantage of their being around to ask them some questions.  As you know, I’m working on listening more these days, so this is my chance to find out what they like in a story.

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What kind of stories do you like best?

Lucy (5) – Stories about princesses and I like stories about pets and I like stories about witches, stories about castles, stories about horses.

Scott (8) – Mysteries and tragedy

Ellie (10) – Adventures that explore fairy tales

Which do you like better, a happy ending or a sad ending?

Lucy (5) - Sad endings. Because I usually like the sad endings when they have…like,that it’s having a scary story. I like those scary stories.

Scott (8) – In a series, a happy ending to the series but sad endings to the books.

Ellie (10) – Depends on the story. Like when somebody loses somebody, when somebody dies, I like that. I don’t like other sad endings, like the good guys lose.

When you are making up your own stories, where do you get the ideas from?

Lucy (5) – I see pictures and get the ideas.

Scott (8) – Other stories and things I’ve experienced myself.

Ellie (10) – Other books and things that happen in my life. Mostly from books really.

Who is your favorite story character and why?

Lucy (5) – Hermione.  I don’t know why.

Scott (8) – Jaques Snicket, because he carries the most mysteries.

Ellie (10) – Sabrina from The Sisters Grimm, because she’s like me.  A lot like me.

Pretty interesting stuff.  I mean, a lot of it I knew.  It’s not a big surprise that my five-year-old likes stories about princesses or that my big kids love characters from their favorite books.  I knew Scott was into  mysteries and Ellie prefers fantasy adventure.  The part that really got my attention was the happy ending/sad ending bit.  Did you catch that?

They all love a sad ending.

Not a depressing ending.  Not a bad ending.  But they like the sad in there.  They want to be scared.  They want some grieving.  I think maybe the sticky sappy happy world of so many modern children’s stories (books or movies) is actually really unappealing to them.  Good to know.  Good because it helps me as a writer of stories for kids and good because as a mom it makes me pretty happy that my kids prefer a little grit to their fairy tales.

I also loved the totally opposite reasons that Scott and Ellie chose their favorite characters.  Ellie loved that she could see herself in Sabrina.  She wants to relate, to be in the story.  Scott chose the character that was the most mysterious, the one he knew so little about, the one with all the tantalizing clues that made him want to know more.  He wants to solve a puzzle, and the person who offers him the most challenge interests him the most.

Just goes to show you that we’re all looking for different things when we turn to stories. To learn. To escape.  To be challenged.  To be dazzled.  To feel something.  To not have to feel anything.

Not every reader is looking for the same thing.  Not every listener is hoping for the same experience.  I think that gives us a lot of freedom as storytellers.  I can tell the story I have inside me.  If it has the ring of truth (remember they didn’t want anything too scrubbed up and happy), it doesn’t matter if it’s cerebral or earthy, funny or scary, whimsical or realistic.  It will find an audience somewhere.  It won’t be for everyone.  (Better let go of that dream now.) But it will be for someone.

So what do your kids like?  Have you asked them?  Maybe they’ll surprise you.  Or okay, maybe they’ll just grunt.  That happens, too.  (If it helps, I bribed mine with banana bread to give me some answers.)  And maybe, just maybe, knowing what lights them up will give you a new way to connect with them.  Because maybe you like sad endings, too, or maybe you know about a mysterious figure that will capture their imagination, or maybe stories from your past will show you as a character who is very like themselves, a person they can relate to.

Ask.  You never can tell what they’ll say.

I know I’m already making my next list of questions.

 

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Battle of the Birds

“They’re all afraid of you, you know,” said the owl to the raven, who was trying to smooth out his ruffled feathers.

“Then they’re not very bright, are they?” croaked the raven.  “I was just trying to warn them that the cardinal has made his home in those trees up there.  Why was that a reason to throw rocks at me?  No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.”

“It’s your dark color and raspy voice, I think,” the owl mused. “They find those things creepy.”

“Oh, go back to sleep if you can’t say anything helpful,” snapped the raven. “It’s not like I can change my feathers or my voice.  And I still don’t think those things would matter if that stupid poet hadn’t written that stupid poem.”

Never….more…,” chuckled the owl.

“Shut up,” said the raven.  His feathers were back to normal and he looked properly disgusted.  “You don’t exactly have the friendliest reputation with them.  All that flying around at night when everyone else is sleeping.  Are you telling me that isn’t creepy?”

“Yes, but they love me,” preened the owl.  “They think I deliver mail for magical people.”

A derisive caw was the only answer that deserved.

“Don’t worry,” said the owl, his voice getting sleepy again.  “Look.  They didn’t listen to you.  They’re about to go into the woods, so you’ll get the last laugh after all.”

“Serves them right,” said the raven, but he didn’t mean it.  His black feathers hid a very soft heart, and he really hated that two-faced cardinal.

As the owl went back to sleep, the raven flew up over the distant woods, just to keep an eye on things.

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Tommy had an uncomfortable feeling.  He wished they hadn’t thrown rocks at that nasty raven.  True, it had freaked him out perched on that fence post and cawing at them like it wanted to eat them for lunch, but he would have just hurried away if the other boys hadn’t dared him to hit it with a skipping stone.  He hadn’t wanted to look like a chump.  And for a minute it felt good.  His rock was the only one that landed.  He’d always had the best aim.  Still, his grandmother had told him once that people who were cruel to animals would be visited by crows in the night and have their eyes pecked out.  Of course he didn’t believe that.  But he didn’t feel comfortable.

His friends were laughing and joking as they ducked into the woods.  Tommy laughed with them.  He didn’t want to seem weird.

Jimmy saw the cardinal first, pointing at its bright red body and daring Tommy to hit it with another rock.

“Nah,” Tommy said. “That’s a cardinal. They never hurt nobody.”

Jimmy said it was too small anyway.  Tommy heard the taunt in the words, but he ignored them.  Just like he tried to ignore the cardinal as it hopped from branch to branch, following them.

When they got to the stream and the log that made a rough bridge across it, the cardinal was still with them.  Tommy watched it as he waited his turn to cross.  He had always liked cardinals, liked their bright color and distinctive plume, but this one felt wrong.  It sat glaring at them out of one beady eye, and Tommy wondered why he had never noticed how black a cardinal’s eye could be.

On the other side of the creek, the boys came to the meadow where they usually played ball.  A strange rustling sound greeted them.  Carl had the ball under one arm, but no one started the game.  Instead, they all stood staring around.  In every branch of every tree were birds, not scary birds, just little robins and sparrows and finches.  They chirped and twittered and sang, a cacophony of cheerful noise.

“What the…? Where did these come from?” Jimmy asked.

“My sister’d go crazy if she saw this,” Jason said.  “She’s always beggin’ my mom for a pet bird.”

“You could take one home,” Carl said. “Enough to go around.”

Tommy said nothing.  That uncomfortable feeling was growing.

Something whooshed right past Tommy’s ear, and he ducked without thinking.  The other boys laughed.

“Just that cardinal, scaredy-boy.  You think it was going to take your head off or something?” Jimmy had barely finished the words when the cardinal landed on his own head.  “Hey! get off me!  Get off, you!”

Jimmy batted at the top of his head, but the cardinal just hopped out of the way of his waving hands and pecked hard at Jimmy’s ear.

Jimmy screamed.  “Ow!  Get it off!  Get it off me!”

Tommy and the other boys rushed at Jimmy, yelling to scare the bird away.  It landed two or three more strong pecks on Jimmy’s head before flying off to the top of a nearby tree.  Jimmy was yelling and crying and blood was dripping down his forehead.  Carl had dropped the ball and was yelling already under the trees, yelling at them all to get out of there.  Jason and Tommy grabbed Jimmy by the arms and hurried him away.  Even with all of Jimmy’s yelling, Tommy could hear the silence behind them.  Every single one of those sweet little birds was silent and watching them.

“Tweeeee, twerp, twerp, twerp, twerp!” the cardinal called loudly.  Tommy heard the taunt in the song, but he ignored it.

Suddenly all the birds burst into joyful song again.

The boys ran full-out down the path, leaving the twittering meadow to the care of the bright red bird, calmly smoothing his feathers.

*******************

The raven circling high overhead saw the red spot and heard the laughter of his little friends, and his heart was heavy.  He had known that cardinal was no good, but he hadn’t heard that so many had flocked to his side.

The raven watched as the boys ran crying through the woods.  It was too late for them.  They had already proved that they couldn’t listen.  The hunting birds needed to be warned, though.  The success of this attack would just encourage the cardinal to make more.

The raven wheeled away, his harsh caw drowned out by the wind and the sound of a thousand tiny wings.

******************

To be continued…

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Reliving Mush Mommy

We had a really busy weekend, full of wonderful people and good times and amazing food.  I’m exhausted.  It’s Monday morning and it’s raining and my house is full of children because FALL BREAK!  And man, did we ever need fall break, and this is going to be a great couple of weeks, but none of that changes the fact that this morning my eye is twitching and no amount of caffeine has yet been enough to convince me to be productive in any way.

Instead, I find myself wondering what would happen if I just…didn’t.  What if I just got back in bed and went to sleep and let the kids roam free for the day?  What do you think? Odds on their survival?  I’m sure they would find food for themselves and all still be alive at the end of the day.  I mean, I’m mostly sure.  I’m definitely sure that it would be an interesting story.  Technically, if something I did produced an interesting story, then that would be me being productive, right?

My justification knows no bounds.

In any case, this morning has been reminding me of the many (MANY) mornings that I felt like this when my kids were toddlers.  Back in those days, my brain more or less always had this mushy quality.  Those were the days when I always went to bed with dishes in the sink because there was no strength left after dinner and bedtime to even look at them.  Those were the days when I invented rocket ship games that let me sit on my bed while the kids went on “missions” because I had to nurse the baby and also because if I walked around the house I would trip on toys and be too tired to bend over and pick them up.  Those were the days when I forgot what it felt like to feel rested and productive and intelligent and clean.

It was one of those despairing days that I turned that fuzzy-headed feeling into a story of its own.  Somehow, that story became my kids’ favorite, and I told it over and  over to them for weeks.  It is a monument to the fact that you can turn absolutely anything into a story if you’re desperate interesting enough.

This morning, in an attempt to encourage all you moms of littles as I relive that hazy feeling for a day, I bring you MUSH MOMMY.

Once upon a time there was a mommy who loved to tell stories to her children, Molly, Matt, and Maggie.  Every morning when they woke up, the children would say, “Please may we have a story?”  Then their mommy would tell them a story while they ate their breakfast.  She would tell them stories while they were doing their work, tell them stories while they were walking to school, and tell them a brand new story each night as she tucked them into bed.  The last thing they would hear before falling asleep was, “And they lived happily ever after.”

That falling asleep was where all the trouble began.  It started with Molly, who was eight.  Molly decided she was too old to go to bed at the same time as her baby brother and sister.  So she asked for extra stories, and when that didn’t work, she asked for a drink of water, and when that didn’t work, she asked for some toys to play with in bed, and when that didn’t work, she cried.  With all this asking and crying, it was much later than normal when Mommy was finally able to get Molly to sleep.  Then is was Maggie’s turn.  Maggie had fallen asleep with no trouble at all, like the sweet little baby that she was.  But just when everyone else had begun to dream their happiest dreams, Baby Maggie woke up.  And she cried.  And she cried, and cried, and cried.  It was a very long time before Mommy could get her to go back to dreamland.  By that time, Mommy was very, very tired, and she sighed happily as she crawled back into bed.  Just then, Matt woke up.  He didn’t mean to stay awake.  He just missed his Mommy.  So he got up and went to her bed and curled up against her.  He was a very sweet and snuggly boy…all except for his elbow.  His elbow was very sharp and pokey, and it was determined to have as much space as it needed to stick out.  Mostly the place where it decided to stick was in the Mommy’s back.  After a while of being poked by elbow, Mommy got up and carried sleeping Matt back to his own bed.  Then, just as she settled back into her pillows with a smile….it was morning, and Molly and Matt and Maggie were waking up and asking for a story with their breakfast.

The first morning after a  night like that, Mommy felt like her head was a little mushy, but she shook herself and drank some coffee and made up a new story.  The second morning, Mommy knew her head was quite mushy, so she shook herself and drank some coffee, but she still couldn’t think of a new story, so she told everyone Molly’s favorite fairy tale.  The third morning, Mommy’s head was nothing but mush.  She drank her coffee, but it just seeped right out of her mushy head.  She tried to remember Matt’s favorite story, but her mushy head could not do it.   Matt had to tell the story himself.  The fourth morning, not only was Mommy’s head mushy, now her arms and hands had turned to mush, too.  Molly had to make breakfast for everyone, and she tried to think of a story, but Maggie cried because her breakfast was too hot and Matt complained that Molly’s story wasn’t exciting enough.  The fifth morning came, and now Mommy had turned entirely to mush.  She tried to get out of bed, but her mushy legs couldn’t stand up.  Molly, Matt, and Maggie didn’t know what to do.  They tried to make her sit up, but she was too mushy.  The tried to roll her out of the bed, but she just glooped right over the edge and landed in a pile of mush on the floor.  Molly called the doctor, who rushed right over.

“Yes,” said the doctor, “this is the worst case of Mommy Mush I’ve ever seen.  It’s a good thing you called me when you did.  Tell me, now, has she been getting any sleep at night?”

Molly, Matt, and Maggie just looked at the floor.

“That’s what I thought,” said the doctor.  “Well, fortunately, Mommy Mush is curable, but it’s going to take  some very fast music and then A LOT of sleep. “

So Molly went on put on their very loudest dance music, and they all watched anxiously as Mush Mommy slowly turned back into their real Mommy.  Only when she was able to smile a very, very weak smile did the doctor lift her off the floor and back into her bed.  Then he turned off the light, and they all tiptoed out of the room and let her sleep.

It was a very long day for those children without any Mommy to tell them stories, but Matt and Molly tried to take turns telling all the stories they could remember.  And that night when it was time to go to bed, Molly went straight to sleep without any complaining.  In the night, Maggie woke up and wanted to cry, but then she thought of Mush Mommy and grabbed her blankie and went back to sleep.  A little later Matt woke up and wanted to curl up by Mommy again, but instead he cuddled down in his blankets and dreamed of having his Mommy back to normal again.

In the morning, Mommy was all better.  She got up and made breakfast with no signs of mushy hands.  At breakfast, she told them the best story ever.   And of course, they lived happily ever after, sleeping all night long every night.

If only it could be so easy in real life, right?  Good luck, Mush Mommies everywhere.  May your coffee be strong and your children be patient (or at least easily pacified by TV).

It gets better.  (There are still days, but it gets so much better.)

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Favorite Fall Reads

Am I the only person who starts getting the itch to re-read Harry Potter when the weather turns cold and pumpkins are all around?  It’s like I can tell Hogwarts is frosting over and Hagrid is carving giant jack o’lanterns and I get this craving to hang out in the Great Hall and drink some butterbeer for a while.  Don’t worry, that’s not really what this post is about.  I was just wondering if I am weird or if this is maybe a cultural phenomenon?  Never mind.  Don’t answer that.

Let’s talk about Fall books, though!

For me, every season has a feeling, so I like my fall books to make me feel like fall.  How does fall feel, you ask?  Fall has a split personality.  On the inside, fall feels cozy and filled up and satisfied with abundance.  On the outside it feels windy and shivery and mysterious. Fall is a time for books with lots of food description. (Old books are best for this.  I’m looking at you, Dickens.)  Fall is a time for ghost stories, nothing too gory, of course, just a curious, creepy, and slightly wistful tale, something like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Fall is a time for Sherlock Holmes.  You need to be out following clues on a misty moor or tracing a criminal through the rainy streets of London and then home for tea and maybe a brandy or two.  I mean it, grownups.  I know you love Sherlock.  I respect you enough to assume that much.  But have you actually read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books?  If not, this is the perfect season to try them out.  They’re wonderful.

As for the kids, I have a few favorites.  By category!

My favorite general Fall book:  Autumn Story by Jill Barklem

This is part of a set, one book for each season, and they are completely delightful.

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This book wins Best Fall  Book because it’s about fall and it also captures that fall feeling perfectly.  It’s all stored up nuts and berries and adorable cozy details.

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I want to live in Brambly Hedge.  Really, I do.

My favorite Halloween Book: Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberly.

Ed Emberly is one of my favorite illustrators, and this book is so cute and clever as each page adds to the scary monster, right up to the midpoint, where the kids get to banish him…one feature at a time.  Just really great in concept and execution.

My favorite Thanksgiving Book: Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wende and Harry Devlin.

This book is old.  Like, so old I found it in a mildewy old box of books.  But I love it for that very reason.  The story is old-timey and classic Thanksgiving.  My favorite page:

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Yes.  That.  And it ends with this old recipe for Cranberry Bread.  The whole thing is a delight.

I have this little basket where I keep books that correspond to the current season.  It’s one of my favorite corners of my house.  Picking things to go in it is one of my favorite activities.  I’m nerdy like that.

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So while I’m off resisting the urge to try a big flagon of pumpkin juice, what do you think?  What other books should I put in the fall basket?

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Fall, Two Ways

It occurred to me as I sat down to write a poem about my favorite season, that the poem I would write and the one my kids would write would be quite different.  So, you know, I wrote both.

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Me

Walking on an October day
A golden sun warms up my skin
The nippy wind swirls at play
And chilled fingers find pockets to snuggle in

My feet meet leaves to crush below
The soft crunch-crunch so satisfying
A flock of geese avoiding snow
Honk their hellos and keep on flying

My eyes raise up, behold a feast
Spectacular views on every side
Rich gold, bright red crowns every tree
And flaming orange burst out with pride

A whiff of smoke drifts through the air
I hurry home to fireside
I breath the scent: a meal to share
Of bubbling stew and apple pie

Rich flavors roll across my tongue
The tang of cider, sweet and tart
The fresh hot bread like when I was young
And pumpkin everything to thrill my heart

Them

It’s cold, my jacket feels so itchy
But these pumpkin guts are fun and squishy
I like the sound my mother makes
When I jump in the leaf pile she just raked
Those leaves are red and gold and brown
I watch them dance as they fall down
Then…what’s that smell? It’s apple pie!
Let’s go inside, make the fire high
Let’s drink some cocoa (the stew you can keep)
And tell ghost stories until we sleep.

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Small Stories (Are All Around)

Last week we brought out the Halloween decorations.  I know I told you we already put up the fall things, but there are MORE things that are just for Halloween, and as it is now October, they get added to the mix.  (We really like holidays around here…and decorating for such.)

My younger two took on the task of hanging up all the window clings.  You know those weird gel-like things in fun holiday shapes that look really cool on the window…until they get picked apart by small children and reduced to a pile of disgusting mushy bits?  Those.  We had a bunch of pumpkins and some bats and a few funny monsters.  As their play room is all windows, I just let them go to town while I cooked dinner.  They were deep into it when I heard what they were saying.

“I think we should put all the pumpkins on this one window, because this is the pumpkin patch and they are a pumpkin family all together.”

“Yeah, and this one monster will be right here, trying to get them.”

“Okay, but he won’t get them because this monster will be in his way.”

“Right.  And I’m putting the bats over here.  This one sparkly bat it their leader.”

“And sometimes they’ll all fly over the pumpkin patch and visit the pumpkin family.”

Are you smiling as big as I was?  Probably not, because I was grinning from ear to ear.  These are my favorite parenting moments.  The spontaneous flights of fancy.  The unplanned stories.  My kids weren’t trying to sit down and make up a story about those gooey decorations.  It just happened.  They saw a group of pumpkins and a narrative popped into their head.  They probably didn’t even realize they were telling a story.  But there it was, brief and undeveloped, a lovely little nugget of an idea, and then they were on to the next thing.

This is what it’s all about.  The little stories we weave around us throughout our day.  They aren’t formal, don’t all have their beginning, middle, and end.  They aren’t fancy, with well-chosen words or a moral to tie it up.  They aren’t even all spoken aloud.  They’re just a way of looking at the world.  A way that doesn’t just see a pile of pumpkins, it sees a family.

See this tree?

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I like to think that there’s a little field mouse out there who is ready to get married, and every night when it’s safe and dark he creeps out and gnaws a bit more, busily working on a new home for his lady love.

This nearby stump will probably be the dance floor for their wedding.

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Can’t you just see it? (Not that they would let us watch, of course.  Mouse weddings are quite exclusive.  No humans allowed.)

The imagination, like a muscle, can be developed.  We develop it by ingesting stories, by reading and watching and listening.  We develop it by pushing ourselves to tell stories, by forcing out words and pictures even when we feel ridiculous.  But even more simply we develop our imagination by taking everything we see around us and playing with it.

Why look at a forest and see only trees when you could see the perfect hideout for a gang of reformed pirates?  Why just pull weeds when you could be naming them (something truly horrible) and laughing at the fate that awaits them in the compost pile.  Why look at your dog and see only one more thing that has be fed when you can imagine instead what kinds of conversations he dreams of having with your cat?

It’s all about learning to think in stories.  To see stories everywhere you go.  What do the leaves feel as they drift down from the trees?  Who could have dug that odd hole in my garden?  What is life like for that woman in line in front of me at the grocery store?

It’s so much fun.  Once you get started, you’ll find you can’t stop.

And if you get your kids started?  Your eavesdropping is about to get a lot more interesting.

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As Books Were Intended to Be: Lizzy Bennet’s Diary by Marcia Williams

Have you guys seen this book?  I’m absolutely in love.


Lizzy Bennet’s Diary: Inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Marcia Williwams

You guys, this book is everything ten-year-old me ever wanted. When my own ten-year-old got it for her birthday, I actually had retroactive jealousy. Just look at the adorable detailing on the cover (those mice are my favorite):

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And there’s more inside! Those adorable pictures! And their captions!

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I sat and stared happily at the map on the end paper for at least ten minutes.

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The writing is charming, too. It tells the whole story of the novel from Lizzy’s point of view, with little extra tidbits of their daily life thrown in. The author has done a great job of showing how Lizzy matures over the course of the story. The tone of the writing is quite silly at the beginning and gets more reasonable over time, without losing Lizzy’s playful spirit. It’s a fun read.

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I love how the author has put in all the letters Lizzy receives, in word-for-word form, just as if she had tucked them into her diary. They even fold out!

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The happy ending is even happier told in Lizzy’s own words.

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This is one of those books that uses visuals so perfectly. It’s very size and shape communicate coziness and happiness. It makes me want to sit down in front of a crackling fire on a cold day leading up to Christmas and just read all afternoon with a cup of tea in my hand.

Don’t even try to tell me that’s not what books were made to make you feel.

I’m proud to report that it’s not just me, either. Ellie flew through the book with the same speed that she read the Manga Pride and Prejudice, and I’ve even caught the five-year-old carefully flipping through the pages. Christmas is coming, people, and I’ve found the perfect present for the girls in your life. You’re welcome.

Go forth and be happy! (And take this book along if you need some help.)

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The Other Side of the Corn

I posted this one back on 2010, inspired by something my son said in the car when we were visiting Indiana.  My kids were little then, and I was afraid to tell them stories that would be too scary, so I never actually told them this one.  [Insert evil laugh.] They are older now.  And we actually live in Indiana.  In fact, we’ll be visiting a farm soon.  It’s the perfect time.

“Corn fweaks me out. Evewy time I see the corn, it fweaks. me. out.” -Scott, age 3

On the other side of the corn field, life is different. It’s quieter for one. A lot quieter. And the air is warm, no matter what the time of year. The sun seems somehow closer, hotter, but not as bright. And no wind stirs the leaves of the silent trees.

I never meant to go there. I was only going to go for a short walk. I just wanted to get out of Grandma’s stuffy house for a little while. I pushed my way past the first few stalks, tracing a path between the rows. At first, I enjoyed the way the stalks behind me blocked my view of the moldering old house. I relished the feeling of being alone in my own private place. I walked on.

Before long, the solitude began to feel uneasy. The corn was higher than my head, so I could see nothing and feel no breeze, but the sun still beat down on my head. I was uncomfortably warm. I had never noticed before how sharp the edges of corn leaves could be. They left invisible cuts on my arms as I brushed past them. I turned to go home.

I couldn’t. The way behind me impassible. It was as if the space between the rows had never existed. I pushed ahead anyway. The tiny cuts turned into bigger ones. I walked on and on, trying to form my own path, but I never seemed to come to the end. I wondered if I was walking in circles. All sense of ordered rows had disappeared. The heat had become unbearable, and now the secluding height of the corn stalks felt threatening. With every step I was more irrationally convinced that the corn was clutching at my arms, purposefully trying to hinder my progress. I struggled on.

Then the corn relented. It thinned out even. In a matter of moments, I was stepping free of the corn field. But my grandmother’s house was nowhere to be seen. Nor did I see the road that should have run past this field and led to her driveway. Instead, I saw a strange farm house with a barn and several outbuildings. There were trees and an old truck parked out under them. It wasn’t so hot here, but the air felt dead. The light was strange. It was the sun.  Something about it was wrong.

Going back through the corn field was impossible. I shuddered just to think of it. I didn’t much like the look of the farm house either, but asking for directions seemed like the only option. I went up on the porch. The steps creaked just as farm house steps should. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I peeked in the window. The place had furniture, but I couldn’t see anyone around. It was unnaturally quiet. My footsteps on the hollow boards of the front porch echoed across the yard. I knocked again and waited for no answer. I turned to go.

It seemed I had no choice but to follow the road, though I didn’t want to. Surely it would lead me back to something I would recognize. I began to walk.

I hadn’t gotten very far when I heard the dog behind me. In the general hush, the clicking of his toenails against the blacktop was very distinct. I stopped and turned. He stopped, too, and stood looking at me, white head cocked to one side of his black body. Where had he come from? I hadn’t noticed any dog around the farm house back there. I hadn’t noticed any animals at all. Come to think of it, I hadn’t even heard any birds in the trees or crickets chirping in the grass.

The dog seemed harmless enough. I kept walking. The click, click of his toenails continued. He was still following me. I stopped. He stopped. I walked on. He walked on, click-clicking steadily. The noise now sent a shiver up my spine. I stopped and turned again. “Shoo!” I said. “Shoo! Go home! Shoo!” The dog just looked at me, not even panting in the warm, dead air. He obviously had no intention of “shooing.” I walked on, with the dog behind me. I walked a very long time.

The sun was going down now. Why wasn’t I getting anywhere? The road stretched on ahead of me, apparently endless, cornfields on either side, unbroken by any lane or pathway. This wasn’t right. Why was it so quiet? Where did this dog come from? Soon it would be dark. I knew I couldn’t face walking down this road in the dark with that dog clicking away behind me. I looked at the corn. I had no choice.

The dog didn’t follow me into the corn. That’s the best thing I can say.

What I endured, walking though those rows and rows of corn, stalks looming over me, leaves brushing my face with a biting caress, darkness getting ever deeper, I don’t care to tell. I became convinced that the corn was never going to let me go, that I was doomed to struggle forever.

Then I saw a light flash out over the stalks. Someone had thrown open a door and artificial light beckoned from somewhere not too far away. I pushed on. I pushed through. At last I was free. My grandmother’s house was in front of me. It’s rotting front porch had never looked so welcoming.

Inside the house, my grandmother was rocking and knitting. She didn’t even look up to where I stood, filthy and scratched, in the doorway.

“Been for a walk in the corn?” she asked.

 

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Storytelling vs. Writing (Or, Why I Talk to Myself)

Now that I’m alone a good deal of the day, I accomplish SO MUCH more than before, but I have recently realized that the whole time I’m doing it, I’m muttering things. Out loud. Crazy person style.

You guys, I talk to myself.

I’ll be honest with you, this isn’t an entirely new thing, but it’s getting really bad.  It wouldn’t be a problem if I were just trying out dialogue while sweeping the floor or calling my computer names when it freezes up, but the thing is, I also mutter in the aisles of the grocery store and while I’m pumping gas.  I have entire conversations with myself out loud in the Goodwill.  I’m pretty sure my fellow shoppers think I’m nuts.  I’ve tried to stop, but it doesn’t work.  It’s like some kind of switch has been turned on in my brain, and I can’t figure out how to switch it back.

I blame the writing.

For ten years now (!!) I’ve had a little person around me constantly, and they’ve been my audience.  I could comment on the world around us and tell stories both fact and fiction anytime one popped into my head.  Now?  Now there’s no one to listen.  Now I spend hours writing stories down, and let me tell you something, writing and storytelling are NOT the same thing.

Storytelling is an interactive art.  I say something funny, my audience laughs (or at least smiles…or groans or rolls their eyes).  I say something scary, their eyes widen a bit.  If my story has their attention, they listen closely, maybe they lean forward a little or nod their heads.  If my story is boring, they look away, start to fiddle with things, get that vague look in their eyes.

And it’s not just them reacting to me.  I react to them.  If my funny story isn’t making people laugh, I know I have to spice it up a little.  If I’m losing their attention, I throw in something exciting quickly before they’re all the way gone.  I can adapt the story to suit the listener, and I can immediately know if I’ve done a good job.

Of course, that’s what makes storytelling scary.  If your story bombs, there’s nowhere to hide.  It’s just you, right there, feeling like a bit of an idiot.  And you do bomb.  It’s inevitable.  And even if your kids are the only audience, it can make you wish you had never tried.  But when the story is a hit, there is nothing more satisfying.  Maybe it’s just because I’m an extrovert, but the feedback, the glorious feedback, is like Thanksgiving dinner for the soul.  (What? That’s a perfectly normal metaphor.)  And the personal connection, the feeling of knowing your listener and being known in a way you weren’t before, is priceless.

Writing is an expressive art.  I get to think my words through and choose the one that best represents what I’m really trying to say.  I can shape a story.  I can stop in the middle and take time to puzzle out the perfect ending.  When I make mistakes or put something down that isn’t as strong as it should be, I can go back and change it.  I am free from the judgments of others for that time, lost in my own imagination.  When I finally have a finished product, it is mine and mine alone.  No one’s thoughts or reactions influenced it along the way.  It’s all me, for better or for worse.

Then, when a reader picks up what I’ve written and digests it, she is also free to make of it what she will.  She can interpret it how she likes, and I am not there to tell her if she is right or wrong.  She can own what she has read, find herself reflected there (for better or for worse), and react to that experience accordingly.

There is something beautiful about the freedom and ownership of writing and reading.  As a writer, I can find great joy in the pure expression of my own imagination.  It’s like being a kid playing pretend again.  Then I put something out there and let it stand all alone, let the work try to be something by itself, without any further help from me, and there it is, finished and lasting.

Of course, that’s also terrifying.  Because what if it’s pitiful?  What if it’s ugly?  What if it’s weak?  I can’t defend it.  I can’t hide it.  I can’t change it.  I’m exposed.  And anyone who wants to can take that little bit of me I’ve put out there and twist it into whatever they want.  There’s nothing I can do about it.

So here I am, after a decade of near-constant storytelling, with its ever-present affirmation and insults, spending long hours in my own head, dreaming and playing and having a great time but also feeling unconnected and less sure of myself than I’ve ever been.  Here I am, determinedly putting it all into words anyway and sending them out into the world.

No wonder I’m talking to myself.  My brain is trying to provide me with my own feedback.  Not exactly helpful, brain.  So far the only thing I’m gathering from you is that you are getting a little loopy.

Shoot.  There I go again.  Must be time to go pick up the kids from school.

Posted in The Storytelling Life | Leave a comment

The Boy’s Favorite Books, Then and Now

It’s my son’s birthday today (He’s 8!), so I’m feeling a little sentimental. Here’s a look at the boy’s favorite books, year by year.

Age 1 and 2

Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Hippos Go Berserk by Sandra Boynton

He made me read them every night until we could both quote them by heart. That’s when I got my first clue that he was going to be a kid who knew what he wanted…and one who loved routine.

Age 3 and 4

Animalia by Graeme Base, The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

The boy loves puzzles and riddles and things you have to figure out. He adored hunting for the little self-portraits Graeme Base had hidden on each page. He loved the trick of words that makes the end of Monster so funny. And he just really, really liked shouting at that pigeon.

Age 5 and 6

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park, and The Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osborn

My plan was to just read the first few Harry Potter books with the kids. I worried that the later books were too much for them at their age. Yeah, that lasted until we finished book three and they were so into it that we just had to keep on going. As for the others, the boy was an early reader and both of those series were easy chapter books with lots of fun and adventure to keep him interested. Plus, they each have tons of books in the series, so he could stick with his favorite characters for a while. The boy likes to stick with things.

Age 7 and 8

The Brixton Brothers by Mac Barnett, Missile Mouse by Jake Parker, Potterwookie by Obert Skye, and A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Nothing is more entertaining to the boy than a good mystery, and The Brixton Brothers was the first series of self-read books he really obsessed over. Missile Mouse wins as the comic book series that has most held his attention. This is one he likes to loan out to friends now. In Potterwookie (and all the other Creature from My Closet books) he found the inside jokes he always wanted. Skye takes all the boy’s favorite worlds (Harry Potter, Star Wars, fairytales and myths) and mashes them together in easy-to-read adventures. What could be more fun? And now, at eight, the boy is five books into A Series of Unfortunate Events and shows no sign of slowing down. Thirteen books should take him at least a few more weeks.

There you go! Who says boys don’t read? There are tons more I could have put, of course, but I tried to keep it to the absolute favorites. It was pretty fun to think back over the years and trace the development of his interests. I may try this same thing for my girls soon.

How about your kids? What are their favorites then and now?

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