Parenting with Children’s Literature
Remembering When...the Power of Family Stories
Your child comes home from school and you know by the slump of the shoulders, the lackluster tone of voice, and the irritable “get down “ when the dog jumps up to greet him that something is wrong. And when you ask what happened, your child responds in the minimalist tradition of children everywhere: “Nothing.”
Sometimes with a little more nudging or gently probing while weeding the garden the story unfolds. Sometimes you only find out what happened when your child is thirty or forty and the secrets of the past spill over in stories during family dinners.
Recently I encountered several children’s books in which a child was able to share their painful feelings and difficult problems after an adult shared their stories of pain and less than stellar moments. Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech a winner of the Newbery award shows the power of storytelling combined with everyday tasks to help a child not only to share painful experiences, but also to put those experiences in perspective.
Granny Torrelli is a wise and wily grandmother. She senses that her granddaughter, Rosie, is upset. Knowing that children talk more easily when their hands are busy and when they don’t have to look someone in the eye, she waits until Rosie is busy chopping onions, and mushrooms, and celery for soup before asking what’s going on with her. Despite her savvy, Granny still gets the “nothing” response.” So, Granny continues rooting in cupboards for pasta and salt while also continuing to probe for what happened. Her persistence yields a little more. “Oh, it’s nothing…It’s just that Bailey.”
The conflict with Bailey, who is blind, unfolds slowly. As Granny and Rosie prepare soup, Granny tells stories about her relationship with a childhood friend named Pardo and Rosie recounts her friendship with Bailey since they were babies. Granny’s stories about Pardo help Rosie understand the cost of staying angry with a good friend and the impact of her stubborn, bossy, take charge ways with Bailey.
In part two Rosie, Bailey and Granny make pasta. As they are talking Rosie becomes jealous when Bailey talks about Janine. Bailey becomes jealous when Rosie talks about the new boys moving in across the street from Bailey. Granny’s stories about her best friend Pardo who becomes enamored with Violetta, and about Marcus who becomes enchanted with Granny when she was a girl help the two understand the problem of jealousy. But Granny also tells another story. A story that initially seems unrelated to jealousy. She tells the story of the Gatozzi baby that was so sick there was concern that she would die. During visits to the family to bring food, Granny (as a girl) sat with the baby. She was not thinking about Violetta or Pardo or Marco. She could only think about the baby getting better. When the baby finally showed signs of getting well, Granny had an epiphany:
“And here is the thing, Bailey and Rosie, when I went home that day, I felt as if I was ten years older. I saw Violetta on her way to Pardo’s and I saw Marco down the lane looking for me, and I can’t explain it, but I felt as if my life was bigger.”
Granny is unsure if she should have told Rosie and Bailey this story. And some readers may be unsure if she should have told them the story about convincing Violetta to let her cut her hair so that she would not be so pretty to Pardo. But they were the right stories. Not only do the stories enable Rosie and Bailey to acknowledge their jealousy and anger, they also enable Rosie and Bailey to take a step back from their feelings to think through the consequences of their actions. Finally they place the problem of jealousy into the context of larger life issues.
It was clear to Granny Torrelli that Rosie was upset. However in Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, no one knows that four-year-old Ramona is Beezus’s biggest problem. No one knows the “terrible” thoughts she has about her younger sister.
The reader follows nine-year old Beezus through four chapters, each a self-contained episode of just how exasperating Ramona can be: She “writes” her name on every page of a library book, she crashes her tricycle into the coffee table and sends the checkers flying when Beezus and Henry won’t let her play checkers, and she sends paint flying during Beezus’s art class when she fights over a lollipop.
As Ramona’s exasperating behaviors escalate, Beezus becomes aware that she does not love her sister. Hearing her mother and aunt on the phone, hearing their easy chatter and laughter, she believes that she should love her sister. She decides that she is a terrible person, a “wicked sister in a fairy tale.”
The climax comes on Beezus’s birthday. When Ramona ruins both of the birthday cakes her mother tries to bake and then constantly interrupts Beezus during dinner, Beezus is unable to contain her “terrible” thoughts and feelings. She blurts out the truth. Her mother and her aunt tell stories of when they were younger. Stories that begin “Remember the time I...” and continue with “You were always so bossy.” and “She was so fussy;” and “I was mad at you for days” and “That was another time we didn’t love each other.” Beezus was surprised that her nice aunt and mother could do such hurtful things. But she was also relieved.
Cleary, also a Newberry award winner, has an incredible ability to remember what it is like to be a child. This ability enabled her to craft a chapter book for primary grade children that, like Granny Torrelli Makes Soup validates a child’s experience and sets the stage for them to acknowledge their less than generous feelings.
Like Cleary, Mary Stolz the winner of a Newbery Honor award has the ability to read a child’s heart. To understand her picture book for primary grade children, Storm in the Night think back to when you were about nine or ten years of age. Do you remember how hard it was to comprehend that your parents and grandparents had once been small children of nine or ten just like you? If you do, then you will enjoy the musings of Thomas in this book.
Thomas’s musings begin when a thunderstorm knocks out the power, leaving him, his grandfather, and Ringo the cat in the dark. Throughout the story, Stolz renders the small sensory details of the storm in lyrical prose:
“Storm in the night. Thunder like mountains blowing up. Lightning licking the navy-blue sky. Rain streaming down the windows, babbling in the downspouts.”
Pat Cumming’s illustrations in deep hues of purple, blue, brown, black, and green intensify the atmosphere of a fierce storm outside and pervasive darkness inside. Unfolding against this vivid stormy night background Thomas tries to imagine his big, bearded grandfather with a voice like a tuba as a boy like him: short, with a smooth chin and a penny whistle voice. He is trying to understand his grandfather’s story to understand his own.
As the evening progresses, his grandfather tells a story that is even harder for Thomas to imagine. The story is about him and his dog, Melvin, when he was about Thomas’s age. It is a story in which he is not a hero. A story in which he is so afraid during a storm that he hides under his bed forgetting that his dog who is also afraid of storms is outside in the storm alone. A story that shows that fear can consume a person causing them to forget everything but their fear.
And what is Thomas’s reaction to the story? Wonder that his grandfather could ever have been so afraid. Admiration for his grandfather “for telling a truth like that.” And finally after an evening of declarations that he isn’t afraid of anything, a tentative admission of his own fear: “I think that maybe if you hadn’t been here, and Ringo hadn’t been here, and I was all alone in the house and there was a storm and the lights went out and didn’t come on again for a long time, like this…I think maybe then I would be a little bit afraid.” And Grandfather responds, “Perfectly natural.” Listening to his grandfather’s story enables Thomas to understand his grandfather as a boy and in turn himself as a boy, a boy who is sometimes afraid.
In Beezus and Ramona, Storm in the Night, and Granny Torrelli Makes Soup; adults tell stories in which they are not heroes. They are jealous, angry, filled with mean thoughts, or paralyzed by fear. They experience all those thoughts and emotions that are labeled as negative. And this is precisely why these stories enable children to tell their own stories. It gives them permission to be less than perfect, it lets them know that such thoughts and feelings are normal, it gives them the long term perspective that adults have learned something important from their painful experiences.
All of the books above show adults sharing stories with children that incorporate those human moments when they are less than perfect. This is in sharp contrast to the many books that portray powerful wizards and superheroes. Children need such books. They need battles between good and evil in which good predictably triumphs. They need happy endings. We all need these types of stories because we need the reassurance that in the end all will be well. But these stories do not enable a child to understand or tolerate his human tendency to experience negative feelings, hurtful thoughts, to make mistakes, and sometimes to fail completely. So children also need stories with ordinary, fallible, people struggling through the difficulties of life, sometimes rising to the challenge and sometimes disappointing themselves and others, but usually learning something valuable in the process. These stories particularly those told by trusted, respected, competent adults enable children to tell their own stories. These three books, all by award winning authors provide these stories.