When children—or adults for that matter—gather round to listen to a picture book, or a poem, I never know what will happen. The younger the age , the more unpredictable an audience is. Babies fill their diapers. Toddlers pick their noses. Little boys might show me they can cross their eyes. Stick out their tongues. Little girls might show me they've lost a tooth. Lift their dresses over their heads. And someone almost always inevitably ...toots. (If you think I'm exaggerating, ask any elementary teacher.)
Then there's spitball throwers, pencil jabbers, knee huggers, belly growlers, belching burpers, bum wigglers and yes: The Tantrum Monster. Sometimes this monster inhabits the body of a child, but more often—this monster lurks in the form of an adult who wants a certain child to settle down, sit still and listen. To not pick their nose, not wiggle their bums and not interrupt THE STORYTELLER.
Not to worry, I want to say, it's okay, I've pretty much seen it all but by all means feel free to take your child to a galaxy far far away (for a while) if they're screaming over the top or become disruptive to others. You will know because everyone will be giving you dirty looks. These looks mean l-e-a-v-e. But I never say that and never will because, well:
This chaos of storytelling is part of the joy of it. It is not interruption: it's conversation. Exchange. The unpredictability is delicious. We do need to learn audience manners, yes, but I expect, welcome and even invite a certain amount of... interaction.
Case in point: Take a peek at this if you want to see what can happen when a child (who knew my book) decided to join me in the telling.
I'm sooo glad no one asked her to sit down! It was my favourite reading of Mabel Murple ever. (Me and Harriet, THe Road Show?) What if everyone read aloud to themselves at least once a week? Savoured the words in the air? Welcomed the sound of their own voices?
If you're writing a book (not just one for children—any book or essay or blog even), reading aloud helps fine tune the cadence of your work. Even if the work is for adults and most likely read in solitude and silence, the text still has a pacing that depends upon how sentences are constructed, how text ebbs and flows. If you're a reader, appreciating an author's words aloud is a whole different reading experience. I know book clubs are thriving , but I'd love to see more adult "read aloud reading clubs" springing up the same way. Reading aloud to others from a book you love seems to me another way to celebrate both storytelling and books in community. I hope to start one with friends next year. I have a lot of books wanting readers to read them.
We had a wonderful launch of PARL's Writer in Residency in Stellarton on October 31st. Mums and Dads and babes in arms gathered. Despite what I've said above, they were all exceptional LISTENERS. I tried out the newest book Singily Skipping Along and was delighted when most of the children listening wanted to come up and touch the texture of the page.
The text is illustrated with hooked rug art by Deanne Fitzpatrick. The poem/chant in the book is an invitation to play and interact with the text, texture and colour of the book through a listener's body and senses. Seeing the children react by touching was... well... touching. Currently, the rugs from the book are being auctioned online and all proceeds go to L'Arche Atlantic. Deadline for bids is December 1st.
In Antigonish, at that fabulous library, the first workshop for PARL was for adults and entitled: If You Want To Write For Children. The title is a nod to the book I call my writing bible If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. When I first found this book, it was like I found the person who believed everything I did about writing. Ueland echoes so much of what I believe about the reasons we want to write, about creative process, about authentic voice and about how vulnerable we can be, especially in the beginning, as we put our voices forth. Listen, for example, to Ueland here:
The only good teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is: "Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out." And if you have no such friend—and you want to write—well, then you must imagine one.”― Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
At some point, your best friend might become an editor who can point out where you've gotten lazy or boring or muddled. At first, however, just GET the story DOWN. As Uleand says, let more come out. This is why in workshops I concentrate on exercises I call First Burst pieces. We get pen moving without thinking too much and write.
We covered as much territory as we could in the time we had in Antigonish and I'll be doing the same this week in New Glasgow. I'll be available to comment on manuscripts one on one as the weeks go on. Here is a good place to start:
What is the most recent children's book you've read?
If you want to write for children you must read, read, read, read books for children. You do not have to take a course in children's literature—(but that's not a bad idea)—but you do have to immerse yourself in the world of children's books. And an even better question to leave you with:
What was your favourite children's book when you were a child? Why do you think it's your favourite?
Answering that means you begin to examine what your idea of excellence is.
Was it the book, the art, the context it was read in, the character, the theme? All of the above?
Hope you give me some thoughts in the comment section. Next "museletter" on Breathing and Stretching and Writing and some more book suggestions.
For futher reading: Here is an article I wrote for Atlantic Books years ago when asked for "tips" on writing for children. And here is a piece on PARL Writer in Residence from The Advocate (long live community newspapers.)