Explore the world of the young child with me, Stephen Spitalny, early childhood consultant and writer. I offer lectures, workshops and mentoring around the world.
I was a kindergarten teacher at the Santa Cruz Waldorf School for 24 years and am a former board member of WECAN (Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America).
I was reading a ‘picture book’ to my 5-year-old granddaughter yesterday. We had just started and she interrupted and said, “It should start with ‘Once upon a time.'”
It made me think about stories and the timelessness of them. And I know that for some folks the idea of telling a story (without a book) is daunting, let alone make a story up. I think it is so important for young children’s lives to be filled with stories. I also think if you want your children to become readers, you need to read to them so they have something to imitate. And when they ask for the same story again, and again, and again for weeks on end, overcome your own desire for something different and support the child’s natural healthy instinct for repetition. It builds brains!
For this post I decided to share some of my favorite picture books with you all. I love stories and books! But which stories? There are so many to choose from.
Recently someone at a workshop I gave mentioned a book that I had to get. Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt describes the imaginative use of books in family life, and in it she also has lists of book suggestions.
Ms. Hunt asks; What kind of books? Stories that make for wonders. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir one within with and understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence; stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.
Further she says, “Cruelty, evil and greed come into clear focus against kindness, truth and honor in a well-written story. I say well-written because nothing offends a child more than having to be told when something is mean and base or noble and good. The painful spelling out of what one is supposed to learn from a story evidences the author’s inability to create valid characters in a real-life plot. And it insults children. (p. 82)
So here is a short list of books that are extra special for me.
1. Some people have never heard of Wanda Gág. She wrote and illustrated many books for children which include Millions of Cats, and Snippy and Snappy. Both of these have that quality of repetition so important for young children’s developing brains. Her black-and-white illustrations have a magical quality with so many little details for the children to get lost in. After Disney’s Snow White movie was released, she translated and illustrated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a reaction against the "trivialized, sterilized, and sentimentalized" (her words) Disney movie version.
2. Two more repetition stories - The Apple Pie that Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson, and illustrated by Jonathan Bean, takes us through the process of making an apple pie. The illustrations are simple yet rich and in the end you can just about smell the pie. A wonderful story for the autumn.
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema is a lovely cumulative retelling of a Kenyan folktale. It describes the cycle of water and life on an African plain told in simple language that hooks you right in.
3. Barbara Berger is one of my favorite author/illustrators. Some of her books I read to my daughters literally hundreds of times, and eventually I memorized Grandfather Twilight. Grandfather Twilight is an elderly man whose daily task is to walk through the woods as evening approaches and set the moon up in the night sky. The pictures are magical and the story is a rich yet simple poem. Two of my other favorites by Barbara Berger are The Donkey’s Dream and When the Sun Rose.
4. Rosemary Wells is a must on my list. She wrote and illustrated three Bunny Planet stories about a young bunny whose day doesn’t go quite the way he wants it until he goes to the Bunny Planet where Queen Janet makes everything okay again. Ms. Wells also offers Only You which is a love poem from a baby bear to his mom describing the things that only a parent can do. This is a picture book for grown-ups about connecting with young children.
5. Pete Seeger’s storysong Abiyoyo was made into a book with illustrations by Michael Hays. This retelling of a South African folk tale is enlivened by the multicultural community depicted in the pictures. A wonderful story of courage accompanied by a simple song. It is such a favorite of mine that I included it on one of my own story cds.
6. Miss Rumphius written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney tells the story of a little girl who wants to make the world more beautiful, and how she did it. My daughters simply loved this book and call it ‘the lupine lady book.’
7. Eric Kimmel’s Hershel and the Hanukah Goblins is for the older range of pre-first graders. It tells how, with cleverness and courage, Hershel overcomes the goblins and their spell on his town.
8. I like stories describing real, archetypal work and these two are right up that alley. How a Shirt Grew in the Field is the story of making linen from flax in picture book form. Ox Cart Man by with illustrations by Barbara Cooney tells the story of the seasons and the work that is needed therein for this 1800’s New England family.
9. Mushroom in the Rain is adapted from a Russian story by Mirra Ginsburg. It is a fantastical story of animals getting out of the rain under an ever expanding mushroom illustrated with whimsical pictures. Like The Mitten by Jan Brett, there is almost always room for more friends to come on in and be warm and dry.
10. To round off my list of 10 (I know. I cheated already) I include a story from my childhood. The Contented Little Pussy Cat by Frances Ruth Keller tells about Abner who is always happy and care-free. The other animals wonder how he can be so easy-going and when they find out his method they know he is on to something. This is also a profound story for adults about the path of spiritual development toward true presence in the moment.
Another of my favorite authors is Jane Yolen Besides all the wonderful stories she has written, she wrote a book about children’s literature. In Touch Magic, Ms. Yolen takes into the world of folk and fairy tales. She says; The best of the stories we can give our children, whether they are stories that have been kept alive through the centuries through that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation we call oral transmission, or the tales that were made up only yesterday - the best of these stories tough that larger dream, that greater vision, that infinite unknowing. They are the most potent kind of magic, these tales, for they catch a glimpse of the soul beneath the skin.
Touch magic. Pass it on. P.S. What are your favorites? Post them and share! Touch magic. Pass it on.
Yesterday I told a story to a 5-year-old friend. While telling, I tried not to look too much at her, but I couldn’t help glancing over from time to time and seeing her mouth hanging open and her eyes focused somewhere far away as she sat still and listened. I was telling her a fairy tale and she was spellbound. Later in this post I include a story in its entirety for your reading pleasure and maybe you can go to that faraway place my young friend visited.
"Fairy tale" for me is distinct from other types of stories. It is a true story in imaginative pictures of an individual's soul and spirit development, a symbolic representation of the struggle to become a whole and free human being. The characters in the story are all in each human being; in me and in you. The story is the story of us all. Fairy tales describe how a spirit being descends into matter and lives as a human being, and finds its way to connecting with all of its parts, to self actualization. The path to the marriage of one's own soul and spirit is therein articulated.
Fairy tales give nourishment to the developing human being as seeds of moral strength. In the telling of fairy tales to children, the children receive images of strength and determination to carry through, to overcome the evil, to learn to see. It is not always clever and older siblings who are best suited to the task, or young, strong and handsome men. While archetypes abound, it is possible for a human being to break out of a mold, to become something unexpected. Within is the promise that weak can become strong, poor can become rich, donkeys can become musicians, and what once was lost can be regained.
If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other - the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies, or frightful results will follow ... A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him and he vanishes away. . .A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit; they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth. This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folklore - the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now it is
obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolized by this; but it is not with them that I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairytale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one
imperils all the things provided ... This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law ... We are in this fairyland on sufferance; it is not for us to quarrel with the conditions under which we enjoy this wild vision of the world. The vetoes are indeed extraordinary, but then so are the concessions ... As in the fairy-tales, all that we say and do hangs on something we may not say and do. But let us not forget that we have a veto.
G. K Chesterton, February 29, 1908, The Ethics of Fairy-Tales
I think about stories, meditate about them, dream about them, and sometimes am inspired by sudden flashes of insight. I collect fairy tales and folk tales and read them and re-read them. I read lots of stories. And I read everything I can about stories by various authors. For the children, the images speak so well on their own. For the adult, reading and rereading the same stories many times, letting them wash over you again and again, learning them well enough to tell and inwardly seeing the images as you are telling; these all will help the story to be able to speak to you on deeper and deeper levels. I invite you to let the fairy tales into your heart and listen to what your heart thinks.
This story I slightly adapted from the collection The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa by Alexander McCall Smith. Here is the story of The Great Snake:
When the old chief died there was much discussion as to who would be the next chief. The old chief had a son, but the boy’s mother did not want her son to be chief. She said;
"He will never have any peace if he is chief. Every day there will be people asking him to do things. This is a boy who likes to sleep. If he becomes chief, he won't be able to sit on his chair and sleep whenever he wants. He can’t be chief!"
The elders agreed with her and so they decided how the new chief would be chosen.
"There is a hill near our village. In the rocks around the hill lives a very large snake. Whoever can capture that great snake and bring it back here shall be made the new chief."
The elders agreed this would be the best way to choose the next chief, but doubted if anybody would be brave enough to try. When a short boy came forward and said he wished to try, they all laughed.
"Don’t be silly. Short boys can never catch large snakes."
"I should like to try," insisted the boy.
The elders tried to convince him but he kept asking again and again until finally they told him he would be allowed to try.
"That snake will kill you," they warned him. "As you go down its throat, you will remember these words of ours."
The short boy set off towards the hill where the great snake lived. As he left the village, he heard his friends crying because they thought he would never return. He paid no attention to their sorrow, though, as he knew that he would capture the snake and bring it back to the village.
When he reached the first rocks at the bottom of the hill, he stopped and listened to the sounds carried by the wind. He hears the swishing of the grass and the movement of the leaves in the trees. He heard the trickle of water and the sound of an eagle’s wings hunting high above the ground. And then he heard something else – the sound of a snake hissing.
The boy walked on until he was at the bottom of the hill. The sound he had heard was now quite loud and before too long he saw the head of the great snake appear from a crack in the rocks. The snake was angry that a short boy had come to disturb him, and with a sudden sliding it shot out and darted towards the boy’s feet.
When he saw the snake coming towards him, the boy turned around and began to run away from the hill. He ran as fast as he could, and the snake just laughed at those short legs and drew closer and closer to the fleeing boy.
Looking over his shoulder, the short boy saw that the snake was getting closer and heard its laugh. He took the calabash from his shoulder and began to drop things from it. First he dropped a lizard, and then he dropped some frogs. After that he dropped some small insects.
The snake came to the lizard and stopped. It opened its great mouth and swallowed the lizard. Then it resumed its chase of the boy, only to stop again when it came to the frogs jumping about on the ground. The snake gobbled up all the frogs, although it took some time to catch them all. Then, its belly heavy with food, it slid on after the boy, only to stop again when it came to the insects.
By the time that the snake had eaten all the things the boy had dropped from the calabash, they were just outside the village fence. The boy called out to the elders that he was back and walked slowly through the gap in the fence.
One of the elders saw the short boy and called;
"So you are back. Where is the great snake?"
The boy said nothing at first. Then, with all the eyes of the village upon him, he turned around and pointed at the gate. As he did so, the great snake, fat and slow from all its eating, slid heavily into the village.
The people let out a great sigh when they saw the snake arrive and immediately the villagers pinned it to the ground with sticks. The short boy stood before the elders and asked if could now be made chief. The elders were surprised but kept their promise and made the short boy the chief.
The short boy became a wise chief, and he grew taller. P.S. Let me know if you liked this story. And what are your favorite 'fairy tales?'