World Read Aloud Day, 2018

A couple of years ago, I was stopped outside MacEwan by a young woman.
“Are you Mr. Thompson?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking she must be a student.
“I was in your daughter’s class in elementary. You used to come in and tell us stories.”
I was touched that this young woman remembered those stories and thought to say hello, especially since elementary for my kids was more than a decade in the past.
My kids have always had an experience of books. Their mom started reading to them before they could talk. For my part, I tried ordering print-braille books so I could read to them as well, but books took ages to arrive by mail, which meant the whole thing was more frustrating than anything else.
I was lucky enough to have taken a children’s literature course with Jon Stott during my undergrad, so out of desperation, I pulled out my old textbook to see if I could find a story to tell my two-year-old. The first story I ever told her was “Kate Crackernuts.” She heard that story every night for three months, and I doubt she heard the ending until much later. But telling stories became part of the ritual at bedtime, which lasted for years.
Later on, when my kids started school, I went into their class and told stories—stories I found in books or on the Internet. The teacher had the idea to turn all those stories into a project. The kids drew pictures of their favourite stories, and my mom and another parent transferred those pictures onto fabric. The whole thing became the Storytelling Quilt.
Reading aloud to children is a powerful thing. Research suggests reading aloud helps both general literacy and reading acquisition. But consider –reading to your own kids means spending time with them, and spending such time goes a long way to actively showing your kids how much you care.
February 1 is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by Scholastic. If you can, take the time to read aloud to a child in your life. And if you can’t manage it for February 1, remember that every day of the year offers such an opportunity.

Happy World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day! Take time to read a book, or share a book with someone important to you.
In honour of World Book Day, I’m re-posting a story that first appeared on my blog in June, 2014: The Dream of the Tree. You can also find it and other stories in Fractured and Other Fairy Tales on Amazon. Enjoy, and happy reading!

Once there was a man who had a dream that ruined his life. In the dream, he was walking across a vast country. He was not just walking—he was striding. He was striding with seven-league steps so that the ground beneath him and about him blurred and shimmered. He passed through forests, over great plains of grass, and through the gaps between mountains. He strode on until he saw a mountain rising up before him. It was a mountain as he had never seen a mountain before. It went up and up, climbing higher and higher until it was lost in the sky.
He paused at the foot of the mountain and looked up. There was only one thing to do. He began to climb.
He went up and up, stepping over streams, across wide meadows, and over stands of trees. He went on until he came to the end of the trees, where there was only rock. He kept climbing.
This mountain, he thought, was surely the highest mountain in the world. He climbed and climbed.
Finally, after what seemed a year and a day, the man arrived at the top of the mountain. Across a great plain, the man could see a tree. It was surely the tallest tree he had ever imagined. It went up and up until, impossibly far overhead, the tree spread its branches.
The man walked across the plain toward the foot of the immense tree. As he did, his seven-league strides kicked up swirls of leaves. There were countless numbers of them, and as he caught one of the leaves, he realized that each leaf held a story, or a fragment of a story.
He caught leaf after leaf. He read snatches of stories about people who lived and died and who fought tremendous battles. He read stories of boys and girls, stories of men and women who wandered far, searching for love, for revenge, and for treasure. He read snatches of stories about patience and greed and the longing that goes with lost love, friendship, and family.
The man looked up to the great tree. “This must be the tree where all stories come from,” he said aloud to himself.
He hurried forward to the trunk of the massive tree that rose up like a wall before him. Reaching out a hand, he touched the trunk of the great tree. For one, indefinable moment, he had a glimpse of the ongoing story of the world, from its beginning in the depths of space and time to its conclusion at the end of all things…
And then he woke. The cry that escaped his lips in that moment was a cry of grief and loss. The man had glimpsed for one instant the story of the world, and as he sobbed aloud in the gray morning, the dream began to fade.
Later that day, the man sold his house and everything he owned. He took the money from the sale of all of his belongings, and he wrapped it in a handkerchief with a loaf of bread. He left the home where he had lived all of his life and took to the road. He told himself that he was going to find that tree, even if he had to search to the ends of the earth, for he wanted just one more glimpse into that story.
And so he did. He wandered far and met many people, and to whomever would listen, he would tell what he could remember of that story and the fragments he read on the leaves. Many people thought him mad, and others just thought him a storyteller. Some were glad of his stories, but many were not, for in everyone he met, he planted a seed of that longing for the story he glimpsed when he touched the tree in his dream.

Revisiting Beuty and the Beast

With all the fervor around Disney’s latest live action classic, Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, it seems fitting to revisit my experience of this story. And yes, before it was a Disney animated “classic” in 1991, it was a story by Madam Prince de Beaumont, first published in English in 1783.
Years ago, I went to Beauty and the Beast, The Musical, with my kid’s. We were sitting close to the front, and Belle entered from stage-right. As the actor started singing, I had a horrifying moment as I thought they had dubbed the voice of the Disney Belle in for the actor’s voice. Just as quickly, I realized it was actually the actor. That stopped me muttering to my daughter, for there was Belle, come to life on a stage in Edmonton. She was amazing. None of us has ever forgotten that performance of Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve watched the film many times over the years. I’ve taught the story in conjunction with the film in my folktale classes, and I’ve often thought it the best animated feature Disney has ever produced. I may be a fan, but I’m also a teacher. I remind my students what happens in this story and this film—details easy to forget if you approach either just as an enthusiast.
Remember, the prince in this story is under a curse. In de Beaumont’s story, it’s a wicked fairy who curses the prince, but in the Disney film, the prince mistreats an old woman who comes to the castle in a storm. In the language of folktales, which Disney understands, being nasty to strangers is always bad news.
The Prince, now the Beast, imprisons another stranger, this time the merchant, for plucking a rose. He makes a deal with the merchant—the merchant’s life for one of his daughters. The merchant isn’t stupid enough to agree to such a thing, but he wants to say farewell to his children before he is killed by the Beast. But Beauty, Belle in the Disney film, comes to the rescue. She willingly agrees to become a prisoner so the Beast will spare her father’s life.
Disney, even more than de Beaumont, turns this story into one of burgeoning love, but it’s hard to get around the fact that Beauty, or Belle, is the prisoner of a selfish, cruel, and monstrous beast. Is the story, not to mention the film, simply romanticizing the abuse and incarceration of women?
Because I have daughters, and because I can’t help, in part, reading the story through a modern lens, I wonder how the story would go if Beauty wasn’t so willing to sacrifice herself. How’s this?
Beauty, or Belle, now aware of her father’s predicament, decides to act. She goes into her father’s study, where she takes his hunting rifle from where it hangs on the wall. She dresses for travel, saddles her horse, and rides away to the Beast’s castle, the rifle under her arm. When the Beast appears at the castle gates to take possession of Beauty in exchange for her father’s life, Beauty shoots him. End of story.
This would never work—I realize that. For one, such a fractured retelling overlooks the gradual transformation of the Beast’s character, but even more it misunderstands the fundamental nature of the story. “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale, and it has many antecedents. The story, “Cupid and Psyche” is probably the oldest form of this tale, while Asbjornsen and Moe tell a similar story in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
These are stories of transformation, of monstrous male power that needs taming. It’s up to a young woman to take control and humanize the beast/lover. Humanizing the male monster through love, compassion, and suffering is the way for the fairy tale to resolve imbalances and return the world to a state of equilibrium. But even in the world of folktales, it’s not always possible to humanize the male monster. And everyone who goes to see Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast should bear this in mind. Just ask the young woman who married that Blue Beard fella.

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 7, the Last Chapter

Nell woke slowly. She was lying in a soft bed, and looking up at an unfamiliar ceiling. “Where am I?” she said to herself.
She felt a cold nose in her hand, and she looked over to see the grey wolf sitting beside her bed. Gathered around were several people: Norman, his hair singed and round eyes anxious; the Queen, her face grave, and still wearing her riding clothes; and the Prince, his arm in a sling and a smirk on his face. As for the other person, Nell didn’t know him. He was tall, a little stooped, and his dark hair and beard were streaked with grey.
“Hello,” said Nell. “What has happened?”
“My lady lives!” cried Norman, a hand to his heart.
Nell tried to sit up, but the Queen leaned forward and gently pressed her back into the pillows.
“You must not move too quickly,” said the Queen. “You have suffered a great shock—not to mention saving both the kingdom and my husband.”
Nell looked curiously at the Queen. “Your husband?” she asked.
The Queen smiled. “Yes, but all in good time.”
The man whom Nell did not know made an awkward bow. His leg seemed injured. “Nell,” he said. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. You have saved me, my son, and the kingdom.”
Nell was confused, but she still felt tired. “Tell me all about it when I wake up,” she said, and went immediately back to sleep.
Nell heard the story of the dragon several times in the next few days. Norman and the Prince each had their own versions, but Nell found the King’s to be the most interesting.
It appeared the wicked sorcerer had put a spell on the King. The King himself had become the dragon that had laid waste to most of the kingdom. “But I hadn’t entirely lost my sense of who I was,” said the King to Nell. “Even as the dragon, I couldn’t destroy the gardens or the palace itself. I created those gardens for the Queen many years ago. They were…” he added, “an anniversary present, don’t you know. Some part of me remained human—enough to keep me from destroying everything, and enough to enable me to recognize that you, Nell, had come to set me free. Once you touched me with the cursed blade, the spell was broken. Of course, if you had plunged the knife into my heart, I would have been dead as well.”
Nell sighed. “I knew something was odd,” she said. “But I still tried to kill you—the dragon, I mean. It was really the Prince who saved you. If he hadn’t come at you with his sword, I would have stabbed you in the heart.”
“Perhaps,” said the King, with a gentle smile. “The point is that you broke the spell and saved both me and the kingdom, not to mention your companions. As for my son—he believes himself a hero, so we will let him think so—at least for a while.”
“One thing,” said Nell. “Why did the sorcerer put the spell on you in the first place? The Queen said that you had met a sorcerer years ago. Was it the same one?”
The King paused for a long time. Finally, he sighed. “I did a foolish thing, Nell. I was a young man, and I desired peace for my kingdom above all else. I didn’t realize at the time that even wishing for peace, as noble as it seemed at the time, was the vanity of a young man. Peace can only come with the help of others. Only sacrifice can lead to gain. As a young man, I promised the sorcerer that if I could reign in peace, one of my sons would go with him as his prentice.”
“Well, the years passed, and I only had one son, and not a very good one at that. The Prince tries, but he has much to learn. When the sorcerer came to take my son as his prentice, I refused. The sorcerer was angry, of course, and he cursed me and the kingdom. But you, Nell, have saved us all.”
Nell was content to let the King think so, but she felt that things had managed to just work out all right. They could have gone very differently in that valley.
Perhaps the wolf put it best. “Every hero needs his or her companions—just as the Queen said. Even the Prince had his part to play, but it was your hand that wield the cursed knife.”
Nell wasn’t sure if the words of the wolf were helpful or not, but she was content for the time being. After several days, during which the castle was as busy as a hive of bees, Nell went to the Queen. “I must return home to my father,” she said. “He’s probably wondering if I’m even alive.”
Nell thought the Queen would try to convince her to stay, but she smiled. “You have restored my son’s father to him, my husband to me, and the King to his people. Go and find your own father, Nell. But you are welcome in the palace at any time.”
The next morning, Nell and the wolf took the road. Norman didn’t come, but Nell could tell he wanted to. “You are needed here,” she said. “Stay, serve the King and Queen, and help rebuild the kingdom.”
Norman nodded, silently, and a single tear trickled down his cheek. Nell hugged him. “We will see one another again,” she said. “Don’t worry.”
Nell and the wolf said their goodbyes to the King, the Queen, and the Prince, and off they went. It was an uneventful journey, but the roads were crowded with people returning to the kingdom. The wolf slipped off the road whenever another group appeared on the road. Nell heard the story of the slaying of the dragon more than once from travellers. Some said the Prince had slain the dragon, and others told the story of a great warrior princess from the north, who had come to slay the monster and free the kingdom. And some said that the King, who had been transformed into a dragon, fought the sorcerer in the form of a great wolf, and when the dragon had slain the wolf, the spell had broken. Nell listened to all of the stories and smiled.
At last, Nell and the wolf came back to the edge of her own village. “Here I must leave you,” said the wolf. “No one will be happy to see a wolf in the village.”
“I suppose,” said Nell. “But you will come and visit?”
“Of course,” said the wolf, and the great beast licked Nell’s hand once, and bounded away into the forest.
“Here I am again,” said Nell to herself, looking at the empty road. She felt a little sad. But she set off again, passing by the village, and taking the path into the forest that would lead to her home.
It was dusk by the time she came to the cottage in the trees. And there, sitting on the steps as though he had never been anywhere else, sat her father, carving a tall walking stick from a branch of ewe wood.
When he saw Nell, he stood up, his face smiling in the twilight, and tears running down his weathered face. “You have come home, my daughter,” he said.
“I have, father,” said Nell, hugging him tightly. “I’ve been and seen the world. And, I think, it will make for a good story.”
“Then you must tell me all about it,” said her father. And they went inside the cottage, where the wood-carver put on the kettle for tea, and he sat in his armchair to hear the story of Nell’s adventures.

The Story of Nell—A Fairy Tale, Chapter 6

Nell stood at the head of a valley with her companions. After discussing dragon slaying strategies with the Queen, she and the others had taken a short rest, eaten some food, and then got ready to meet the dragon.
The Queen looked grave as she bid them farewell. “I am sorry about my son,” she said. “I do not ask you to do this,“ she added, looking at Nell.
“But if your son isn’t willing,” said Nell, “then someone must try and stop the dragon.”
The Queen nodded. “I have misgivings sending you and your companions to fight such a monster.”
Nell had misgivings of her own, but she found most of them hard to put into words. “Who is the sorcerer who put the spell on the King? And where is the King?”
“Perhaps the sorcerer is holding my husband captive, but I fear he is no longer alive. As for the sorcerer himself, I’m not sure. My husband told me a story, long ago. He said that he met someone on his travels whom he thought was a sorcerer or a wizard, but he would never talk about it.”
And that was all Nell learned. And now, she stood at the top of a valley, looking down into a haze of smoke and steam, carrying a cursed knife, and getting ready to fight a dragon with two companions—a wolf and a boy.
“The dragon lies below,” said the wolf.
Norman simply stared, his eyes round. He was clutching a spear, and he was now dressed in a helmet and chain male coat, which Nell knew would do nothing at all against the dragon.
“Well,” said Nell. “Let’s go.” And the companions began the long walk into the valley.
As they moved deeper between the hills, the air became thicker, and breathing was difficult. Clouds of smoke and steam drifted past the companions, and Nell wondered how long they could endure this terrible place. The grass and trees were blackened and burned. The ground was churned and broken by the passing of the monster, and here and there were the blackened ruins of what once must have been huts and farm houses.
The air was heavy—no sound of bird, and no breath of wind. Nell felt the ground rising before her feet. As she and her companions came to the top of the rise, before them, emerging out of the smokes and steams, lying half on its side, with its great head and forelegs facing them, was the dragon.
Even though the monster was lying in a hollow, its head was on a level with the companions. Its body, with its dark, roughened hide, long as a ship, was stretched out behind, its spike tail disappearing into the reek.
At first, all Nell could notice was the eyes—great, yellow eyes with the vertical pupils of a cat. The eyes looked directly at her, and Nell looked back, mesmerized.
She wasn’t sure what she saw in those eyes—something bestial, but something else, submerged beneath the rage and the animal violence. Was it pain—perhaps? Or maybe it was a need or a desire beyond anything she understood.
Nell tore her eyes from those of the dragon, and then she could see that the creature’s left hind leg was stretched out at an odd angle. It looked hurt—possibly broken. Nell felt a sudden surge of compassion for this beast. For it was a beast, and it was acting according to its nature, regardless of what that was. The Queen had said that she must plunge the cursed knife into the heart of the monster in order to kill it, but Nell wondered if such a thing was even possible.
Holding the eyes of the dragon once again, Nell began to walk slowly down the far side of the rise.
“Be careful, Nell!” cried Norman. “It will probably eat you!” He and the wolf followed close behind Nell, although there was little either of them could do to protect Nell or themselves.
The monster watched Nell’s approach, lowering its head as she did so, until its long, horned head and jaw lay flat to the ground between its clawed feet.
Nell did not take her eyes from those of the dragon, and she still held the cursed knife in her left hand. She slowly reached out her right and touched the dragon. Its grey-black hide was hard as stone and hot to the touch. It reminded Nell of the outside wall of the baker’s house back in her village.
Nell was beside the head of the monster now, and she held its eye. She thought she saw something else in that eye—a pleading?
Nell looked down to the great foreleg that reached forward, leaving an angle where the hide of the monster looked less like roughened stone. If she plunged the knife right there, she just might strike the creature’s heart. Nell clutched the knife, and took a breath.
At that moment, the wolf gave a howl and Norman a cry. Nell couldn’t see anything beyond the body of the monster, but she guessed well enough. She heard a high-pitched, squeaky cry. The Prince had decided to join them.
The monster reared up, and Nell caught a glimpse of the Prince, lunging in and stabbing at the dragon with a sword that was far too big for him—the idiot.
No time now to try and reach the monster’s heart. Nell stabbed wildly with the cursed knife, catching the beast barely a glancing blow on its iron flank. But the shock of the stab ran up Nell’s arm, numbing it to the shoulder and causing her to gasp with pain, while the dragon gave a screeching bellow that sounded like mountains being torn asunder.
Nell staggered as the monster writhed and flailed. She felt herself caught, then dragged away as the air filled with choking smoke and steam. And as the world spun and churned around her, Nell had one thought: her father would have liked to hear this story.