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.

TALES, Tales, and More Tales

This weekend sees the 27th annual TALES Storytelling Festival happening in Edmonton’s Old Strathcona. TALES is The Alberta League Encouraging Storytelling, which has been around for decades. This year’s festival has moved from Fort Edmonton Park to Old Strathcona, and I wish it all the best in its new home.
I have many fond memories of the festival, having told stories to adults and kids, most recently last year. One of my all-time favourite venues for storytelling is Saint Michael’s church on, I think, 1920 Street in the park. Fort Edmonton is a unique venue for such a festival, and I’ll miss it this year, but I’m also looking forward to the new location.
The TALES festival has evolved over the years, but it has remained at heart one of the best festivals of its kind in the country. The TALES website calls it a “grassroots” festival, which I think is a good way to describe it.
But the annual festival is only part of what TALES does. Apart from the festival, I also have fond memories of the monthly TALES meetings, which for years took place at the City Arts Centre in Edmonton. Once a month, a group of people would gather to tell stories. The evenings were full of every kind of story. The story-stick, at that time a carved rabbit, would make its way around the circle, and whoever held the stick could tell a story.
I remember taking my kids to one of the monthly meetings, mostly because I got wind of an appearance by Robert Munsch. He was in Edmonton for a concert at the Windspeare Centre, but he agreed to come to the TALES meeting. My kids were still pretty little at the time, but they were eager to meet the author who wrote the crazy stories they loved so much.
I happened to be sitting next to Munsch, and when he held the stick, he peered around me at my youngest, who was hiding behind my chair.
“What’s your name?” he asked, in a stage whisper.
She didn’t answer. I sighed, and told him her name. Munsch proceeded to tell the story of the Valentine Cookie, using my daughter as the main character. My youngest never came out from behind my chair, but she never forgot the story.
After Munsch, I got the stick, but I don’t think I told a story. I passed it to my eldest, and she told a story. The precocious little beggar had sound effects and hand gestures to go along with her story, which was one I had told at bedtime, and she managed to make an impression on the whole room. At the time, I thought it brave of her to tell a story to a room of mostly adults, and I thought she gave even Munsch a run for his money.
Enjoy the festival this weekend. Take in some stories, and you will no doubt come away with some of your own. Stories give rise to stories, and remember that you can never get enough.

Mr. Wolf and the Seven Kids, an Urban Fairy Tale (part II)

Mrs. Goat arrived home as the narrow streets were darkening towards evening. She stepped briskly along, and she knew something was wrong long before she saw the smashed front door. She ran the last half block.
Mrs. Goat stared around at the chaos of the little room. The meagar furnature lay scattered about, and in the centre of the room was a rabbit stuffy—Fluffy, who belonged to the second youngest. Mrs. Goat paced carefully into the room, one hand sliding into her bag to grasp something out of sight.
With the keen hearing of her kind, she thought she heard a snuffle. She stepped quickly into the kitchen, and she saw that one of the cupboards was not quite shut. Mrs. Goat reached for the cupboard door, opening it to find her youngest, curled up and miserable.
Tragedy had struck the Goat family, but Mrs. Goat did not lose her head. She pulled her youngest daughter out from the cupboard, and the two of them sat at the table, where Mrs. Goat heard the whole, sorry tale.
“And I hid,” said her youngest, sniffing back more tears. “I didn’t know what to do, (sniff) and I couldn’t help the others.”
“Don’t worry my dear,” said Mrs. Goat, gently rocking her little girl. “You did the right thing. For how would I know that your brothers and sisters had been taken by the terrible Mr. Wolf unless you were here to tell me?”
The little girl nodded sorrowfully. “But what now?” she asked. “Will he eat them?”
“Not if I can help it,” said Mrs. Goat, determinedly. “Now come. Get your coat and shoes. We have things to do.”
And the two of them set off into the darkeness of the streets, all the while Mrs. Goat clutching something inside her bag.
They walked for a time, but Mrs. Goat knew who she was looking for, and it wasn’t long before they found him—slouching and indolent and leaning against a pole.
“Mr. Fox,” said Mrs. Goat, marching directly up to him. “I’m interested in seeing your boss.”
Mr. fox shifted on his pole. His expression never changed—if anything, he looked even more indolent and a little scornful. “What makes you think, missus, that I would take you to see the boss?”
Mr. Fox knew exactly who Mrs. Goat was, and he knew of the events earlier that day, but he wasn’t about to make things easy for her.
“Because,” said Mrs. Goat, “I have a proposition for him. It is to his advantage, and I’m sure you would not want to be the lacky who got in the way of an opportunity for his boss.”
Mr. Fox eyed her for a moment. She had spirit, he couldn’t deny that. “All right, missus. Yu come with me. But if the boss isn’t happy about being interrupted, then you might regret it.”
He led Mrs. Goat down the street and into an alley. They came to a dark doorway, and Mr. Fox gave a secret knock. The door opened. “Follow me, missus. And don’t go snooping once we’re inside.”
Mrs. Goat followed, one hand clutching her daughter, and the other still thrust into her purse. Mr. Fox led them upstairs and down a hall to a door. On the door was a plaque, which read:
Mr. Toad, Crime Boss.
Mr. Fox gave a knock, which was ansered by a croaking cough. Mr. Fox gave Mrs. Goat a sly grin. “After you, missus,” he said.
Mrs. Goat stepped into the office, her little girl now clutched to her side. It was a small, dingy  room, with a desk in the exact middle. A single bare bulb hung from the ceiling by a wire. Behind the desk sat Mr. Toad leaning back in a chair. The desk before him was littered with takeout containers.
He looked at her out of wide-set, bulging eyes. “Mrs. Goat,” said Mr. Toad, in a croaking voice. “And what can I do for you this fine evening.”
“I’m here to trade for some information,” She said.
“Information?” said Mr. Toad, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, Mr. Wolf came to my house this afternoon and made off with all my children, save the youngest. If you can please tell me where he hides, then I will agree to come and clean your house twice a week.”
Mr. Toad persed his wide mouth. “Are you suggesting, madame, that my home requires cleaning?”
“Every man’s home requires cleaning,” said Mrs. Goat. “And,” she said, glancing down at the desk, “I’ll bring a home-cooked meal each time I come.”
Mr. Toad gulped visibly. Then he blinked. “Done,” he said. “Mr. Fox here will take you to the lair of Mr. Wolf, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope that you will be able to fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“Be that as it may,” said Mrs. Goat. “I intend to pay Mr. Wolf a visit.”
She followed the slouching Mr. Fox out of the building, and he led her to an old, battered car in the alley. He said nothing as he drove through the narrow streets down to the river. Parking the car in front of an old warehouse, he looked at Mrs. Goat and her child. “I’ll wait here awhile,” he said. “You have fifteen minutes, and then you’re on your own.”
Mrs. Goat stepped smartly out of the car. She gathered herself, looked down at her daughter, and then the two of them marched up to the door. It wasn’t locked, for who in their right mind would come barging into the lair of Mr. Wolf?
It was a wide room, and Mrs. Goat spotted her children at once—all six of them, trust up and hanging from hooks in the ceiling. Mr. Wolf stood at a table chopping onions and mushrooms and wearing a chef’s apron. He looked up as Mrs. Goat entered, grinning widely in his long face.
“Well, well,” he said. “It looks as though Mrs. Goat has decided to bring me another tasty treat.”
Mrs. Goat marched up to the table and stared Mr. Wolf in the eye. “you will release my children right now,” she said, the smallest of quivers entering her voice.
But Mr. Wolf smiled even wider, showing his sharp, sharp teeth. “Not likely, madame. I am here preparing for a night of feasting and excess. And I think my evening just became more excessive.”
He was wiping the long chopping knife against his apron to clean it, looking hungrily at the child Mrs. Goat still clutched to her side.
“Very well,” said Mrs. Goat, and she took a pistol from her bag and shot him through the heart.
The expression of surprise on old Mr. Wolf’s face was something to see. And then he fell over dead on the floor.
Mrs. Goat soon had her six weeping children untied and down from the hooks. Even the littlest helped. And much to the consternation of Mr. Fox, fifteen minutes after he saw Mrs. Goat enter the building, out she came leading a pack of kids.
“I would be very grateful if you drove me and my children home,” she said. And Mr. fox did, but not until after he’d had a quick look inside the warehouse so he could report to his boss.
That night there was much cause for celebration in the Goat home. Mrs. Goat fixed the door, and her children set to work tidying the living room and preparing a snack.
Mrs. Goat hugged each one of them a hundred times. And she even cried a little, now that all the excitement was over.
“And what lesson can we learn from today’s events?” asked Mrs. Goat as her children sat around on the floor eating their snack.
“Don’t’ trust a wolf?” said the eldest.
“it’s true,” said Mrs. Goat.
“Never, never, never let a stranger into the house—especially a wolf?” said the second youngest, clutching Fluffy.
“True as well,” said Mrs. Goat. “But what’s also true is that sometimes you just have to take things into your own hands.”
After that, things got back to normal in the Goat home. The children were wiser and more cautious, and Mrs. Goat went back to her two and sometimes three jobs. She made good on her promise, and twice a wweek she tidied the home of Mr. Toad, always leaving a covered platter on his table.
Mr. Toad was perhaps the happiest of all, for he had two home-cooked meals to anticipate every week. And after hearing the story of how Mrs. Goat handled herself in the lair of Mr. Wolf, he decided that he would eventually have to put her on the payrole.

Mr. Wolf and the Seven Kids, an Urban Fairy Tale (Part I)

In the twisted heart of the old city lived Mrs. Goat with her seven children. She had to work hard to care for those children. Mr. Goat, who was a drinker and a layabout, had walked out several years before, leaving Mrs. Goat to raise the children on her own. She hadn’t been too sorry to see him go.
Being a single parent meant long days and short nights. Mrs. Goat worked two and sometimes three jobs to keep her children in barely more than rags. But they were good children, if not always well behaved, and Mrs. Goat wasn’t above giving any of them a clip on the ear to remind them that growing up in the old city didn’t mean they could behave like savages.
There weren’t many schools in the old city in those days, so the elder children taught the younger to read and write. Mrs. Goat left every morning by seven o’clock. The children usually finished their chores around the house by noon, and that left them the rest of the afternoon and evening to play and snooze and get up to mischief of one kind and another before Mrs. Goat came home again in the early evening.
Every morning before leaving the house, Mrs. Goat said to the four eldest, twin girls and twin boys—in that order:
“Now children, finish your chores before doing anything else. Lock the door if you go out for a walk, and never, never, never let a stranger into the house.”
“Yes mother,” the children always said. They did their chores, sometimes they went into the narrow streets to walk or to play, but once back indoors, they never, never, never let anyone into the house.
Now at that time there were many seedy and unsavoury characters living in the old city. One of the worst of them all was Mr. Wolf. He was a tall, thin character, with a main of grey hair and clean-shaven chops that were an attempt to hide his wolfish disposition. He lived on the main floor of an old warehouse near the river, and he spent his time prowling the streets and looking for victims. He preyed on the weak, the stupid, and the young. So despicable was Mr. Wolf that even the hardest of the hardened criminals gave him a wide berth. Rumours of Mr. Wolf and his exploits were whispered in the dens and taverns of the old city.
“You don’t want to mess with the old Wolf,” said Mr. Fox, nodding wisely to his companions over mugs of gin-punch. They all shuddered and shook their heads.
The children had heard of Mr. Wolf, but they felt safe enough during the day while their mother was at work—as long as they followed her instructions. “Never, never, never open the door to a stranger,” they reminded one another.
One afternoon, while Mrs. Goat was at work, and after the children had finished their chores for the day, they heard a knock at the door. They stopped what they were doing and stared at each other.
“Who could that be?” they whispered to one another.
The eldest set of twins hurried to the door and peeped through the peep-hole. There, standing on the doorstep, as bold as you please, stood Mr. Wolf.
Mr. Wolf had put on a clean suit that morning. He shaved his long chops carefully, and he brushed back his shaggy hair. He had decided the night before that it was time to make a move to collect Mrs. Goat’s children. He had seen them often enough, but they hadn’t seen him—he made certain of that. He got to know their habits, morning and afternoon, and today was the day he was going to collect himself some tender and juicy kids.
“Hello children,” called Mr. Wolf, in what he thought was a friendly voice. “I’m the local Inspector of Schools, and I’ve come to see that you’re educated.” He snickered to himself. He thought it was a particularly good joke.
In proof of his lie, he held up a card to the peep-hole. It read:
Mr. Tobias Wulf
Inspector of Schools.
But the children weren’t that stupid. And the golden rule was to never, never, never let a stranger into the house.
“You’ll have to come back when our mother is home,” called the eldest of the twin girls. “We’re not allowed to let a stranger of any kind enter the house.”
The twin boys nodded their agreement as they watched their sisters.
Mr. Wolf was a patient sort of predator, but this was too much. Glancing first up and down the street, he drew back his fist, and he hit that door, which burst open with a crash.
There was screaming and running about as the elder children tried to protect the younger. But Mr. Wolf was intent on his business, and all the screaming only served to enrage him further. In no time at all, he had those children trust up like spring pigs, and two by two he carried them out to his blacked-out van and tossed them inside. He drove away, licking his chops in anticipation, while the children wept and moaned in the back of the van. All, save one.
In his haste to make off with the children, Mr. Wolf had neglected to count his captives. Everyone in that part of the old city knew Mrs. Goat had seven kids, but only six bundles of misery lay on the smelly floor of the van.
The seventh, and youngest, acting on the orders of the eldest twin, had hidden herself in a cupboard while Mr. Wolf tied up the others. She trembled from head to foot, but never a sound did she make as she crouched in the darkness of the cupboard. She felt sorry for her six siblings, but she felt worse at the thought of her mother’s return, and having to tell her the tale of the wicked, wicked Mr. Wolf.

On Writing for Kids, or, Machine vs Snot-Monster

After I lost my sight in a car accident at age ten, I had an aunt who took it upon herself to record some books for me on tape. Two of those books were The Runaway Robot and a collection of short stories called Tomorrow’s Children. I must have read both a dozen times. I haven’t reread the runaway Robot since, but a couple of years ago I found a copy of Tomorrow’s Children: Eighteen Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The book is   a collection of stories about children of the future, but written by people who don’t normally write for kids. I didn’t know this about the book at the time, and it was only my years of reading and teaching that showed me ways this book was even more interesting than I had first thought. Reading the book as an eleven-year-old, of course I didn’t care.
I recently found a story that reminded me strongly of this collection: Machine vs Snot-Monster by Edmonton’s Thomas Wharton.
The story is dedicated to Ray Bradbury, which tells me something about both the story and the author. Machine vs Snot-Monster fits into this category of stories about kids that aren’t necessarily for kids. It’s about a boy who wants his caretaker to tell him a story. But the caretaker is a machine. It can only recombine elements of plot and character; it can’t create. At the end, the machine says to the little boy, “Tell me a story.”
Story lies at the heart of Wharton’s fiction, and he’s one of those authors who writes for both adults and kids. Some writers of adult fiction turn to writing kids’ books because, after all, writing books for kids is easier than writing for adults—isn’t it? The market for kid’s books is also hot, which must represent a significant attraction for many. But writers who can cross easily back and forth between writing adult books and writing kid’s books are rare. Ursula Le Guin can do it. Wharton is another.
Wharton’s The Perilous Realm series—The Shadow of Malabran, The Fathomless Fire, and The Tree of Story—is now complete after the publication of the final book in the fall of 2013. This is a series about story. It begins with Will Lightfoot, one of the two main characters, who finds his way into the Perilous Realm after stealing his father’s vintage motorcycle while he, his sister, and his dad drive west to a new home. Will and Jess’s mother is dead, and the family is starting a new life. But Will is angry—naturally enough—and he rebels by taking his dad’s motorcycle while they are stopped at a campsite. He wants to go back down the highway to find a tacky carnival called The Perilous Realm.
The opening of the series has Will tearing down the highway on a stolen motorcycle, helmetless, with the cops not far behind. Quite the opening for a kid’s book. Will crashes the bike, and finds himself in another world, where he meets Rowen, a girl about his own age, but one who wears a red cloak and knows her way about a dark forest.
The Perilous Realm is the world of Story. It’s populated by characters from fairy tales, and Will has to discover his own story in order to get home. The threat to this world is Malabran, the Night King, who is intent on devouring all stories so only his own remains, which is one of destruction and terror. The series follows Will, Rowen, and their various companions, until Will and Rowen have to venture into the Shadow realm itself to find Nicholas Pendrake, Rowen’s grandfather, and to stop the Night King before all of the stories disappear. The final confrontation around the great Tree of Story redefines such endings in kid’s fantasy, but you will have to read your way through to find out what happens.
The series is epic in proportion, and it follows in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis—but sharing more with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. It’s medieval in flavour, and has some interesting bits that even hint at steampunk. The series centres on Will and Rowen, but it has an impressive cast of characters
Not every writer can write for kids, and many writers shouldn’t. Some writers can write about kids, or can represent the experience of the child—often from an adult perspective. But that’s different from writing for kids.
Wharton is able to write for both adults and children. Everything for Wharton resonates around story, which is why he moves easily between one genre and the other. From Icefields and Salamander, his first and second novels for adults, to The Perilous Realm series, it all comes down to story.
In an editorial published in On Spec Magazine, 2011, Wharton writes: “First and foremost, a good story makes a reader want to read it.” Such a point is noteworthy because it draws attention to the story as something told and something heard. Somebody is telling it, but somebody needs to hear it.
Wharton continues: “The craft of fantasy is at its core the same as the craft of any fiction: a good story it grabs a reader’s attention and sustains it. When you sit down to write, don’t forget you’re a storyteller.”
But the storyteller is only half of the equation; at heart, story is the interaction between the teller and the listener. The good storyteller knows his or her audience. If that audience is a kid, then the storyteller better watch out. Kids can spot condescension a mile away. They may not know how to use big words, but they get narrative. Sometimes it’s the snot-monster who will call out the machine. And if the machine finds it in himself to ask the snot-monster for a story, then story becomes the place where everyone can meet—telling stories, turn by turn. Either way, it’s the interaction—the telling and the listening—that brings the story into being. Happy telling, and happy reading.

In Celebration of Read In Week

During the years my kids were in elementary school, I did my share of classroom visits. Like any parent, I went in to help out, but mostly I visited their classes to tell stories.
By the time my kids were both in school, telling stories at bedtime had become a nightly ritual. Both of them were readers, but as a blind parent, I had to find some way of involving myself in their experience of books and of literacy. We read together, or, more precisely, they read to me. It was picture books at first. We would sit on the couch in the evenings while they read Robert Munsch, Jan Brett, or the Little Bear books. At bedtime, it was my turn.
I began telling stories to my kids while they were very young—my eldest was just two. She was crying one evening because her new baby sister was monopolizing her mom’s attention, so she found herself having to deal with me. Because I didn’t really know what else to do, I held her and told her a story. It was “Kate Crackernuts,” one that I’d encountered in a children’s literature course a couple of years before. She never made it through the story—sound asleep halfway through.
After that, I told her stories every night, and when my youngest got older, I told them both stories at bedtime.
It gave me what I needed—the ability to be involved in my kids’ literacy. It worked well, but it wasn’t always easy. I was exhausted from teaching and being a perpetual grad student. More often than not, I ripped off elements from anything I’d read to tell a story that was halfway coherent.
My kids were my best critics, too. If they didn’t like something, they let me know. If I was telling a story for the fifth, tenth, or seventeenth time and misspoke a detail, I heard about it.
“She wasn’t wearing a green hat!”
“Okay, what colour was it then?”
“It was orange.”
“Okay, she was wearing an orange hat, and she went out into the world ….”
One of the more memorable experiences at the school happened early on. My eldest was in grade two. I came in regularly to tell stories to the class, and the teacher, Mrs. Finiack, had the kids drawing pictures of their favourite characters from the stories I’d told. My mom was also involved at the school, and she and Mrs. Finiack came up with the idea for a storytelling quilt.
They took the kids’ drawings, and they had them transferred onto quilting squares. With the help of another parent, they soon began assembling a quilt.
The quilt stayed at the school for years, and then one day Mrs. Finiack dropped it off at my house. It was bundled up inside a small garment bag, and it disappeared into my basement, eventually finding a place at the back of a shelf. And there it stayed, forgotten for years.
I had the honour of visiting a grade three class for Read in Week, and it suddenly struck me, what if I find that old storytelling quilt and bring it with me to show the kids?
I found it on the back of a shelf, and then I Facetimed my mom to show her the quilt. She was thrilled to see it, but she reminded me how evasive I’d been in the past as to its whereabouts.
“I knew it was in the house,” I said, a little defensively, holding up the quilt in front of my IPad.
The quilt went with me to visit the grade threes. I told them two stories: “The Three Sillies” And “Goldie Locks and the Three Pigs.” The second story is mine—my first attempt at a fractured fairy tale, before I knew there was such a thing. More like the invention of a desperately tired dad who has nothing else to tell, and doesn’t care about making sense anymore.
The grade threes were a great audience—about forty of them, all curious, interested, and ready to join in at the right time.
“And along through the woods came the …”
After the stories, I showed them the quilt. It’s been eighteen years since I first went into my daughter’s class to tell stories. As I talked to the grade threes, I felt a little nostalgic for the days I spent in my kids’ classes, and the time telling stories. But stories do that. They locate us; they ground us. They tell us where we’ve been, they centre us where we are, and they help guide us to where we’re going. And it’s never just about the telling; it’s about the receiving. It’s about creating a space where dragons talk and giants roam, where heroes win and lose, and where, for a time, you can walk together under a different sky.