The New Hobbit Film, My Reluctant Anticipation

Alert! No Spoilers
Peter Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies is due to open soon, and I’m looking forward to it with reluctant anticipation. It promises to be a digital blood-bath. Having split his filmic rendering of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into three parts, this latest film will focus largely on the battle at the Lonely Mountain.
Mind, no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s difficult to guess what Jackson will do with this film. First, expect this movie to be mostly about the battle at the Lonely Mountain, with extended slow-motion shots featuring individual fights—not to mention the swelling orchestral score in the background. I’m guessing we will have a face-off between Thorin and Azog (a plot twist I never liked).
Second, and this isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the book, the dragon also has to die, and this will be most spectacular. The death of the dragon in the book is one of my favourite scenes. It’s useful here to point out that the slaying of Smoug is where Tolkien’s narrative leaves Bilbo and company behind at the mountain, while it follows the dragon to Lake-Town, where he is slain by Bard the Bowman. It’s an important scene for several reasons. It’s a dragon slaying, for one—an individual, heroic moment that is signature Tolkien. But it’s also a major narrative shift in the book. Much more is happening in Tolkien’s world than Bilbo is aware. The narrative has to break away from Bilbo’s perspective in order to show the larger scope of the heroic world, and the positioning of its various peoples in response to the attack and death of the monster. I’m a purist, so I’m not going to call Tolkine’s world of The Hobbit Middle-Earth: Tolkien doesn’t introduce the term Middle-Earth until The Fellowship of the Ring. And by the way, other names, such as The Shire, don’t appear until the later book either.
My point is that Tolkien’s world of The Hobbit has more scope than simply Bilbo’s seemingly ill-fated journey with the dwarves. Think about it. Thirteen dwarves and one hobbit set out on an epic adventure to recover treasure from a live dragon. This is a journey that hasn’t much hope of success, and most of the book focuses on Bilbo’s experience of the journey. He knows little about the world in which he finds himself, and even Thorin considers the treasure  his, and doesn’t think about any of the other people injured by the dragon, or who might be interested in the treasure once the dragon is dead. After the dragon leaves the mountain for Lake-Town, the book expands in scope to include most of Tolkien’s northern world—the men of Lake-Town, the Elves of Mirkwood, Dain and the dwarves of the Iron Hills, the eagles of the Misty Mountains, and Bolg of the North and his goblin army.
Back to Jackson’s film. Another stray thread from his second film is the attraction between Kili the dwarf and Tauriel the Wood-elf. Not looking forward to this one at all. As I said, I’m a purist when it comes to Tolkien, and I think setting up a love story between a dwarf and an elf is ridiculous—not to put too fine a point on it. Ask Tolkien whether or not a dwarf and an elf could ever get together in his world. He might chuckle, and he might look at you with incredulity, but he would most certainly launch into an historical explanation of relations between the two peoples throughout his legendarium. And before you point it out, Galadriel and Gimli don’t count. Gimli’s adoration for the Elven queen was an aboration—and it was an elevated, platonic, and one-sided love on Gimmly’s part. You might think that pairing was ridiculous. You are free to think so. Gimli’s love was lofty and chivalric—however unpalatable it might seem—while Kili’s attraction to Tauriel is reciprocal and suggests something more lusty and physical.
I will go see the film—probably more than once—and I will spend time processing whatever Peter Jackson does with the story. Its entertainment, and I have to see it as entertainment; otherwise, I get too bothered by what Jackson is doing to one of my favourite books. And I want to go on liking the films.
One final comment. Jackson chose to separate his adaptation into three parts, the last of which focuses on the battle. Read the book. We don’t get much of the Battle of Five Armies (not the Battle of the Five Armies) in Tolkien’s text, and Bilbo is actually knocked unconscious by a falling rock early on, and he hears about the details from Gandalf after all is over. Tolkien writes in the heroic tradition, which you can see in his representation of battles throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But he didn’t romanticize war, and he always commented on its brutality and its accompanying loss and sorrow. Pay attention Peter Jackson. Your need to indulge your propensity for epic battles comes at a cost. You are missing Tolkien’s profound understanding of war and warfare: an understanding grounded in the heroic tradition, but tempered by his World War I experience in which he lost three of his closest friends.
I’ll leave you with this comment from the Elvenking, before the battle is ever joined:
”Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold. The dwarves cannot pass us, unless we will, or do anything that we cannot mark. Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation. Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.” (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit.  New York: Harper Colins, 1999. 358. Print.)

In Remembrance, L. M. Montgomery and War

My trip to Charlottetown, PEI, last June to attend L. M. Montgomery and War brought me a greater appreciation for Montgomery as a writer, but also for the events of the Great War. Whenever I attend such conferences, I walk a line between my scholarly and personal interests, which means I’m not always terribly objective.
At the conference, I presented on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and how it figures into both Montgomery’s journals and rilla of Ingleside, the one book exclusively about WWI. I’ve taught a course on Montgomery, and I keep coming back to her as a writer, but my personal interest in this topic comes from learning to manage PTSD in my own life, and knowing a number of young men who served in Afghanistan.
In honour of this Remembrance Day, 2014, I thought to let Montgomery speak to you about war. I’ve collected here some brief passages from Lucy Maud’s journals that show her processing the events of the war, while she continued to work as a writer, a mother, and a minister’s wife. I’m also including Walter’s final letter to rilla on the eve of his death. The letter is a poignant farewell, but it stands as a tribute to the young men who fought and died in WWI, and serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, both real and imagined.
The journal entries come from The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery, volume 2, 1910–1921, edited by Elizabeth Waterston and Mary Rubio, and Walter’s letter is taken from a Project Gutenberg e-text of Rilla of Ingleside.
June 10, 1916
“This war is slowly killing me. I am bleeding to death as France is being bled in the shambles of Verdun.”
August 19, 1916
“I do my writing in the parlour now, as said parlour possesses the only door in the house which young Chester cannot open … Wednesday and Thursday I was miserable with an attack of bowel trouble. Naturally, visitors took that day for appearing. The Russians have captured Tarnapol heights and the British and French have renewed their offensive.”
May 29, 1918
“We went to Uxbridg today to see a military funeral. Colonel Sam Sharp … was buried. He came home from the front quite recently, insane from shellshock and jumped from a window in the royal Victoria at Montreal.”
Walter’s Final Letter, Rilla of Ingleside (chapter 23) 
”We’re going over the top tomorrow, Rilla-my-Rilla,” wrote Walter. “I wrote mother and Di yesterday, but somehow I feel as if I must write you tonight. I hadn’t intended to do any writing tonight—but I’ve got to. Do you remember old Mrs. Tom Crawford over-harbour, who was always saying that it was ‘laid on her’ to do such and such a thing? Well, that is just how I feel. It’s ‘laid on me’ to write you tonight—you, sister and chum of mine. There are some things I want to say before—well, before tomorrow.”

“You and Ingleside seem strangely near me tonight. It’s the first time I’ve felt this since I came. Always home has seemed so far away—so hopelessly far away from this hideous welter of filth and blood. But tonight it is quite close to me—it seems to me I can almost see you—hear you speak. And I can see the moonlight shining white and still on the old hills of home. It has seemed to me ever since I came here that it was impossible that there could be calm gentle nights and unshattered moonlight anywhere in the world. But tonight somehow, all the beautiful things I have always loved seem to have become possible again—and this is good, and makes me feel a deep, certain, exquisite happiness. It must be autumn at home now—the harbour is a-dream and the old Glen hills blue with haze, and Rainbow Valley a haunt of delight with wild asters blowing all over it—our old “farewell-summers.” I always liked that name better than ‘aster’—it was a poem in itself.”

“Rilla, you know I’ve always had premonitions. You remember the Pied Piper—but no, of course you wouldn’t—you were too young. One evening long ago when Nan and Di and Jem and the Merediths and I were together in Rainbow Valley I had a queer vision or presentiment—whatever you like to call it. Rilla, I saw the Piper coming down the Valley with a shadowy host behind him. The others thought I was only pretending—but I saw him for just one moment. And Rilla, last night I saw him again. I was doing sentry-go and I saw him marching across No-man’s-land from our trenches to the German trenches—the same tall shadowy form, piping weirdly—and behind him followed boys in khaki. Rilla, I tell you I saw him—it was no fancy—no illusion. I heard his music, and then—he was gone. But I had seen him—and I knew what it meant—I knew that I was among those who followed him.”

“Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow. I feel sure of this. And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear. I shall never be afraid of anything again—not of death—nor of life, if after all, I am to go on living. And life, I think, would be the harder of the two to face—for it could never be beautiful for me again. There would always be such horrible things to remember—things that would make life ugly and painful always for me. I could never forget them. But whether it’s life or death, I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil—the future, not of Canada only but of the world—when the ‘red rain’ of Langemarck and Verdun shall have brought forth a golden harvest—not in a year or two, as some foolishly think, but a generation later, when the seed sown now shall have had time to germinate and grow. Yes, I’m glad I came, Rilla. It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we’re fighting for. And we shall win—never for a moment doubt that, Rilla. For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.”
“Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. I don’t want to preach—this isn’t any time for it. But I just want to say something that may help you over the worst when you hear that I’ve gone ‘west.’ I’ve a premonition about you, Rilla, as well as about myself. I think Ken will go back to you—and that there are long years of happiness for you by-and-by. And you will tell your children of the Idea we fought and died for—teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you—all you girls back in the homeland—do it, then we who don’t come back will know that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.”
“I meant to write to Una tonight, too, but I won’t have time now. Read this letter to her and tell her it’s really meant for you both—you two dear, fine loyal girls. Tomorrow, when we go over the top—I’ll think of you both—of your laughter, Rilla-my-Rilla, and the steadfastness in Una’s blue eyes—somehow I see those eyes very plainly tonight, too. Yes, you’ll both keep faith—I’m sure of that—you and Una. And so—goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.”


A conversation with Australia

This week, I had the good fortune to talk to a group of grade six students from Melbourne, Australia. We used FaceTime to talk, and they had lots of questions.
They learned a little about me beforehand. They knew I’m totally blind, and that I lost my sight in a car accident as a kid. They knew I teach at a university, and they knew I spend much of my time reading kid’s books.
This is a perceptive group of kids. Some of their questions surprised me.
Here are some of the questions, and my best approximation of the answers.
Q. How long did it take you to learn braille?
A. It took about three months. I was in the hospital for several months after my accident, and someone came in a couple of times a week to teach me.
Q. Do you use braille to read your books?
A. No. I always found braille hard to use. I read audio books, and I have a voice program on my computer called JAWS that I use to read anything electronic, such as student essays. I also read books on my IPhone and my IPad.
Q. What was it like in the hospital? Were people nice to you?
A. Yes, people were nice and generally helpful. It only got hard once I was out of the hospital and back at my old school. I went to a special class with other visually impaired kids after Christmas, but then I was back in my old school for grade seven the next fall. It was hard then because many of the other kids didn’t know how to treat me anymore. Kids can sometimes be mean to one another, so there was lots of teasing.
Q. What do you see, or do you see anything at all?
A. that’s a good question. Close your eyes, and tell me what you see.
— I see darkness but bits of colour and dots and things.
— That’s what I see, if I choose to pay attention.
Q. How do you understand beauty?
A. that’s another good question. I think of lots of things as beautiful. It’s fall here right now, and often at this time of the year we can have snow. But we’re having a warm October. I walk a lot, so when I’m out enjoying a walk, I think of the fall as beautiful.
Q. Do you have any hobbies?
A. Yes, I do pottery. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years. I make bowls and cups and other things. I also carve in soapstone. Carving soapstone takes longer, and I can only carve outside because it’s so messy, but I like to make birds and whales and other animals.
Q. what kind of music do you like?
A. Well, lots, I suppose. I listen to lots of folk music. Do you guys like U2? (a chorus of agreement). I like U2 as well.
Q. Do you have a favourite movie?
A. Not really. I like to watch movies. I like watching films that are adapted from books, like the Lord of the Rings movies or the Narnia films.
Q. What is your favourite book?
A. That’s a hard question. I don’t know if I can say that I have a favourite book. I have lots of favourite authors, like Tolkien and Lewis. I like reading series as well. One of my favourites in the last couple of years has been the Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud. I just finished a series by Brandon Mull called Fablehaven, and I’m reading another series by an Australian author called Trudi Canavan—The Black Magician Trilogy.
We talked like that for almost an hour, and they had many more questions. I was gratified to spend time with such an interested and perceptive bunch of kids from another part of the world. No doubt we could have found many other things that we shared if we’d had more time.  Unfortunately, their schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Perhaps one day we can talk again. 

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.

Hansel and Gretel, or, The Way to start your own Franchise

Once there was a brother and sister who lived with their father and stepmother at the edge of a great forest. Their names were Hansel and Gretel. Hansel was a short, round boy, who loved to wander in the forest. Gretel was tall and lanky, and she was interested in ways of making money, as the family was very poor. The father was a woodcutter. You would think that in a time when most people heated their little homes with wood fires that he would do all right. But he didn’t. He piled the wood he gathered from the forest in untidy heaps, and when people came shopping for wood, they saw the mess, and politely said they were just browsing.
Gretel was frustrated with her father. “Presentation is everything. Don’t you get it?”
But the father didn’t understand. He simply looked bewildered, and went into the forest to cut more wood.
“We have to do something,” said Gretel to her brother one evening. “We need a marketing plan. Father is never going to sell any wood this way.”
“Hush,” said Hansel. “What are they saying in the other room?”
The children listened, and much to their horror, they heard the stepmother plotting to get rid of them.
“Children are so expensive to raise,” said the stepmother. “Soon they’ll be teenagers, and then there will be no end of costs. Have you thought about all the stuff they’ll want? Have you thought about university?”
The father said nothing.
“Tomorrow,” said the stepmother, “I want you to take the children into the forest and leave them there. That way, we can have our own lives and not worry about having to pay for two lazy children.”
“Lazy,” muttered Gretel. “Look who’s talking.”
But now that Gretel knew of her stepmother’s plot, she had a plan of her own. “Tomorrow, before dawn,” she whispered to Hansel, “we get out of here.”
“All right,” said Hansel, but he couldn’t help a tear from rolling down his plump cheek at the hardness of the world.
The next morning, while the father and stepmother were still sleeping, Hansel and Gretel slipped out of the house. As Hansel was the one who knew his way about the forest, he led the way.
“Make sure and cover our tracks,” said Gretel, as they walked along.
“Don’t worry,” said Hansel. “They’ll never find us.”
When the father got up that morning, he found that his children had run away, carrying their few possessions with them. In spite of his wife’s exclamations of joy at the disappearance of the children, the father searched through the forest, hunting high and low. But he never found them, and he assumed his children had been eaten by wild animals. He went home and sat by the fire, for he was sad, and in spite of all her nagging, the husband refused to cut anymore wood.
As for the children, they wandered through the woods, never seeming to get anywhere. They stopped once to eat the bread that Gretel had stolen from the pantry, but by the time the Moon was shining high overhead, the children were so tired that they just lay down Beneatha tree to sleep.
“We’re lost,” said Gretel to her brother, as she stared up at the Moon. “Nice going, genius.”
“Don’t worry,” said Hansel. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring.”
And the children fell fast asleep in the forest.
The next morning, the children got up and wandered on through the trees. Soon, they came to an open space, and standing in the middle of the little meadow was a tiny house made of gingerbread. The posts that held up the porch roof were made of sugar candy, and icing dotted with gumdrops coated every surface.
“That doesn’t look suspicious at all,” said Gretel.
But Hansel had already run forward, and was scooping icing and gumdrops into his mouth. “Tastes good!” he cried, breaking off a bit of gingerbread from a windowsill.
Just then, the door opened, and out hobbled an old witch. Of course she was a witch, and she caught Hansel by the neck and stuffed him into a sack she carried in her other hand.
“A tasty, tasty treat,” said the old witch, in a voice that crackled like a fire. “Now just you come here,” she said to Gretel, “and you can join your brother.”
But Gretel wasn’t as stupid as all that. “Please don’t eat my brother!” cried Gretel, in her best afraid-little-girl voice. “If you agree not to eat my brother, I’ll work for you. I’ll do all of your chores and keep this place spick and span.”
The witch peered at Gretel out of red eyes. “Perhaps,” she murmured. “How about you come inside and show me what you can do?” The old witch was really planning to get Gretel into the house so she could cook her, but she was too used to easy prey, and didn’t know what she was getting herself in for.
Gretel came into the house and looked around. She saw the possibilities at once. It was a snug little place, and out back was a wide patio, where the witch kept cages for her victims.
The old witch had thrown Hansel into a cage, sack and all, and locked the door, chuckling and smacking her old lips.
Hansel poked his head out of the sack and stared wildly around. “You just let me out of this cage!” he shouted at the witch.
“You keep your shirt on,” said the witch to Hansel. “Your sister says she’ll work for me, and if she’s a good girl, then maybe I won’t eat you.”
She turned to Gretel. “I have this pan of brownies ready for baking. You just put your head inside the oven and see if it’s hot enough.”
Gretel rolled her eyes. Was the old woman kidding?
But in her sweetest little-girl voice, Gretel said, “I’ve never done that before. Can you show me once so I understand what you mean?”
“Stupid child!” cried the witch. “Like this.” And she yanked open the oven door and stuck her head inside.
Quick as a flash, Gretel caught the old witch by the neck. “Now listen here, you old hag,” said Gretel, through clenched teeth. “Your baking days are done. There are going to be a few changes around here.”
And there were. Gretel let Hansel out of his cage, and she stuffed in the witch. She kept the old woman locked up until she agreed not to trap and eat kids anymore.
Gretel swept and cleaned that little cottage. She found heaps of gold in the corners, and she used it to by a new oven and a barista machine. She ordered tables and chairs for the patio, and she got rid of the cages. When she was ready, she had signs pointing the way to the cottage. They read: Treats by “Gretel.” And in no time, she was open for business.
The old witch worked as a server, while Gretel baked, made candy, and ran the barista machine. People came from miles around to sit on the patio, sip coffee, and sample Gretel’s treats. Even the stepmother and father eventually found their way to the shop. Gretel didn’t feel much like forgiving them, so she hired them as her cleaning staff and put them to work.
And as for Hansel, he wasn’t much interested in Gretel’s business, but he came regularly to visit. He didn’t much like the manic gleam that Gretel got in her eye as she ordered about her staff and counted up her profits. But he decided not to worry about it. He mostly liked to wander the forest, getting to know the trees and the habits of the animals. And really, after a day of wandering in the forest, there was nothing like coming back to Gretel’s shop for a quiet coffee and a slice of her key lime pie.

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.