On Vegetable People, And Perfect Storytelling
How reading began in our family, and how it grew from there...
My journey with children’s stories as an adult began as they always do: on a dark and stormy night. We were on a vacation that at this particular moment had taken us to Colorado, my sons and I, and the night before it had begun to snow. Thick, quiet snow. The kind that makes you want to look out on it from somewhere warm; prop a window open and breathe in the iciness of it. There was a fox wandering around outside who kept nosing up to our window curiously. The fire laughed. We, in pyjamas, snuggled down on the lounge and I pulled out a Roald Dahl book I’d bought for the journey: George’s Marvellous Medicine.
My oldest son at the time was four and a half. My next son was three, and the twins were just over one. We had read picture books to them often, but this was the first time I was trying a story on my sons that I remembered so strongly as loving myself. I reasoned that children often pick up the gist of movies for adult audiences and will happily watch a Polish version of a Disney film on Youtube, so I felt that even if my sons didn’t understand, it wouldn’t be a barrier to us enjoying this activity. But it was a leap of faith, and I was feeling nervous. I wanted my sons to love the stories I’d loved. I wanted to love them myself, after twenty years away.
I opened the book, and trying on my most exciting and engaging voice, began to read…
To ground my dreams back into what actually happened, my oldest son sat attentively for twenty minutes, his eyes glazed over. He understood nothing. At four and a half, I couldn’t expect him to be accustomed to the narrative of a long-form story, or of imagining the pictures in his head. But although my other three sons quickly wandered off, my oldest remained beside me, just lying against me and listening to my voice. This intimacy between the two of us in a big family of six became the start of what would become a many years tradition: being together, reading.
For the first eight months or so, I don’t believe my oldest son understood much of what I was saying. But he liked the sound of my voice, the feel of us snuggled together, and the idea that we were sharing something just between ourselves, like a secret language, that his smaller brothers didn’t have the patience for.
After a while, he started to understand things in fragments. It was exactly like learning a language, to my mind. As we devoured the whole collection of Roald Dahl, moved on to A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Enid Blyton Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair Collections, and then on to William Sleator, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he began to ask more questions. How could we move ana and kata, like they did in The Boy Who Reversed Himself? Why was Chinky always blowing his top? Did smugglers still live off the coast of Britain, and would they hurt children if they discovered them, as in the Famous Five?
Slowly, my son was starting to understand the language of stories. As we lost access to abundant chapter books (we were now living in France and it wasn’t always easy to get to an English library) I began collecting fairy tales online for him. I started with Oscar Wilde, because I quickly realised that I didn’t have the desire to waste such special time on stories that I didn’t enjoy too. It was for this reason that Horrible Henry ended up in our dustbin – I couldn’t see the point of them. I don’t mean that everything has to be important. There was something I sought in the stories I lovingly selected for my son: a sense of magic, of fun, of innocence. But also something honest and true. A good friend of mine once told me she believed that stories were about truth, and I didn’t believe her then, but it is the thing I come back to most of all now. Sad or happy or funny or banal or strange, I wanted my son to believe the stories he heard, to know that they’d been told for a reason.
We started talking about the stories afterwards: why did little Hans in The Devoted Friend keep putting his garden aside to help his insufferable neighbour? Was it the right thing to do? I never answered my son’s questions because I didn’t have the answers myself. But I could always give him observations and we would try and work it out together.
We also started, almost unconsciously as first, using stories as reference points in our life. When I misheard things, my son laughingly called me Saucepan Man. One day when all four boys were struggling with something, he crowed that we all looked like the people stuck together in the Golden Goose.
Now, three years later, we never miss a night of stories. My second son, drawn by the intimacy of something he wants a part of, has now reached an age where he loves to listen too. Our routine is that every night I read a chapter for each of them, and then my oldest son, who can now read, reads us a chapter of something he likes too.
The biggest tragedy that has happened while we’ve been creating our little story world is that my oldest son has fallen in love with an author. Paul Jennings is an Australian author who writes short stories for children. I used to read them when I was little, and I started buying them and having them delivered to us in France so that my sons could enjoy them too. But the thing I didn’t realise was just how good Paul Jennings actually is. His stories are moving, aching, beautiful, funny, absurd, creative and joyful all at once. This is wonderful, but also terrible because All Good Things Eventually Come To An End.
Now we’ve finished them all, my oldest son is morose. He looks longingly at my Kindle and says “are there any more Paul Jennings?”. When I assure him there aren’t any more, he instead says “well then, can we read something like Paul Jennings?” Alas, there’s no one like him, I have to tell my son. A cursory look on Goodreads told me an ‘author like Paul Jennings’ was May Gibbs, by virtue of the fact that they were both Australian. Another Paul Jennings, who can create exquisite stories like The Busker, there is not.
But there are so many more worlds to discover. We can mourn our losses and hope there is another perfect storyteller around another corner. Our latest love has been L. Frank Baum – on reading Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (not to be mistaken with The Wizard of Oz) I crowed with delight to discover such a thing as vegetable people:
“Dorothy screamed and expected to see a terrible sight; but as the two halves of the Sorcerer fell apart on the floor she saw that he had no bones or blood inside of him at all, and that the place where he was cut looked much like a sliced turnip or potato.
“Why, he’s vegetable!” cried the Wizard, astonished.
“Of course,” said the Prince. “We are all vegetable, in this country. Are you not vegetable, also?”
“No,” answered the Wizard. “People on top of the earth are all meat.”
To me, this is perfect storytelling in a basket. Hand me some vegetable people so that I can remember we are made of meat. Take us through the wilds of our imagination and language so we can remember the things that are already within us. Now that I’m a parent, the delight of this becomes sharp and important, and I love these little assemblies of words twice as hard.