Thursday, October 29, 2009

catching up

Last week I had the privlege of going up and touring St. Thomas More Playgroup, a wonderful preschool on the Upper East Side. A dear friend of mine and fellow educator, Kate Tempesta, runs a wonderful creative movement class there and I wanted to go and check her and the school out. As I walked around the different nooks and crannies and meandered in and out of classrooms one thing struck me: how visually stimulating the entire place was. It screamed: let's play!

Their library is beyond impressive with thousands of titles. What I loved most about it was how visible and integrative it is. Shelves and shelves of books line most walls and covers face forward so children can see the books. They are truly surrounded by literature. It was wonderful to see.

On Saturday I did a Nurturing Narratives Halloween-themed evening with about ten children. We read The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything and Room on the Broom, two of my now permanent Halloween favorites. I dressed up as Glinda the good witch. It was quite fun.

In other news, the website is finally up! Please check it out at and let me know what you think!

Read away,


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hansel and Gretel: The Halloween Addition

And now for a bit of literary criticism this morning.

I asked my dear friend Catherine to do a post on fairy tales and she suggested we put it up around Halloween. Fairy tales, on Halloween? You ask. So did I. Apparently the roots are a lot scarier than we know today. Catherine is a fantastic literary critic and has taken an academic eye to Hansel and Gretel. I hope you enjoy her thoughts as much as I did.

As of right now, historians believe that Halloween (shape-shifted from All Hallows Evening) is the step-child of Samhain, a Celtic festival, which roughly translates to “summer’s end”, held at the end of the harvest season. But, as with most celebrations of the harvest, Samhain also honors the deceased members of the community. It is believed that this festival of the dead was carried over to North America during the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, and that the present day Halloween, the traditions of trick or treating, bobbing for apples, and spooky costumes were all remnants of those darker, and more superstitious, times.

With that in mind, I thought the Brothers Grimm’s terrifying Hansel and Gretel was the perfect story to look at this month!

Hansel and Gretel combines several important and spooky motifs: the wicked step-mother, the evil witch, the abandonment of children, the edible house, the tricking of the witch, and the triumph over evil.

During the time of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, fairy tales were much, much darker than they are today. Now, because they are so frightening, some parents won’t even consider telling a tale from the Brothers Grimm.

But sometimes a good scare is exactly what a child wants. Though unlike Halloween, the Brothers Grimm deliver a moral lesson, one that every child must learn.

In the beginning, Hansel and Gretel’s family “had very little to bite or sup, and once, when there was great dearth in the land, [their father] could not even gain the daily bread.” Much to the father’s chagrin, the step-mother (who is actually the real mother in a much older version!) tells her husband that in order to save themselves they must abandon the children out in the woods.

According to Bruno Bettleheim (whose favorite fairy tale happens to be Hansel and Gretel), the Mother represents the source of all food to the children, which is why they still want to return home after being deserted. This psychological interpretation is about dependence, in fact, Bettleheim says that, “before a child has the courage to embark on the voyage of finding himself, of becoming an independent person through meeting the world, he can develop initiative only in trying to return to passivity, to secure for himself eternally dependent gratification.” (The Uses of Enchantment)

But, regression and denial will not get poor Hansel and Gretel anywhere. They must overcome their primitive desires to return to their Mother, the womb, or to a time when they were completely taken care of and did not have existential dilemmas of their own that they had to solve.

Stranded in the woods, the children finally come upon a house, albeit a house made of candy, and they immediately eat the house. It doesn’t occur to them that the house could be a place of shelter or a home.

“So Hansel reached up and broke off a bit of the roof, just to see how it tasted, and Gretel stood by the window and gnawed at it. Then they heard a thin voice from inside,”

When the witch asks them who is eating at her house (in a voice that could be misconstrued as the children’s consciences), they answer that it is the wind, knowing full well that they are stealing, and worse, eating this witch out of house and home, something their step-mother feared they might do and therefore abandoned them.

Such unrestrained greediness cannot lead to anything good, especially in the morally structured world of fairy tales.

At first the witch is kind, “she took them each by the hand, and led them into her little house. And there, they found a good meal laid out, of milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. After that she showed them two little white beds, and Hansel and Gretel laid themselves down on them, and thought they were in heaven.”

But appearances are deceiving. Just as the children gobbled up the gingerbread house, the witch is equally determined to gobble them up!

The witch’s kindness and then inevitable transformation are symbolic of the inadequacies and betrayal of the Mother.

When a child is first born the Mother is the entire world, but even then, the Mother cannot possibly satisfy all of the child’s needs like she once did before the child was born. At the moment of birth the separation between Mother and child begins. As the child ages, the Mother no longer serves the child unequivocally, but begins to focus more of her energy on herself. For the child, this leads to rage and frustration with the Mother, as well as feelings of abandonment.

It is important to note that the first time Hansel and Gretel are abandoned, Hansel saves them, but it is Gretel that pushes the witch into the oven. Hansel and Gretel is one of the few tales that stresses the importance of siblings cooperation. The children move from depending on their parents, which will only lead them to a life of regression, to depending on each other, on people their own age. (This last step is key to understanding Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction.)

In order to stand to their full height as separate individuals, children must overcome their desire to return to infancy. They must also learn to face their fears, their anxieties, and their misgivings, as embodied in the human-like appearance of the witch. In Hansel and Gretel, both the step-mother and the witch must die for the children to transcend their infantile dependence and finally grow up.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

No help, please

I had coffee with a colleague of mine last week to talk about a possible partnership for Nurturing Narratives. Amidst the lattes we talked a lot about child development. My dining partner shared that her daughter has just started the first grade and went through the whole "just right book" routine the day before. She also has real homework now in which she is required to write about the elements of her day and certain things about school. My colleague told me that even though her daughter doesn't get it right all the time (writing, that is) the teachers were firm about this one rule: no help from the parents, please!

No help. None. "What am I supposed to tell her when she asks me if it's right?" she said, frantically. While I don't have children of my own, I understand the predicament. You want to support, sure, but you also want to help instruct.

But there is a reason parents are asked not to participate, of course. Children can easily get bogged down in the language of "right" and "wrong" and it's dangerous to give them too much critical feedback. It prevents them, oftentimes, from running into writing full-speed ahead, from outputting and outputting with no fear of a possible mistake. That is not to say parents should not be able to encourage. Far from it. Positive feedback is perhaps the best gift you can give a new reader and writer. Just remember that everything is right.

Yes, that includes the wrong stuff. Odds are the words won't have vowels and some consonants will be backward but it's all part of the process. Children learn how to write and they learn how to read. It is, with some rare exceptions, fairly inevitable in a literary environment. It's not so much when they come to the written word as much as in what way. By supporting children and encouraging every mistake, we invite them to see writing as exciting and expansive...feelings that will shape their future writing careers.

Embrace the no help rule and encourage away. Also, keep the "mistakes." Many of them you and your child are sure to giggle over in the years to come.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Reading to Felix

The following post is courtesy of my very good friend Brian. Brian is a fellow writer and stay at home dad to his five month old son, Felix. I know that Brian and Felix already have some reading rituals together so I asked him to do a post on early (early!) literacy. Below are his thoughts on books and his baby boy. Thank you, Brian! 

About a week after my son Felix was born, we started reading The Iliad together. 


Ok, so I did the reading while he lay in my lap looking cute, staring at the ceiling, or, more often than not, sleeping.  I had no pretensions that he was paying attention or getting anything from the work itself.  Though if he was, the themes of the epic—mortality, morality, free will versus fate—seemed an appropriate introduction to the human experience.  Really, my hope was that the intonation and cadence of my voice giving breath to the musical rhythm of Homer’s verse (in the vibrant translation of Stanley Lombardo) would make some deep, lasting impression on his consciousness, planting the seeds of language right from the start.  Some pregnancy books actually recommend reading to the fetus in-utero for a similar reason, but I felt ridiculous addressing my wife’s ripe belly.


We made our way through the first few books of The Iliad before Felix out grew it at a month old.  Sitting still for long periods of time was something newborns do—big babies want to move and explore the world around them!  So my wife and I introduced block books.


Again, we didn’t care about the actual content so much as his experience with the book as an object.  Not surprisingly, pictures excited him right from the get go.  Warm colored objects in particular drew his gaze.  His favorite was a Baby Einstein book called Mirror Me!  The bold, blocky faces made him coo and hoot, and he flashed some of his first smiles to himself in the mirror.  Another favorite was the Usborne Touchy Feely That’s Not My Bear.  The repetition of the words “that’s not my bear” inspired me to sing rather than read it to him—again drawing attention to the rhythm and musicality of language, and inspiring giggles at daddy’s off-key crooning.


Soon Felix was sitting for longer periods and had developed better eyesight.  One afternoon, I propped him up against the pillows and read him Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.  He loved the orange, flame shaped little Lorax, and began ooh, ooh, oohing whenever he saw him.  I could see his eyes scanning the page every time I turned, trying to locate the fuzzy little character.  This was the first time I witnessed him being engaged by a character on the page, and it was thrilling.  Felix was creating his own story, or game if you like, of find the Lorax.  In later readings, as Felix became more adept with his hands, he reached out, trying to grab him.  This book remains one of his favorite reads.


Improved hand eye coordination has allowed Felix to get involved with reading by turning pages.  The thin paper of picture books is more challenging, but block and fuzzy books he flips through with ease.  Sometimes, he turns them so fast I don’t have the opportunity to read him the words. 


This isn’t to imply that words themselves don’t fascinate him, because they do.  Black type on white pages, whether in the form of language or the notes of the sheet music propped up on our piano, intrigue him.  The pages he responds to the most in Peggy Rathman’s Goodnight Gorilla aren’t the ones with pictures, but the ones when the lights go out and the character’s word bubbles hover on a black field.  He reaches for the letters, as if he could grab them from the page.  He does the same thing when sitting in my lap while I read The New Yorker.  I like to think that he knows these markings are special.



Felix turns five months next week, and already he displays an excitement and warmth towards books.  He’s building a positive relationship with them, which my wife and I hope will stay with him his whole life.  The most basic pleasure he experiences with books as physical objects is similar to that some bibliophiles feel when they smell and feel an especially lovely old tome.  It’s the very beginnings of a love we’ll nurture and feed in the months and years to come.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: a review

I have to say I walked into the theater with almost no expectations. I had heard so many mixed things about the movie I wasn't sure what to think so I just plunked myself down in a chair and thought, I'll go with it. 

Go with it I did. From the moment Max's costume-clad frame comes tearing around a corner, I was in. There is something about those opening scenes (and inevitably, the movie as a whole) that makes you feel as though you are that child. You are Max. I loved that the camera held true to Max's height so that it looked like you were seeing the world through his eyes, exactly as he saw it.  

The movie made me remember what it felt like to be a child. And no, it wasn't nostalgic. Sure there is a whimsical element to the film but the truth is that I felt sadness, loneliness; I felt like those monsters. I remember how close anger and sadness were as a child, how one could quickly morph into the other. I remember the supreme sense of possibility, of dreams, of anything- is- possible and simultaneously the complete, crippling inability to do anything, the lack of resources. The freedom and the dependence. The safety and the fear. The bold, brilliant desire to be heard, respected, valued and the growing confusion (suspicion, actually) that you may not be as different as you once thought you were. 

The sets were beautiful. Magical and fantastical without being frilly. I found Max's dialogue to be superb: exactly the thought process of a child. And some of it was silly. Very silly. But I did not feel as if I was laughing at him. I was laughing, actually, at the completely nonsensical expression of a nonsensical world. Which, of course, makes it all perfectly sensible. 

There were some really lovely details like Max's mother typing out the story he narrates (go home literacy!) and the way Sendak's lines were worked into the script. 

In the end I'll admit, I had some tears in my eyes. I loved the scene in which he returns home and his mother simply looks at him. Like he's the only thing in the world that matters. I loved their whole relationship, actually, what little we saw of it. I loved that I was torn between wanting to tell Max it would be OK and wanting to tell his mother the same. I wasn't sure who needed the words more which I thought was complete brilliance. I left feeling deeply, the kind of all-encompassing feeling that hits you, right in the sternum. Childhood is hard and anyone who says differently just hasn't been reminded of it in awhile... so why then did I get up from my chair feeling sad that we all have to grow up? 

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Big Picture

A friend of mine asked me the other day if I had any writing tips for third graders to help them with the editing process. Instinctively I answered: focus on the big picture and improvise to get there. Ask the question: what am I trying to convey here? 

I don't work with third graders. Nurturing Narratives is for very young children (3-6), but that was my advice. No sooner had I said it than I realized it is the exact OPPOSITE of what I tell my young children. For children who are just coming to writing the big picture is the least of my concerns. It's practically irrelevant. A story they make could be about a bat and a baseball and a tree and a telescope and one thing has very little to do with the other. For them, it's all about process and detail and free-flowing creativity. It doesn't matter if the narrative doesn't have an arc or the characters change from page to page. What I want is for them to have a sense of possibility, to understand that the world of writing can take them anywhere. That as authors, they are limitless. 

So when does that change? 

Certainly as writers we need a creative direction, a kind of order, a purpose, if you will, but why not stress the joy of the moment, the importance of process? I didn't want to revoke my advice on a whim so I thought long and hard about this. What I came up with was this: in mentioning the big picture I was trying to say intention is what counts. 


I can't count the number of times I brought this word up in my creative writing classes. I find it to be the most important thing there is when it comes to writing. Knowing what you're trying to say and using all of your resources to say it. For me, intention is the big mama bear of good writing. It is what separates a mediocre tale from an excellent one. It is, in my humble opinion, what every great writer, regardless of style or time, has in common. 

How do we cultivate intention? Really believing in what it is we are trying to say is where to start. That is why I think it's so important for children a bit farther down the road in the writing process to have a clear idea of what they are trying to say. Big Picture. 

As we grow and develop intention comes into play more and more. We pick out our clothes and intend them to go on our body in a certain order. We make lunch and intend for it to taste a certain way. We brush our teeth, we decorate a room, we pick a job, we chose hobbies and partners and friends. We build a life on intention. 

While the creative process is still crucial and freedom of expression should always be valued, I stand by my original "big picture" advice. 

Speaking of Big Pictures, I'm now off to see Where the Wild Things Are. Expect a review sometime in the next few days. 


Monday, October 12, 2009

Thou Shalt Read

Yes, I have now made it a commandment.

I must credit the idea for this post to my dear friend who is a self-named "lit nut," mama, and a member of the blogosphere herself. Her children are very young but I asked her what she thinks parents would really like to read here on the blog. She mentioned the importance of children seeing their parents read. I have mentioned in my literary tips how important modeled behavior is when it comes to reading and, as my friend put it, "readers raise readers." If you are not a reader yourself, don't despair. I'm not saying everyone needs to be making their way through Chaucer and Milton every afternoon, what I'm saying is that reading should be a REAL part of every household.

For me, it was my dad. My dad loves to read. Since I can remember he has read about a book a week. Every night before he goes to sleep he picks up the novel he is working his way through and cracks the pages. I saw this growing up. I remember going on family trips and looking at my dad sprawled out in the sun or even just a chair in a hotel room, reading. I remember him on the plane reading, at an outdoor restaurant reading, on a boat, yes, reading. It's no surprise, then, that loving and looking up to my father as I did, I wanted to read, too. As I grew older and had books of my own I began to join his bedtime reading ritual. We read aloud (The Boxcar Children, The Lord of the Rings) but as the years passed we just started reading together. In bed, side by side, he with his novel and me with mine.

More than our reading time, though, I cherished our discussions. Dad loved to talk about books. It didn't matter that we were reading middle-grade books, he wanted to discuss them all. He listened to my impressions of the characters, my expectations for the plot and, inevitably, my thoughts on the ending. These books may as well have been Crime and Punishment, that's how in-depth we talked about them, theme and all. I felt listened to, important and most of all like I had something to say. I felt smart.

I can't stress how important this is for children, how what we do and what we value is more often than not what they will eventually put their attention to. Read. Let your kids see you. Talk about these books. Listen to them. Show them that there is a reason they do what they do in school, because reading matters and real, live adults, adults they respect and love, do it too.

We often think that we have to read to children for them to get the benefits of literacy. What many adults don't know is that simply reading yourself could ignite a true, lasting love of reading in the children that surround you.

Today my dad and I still talk about books. We pass them through the mail and through our (far too infrequent) visits. I always know when he calls me and he wants to talk about a book. His voice is strong and his tone is a little rushed. He'll spill his side and then he'll pause, take a deep breathe and say, "but what I really want to know is, what did you think?" And I smile, and tell him.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Who are the wild things for?

With all the Where The Wild Things Are hype over the last few months I found this article surprisingly honest. 

Do children even like this book? 

I pitched it to two five year old children during a Nurturing Narratives session a few weeks ago and to be frank, they weren't thrilled. I thought it had more to do with the familiarity of the text than anything else but perhaps I was wrong. The story is beautiful, rich and symbolically telling...not necessarily the primary things to catch a child's eye. I imagine many, many children will still trek in droves to see the movie (next week?) but I also believe people from my generation could be the primary target. 

What do you think? Those of you parents out there...who loves the book more, you or your children? 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

a lovely afternoon picture walk

I have been meaning to blog about picture walking for awhile now and was reminded of its importance while browsing Barnes and Noble yesterday. Picture walking is a technique many teachers use as a building block of writing. During a picture walk children are shown a series of pictures and they use their own words to come up with a story to match the pictures. There are, of course, many different kinds of picture walking activities. Children can re-arrange actual images in a specific order, they can come up with their own pictures or use ones already in a storybook and they can, depending on their current ability, put their words down on the page or simply speak verbally. 

I came across the book Wave by Suzy Lee and knew I had to pick up a copy to use for picture walking. The book is a beautiful tale (sans words) about a little girl at the beach and her relationship to the ocean as she stands at the water's edge. Wave has lovely chalk-like illustrations and a beautiful gray and blue pallet of color. I adored it and hope you all will too. If you'd like pick up the book and settle into a little corner with your youngster. Crack the pages and ask them what they think is going on in each drawing. Talk about the different elements of the picture and they inform each other to build the story. I find that when I do this more times than not the children see far more in these images than I do. They will pick up the little bubbles in the corner, the frown or smile on the character's face, the curl of her dress as it gets wet from the water. After you are finished is the perfect time to make a picture walk of your very own. Get out the crayons and make some pictures together and have fun coming up with a story to go along with them. Don't worry about whether the story builds "correctly" or whether the characters are consistent. Children have a massive creative capacity that sometimes gets distracted. And, after all, it's a writer's prerogative to change his or her mind. 

Happy strolling! 


Monday, October 5, 2009

Of Books and Bats


A friend recommended Bats at the Library by Brian Lies to me and I read it today. I have been wanting to do a Halloween book post but, quite frankly, haven't found many good ones. The one thing "Halloween" themed about this book is that it is about bats. That's pretty much the only place the holiday comes in. Be that as it may I wanted to share it here with you all today because I think it's one of the best picture books I have read in awhile. 
Bats at the Library is about a group of bats who go to the library one night because a window has been left open. There they have a "bookish feast," gorging themselves on book after book (metaphorically, they read). They then put on a play of some books and get lost in the tales themselves. There are beautiful, dark and whimsical illustrations and the pallet of browns, grays and splashes of subtle color make the whole thing seem dreamy and simultaneously utterly realistic. The details are quite fun and lovely too. Re: a copy of a book called "Goodnight Sun." 
What I liked most about Bats at the Library, however, was the message it gives: reading is magical and is a treasure to be cherished. These bats cannot believe their luck that the library window has been left open and at the end of the book, as they fly away in the pale shades of the morning, they hope and pray that a librarian might be absent-minded again soon.