November 20, 2014
(++++) STORY TIME
Noodle Magic. By Roseanne Greenfield Thong. Illustrated by Meilo So. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.
Parenting with a Story: Real-Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. By Paul Smith. AMACOM. $16.
Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors. By Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash. Roaring Brook Press. $17.99.
The instructional value of stories lies in their ability to encapsulate, within well-defined boundaries, information and lessons that in real life are considerably more diffuse. Stories with a well-defined beginning, middle and end can also be used to communicate things that are new; in fact, a “novel” is something new. Even as adults, we are prone to accept new information more readily when it comes in the form of stories – or analogies, which are in essence mini-encapsulations of stories. But it is children for whom story-based learning is particularly effective, and many kids’ books use tale-telling quite effectively. Noodle Magic is a new story told in the form of an old Chinese folk tale, focusing on young Mei and her noodle-making-expert Grandpa Tu. A lovely blend of fantastic and realistic elements, with Meilo So’s brushstroke-like illustrations beautifully capturing Roseanne Greenfield Thong’s narrative, Noodle Magic is only incidentally about Mei figuring out how to make noodles as delicious as Grandpa Tu’s famous ones. It is about finding magic in yourself, discovering what you know but are not aware that you know, and applying yourself to create something truly new and wonderful. Thus, Grandpa Tu has no difficulty making jump ropes, kite strings and more out of noodle dough; he and Mei can even fish for fluffy pink clouds with noodle fishing line. Mei repeatedly compliments Grandpa Tu for his noodle-making magic, but the old man tells Mei that this year, for the crucial celebration of the emperor’s birthday, it is her turn to make noodle magic. And Mei tries, but just cannot do it, asking Grandpa Tu for some of his magic and being told she already has “all the magic you need.” Mei does not think so, and so she makes noodles as a gift for the Moon Goddess, hoping she will bring magic to Mei. With some help from Grandpa Tu, “Mei spun the dough into a huge ball of noodles and tossed it skyward” – So’s illustration is especially delightful here – and the Moon Goddess catches and appreciates it, but reminds Mei that “magic must come from within.” A marvelous noodle tug-of-war between Mei and the Moon Goddess ensues, at the end of which “the sky rained noodles” in all shapes and sizes as Mei discovers the magic that “was inside her all along.” Young children will quickly realize that this is not a story about making noodles, or not just one about that – it is a tale about finding out what you are good at, learning from those around you, and using your own abilities to make something that builds on what others have done but that is truly your own. A very pretty story indeed.
Paul Smith’s point in Parenting with a Story is that moms and dads can and should use storytelling as an integral part of everyday life, with the tales intended to build and reinforce 23 separate character traits. Smith recommends using real-life occurrences and turning them into stories, rather than telling or retelling fairy tales or myths. He divides the character traits into two sections, “Who You Are” and “How You Treat Other People” – although the first of these certainly has a lot to do with the second. The first area includes, among other things, ambition, creativity, curiosity and learning, courage, self-reliance, health, and a positive mental attitude. The second includes kindness, patience, friendship, forgiveness and gratitude, appreciation of beauty, and more. Smith’s technique is to choose a common statement made to children by parents, explain why kids may not “get it,” then show how directed storytelling can make the point clear. For instance, “your word is your bond” may not mean much to a child, but the story of a teacher who, as a little girl, signed a contract to complete many pages of math in order to get an A – even though she did not know how to do the math – should bring the point home (the girl and her mom stayed up working together until 3:00 a.m. after the mom explained that no matter how tired the girl might be, she had given her word and had to follow through). The importance of compound interest may seem like an academic matter if explained in typically pedantic fashion, but a story showing that giving someone a penny one day, two the next, four the next, and so on for a month, will result in 21 billion pennies at month’s end – that’s $21,000,000 – makes the notion clearer. “Be kind to strangers” is just words, but the story of a man with scoliosis who, as a child, tried to hang out with athletes until they humiliated them, and then went to sit with “nerds” he had previously disdained and found himself accepted at once, provides visceral understanding. Smith’s writing is on the formulaic side – again and again, he gives a common statement, explains that it is not enough, then gives an illustrative story and explains why it is better than simply saying something. And not all the stories fit the character-related statements perfectly; Smith has to twist things a bit to bring them in line. Still, there is considerable value here. The book is at its best when it is most personal: Smith’s story about his own lesson in humility, involving his realization of why his mother-in-law was making a big production out of carving a Thanksgiving turkey, is a high point of the narrative. Another is his explanation of how he learned about forgiveness and gratitude after, at the age of 10, being tricked into making an unintentional, racially insensitive remark to an African-American bus driver. These personal experiences no doubt are one reason for Smith’s decision to write this book in the first place; more than that, they contribute to a significant degree to the effectiveness of Smith’s argument. It is a touch naïve to indicate that there are plenty of easily found, easily told stories out there to use in helping kids learn 23 separate character traits (or more), but the general notion that using stories – including stories about one’s own childhood – as instructional material for children, rather than giving them platitudes and pronouncements, is a sound one. Smith is to be commended for showing some ways to make the approach not only worthwhile but also successful.
And it is worth remembering that stories can be useful ways of relating to children even when kids are too young to follow along as parents read – indeed, even when they cannot yet understand words. There are occasional pantomime books, entirely wordless, that convey their narratives through pictures striking and interesting enough so that kids, pre-readers and early readers alike, can follow them while adults explain, when necessary, what is going on – or simply let a child’s imagination roam. Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors is a wonderful example. The delightful cartoon dog here faces having his dog bed taken out the window by some mischievous ghost cats – a theft at which Bow-Wow howls as loudly as he can, albeit completely silently (the very clever visual is a four-panel “pullback,” starting inside the dog’s wide-open mouth and showing in three further panels that he is at a second-floor window, howling as his bed is carried across the lawn). Running downstairs and giving chase, Bow-Wow soon finds himself at a ghost-cat-occupied haunted house where felines are everywhere (behind him, all over a room, in a huge pile in a hall, and so forth) but also nowhere (they disappear whenever he looks around). Amusing adventures involving a dressmaker’s mannequin, a would-be burglar, trap doors beneath individual stair steps, cats in the toilet and bathroom sink, and a stuffed-to-the-max closet lead eventually to Bow-Wow’s discovery of a gigantic ghost cat that needs Bow-Wow’s bed, and many others, in order to have something on which to sleep. What to do? A fortuitous lightning strike forces the ghost cats to a find a new place to live, and the understanding Bow-Wow takes all of them home with him for a final scene with everyone curled around everyone else and sleeping peacefully, mischief-making set aside for at least the time being. The story is not scary at all, although parents may have to explain the title to young children. It is in part a tale of a tail (Bow-Wow’s keeps getting bitten), but in the main is a story of unlikely friendship and hospitality, giving parents a wonderful chance to use their words of explanation of a story that needs no words of its own.