I came across a quote* from children’s literature powerhouse, Roald Dahl.
What makes a good children’s writer? The writer must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children, but to teach them the habit of reading… [He or she] must like simple tricks and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive…
As the quote continues, there is much more good advice – but for me, this was the Eureka. I will be a good children’s writer because this quote is me in a nutshell (and then some). It would take a whole circus worth of nutshells to contain my love of childish things, my desire to teach kids the habit of reading.
But honestly, I think that desire lives in all parents (and teachers, and aunties and uncles, too). And I know that all of you who fall in those categories have had to be “unconventional and inventive” a time or two. I’ve just got a knack for unleashing it on unsuspecting children. The snowdays of the past week reminded me of that. My kids and I played endless games and made crafts and built fortresses, inspired by our children’s books. That is surely a good part of why my children, now 4, 6,and 8 years old, have to have books pried from their clutching hands at night. We combine books and play. You don’t need Pinterest or an instruction manual or closet of craft supplies to do it, either. It’s as simple as this:
Grab a book.
I had my youngest fetch me one just now to use as an example. At random, she brought me a great one:
Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson, Ill. by Carson Ellis.
Read it like it’s Kindergarten sharing day.
You know what I mean. Whether your kid is 2 or 22, she is going to like the book better with “voices.” And rhythm, and hilarity, and the occasional aside. In Sal, there are a lot of songs and a rhyming robber named Poetic Pete, so it would be a shame NOT to get a little over-the-top. For picture books, point out details the kids may not have noticed – there’s a reason those illustrations are in there!
Brainstorm ways to play.
Forget about finding a lesson or a moral for awhile. That’s another post altogether. And don’t worry, for now, about vocabulary words or sight words or whatever your kids are working on in school. Sure, you can apply that stuff while you read – but for now, we’re playing! I’ve never really stopped to parse it out like this, but here are some of my go-to ways to play that work with almost any book.
- Act it out. Use your bodies, use your puppets, use your Lego figures or licensed-name well-endowed plastic dolls. Let those kids get into it! You’ll be amazed at how much of the story they remember – sometimes word-for-word. Channel your untapped Oscar-worthiness, and of course, be willing to do some costume changes. We put “Sal” in an apron and cowboy boots, and Poetic Pete got to draw on a mustache with eyebrow pencil. That in and of itself makes this a game they’ll want to come back to! Be ready to switch roles frequently – and to add some plot twists.
- Make a date. We like to invite characters over for playdates, tea parties, lunch – whatever. Plan out what the character might like to do. Make an invitation. (We delivered this one by pony express – which meant my youngest riding my back around the house, shouting “yeehaw!”). Set up themed snacks and decorations. This mostly consists of cleverly renaming whatever you were going to eat anyway, plus drawing some thematic placemats on construction paper – but you can make it as involved as you like. Maybe Sal could come over for cowboy spaghetti. The conversations that happen at these get-togethers can be hilarious!
- Make it big. There is no child alive who can resist building with couch cushions and blankets. Resign yourself to disorder and get cracking. Turn the simple stuff around your house into a castle, a ship, a schoolhouse, a pond, a train – whatever you need. The freedom to create with everyday things brings out the genius in children. I cannot find the pictures of the “covered wagon” my kids make, but suffice it to say it is 2 dining chairs, seats facing, with a blanket over the tops. Another chair serves as the driver’s seat, and a rocking horse gets tethered out front with whatever rope or string is handy. Great for playing Stagecoach Sal or Laura Ingalls. Since that photo eludes me, here’s what happens when we get large items delivered – and reread the 3 Little Pigs.
- Make it sing. You don’t have to by Billy Joel to write lyrics that mirror a story’s plot or catchy phrases. Stick with a tune you all know and change the words to fit. Add instruments – from pot and pan drum sets to the electric keyboard. Have a concert or a parade. Stagecoach Sal actually features several old-time songs, like Polly-Wolly Doodle. When we didn’t know the tune to “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” we checked Youtube. Sure enough, we found it! Here’s Johnny Cash performing it in 1965. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mr03En-8fH8
- Make it art. Kids do not care if it looks perfect. Get out whatever art supplies they enjoy – paints, crayons, scissors and glue. Let them make a portrait of a character, a picture of a favorite scene, a diorama in a shoe box. Make a paper bag puppet. Older kids may like to cruise Pinterest** with you for ideas, but I think free art is important, too.
- Make it travel. Take the book- and the playtime – along to a new location like the playground, the grocery store, or just the driveway. You may want to pack the book a suitcase – a bag with a few accessories/toys that have been popular with the fun so far. Look for items in the grocery store your characters might like. Turn the jungle gym into a grizzly bear cave. The glider swing is a great horse for Poetic Pete the highwayman.
Bring it back to the book
After a day of play, I like to make sure the book we’ve been inspired by stays in sight – where little hands can page through it again and little minds can mull over the fun. Sometimes my 8-year-old is even willing to read it to her sisters as I get dinner ready.
Of course, there are as many ways to play with stories as there are stories to write. And I need to get back to writing mine. So, thank you, Roald Dahl, for reminding why I want to write for children. And how, every day, every play, I’m helping mine to love reading.*I first encountered this quote on Tara Lazar’s blog, Writing for Kids While Raising Them. **For other ideas, take a peek at my newest Pinterest board.