#RaisingReaders Monday: Story Strengthens Us

Books prepare us

When my eldest daughter turned six, all she wanted in the world was a pet. My husband and I were already scrambling to manage three kids under six and two more-than-full-time jobs. A pet was the last challenge we wanted to take on. However, we knew how important a pet was to her. And we wanted to be able to give one to her.

So, we talked with her about the work involved in caring for a pet. We talked every night for weeks. The negotiations were epic. We discussed responsibility and time and opportunity cost. (Yes, kids understand opportunity cost. “If we spend money on pet food, there will be less for frozen yogurt.”)

She rebutted our arguments by (rather dramatically) describing the love and cuddles and friendship a pet would provide. We vetoed dogs and cats. She countered with hamster. We researched small mammals together and came to an agreement: guinea pig.

According to every pet resource we consulted, guinea pigs are great starter pets for kids. They don’t mind being handled, they don’t run into the ductwork and die like hamsters, and they’ll eat all the parts of food my kids won’t: apple peels, broccoli stems, even watermelon rind.

Despite all this and despite having found the cutest tricolor fuzzball that ever lived at our local pet store, all did not go smoothly when Cutie Pie came home.

The kids were afraid of her. Afraid that her claws would scratch them, afraid she would nibble their clothes (or hair, or fingers), and afraid that she would run away. They watched her scurry about her cage from several arms’-lengths away, screeching every time she scrambled up and down her plastic ramp.

Cutie Pie polaroid

This from the kids I had to physically wrangle out of pet stores and zoos.  My husband and I were at a loss.

I’m kind of a one-trick pony, so I chose to handle this the same way I handle most crises of emotion:

 

With Story.

 

I sat next to Cutie Pie’s cage with the girls in my lap and at my side. I wove stories about a sweet, spunky guinea pig who liked to dress up, go on adventures, sneak out late at night, and even dance to disco.

The girls listened with rapt attention. They laughed hysterically at the idea of Cutie Pie dying a pink streak in her fur and going on tour with a rock band. They were equally enraptured with the idea of her sneaking into my diaper bag to join us on a trip to the farm.

They started talking to Cutie Pie about the stories, and when they talked to her, she squeaked back at them. Hands began to reach into her cage to pet her. Fear melted.

Have you ever heard a guinea pig purr? I assure you, they do. Well, ours does, anyway. Purrs and coos and squeaks along as the girls hold her in their laps and sing songs to her.

Soon, our nightly routine included Guinea Pig Story Time. We sat in a circle on the floor, knee to knee. I placed Cutie Pie on a bath towel between us, free to roam from girl to girl for petting and brushing and spinach, while I told stories of her latest escapades.

I will admit that not all the stories were of my own making. I borrowed liberally from The Mouse and the Motorcycle and Stewart Little. That didn’t matter. What mattered was the magic of story.

 

Story has the power to make scary things safe, to make the unknown knowable, and to make the foreign familiar.

 

That power.

The magic of story time.

The experience of watching my children change from fearing something to embracing it.

These are the very things that brought me to quit my successful physical therapy career and write stories instead.

These are the factors that drive me to advocate for books in every home, stories in every child’s hands.

These are the reasons I encourage not just literacy, but a LOVE OF READING.

Surely each of us can think of books that we felt spoke to us, that gave us strength, that made something frightening safer. (I’d list a bunch here, but I’d rather hear from all of you in the comments!)

Books, especially children’s books (most especially great children’s books), prepare our minds and hearts for the challenges of our world by letting us experience another world.

Books make the tough topics—like losing your parents, facing danger, being different, growing up—into something relatable and conquerable. From Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalumps to Harry Potter and Voldemort, characters in stories, big and small, help children name and face their fears.

There are moments when my oldest daughter closes a book —or even puts it in another room—because something about it has frightened her too much or felt too intense.  (Similarly, she’s been known to hide in the kitchen pantry when My Little Pony gets too freaky. She’s a bit of a sensitive soul.)

When I see this happen, I know to talk with her about story.  We talk about characters, conflict, and resolution. We discuss the storyteller’s ability to draw the reader into the moment. We consider what might happen next. We talk about what she would do if she was the main character, or what she would change if she was the author of the story. (Because, after all, we are all authors of our stories.)

Then, when she’s ready, we read the next chapter together. I want her to know that in story, as in life, it is okay to be scared. It is okay to care deeply what happens next.

And it is more than okay to face the next chapter with someone you love beside you.

 

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22 thoughts on “#RaisingReaders Monday: Story Strengthens Us

  1. What a lovely post, Katey! And how lucky your kids are to have a mom who gets it so completely! 🙂 I don’t remember ever putting a book away because it got too intense (maybe I’ve blocked it out :)), but I do remember books that I read over and over and over again because I wanted to be as strong/brave/clever as the characters in them, and I wanted to have the kind of adventures they had. Yeah. Okay. I still do that 🙂

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  2. That is such a beautiful post and what a wonderful way to deal with a situation like that. I agree that books and reading are so fundamentally important un children’s lives but to make up stories like that to help your children is a wonderful talent.

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    • Thanks so much! It is really something we all can do in tough moments – and if you haven’t got faith in your imagination, there is usually a book for it! Is it any wonder there are so many “First Day of School” or “Visit to the Doctor” books? Living through the story helps real life become much easier for kids.

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  3. I love this post! As a child I didn’t use stories to FACE my fears specifically, but to distract myself from my fears (which were often so irrational that distraction was all I needed). I wish my parents had approached my emotions more often with story, though, so your kids are so lucky to have you as a mom!

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  4. What a lovely post! Just the oner we were watching old videos of my girls when they were young. My oldest (probably three at the time) was holding her stuffed bunny and saying, “It’s a different kind of day, Bunny.” This was the language we had used to weave stories about characters who were having a tough time when needed to help my daughter through a transition. It was totally amazing to watch her tell this same story to her lovey. Stories sure are powerful, aren’t they!?

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    • I love to hear about moments like that! Giving kids the words to process and tools to manage their feelings when it’s “a different kind of day” is so valuable. You must be an amazing mother. Lucky girls!

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  5. What a great post and fabulous way to get your kids to warm up to their pet. My eldest is very creative and imaginative so we pretend and make stuff up quite a bit and my youngest (2) is now getting into longer stories too which is great.

    I don’t remember ever putting a book away because it was too intense – but I do have books I continue to re-read, minus the sections I don’t like (of course, I now know when they’re coming…)

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  6. Oh, Katey, I love you so much. A love of reading is a love of so much more than the written words – it’s a love of creativity, imagination, critical thinking and all that goes with those skills/passions. Would you consider coauthoring a book of those guineapig stories with your littles? They sound like stories the world could use.

    Thanks for linking with #TwinklyTuesday

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The ugliest thing my ex-husband has done, in my mind even worse than the kidnapping, was telling our daughter J that didn’t want to talk to her if all she wanted to do was read to him. She’d just discovered the original A.A. Milne books and loved them so much that she wanted to share. It still makes my heart skip a beat when she looks up from a book, says, “Listen to this,” and reads me a passage. (M’s less of a social reader in the moment. She’d rather discuss the characters and events after she’s finished the book of the moment.)

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  8. Pingback: 10 Reasons I’m Thankful for Children’s Books | kateywrites

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