“In an old house in Paris,” my father would begin, solemnly intoning the words as he opened the book on his lap.
“That’s not it, Daddy!” I’d giggle.
“Oh, so you can read?” he’d ask. “Why don’t you read it to me, then?”
“No, Daddy, you know I can’t read it, but I know that’s not Madeline! The pictures are all wrong! Read me the REAL book!”
In my memory, the ritual went on nightly, Dad opening a book and pretending to read Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline, me protesting that that was wrong. Sometimes, of course, it must have been Madeline, or I wouldn’t have remembered it so well. I can still recite almost the whole book.
* * *
“Tell me a story without reading,” my daughter used to say. Climbing on to the closest unoccupied adult lap, she’d demand an imaginative tale, a story she’d never heard before. I’d usually freeze up. Stories sustain me, but inventing them on the spot was never my strong suit. I remember once my daughter hit the story-telling jackpot, when we were out at dinner with an MFA candidate in fiction. She was a friend of a friend, and I’ve never seen her again, but I still remember the pleasure with which she heard the request, and my daughter’s delight in the tale. My own efforts felt less fantastical to me, but I was still able to entertain Mariah with a series about a pair of squirrels named Amanda and Melissa; now 15, she still remembers them.
* * *
Stories can provide escape, but we also make memories by telling stories, moving the quotidian details of our lives into long-term memory when we shape them into narrative. And scenes of storytelling predominate in my memories of childhood, both my own and my children’s.
My children are moving beyond the daily story hour — Mariah, at 15, has been a self-directed reader longer than her seven-year-old brother Nick has been alive, and Nick, who has recently discovered the Harry Potter books, impatiently reads them to himself by flashlight rather than waiting for the ritualized half-hour at bedtime. So it was a pleasure to spend a week recently with my three-year-old nephew, a willing auditor to the stories that no longer populate my daily life with children.
The stories he chose to read with me are older than I am, though not by much: the Little Bear books by Else Holmelund Minarik. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak, these are among the first “I Can Read” books. With a limited vocabulary (perhaps not quite as famously limited as The Cat in the Hat, which appeared the same year — 1957 — as the first Little Bear book), they convey an imaginative and emotional richness that holds up through repeated readings.
Which is a good thing, since my nephew — like so many preschoolers — seems to have an infinite capacity for repetition. Over the week as we repeatedly read these stories, I began to think about what works in these books, and why I can read them over and over, unlike so many other stories. Not surprisingly, it’s the theme of storytelling that connects me to these stories.
The tales come out of oral stories, as so many do. I love thinking about Else Holmelund Minarik, a young mother and elementary school teacher, making up these stories for her students and for her own daughter. When she sent them off to a publisher, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper’s recognized their genius and enlisted Maurice Sendak to illustrate them.
Sendak is perhaps the best commentator on these stories: in an interview some years ago, he distinguished “the idealized child-and-parent relationship” in them from “the phony kiddie-book mommy-daddy-kiddie relationship.” As his syntax indicates, the books put the child first in the family: child and parent, not parent-child. And yet the stories never falsely empower their child protagonist beyond his age, his abilities: in one story, for example, his mother reminds him that he can’t fly, that he is in fact “a little fat bear cub with no wings and no feathers” who will “come down very fast, with a big plop” if he tries to fly to the moon. When Little Bear still insists he is going, however, she simply says, “be back for lunch,” and plays along with his imaginative game when he returns to the house, pretending it’s on the moon. I love Mother Bear’s balance with her pre-schooler son: she grounds him in the real world while still allowing his fancy to take flight.
In my favorite Little Bear book, Little Bear’s Visit, Little Bear spends the day with his grandparents, his mother’s parents. Both grandparents — like any good grandparent — tell him stories, and the scenes of storytelling are among my favorites in all of children’s literature. Both stories encapsulate the child-parent relationship with subtlety and grace: Grandmother Bear tells of her daughter, Little Bear’s mother, rescuing a baby bird, raising it, and releasing it; Grandfather Bear tells of a goblin, scared out of his shoes, whose shoes then follow him home. Unlike the heavy-handed Love You Forever, which insists on the unbreakability of the mother-child bond to the point of absurdity (the mother crawls in her adult child’s window to rock him to sleep), these stories-within-the-story both subtly suggest that separation and distance between loved ones may be inevitable, but neither permanent nor threatening: the bird (and his children, and his children’s children) returns from year to year, while the shoes obediently follow along until the goblin reaches what he thinks of as safety. That these stories occur in the context of a visit to grandparents reinforces the sense of a bond that stretches without breaking: Mother and Father Bear return at the end of the day to pick up their cub, and the four adults share their pleasure in the cub’s visit together.
As I read these stories to my nephew, I remembered reading them to my own son. One night when my son was three or four, just my nephew’s age, he awoke, crying and disoriented, and somehow he managed to let me know he wanted me to read him a book. We read Little Bear’s Visit and lingered on the grandmother’s story. The robin, now fledged and ready to leave the nest, says to Mother Bear, “My heart is sad,” unsure of what, exactly, is wrong, but knowing that he has changed. Nick echoed the little bird’s words to me, expressing a sadness at the tension between his growing independence and continuing need for nurture that he had not yet been able to articulate: the story gave him words for his feelings, as the best stories always do. We finished that story and he went happily back to bed. In the morning he didn’t remember, but the story had done its job.
Storytelling recurs throughout the Little Bear series, most perfectly in the final story in Little Bear. Here Mother Bear — again representing the reality principle — denies Little Bear a variety of wishes: among them, that he would drive a red car “fast, fast” to a castle, where “a princess would come out and say, “Have some cake, Little Bear.” (The stories are also, and delightfully, full of good food.) But she happily fulfills his final wish of the night, that “a Mother Bear would come to me and say, ‘Would you like to hear a story?'” She then tells him brief versions of the three stories we’ve just heard — of Little Bear’s day in the snow, his Birthday Soup, and his trip to the moon. Little Bear sleepily listens, remembering and enjoying his experiences all over again.
* * *
My nephew and his new baby brother live 3,000 miles away from me, so I came on this recent visit solo, leaving the kids at home with their dad. I called home after a day or so and talked to everyone, hearing reports of their days, getting the stories of the times I was missing. There’d been a near-miss getting Mariah to her school bus, but it had worked out. Mark hadn’t been able to get to work on fixing the roof, as it had been raining. And Nick — Nick had stayed up until two a.m. reading Harry Potter by flashlight. Greedy for stories, he had completely lost track of time. “I just forgot, Mommy!” he said over the phone. “Daddy didn’t tell me to stop!” Like my nephew with the Little Bear stories, Nick can lose himself in a book right now — but also, perhaps, find himself.