Storybook Reading: Creating a Better World

I was excited to read Peter Gray’s blog post about the importance of reading stories to young children. This practice has been singled out, with good reason, to be crucial to future literacy. There is more to story reading than cuddles and close relationships, he writes, though these are essential for human growth and development, not to mention human joy!

“Knowing how to deal with evil as well aslove, how to recognize others’ desires and needs, how to behave towards others so as to retain theirfriendship, and how to earn the respect of the larger society are among the most important skills we all must develop for a life.” These skills are actually something we learn all through life, but giving children stories to reflect on gives them a huge advantage, psychologically, as an early start on braving human relationships, and fostering skillful interactions. Dare I say, also, that stories help children learn to be wise rather than right, as in, “right, not wrong”? Our current political discourse would benefit from wisdom rather than from arguing positions of “rightness” as is currently the case.

Surprisingly, one book that became a favorite with a group of pre-k students last year, and demonstrated the difference between wisdom and “might makes right”, was The Cloud Spinner, by Michael Catchpool and Alison Jay. This entrancing story starts out, “There was once a boy who could weave cloth from the clouds”. The boy sings as he works: “Enough is enough and not one stitch more”. Immediately, Alison Jay’s illustrations captivated our children. The hills and houses reflect the moods of the characters. Our preschoolers noticed this before I did! Smiles on hills are made of trees and sheep. Houses smile with windows and doors. In the beginning, nature is in harmony because the boy with his magical loom only makes what he needs. One day, the king notices the boy in a crowd and madly desires clothing, of both himself and his family, made of the clouds. He commands the boy to weave for him. The boy balks at first: “It would not be wise to have (so much fabric) made from this cloth. Your majesty does not need it.” The king is apoplectic, commanding the boy do his bidding. So he does. He weaves, and the illustrations reflect the sadness of the task with darkening color and forlorn hills.

The Cloud Spinner does not so much have a cheerful ending as a wise and uplifting one. Our children were absorbed in noticing details of the varying shades of color that reflect the boy’s, and the King’s daughter’s moods (She helps him to reverse the tragic disappearance of clouds that cause drought and discontent among the people). The King and his family are astounded by the gratitude of the people, after the clothing ordered is turned back into clouds, causing welcome rain. The boy and princess exult in the restoration of a wise order in nature and among humans. Our children, sitting before me, sigh in contentment.

The preschoolers learned about what greed was, some demonstrating it by acting out the concept—“Mine! Mine!”, with gestures of raking in loot! A teacher took up the phrase, “Enough is enough and not one ____ more” when children wanted ALL the blocks, or pizza. And, amazingly, this story was one of the most requested during reading time, rivaling Dragons Love Tacos!

If children have a deep interest in this or any other story, it is wise to follow their direction and see what happens. Ours drew and painted clouds in an array of colors, and told stories with greedy characters and children with magical powers. If you teach to standards, these activities can be used to fulfill them. Language arts, social studies, even math and science standards would benefit from activities that arise from interest in this story. Arts standards go without saying, and the text of the song can be set to music. Ask any child! They will have a tune before you know it!

Children use stories to make sense of their world. They need myth, I dare say, to hold on to the important values of society. In a world where human interaction and social relationships are increasingly crucial, so, too, are the stories we read and tell.

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