This post was brought to you by my wife and sons, whose Father’s Day gift to me was time off to write.
If you thought Disneyland was the first family theme park in the U.S., you would be mistaken. That distinction belongs to a little known gem of the San Francisco Bay Area: Children’s Fairyland in downtown Oakland. In 1950, a full five years before Walt Disney welcomed people through Sleeping Beauty’s castle in rural Anaheim, the Oakland Lake Merritt Breakfast Club opened a small attraction for families with small kids filled with colorful stucco tableaus of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Walt himself is said to have visited many times during the planning stages of his dream park. Indeed, the parallels are evident in Disneyland’s original 1955 Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction, which sends guests on a tour of tiny storybook settings similar to Fairyland’s dioramas. Disneyland guests even embark on their journey by floating through the open maw of Pinocchio’s Monstro the Whale, an obvious parallel to the smaller Willie the Whale at Fairyland, who houses a small aquarium at the back of his mouth when you walk down the ramp of his tongue.
Compared to Disneyland, Children’s Fairyland is a quaint little memento of America’s postwar era, more of a Route 66 roadside attraction than a theme park in the modern light. It is tiny, dated and frequently in need of a fresh coat of paint. Yet somehow it works. Each scene has a little storybook in front of it that, when activated with a special plastic key, plays a recording of the tale or nursery rhyme. The entry way through the Old Woman’s Shoe is famously child-sized, so adults have to stoop or walk around. It is also home to the oldest and longest-running puppet theater in the U.S. Visiting with my four- and one-year-old sons recently, I was amazed to see that even after more than 60 years, the park can still enchant. On the day before Father’s Day, it was packed with diverse young families, many with parents like me enjoying the nostalgic memories of running around those same plaster sets ourselves with our own little keys. No generation, it seems, is too sophisticated to enjoy being inside a story.
That was something I learned from my dad. A terrific bedtime storyteller, he has a skill I utterly lack: being able to make up entertaining narrative on the fly, finding all the little connections along the way that tie together into an actual ending. As a child this made bedtime an exciting routine, since story time came with its own ritual and props in the form of the “snuggy-wuggy blanket” under which the stories had to be told. We could request characters or settings, which dad would then proceed to bring to life under the blanket’s puffy brown and white checks with the lights out. Since I was named after Christopher Robin, Dad’s stories often continued “my” adventures in the Hundred Acre Woods. As a result, most of Pooh’s greatest adventures have never been written down and are known only to me. Truly classic episodes like our great hot air balloon expedition are unknown to the rest of the world, who will have to stay content with the Disney films and the author’s original two meager books.
What made our stories special wasn’t just that they came from my dad, but that they involved me. The characters in the tale spoke to me, had adventures with me in real-time and even knew of my reality beyond the four walls of the story they lived in. The “imaginary world” of the story was in essence a frame around a larger, more expansive version of myself that inhabited places and events beyond what I could merely see and touch. It was not escapism. It did not make the rest of the day go away. It just showed it in context: real life was still real life, but it nested inside a bigger experience.
If for no other reason than building a child’s perspective around the imagination of faith, that is an extremely important… and usually neglected… exercise. Hats off to dad!
Fast forward 35 years and the exercise continues, albeit in a totally different way. Without even a fraction of my dad’s seemingly bottomless well of plot, storytime with my kids is largely “by the book.” Original stories are my wife’s domain. My gift is reading because “Daddy does the voices.” This summer we have been working through Michael Buckley‘s (no relation) amazing Sisters Grimm series. In these books, two seeming orphans from New York City move upstate with an eccentric grandmother and discover they are none other than the descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who were in fact historians, not folklorists. There in the tiny village of Ferryport Landing, Sabrina and Daphne are surrounded by all the magical characters of bedtime stories (“Everafters”) who emigrated hundreds of years ago to the New World and now live out ordinary lives in contemporary America, hoping to avoid discovery. Every now and then, however, a beanstalk brings down a giant or a Jabberwocky runs amok, and it’s up to the Grimms to put things right… with a little help from Shakespeare’s trickster Puck and Granny’s constant companion, Mr. Canis… secretly the Big Bad Wolf in recovery.
The payoff in all this is how it shapes imaginary play later. When my four-year-old requests “Daddy-and-Me Playtime,” he isn’t asking for a board game or a bike ride. He wants to act out something we read together the night before, a story he heard in preschool, or even something from a video he watched. That way, we solve mysteries (in the living room), explore planets (in the kitchen), get cocooned (under a blanket), go over waterfalls (same blanket, off the couch). It’s physical play, but with a heavy dose of imagination. It also generally entails me playing the comic relief…
“You be Shaggy. I’ll be Scooby.”
…the authority figure…
“I’ll be Edmund. You be Aslan.”
…or even the Big, Bad Wolf.
“OK, I’ll be Puck and you be Mr. Canis and you sit on me and I’ll have to escape.”
It only recently dawned on me that playing together this way is engaging precisely the same faculty that keeps kids going back to Fairyland and made my dad’s snuggy-wuggy stories so special: we are learning to inhabit stories. And by inhabiting them, my little guy is hopefully learning to relate to aspects of his bigger self. By trying out new endings, he is exploring consequence. By taking on different characters, he is defining identity. By putting himself in dire straits, he is confronting anxiety. By making Dad the monster or bad guy, he is looking at his own shadow from the outside in and learning how to live with it.
Engaged in this way, story doesn’t just entertain; it builds the world.
One of my favorite comic book writers, Grant Morrison, uses this concept quite purposefully in his writing for adults, seriously entertaining the notion that in story, the experience of the reader and that of the characters exist in a kind of larger, shared reality:
My contention is that a story can be made sufficiently complex that it achieves some measure of self-awareness – in fact I believe this is what’s happening when authors talk about characters “taking control” or when they say “the story just took a turn I wasn’t planning…”. When I was doing The Invisibles, I was definitely aware of the book as a living entity which was interacting with me in many of the ways a human being might but at the time I was thinking of this “aliveness” as a kind of mystical quality not as an emergent property that could be reproduced without recourse to the spirit world. I’d like to see if I can deliberately “wake up” a story and let it make its own decisions.
In Morrison’s comics, characters can become aware that they exist in fiction. Their adventures lead them to question the structure of the plot. They talk to one another between comic frames, rewrite their own histories, confront the author or even, in moments of direst peril, use their super-powers to reach out to their audience for help.
In his cosmology, this interplay between story and reader is quite literally the intersection between quantum mechanics and magic. I don’t go that far myself, but as a Catholic, I have a way to connect with it:
In the beginning was the Word [Gk: Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. –John 1: 1-3
Even in the traditional cosmology of my faith, the creative urge of the Divine is equated with “Logos,” the Greek philosophical concept of the “ordering principle.” In its Christian sense, it involves the mystery that reality is the very utterance of God, whose “mighty wind” (literally “spirit” or “breath”) moved across the waters of chaos bringing order and beauty out of nothingness. Reality therefore can be seen as the utterance of God’s imagination. Traditionally, the Church has captured that sense of Logos as “Living Word.” To modern ears, perhaps an equally compelling reading would be to say that God is “Living Story.”
That gives me a way to connect with it as a father, too. If we say the Divine is a Father telling a story that is the world, then we share in that Divine image by playing inside our own stories to build the world our children will inhabit. It is the secret behind the enduring appeal of super-heroes and why, in an era where they are more likely to stumble across pornography than an actual comic book, little boys still run around house wearing a towel for a cape. When real life enters into story, the super-powers you find there become real and everyone has their own secret origin.
So in the spirit of training our kids to inhabit stories from an early age, I leave you with this countdown of my favorite children’s books that break through that fourth wall into the fifth dimension (imagination). Beyond being merely imaginative or popular, these books captivate because the world inside them can be shaped by the characters, or even bleed into our world while we’re reading them. It’s a favorite theme of mine, so please leave your own favorites in the comments that follow.
5) Harold and the Purple Crayon
Harold knows he is in a storybook, and uses his amazing purple crayon to illustrate each page, changing the world to his liking. It’s a classic. There are many lesser known sequels. Kids love it because… well, it’s purple.
4) The Very Hungry Caterpillar
One of the first books I remember reading. While Eric Carle‘s title character doesn’t exactly wake up to his own fictional existence like Harold, he does manage to physically eat his way through the book into the real world, leaving holes in the pages along the way. Deeply fascinating to early readers, especially for any whose little fingers can still fit wonderingly into the holes.
3) Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
Former Sesame Street writer Mo Willems knocks it out of the park with all of his pigeon books. It is a simple format that works each time: bus driver or some other authority figure leaves the reader alone with the pigeon and warns us to keep and eye on him. Said bird proceeds to wheedle, nag and whine at the reader in ever more hilarious ways to get what he wants. The magic of this concept is that, for once, any child reading it is forced to be the grown-up saying “No!” at every page.
Similar concept, special mention: Michael Ian Black‘s The Purple Kangaroo which actually stars a monkey trying to trick the reader into thinking about the title mammal by pretending to read your mind.
2) The Monster at the End of This Book, Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover
This Little Golden Book from 1971 and the early days of Sesame Street is one of the most fun to read as an adult… especially if you channel your inner Frank Oz and attempt the Grover voice [ahem, remember: “Daddy does the voices.”] Alarmed by the title page, Grover begs and pleads the reader to stop reading, lest we reach the monster at the end. The more you play up his increasingly frantic panic, the more the child enjoys flipping pages, tumbling down the ever more elaborate barriers Grover builds to stop us. Probably the most interactive picture book ever written, it has ironically spawned an iPad app (why?) and of course a follow-up that manages to shoehorn Elmo in for some reason.
1) Peter Pan and Wendy
This is the book that started it all. Quite by accident too. The famous “do you believe” scene in Chapter 13 probably never would have been imagined in prose had it not first been performed as a play. Only after successful stagings did J.M. Barrie see fit to turn his most famous story into a book. Thankfully, when he did he left the magic moment where the audience saves Tinkerbell’s life intact, making it far more intimate though no less powerful in the context of a bedtime reading [trivia: this scene famously inspired the young Steven Spielberg, so much so that it even made its way into the bedtime scene in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial as Dee Wallace reads it to a young Drew Barrymore ):
Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.
Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.
“Do you believe?” he cried.
Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.
She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn’t sure.
“What do you think?” she asked Peter.
“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”
A few beasts hissed.
The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have like to get at the ones who had hissed.
“And now to rescue Wendy!”