Tales and Their Tellers: 1. How do?

In this column, I aim to review specific children’s storybooks as Art, and to document my experience with storytelling wherever I find it. This is not, strictly speaking, a column for children or for parents.

By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

1. How do?

“Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale”, 1974, Written and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Before we get into this game of tricksters, talking animals, sorcerers, buffoons, John Henry and his hammer, the serpent and his tongue, the wolf and his bloodlust, let’s begin with a definition of Art.

Vividly can I recall, sitting in a college lecture hall, listening to a debate on this very question, to define something so slippery and vague, so indefinable as Art.  It was a very lengthy lecture.  Yet I stand before you today and will define the messy word completely and in whole cloth with a single word – just one word – and before your very eyes!  And the word is Story.

There is nothing that is Art that is not Story.  There is no Story that is not Art.  The architect who designs a cathedral is telling you a story about God and Humanity.  The gardener who plots the flower bed is telling you a story about Nature and Beauty.  Historians are storytellers.  Scientists are storytellers.  Politicians are storytellers.  No?  When Obama’s poll numbers went up after the economic crises began, how was it explained?  With this great word: Narrative.  Candidate A has a better narrative about the crises than Candidate B.  Narrative.  A key word, a beautiful word.  It explains everything.  Tell us a story.

Religion is Story.  Ethics is Story.  Nationalism is Story.  All of holidays.  All of consumerism.  Naomi Klein writes in her book No Logo of the day when corporations realized they no longer needed to market their product, they merely needed to tell a story about their product, and thus was born the Marlboro Man.

Landscape painters are storytellers.  Bassoonists are storytellers.  Pornographers are storytellers.

Primitive drawings are found on the inside of cave walls, their meanings pondered, debated.  Easy, they’re telling tales!

My first job after I graduated college was at the Penn Bookstore in Philadelphia, a two-story building filled and bursting with books of every genre and language.  I wore ties and answered phones, ran up and down the labyrinthine layout in constant pursuit of the books the customer required at that instant, until a sudden change in personnel required that I take over the children’s section full-time, and there was I reassigned – quarantined – a section separated from the rest of the store, filled with talking bunnies, Disney cartoons, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and a vast plethora of colorful, googly-eyed literature I’d never known existed.  I wasn’t exactly thrilled.  During the afternoons, it was filled with screaming children and their boorish parental figures, tearing books from the shelves, pages from the books, urinating on our carpet, grape-jelly thumbprints along all fifty-four volumes of the Animorphs series, the eponymous wide-mouth from The Wide-Mouthed Frog Pop-up laying eviscerated beside newly crayola-filled pages of Captain Underpants.

“Lon Pop Po: A Red Riding Hood Story From China”, 1989, Written and Illustrated by Ed Young

There was one section of the Children’s Department which did have appeal for me, however.  “Multicultural Picture Books,” it was called, and consisted of just two shelves composed of hundreds and hundreds of razor-thin books.  There were no face-outs.  It was practically impenetrable.  You’d have to come equipped with a high-powered magnifying lens to make sense of the miniature titles and author names imprinted along the spines.

Is that where it started?  As an adult, yes.  But I would like to think that the seeds were there from a much earlier time, as a child, voraciously devouring any and all books from the local library, enacting the tales with toys and action figures, wandering about through my neighborhood and envisioning the stories playing out before me, myself as the protagonist.  All children are filled with stories and a love of storytelling, and perhaps the sense that there is something to the stories which is larger than merely the words and pictures.

The section was organized alphabetically by the authors’ last names, so patterns weren’t initially clear.  It was a dense hodgepodge.  Soon, however, after much browsing, it became apparent to me that within these shelves existed at least a dozen versions of Cinderella, of Jack, the Giant Slayer, of Red Riding Hood, and that they were from all over the world, each written and illustrated uniquely.  They were all the same story, but they were not the same story.  I suppose I had always known that these were all old stories, but never really given it much thought.  The Cinderella story, after all, is not merely a Disney cartoon, but exists in every time period and in every culture.  It was first written down in Ancient Greece and from there began crossing oceans and continents, worming itself into the unconscious of storytellers everywhere.

Thus began a lengthy reorganization project, which I conducted in my spare time, to pass the hours of the day.  I placed like-minded books alongside like-minded books, so that the patterns could be more discernible.  Suddenly, all of the Trolls Beneath the Bridge were grouped together.  All of the Snow White tales.  All of the West-African tricksters.  It made sense to me, anyway.

I took on the weekly children’s storytime in the store, in an attempt to share as many of these books as I could.

I began to collect my favorites by combining my paltry salary with my in-store discount.  I came home with the magical fantasies of the Czech illustrators Peter Sis and Drahos Zak; the mythic, geometric world of Gerald McDermott, the folk tales based on songs by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, all lined up nicely on my bookshelf, so that I could take them down and read them whenever I wished.

In just a few months, I emptied my bank account not to go on an all-night boozing tour of the city, not to see a rock concert, but to take an all night Greyhound from Philadelphia to Tennessee.  Some 12 hours later, as the sun was just rising, I rubbed the sand from my eyes and stepped off in Johnson City.  I walked the train tracks until I got to Jonesborough where the largest annual storyteller convention occurs every year.  I was able to watch firsthand as Pete Seeger, aging yet spry, told the tale of Abiyoyo with banjo in hand, which is a memory I’ll always cherish.

“The Rough-Face Girl”, 1992, Written by Rafe Martin, Illustrated by David Shannon

Now, nearly a decade later, my life has changed in many ways.  I am a husband, I am a homeowner, and I am a father.  But I still righteously love stories of every variety and the people who tell them.  I tell stories to the children at our local Farmer’s Market and at our annual Earth Day celebration.  Every year I adopt a kid through the city’s wonderful PhillyReads program.  And every week, my son and I take a trip to our local library, and return home with a canvas bag nearly tearing at the seams with books.  I’m always certain to select something from the folklore section, something timeless.  I read, he listens and absorbs.  How many four-year olds do you know who can define “trickster”?

In this column, I aim to review specific children’s storybooks as Art, and to document my experience with storytelling wherever I find it.  And I’ll be writing about larger themes as I see them which may encompass several books.

This is not a column, strictly speaking, for children, though I would of course be more than delighted to hear from young ones who are passionately opinionated about their own favorite books.

This is not a column, strictly speaking, for parents, though I would of course love feedback from any and parents who read stories to your children.

This is a column for anyone who enjoys Tales and who – like me – consider them with the same seriousness as you would consider any work of art.

The first question I’ll be tackling is, if indeed all stories have been passed down from generation to generation, from continent to continent, there must have been a starting point, right?  An Unmoved Mover; an Intelligent Storyteller, as it were.  Where do stories come from?  From God?

Yes, but which god?

Next: Anansi, Spider-man.

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