Have you ever heard of the Problem Novel? According to Amy Pattee’s (n.d.) blog about Problem Novels, this genre presents a hot button social issue, explores it from various angles and leaves the reader to make his/her own judgements in the end. Jodi Picoult is a master writer in this field.
I have read many Jodi Picoult books that would fit this definition. “The Tenth Circle” deals with sex. It’s hard to imagine a more touchy teenage topic! Picoult has you squirm in your seat as she wields her words, weaving a web of deceit and mistrust. What causes what in this seemingly cause/effect story? The problems paramount as infidelity matures into murder. Where does it stop?
Another Picoult book, and one that made her mainstream, is “My Sister’s Keeper”. Made into a movie, this story is about a girl, Anna, entering her teen years having lived, it seems, only as a surrogate for her older sister, Kate. Kate has had Leukemia for years. She requires Anna’s help to stay alive. In fact, it feels like Anna was conceived in order to keep Kate alive! This life or death problem goes deeper as Anna tries to wrestle with her own identity.
Problem writing can be dark. Picoult brings the reader to death’s door, and sometimes even allows you a peek inside. Amy Pattee mentions the book “The Girl in the Box” (1988, Joy St. Books) as an example. In this story a girl is kidnapped and placed in a cement cell. She never sees her captor or anyone else, is given water and only barely enough food for sustenance, has to use the bathroom in a plastic bag, but [apparently] has a typewriter and plenty of paper to document the whole experience. As I read Pattee’s description of this problem novel, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for authors exploring the deepest corners of thought. Ouida Sebestyen, author of “The Girl in the Box”, created this cement cell in his mind. Then he lived the horrors of this girl by imagining her feelings, fears, hopes, and actions.
What makes problem novels riveting is their realistic nature. The events and situations within these tales are only as captivating as they are imaginable. In Picoult’s “The Tenth Circle” the daughter of an adulterer is date-raped. As it turns out, the perpetrator is the young girl’s ex boyfriend. The teacher of story-telling knows that every tale must present a problem. The line between “Realistic Fiction” and a text being a “Problem Novel” lies in the intent of the text. While a Problem Novel would fall into the category of Realistic Fiction, in that it is believable, the all-consuming problem of the story has the reader completely wrapped up in constant conflict. You are reading ONLY to find out the answer to the problem. And, be forewarned, the better the Problem Novel, the less likely you will be provided a solution!
This reminds me of my “Controversy Can Be Classy” project. The concepts that Picoult presents would be considered controversial, because of their reasonableness. Yacek speaks of a controversy as being “alive” when it is believable in his paper, Thinking Controversially: The Psychological Condition for Teaching Controversial Issues (2018). He explains that both sides of a problem must be a realistic solution. This is where the masterful writing of a good Problem Novel comes into play. The more realistic the problem, setting, and characters, the more empathetic the reader will be.
Have you read any good Problem Novels? What might attract someone to read this genre? Why would an author choose to write this type of book? How does reading a Problem Novel help you?
Do you ever wonder where the ideas for a great novel come from? What inspires the thoughts that grow in an author’s mind, that eventually bare fruit in terrific and terrifying texts? You might think that Frankenstein was born of lightning, but the idea, the seed planted in the mind of the 20 year old Mary Shelley in 1817, was nothing more than a yellow eye. Shelley woke up from a terrible dream, and all she could remember was a hauntingly yellow human eye. This feeling grew and stretched into the novel that has dawned countless Halloween costumes.
For Kate DiCamillo, it was hands; The capacious hands of a stranger who picked up her 86 year old mother after having fallen in the doorway of a cafe one cold January day. This giant of a gentleman helped Kate’s mom to a chair, while Kate stood stuck in the uncertainty of her mother’s admonition that she “Couldn’t do it.” Kate was not used to hearing her “Piece-of-Work” mother confess defeat. She was a fighter, if nothing else. Like dominos, her mother’s health toppled, and within a week she died.
DiCamillo explains the presence of this word, already traveling through the veins of her consciousness, in her acceptance speech at the 2014 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet for “Flora and Ulysses”. The word was birthed in the reading of Maxwell William’s “The Thistles in Sweden” (Maxwell, 1976). The last line reads, “And, I think that if it is true, that we are all in the hand of God; What a capacious hand it must be.”
Flora And Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures
Written by Kate DiCamillo
The father of Flora is said to have a “capacious heart”. In the beginning of the story this character is a dysfunctional shell of a man, recently divorced from Flora’s mom, and stuck like a malfunctioning computer program. His only lines are his introducing himself to people, “Hello, I’m George Buckman. Pleased to meet you.” He wears a suit, complete with fedora, everywhere, no matter the temperature, situation, or time. The reader is made to believe that this man could very well wear this suit to bed.
When Flora’s pet squirrel reveals its super powers to the dad, he snaps out of his stupor and revives. He begins to think for himself again. He laughs. He stands up to malfeasance, a word repeated throughout this hybrid of novel and comic book. It was Ulysses’s superpowers that defibrillated George Buckman’s heart, but it was the capaciousness of his heart that loved Flora, a struggling tween, back to life.
This exciting book has hilarious and head-scratching mysteries throughout. A boy who seems to have self-induced, temporary blindness due to a traumatic event that he won’t talk about is Flora’s unexpected sidekick. The reader isn’t sure if the apartment-guarding cat or the mom trying to kill the squirrel is the true nemesis of the superhero. And, the question most prevalent throughout remains unanswered at the end: “Can you be a superhero, if you don’t save anyone or anything?”
One thing is for certain: boredom will be vanquished through reading this novel. DiCamillo has a capacious talent for storytelling, and this one keeps you on the edge of your horsehair sofa. (You’ll have to read the book to understand;)
Kate DiCamillo has lived in very different parts of America. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Florida, the setting for one of her Newbery Award-winning books, “Because of Winn Dixie” (2001). Her “About Me” page says that she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, currently.
If you are a teacher and you are alive, you have heard about the importance of teaching computer science to students. “Code, code, code!” is shouted from the pedagogical rooftops.
Don’t hate me, but I haven’t been excited about this concept. I tried Scratch many years ago, but between wrestling with the failing tech in my school’s computer lab and less than perfect early-in-teaching-career classroom management of 8 year olds, I was unimpressed with the outcome of learning. I scratched my Scratch plans.
Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with integrating creative use of technology in my lessons and classroom. We make movies, video games, and are Google gurus! But, still no coding.
Sphero rolled into my pedagogical practice. My school district is training teachers to roll out a computer science program, and I was chosen with several others to pilate some lessons. Among other things, we will be using SpheroEDU to share the coding experience with the students of East Penn. Spheros are exactly that; balls. They have mechanical parts inside of them that follow the commands that you input in an app on a device. They can roll, turn different colors, and make sounds. (Although the sounds come from the device, not the actual robot.)
When my teacher friends and I were initially introduced to the Sphero robots we were instructed to try to get it to do some tasks. We used a variety of coding methods and tried out several styles of lesson genres. It was fun, but I wasn’t completely hooked, yet.
A recent get together of this team was assembled to begin creating lessons that would introduce and begin teaching coding to the 4th & 5th graders of East Penn. We were to come up with 3 lessons. A brainstorming session was followed by some discussion and voting. In the talk a theme emerged where we would introduce a narrative of insect study to the students. They were all going to experience the joys and difficulties of entomologists. The students would get their robots to study insects and eradicate invasive bugs: Debug. (One of our lessons is to clean up code of problems.) Notice how the targeted study focuses on a positive term for the animals: Insects, while the animals that are a problem (Spotted Lantern Flies have become a nuisance around Pennsylvania) are labeled negatively. Also, an obvious dual purpose of the storyline is to reinforce the necessity of clean coding, devoid of bugs.
This idea of purpose-driven instruction helped me see the coding lesson in a new light. Rather than tell my students to get the robot to make a square or go from an arbitrary point A to a pointless point B, I would be helping kids learn how to tackle real world problems.
With new inspiration and vigor, I returned to my third grade classroom where a case-full of unused Spheros sat in the corner. Let’s get to work, I thought, as I tore poster paper, uncapped markers, opened up bags of cups, and pulled out piles of pipecleaners. It was the day before Halloween, and an idea hit me: Monsters Inc. I would make grids with a door in one square and a kid sleeping in another. Students would dress up cups to look like monsters. These cups would float on top of a programed Sphero robot. They would need to get from the door to the bed and back to the door again. Also, the Sphero would need to create a scary sound. (This was attempted after figuring out the code for travel.)
Prior to the lesson, I got out all of the supplies. I made one more poster than I needed for 9 groups of 3 to have their own. Each poster had the door and bed in a different location. I did this incase an outstanding group had solved every coding combination for the map they were initially given. They could try a new one. (Another way of creating challenge would be to place items on the map, like wardrobes or piles of clothing, that the robot would have to avoid.)
To begin the lesson I placed one poster on the board to show students. I explained that they would be “playing” Monsters Inc. They were going to get monsters to go from the door to the sleeping child. Most students were familiar with the concept from the popular movie. I explained that the monster world was powered by an electricity that ran on the screams of kids. In the movie, monsters were trained and worked hard at sneaking into bedrooms and scaring children. I reminded everyone that it was important that the monster get back to the door, so that it could get back to the monster world. Otherwise it would be trapped in the human-parallel universe! “Aaaaahhh!”
Before leaving the carpet, I showed the students how the block-coding in the Sphero app worked. I drew the “Roll” command on the board with labels explaining/reminding what each bubble was for: Direction, speed, and duration (time).
While student groups decorated their cup/monsters with pipe cleaners, I had one kid at a time get a robot. Teams were separated around the room. The only parameter was for student groups to try to keep the robot on the paper. Needless to say, there were varying levels of success. One group figured out how to introduce changing the light of the Sphero. I didn’t bother telling them that the sleeping child (drawn on the paper) might not see the light change under the monster cup;) I was happy for the intrigue-guided discovery!
I only had to get everyone’s attention once or twice. One time I wanted to mention only changing one variable at a time when adjusting the rolling command: Rather than changing both speed and duration, just alter one or the other. After giving the change a try, make another adjustment. Keep going until the movement is just right. After I witnessed one group make the discovery that you should “Aim” the robot before placing the cup over it, I shared that with everyone, adding that they must “practice-run” the Sphero with the cup, because the drag of the “monster” might affect its movement.
The whole experience was a smashing success. Everyone wanted to keep working on it, but recess time dragged us all outside. We put everything away, until the next day.
The morning of Halloween, I had students get the Spheros out again. This time, I wanted to know exactly what they were coming up with. Students did not have to use a “monster”. (Because having a Sphero roll up to you, while you are sleeping and growl, was scary enough;) I put together a slideshow that I pushed out through Google classroom, much like I did recently with the Plural Noun BloxelsEDU maze video game lesson. Students were to take screenshots of their successful codes that got the Sphero from the door to the bed and back to the door. The screenshots were then imported into the slideshow for me to view.
The room erupted in coding.
Students nearly lost their minds when, halfway through the experience, I showed them that they could get the Sphero to say anything you typed into a speech command. From that time forward, “Hey, kid, aren’t you scared!” was heard, among other ridiculous phrases, uttered in a robotic, honestly less-than-scary voice, all over the room. It was both hilarious and exciting.
Again, recess, and then a costume parade, ruined our robotic fun:)
The takeaway lesson for me was the creation of a narrative, giving coding a storyline, helped me present the tasks in a way that gave meaning and purpose. The plot of Monsters Inc provided the jolt of electricity that animated the previously lifeless lesson. What have you used to give life to your lessons?
One of the most important things to establish at the beginning of a school year is comradery among pupils. Several years ago I came up with a story idea that focused on this concept. It introduces my classroom theme of #ThePolitePirates as well as giving us a shared purpose.
The story has grown over the years, as I come up with more themes and invest more time into it. I usually share it with my students in a Google Doc through Google Classroom, so each kid has his/her own copy to practice connecting with the text via leaving comments. This year, for the first time, I plan to publish the chapters in this blog, so anyone can read the story and leave comments.
Feel free to “pirate” my tale. Change and tailor the idea to fit your classroom. I usually read it out loud to the students before having them access it in Google. I try to do a chapter a day for the first week of school. There is a bit of vocab and figurative language to explain, but it is a good tool for introducing all kinds of classroom expectations and future academic tasks.
Without further adieu, are you ready to be shipwrecked?
Chapter 1: “The Island”
Once upon a time there was an island; not any old island; but a special, helpful, resourceful, maybe magical island. This island was home to many plants and animals. However, humans had never set foot upon its shores, until, one day…
There was a massive storm. It was not a big storm, or a strong storm, or a severe storm, but all three of these adjectives rolled up into one humongous, scary, powerful, and seriously damaging storm. It began so suddenly that several ships were caught off guard. Some sailing vessels survived the storm, but many were shipwrecked.
The storm may have started suddenly, but it did not end for days. Wind and rain pounded the water, while sailors, passengers, and pirates bounced like buoys on the sea surface.
That’s right. You read that correctly: pirates! If passengers and sailors were scared of sharks, they were petrified of pirates.
Being shipwrecked at the same time, in the same storm and sea, though, found sailors, passengers, and pirates alike thrown together into the same boat…
Did the island sit there while sailors, passengers, and pirates washed up onto its shores? Or, did it, as so many of the survivors came to believe, reach out its long shallow sandbars to save the poor sailors from certain peril? Either way, about thirty people found themselves safely sunning on silky sand when the wind and rain finally ceased. Of their ships, nothing but memories survived.
Two or three persons from each ship made it to the island, so everyone knew at least that many survivors. At first the people who knew each other formed small, tight groups that did not talk with, help, or share with the other survivors. But, that did not last long.
Some will tell you that the island brought them together. Some say the storm purposefully plucked each person from his or her ship to make up the population of the island. Others think the beauty and elegance of the island forged a bond between the survivors. But, everyone would agree that the savory smells from the campfire of Captain Iron Knee and his small crew of pirates was the most memorable element of that first night.
Perhaps it is just human nature to want to join together and work as a team. Any way you slice it, though, each small band of two to four survivors of six or seven different ships eventually came to live, eat, work, play, practice, build, and therefore survive together as a team, unit, band, group…
I hope you enjoyed chapter one. Tune in for chapter two, where we explore some character traits of Captain Iron Knee.
What do you think the message or theme from chapter one might have been? What was the author trying to get across? Why was it written?
My head is swimming in a storm of figurative language, ideas, memories, and desires to share stories right now. Room 207 is a buzz with homonyms. Twitter is popping with robust vocabulary that is inspiring existential, pedagogical philosophies. I have stumbled across a heretofore unknown superpower, asking “Why?” –Soon to be blogged.
And finally, have you ever had the experience of someone seemingly reading your mind? There are those friends who know you so well, or the two of you have shared so many of the same experiences that he/she can tell what you are thinking throughout a conversation. The idea of completing one another’s sentences is the costume for this super power. But, have you ever met someone who simply shares many of the same interests, experiences, life values, and goals; so many in fact that you seem to have known each other far longer than you actually have?
It is frightening how “same page” we are getting! As I was thinking through my blog 📝 just this morning, I was also having some coffee questions bouncing around in my 🧠. Ode to follow. 🧐🤣 pic.twitter.com/YupPmHVot2
I only just met Kate Lindquist, and that only virtually on Twitter, a few weeks ago. But, the way she is tweeting things that are right up my alley reminds me of the relationship between Rodion Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich from the godfather of dual personality psychology thrillers, “Crime and Punishment” (Dostoevsky, 1927). Petrovich, the local detective, has no idea Raskolnikov committed murder, but the latter feels like Petrovich is on to him through the entire novel. The recent tweet is a perfect example.
The picture at the top of this blog is from my very first year teaching. Those kids are in high school, now. I was doing all kinds of culture-building activities, mixing in art, philosophy, and story-telling. This was the year that I dreamed up “The Polite Pirates”. One of the special days throughout the year was “hat day”. This theme spurred all kinds of ideas, one of which, as you can see by the picture, was making pirate hats that did the opposite of filling strangers with fear and dread; They were to spread cheer and peace. We also came up with new classroom roles: The Peace Pirates.
One boy and one girl would be chosen each week to be incharge of making sure that the classroom was manageably quiet. They were given a “Peace Tool”, which is a little plastic drum with beads in it. When tilted slightly, the beads spill, simulating a beach-like sound. The class whispers “So peaceful” in chorus. They love it. And, it works.
The next year I added to the theme by making two “Peace Hats” that the Peace Pirates may wear. These were made of gigantic cardstock fronts that every student added some peaceful idea to, decorating the front with color and peaceful symbolism. There were words, pictures, cartoons, etc. I had to readjust the band that held it onto the students’ heads each week, but that was part of the formality of picking new Peace Pirates.
It was the following year, year three of Peace Pirates, that I finally wrote a story for the Peace Hat policy. [This is wear (get it;) Kate’s tweet comes in.] The story is about the power of the hat. I wrote it to bring power to the Peace Hat, but it is about hats having meanings or messages.
While the story was only okay, it took on new life when it was changed into a play to be read during a readers theater for parents. I love engaging top notch students’ help with projects as a way to differentiate through enrichment. The year that I made “The Peaceful Hat Story” into a play I had a student named Brandon help a little. We were learning Google Docs that year, and I had Brandon reformat some of the text, separating paragraphs into speaking parts. Honestly, I did most of the work, and had to fix some of
Brandon’s help, but he felt like a million bucks, having participated in the project. As a reward and payment for his participation in the project, I put his name on the bulletin that I printed out for parents. Of course Brandon was in this play during the readers theaters performance! Some of his crew congratulated him with comments in the shared Google Doc. My favorite thing about this experience, though, was the ending that Brandon gave the play. I have left it just as he typed it all of these years, explaining to future classes that a student wrote that. It cracks me up, and I can’t think of a better way to end the thing!
The Peace Hats are not worn as much anymore. This year’s haven’t even graduated from artwork to hat! But, the Peace Pirates get to sit at our classroom island. Looking out over our classroom from their peaceful perch, they still use the Peace Tool to encourage a quiet environment. In this way, none of my Polite Pirates will need to dawn the invention explained at the end of the Peaceful Hat story.
And, here it is in play form.
A Peaceful Hat Story Readers’ Theater
by Mr. Weimann
Captain Iron Knee
Narrator 1: (in a gruff old piraty tone) Behold, ye landlubbers be sittin’ in on the finest collection of courteous kids these here parts have ever known. We have a tale to share saving shenanigans for silly sailors and piraty persons performing peaceful feats!
Narrator 2: (in a normal voice.) Oh, good grief that pirate talk is hard. And, I’m pretty sure it didn’t make much sense, either. What my friend meant to say was that this class of students has a story to convey through one last readers’ theater. And, guess what! It is a polite pirate tale.
Narrator 1: Yeh, there be some strange personages patroling these planks. Watch out for the disease. It be catchin’ ye off guard, and shir ta frighten ya.
Narrator 2: My friend is referring to Onomatopoeia, which is no disease, but rather the literary term defining words that represent sounds.
Onomatopoeia: Grrrrrr. Argh!
Narrator 1: There she is! That was thee disease. She roams these waters. Be plenty oh pirates ‘fraid of her.
Narrator 2: Sure. If you are unaware of Onomatopoeia, you may be frightened by…
Onomatopoeia: Wham!!! Slam!!! Bam!!!
Narrator 2: But I just told everyone who Onomatopoeia is, so we’re good here. Let’s get on with our talel.
Narrator 1: If you insisteds. You be the boss, with yer fancy talkin’ and profesionalies explainin’.
Iron Knee: (bursts in on Zeus stirring a pot) What’s for dinner!? I’m starving!!
Onomatopoeia: CRASH! (pot falls to the floor) SPLAT! (Sauce lands on Zeus’ hat.)
Zeus: Oh, no. Look at my hat. What a mess. I cannot cook with such a messy hat.
Iron Knee: I’m so sorry, Zeus. I did not mean to be such a distraction. I should have walked quieter and closed the door gentler.
Onomatopoeia: Sob, sob
Zeus: I forgive you, captain. I just don’t know what to do.
Iron Knee: Well, you could wear my hat, if you must have one. I’ll have one of the swashbucklers clean up yours.
Zeus: I couldn’t possibly! Your captain’s hat doesn’t belong in the kitchen.
Iron Knee: Nonsense. What does it matter where it is worn? It will cover yer head. That is all.
Narrator 2: It did not require much persuasion for Zeus to dawn the captain’s illustrious hat.
Narrator 1: There was much need, those, for the young piraty cook to be wearin’ many dishtowels on his little roundish head. For the captain, he be havin’ a rather largish head, so his hat be hugish on top oh the cook’s.
Zeus: This feels better… pretty good… almost too good… powerful… Back to that sauce.
Onomatopoeia: Swish, slosh, splirt… (Zeus stirs the sauce.)
Narrator 1: Every stir that cook took made the hat-wearin’ rook look… power caused him to shook…
Narrator 2: Are you a poet now? I don’t think shook is even a word.
Narrator 1: It most certainly is! The cook shook with might. And, maybe. Maybe I will be the Poetic Pirate!
Narrator 2: You might shook with…
Onomatopoeia: Clank! (Zeus drops the stirring spoon.)
Zeus: Sauce, I am tired of stirring you round and round, round and round. I want you to thicken, and I don’t think that I should have to slave over you to make that happen.
Narrator 2: As if in answer to the person wearing the captain’s hat, a humungous bubble rose up from the surface of the brown goo.
Narrator 1: (with gusto, like a professional actor) Zeus grabbed a knife from the counter, and held it like a cutlass high above his head.
Narrator 2: Don’t steal the show. You’re only a narrator.
Zeus: Insubordinate gelatinous mutineer! You shall pay dearly for your rebellion. I will have no rivalries on my ship!
Onomatopoeia: POP! Splat.
Narrator 1: (with a flat boring voice) Zeus removed the captain’s hat.
Onomatopoeia: Utter silence.
Zeus: Oh no, what have I done? Captain’s hat is covered in mutinous muck.
Onomatopoeia: Creek, click. (the door opens)
Swashbuckler: Hey, what are you doing with the captain’s hat? I have yours right here, all cleaned up and ready to go for you.
Zeus: What?! The captain gave this to me! I did not steal it. You can go stick your nose in someone else’s business!
Narrator 2: Now, the swashbuckler, who had returned with the chef hat that he just washed as a favor to both the captain who had asked him to, but also as a courtesy for his good friend the chef, could not help but laugh out loud. Little did the chef realize, but he looked ridiculous with a pile of dishtowels still atop his head. As he yelled, the pile swayed to and fro like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
Onomatopoeia: Ha, ha, ha, chuckle, chuckle, chuckle
Narrator 1: (incredulous) A Dr. Seuss book? Really? This story is so far removed from Dr. Seuss, that…
Narrator 2 : (cutting off the other narrator) Rather than experience the wrath of his friend, who was turning as red as a beet at this point, the swashbuckler backed out of the kitchen still clutching the chef hat.
Onomatopoeia: Step, step, step
Swashbuckler: I wonder what got into him. Where should I leave Zeus’ hat? I’ll just wear it until I find a place.
Narrator 1: (back to a piraty voice) Well, my mateys, this fine friend of a fellow forgot all about the look shook cook’s hat he took.
Narrator 2: (to himself) Oh brother. (to the audience) Even when another sailor asked him…
Sailor: What’s cookin’?
Narrator 1: (piraty) He be still forgetin’ he be dawning that puffy white hat!
Swashbuckler: Nuttin’ much.
Sailor: Tis that a new dish?
Sailor: What we be havin’ for mess mate?
Swashbuckler: What mess? I cleaned this deck this morning! It’s as shiny as your bald head!
Sailor: (a little hurt) Hey. I just be wonderin’ what’s the eats we be slavin’ aways fur.
Narrator 1: (still piraty) Look here. This sailor fella be thinkin’ that a regular old swashbuckler be the chef o’ the ship. He be thinkin’ this ‘cause the swashbuckler be keepin’ that chef hat on top of his dare head.
Narrator 2: Are you going to keep talking that way throughout the entire play?
Narrator 1: (piraty) It be startin’ to grow on me. That there be an idiom, if ye not fir-mill-yaaarrrrrrJ
Swashbuckler: I can’t take this anymore! I’m outta here. (throws chef hat on the ground)
Performed on “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, September 19th
Onomatopoeia: Kirr whop!
Sailor: I wonder if he realized he was wearing the chef’s hat. I think…
Onomatopoeia: Churn churn churn
Sailor: I think I might be able to have a little fun with this.
Onomatopoeia: Slosh, swish, swoosh, ring, slosh, swish, swoosh, ring
Swashbuckler: Hey chef, I’m starved. What grub we got for supper?
Narrator 1: (no longer piraty, but kind of confused) Wait a minute. Is that the same swashbuckler from before… like two minutes ago?
Narrator 2: Yeah, that’s right. We should probably infer that some time has lapsed. You’re a narrator; why don’t you tell everyone?
Narrator 1: (still regular voiced) Could it be that the chef hat has some kind of magical power, so that it transforms the appearance of anyone wearing it?
Narrator 2: I think you are over-thinking it. These are pirates. They probably just see a chef hat and assume a chef is wearing it.
Narrator 1: (a little hurt) Oh, so pirates are less intelligent than other people, huh.
Narrator 2: Not this again… Look, this whole tale is about hats. I think it is safe to say that there is something going on with the whole who wears a hat, and what hat it is matters business. Let’s find out how the tale ends.
Narrator 1: (piraty again) I be hearin’ correctly? Somebody mention themselves some grub?
Narrator 2: Here we go…
Swashbuckler: You ignorin’ me man?! What grub we be eatin’?
Sailor: Grubs, man.
Swashbuckler: I asked you what grub. Why you be askin’ me what grub? You is bein’ the cook ain’t ya? What you doin’ foolin’ me dis way?
Sailor: We be eatin’ grub my matey!
Narrator 1: (normal, and out of piraty character) Is he saying “grub” like the animal, or grub, as in the slang term for food?
Narrator 2: Narrators are supposed to supply information, not ask questions. The sailor is playing a joke on the swashbuckler. The word grub can be used both ways, and he is implying that the swashbuckler will be eating actual insect larvae for lunch.
Narrator 1: Wow! The swashbuckler did not seem to appreciate the joke. He just dumped his whole bucket of dirty water on to the trickster sailor’s head.
Onomatopoeia: Wham!!! Bam!!! Slam!!!
(conversation off stage)
Captain Iron Knee: All hands below deck! Batten down the hatches.
Zeus: Where did this hale storm come from?
Swashbuckler: Where is sailor?
Captain Iron Knee: The sails will be ruined.
Swashbuckler: No, I mean where is the sailor who I threw a dirty bucket of water on?
Onomatopoeia: Thwack, thawack, thwack
Sailor: Attack! Attack! Someone is attacking the ship! Man the nine-irons! Jib the sails, or whatever you do with sails.
Narrator 2: As you may have guessed, the sailor was blind with the bucket on his head. The dark, combined with the sound of huge hale hitting his bucket head, disconcerted him to the point that he began running around raising sail and preparing for battle.
Narrator 1: Sailor unknowingly saved the entire ship!
Swashbuckler: You raised the sails yourself?
Sailor: I am a sailor.
Zeus: You had the foresight and extreme intelligence to place a bucket on your head?
Captain Iron Knee: You are the hero of the whole ship! What a brilliant idea! How did you ever think of it?!
Zeus: Yeah how did you come up with that?
Sailor: Well you didn’t let me finish before.
Zeus: Well, then who did it.
Sailor: The Swashbuckler did.
Captain Iron Knee: What?
Zeus: Well then I guess we can congratulate both of them.
Captain Iron Knee: Yeah.
Narrator 1/Narrator 2: And, that’s exactly what happened.
I’m back to reading the Newbery Award winners. The fourth-ever winner, published July 9, 1925 (according to the information provided on the dust jacket) was a curiosity to me because, rather than a novel, it is a collection of stories collected from the native people living in South America.
Stories have always been a primal form of communication. They are timeless links to ancient traditions, legends, archetypes, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and universal truths.
I was looking forward to reading these tales, thinking that they would connect me to a deep string of humanity that would be tied to nature. Instead, the first story alarmed me with a message of self-destruction.
As is normally my custom, I began my reading, writing notes in the margin of the text. I immediately loved the description of setting and character development, so I marked the text to share with my third grade students who are just beginning to learn how to “set a story” in a place and time. The author begins his book speaking of his experience visiting a tiny village in Honduras. Although the buildings and road differ greatly from the homes and streets that his readers of 1925, and even today, know, the children playing in a cool stream on a hot day resonates with all. In fact, I was greatly inspired by the use of the inclusive language, “…as any other little chap of his age, white, brown, or yellow” (p. 2), connecting his readership with the people he was writing about.
All of this served to butter me up to appreciate a terrific tale that had been told and retold for hundreds of years by the indigenous people the author was visiting. The amazing literature had cast a spell on me. I was bent on learning what would happen to some of the first humans to inhabit the jungle. There were birds singing, animals meeting and talking in harmony, and hardworking, talented, and powerful human heros. Just when you think that this sensational salve is a love potion promoting literacy, irony cuts through the beauty like the machete that the two young men in the story use to level every single plant of a part of the jungle.
The premise of this first tiny tale is that there are two talented brothers who are told to clear land in a forest to begin their adult lives. The father of these youths tells them to do all of the work within seven days. A wise owl discusses the problem of losing his habitat with a wizard of the jungle. The two hatch a plan to thwart the sons by deceiving the father.
At this point, I am wondering who I am to route for; the humans who seem to have an impossible task, who I empathize with, who are set up as the heroes of the tale; or the owl/wizard team who are about to lose their homes. The way the wizard attempts to stop the sons is through turning the father against them. The father is told that his hard-working sons are lazy and not clearing the land. Each time this happens, the father increases the amount of land that they must level. Now, this seems to go against the owl/wizard’s plan, and yet they continue their scheme until the sons are finally asked to do more work than they can handle.
Here, I want to tell you that it is only because I am planning on blogging about this book that I am reading it so carefully. If I hadn’t, I am sure that I would not have been able to shake the spell of the story. I like the hundreds of people who heard the story told by the elderly woman of the Honduras village that Charles Finger visited, who, incidentally, was depicted as smoking a cigar when Finger found her, and then threw it down to tell the tale; I, also, would have been completely mesmerized by the plight of the young men who wanted to please their father, earn their inheritance, and be successful in life. Just like a character in a fantasy fiction who has a spell broken awakens, realizing that his love had been an aberration, I found myself shaking my head at the human-size iguana who helped the human youths by showing them how to harness the power of the forest animals to clear every plant from the land that the very same forest animals use to make their homes, find food, and live.
Another reader and endless listeners of this tale would surely be swept in by the poetry, “I must do what I can, Is the thought of a man,” the seeming teamwork between human and beast, the defeat of evil in prevailing against the efforts of the wizard, and proving oneself to elders. I can easily imagine the recipient of such powerful storytelling being completely sucked in. What is the problem with this? Only that the storyteller was misleading listeners. Granted, the themes of working hard, never giving up, being ingenious, and listening to nature are all valuable lessons, but curtained in this spell of a story is the theme of humans enslaving the earth. It isn’t a surprise that the two youths are victorious in the end. The old iguana who “climbed into a tree and stretched himself along the branch of it where he could best see, and the birds gathered in a great circle, and matchless melody going up to the sky” would rest there until the next human cuts his tree down, also. Then more humans would cut down every tree that those singing birds occupied. When the magic of this wonderful story melted from my brain, I was aghast at the horror of the animals who were depicted as happy to help the humans destroy their habitat. The storyteller was sharing a tale that convinced listeners that nature wants humans to destroy her. In the end of the tale the brothers plant fruit trees on their newly cleared land. Do you think that they would tolerate the singing birds, who helped them clear the land to plant the trees, eat the fruit that grew there? Certainly not.
Again, I recognize that the themes within this tale were useful to previous generations. Humans struggled to master technologies, easing their existence on this planet. We have benefited from the inspirational stories of our elders motivating us to assimilate the best character traits for growing into the mature species we are today. Rather than this blog ending on a negative note, I’d like to challenge future storytellers to use their power for positive change. It is time to harness the magic of terrific tale telling to empower youths and adults alike for creative, innovative aspirations of helping humans come together to live harmoniously. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the “love potion” of storytelling to be transcendent than amorous, anyway?