13 Sep Will the Story that Begins and Ends with You be a Story Worth Telling?
The first book I ever remember “reading” was a book that had no words, something about an egg trying to find its mother. My memory fails me now because I really can’t remember how an egg with no eyes and no feet was able to travel around the barnyard looking for its mother.
By the time I was six, I had written my own words on the pages previously filled only with pictures. Even back then, I wanted to be the author of my own story.
My youngest child is almost ten and according to her, “too big for picture books,” but I find myself perusing the shelves at my local bookstore, stalking the book fair at the elementary school, and trolling Amazon for the best little books to add to my collection. It’s fascinating to me that so much can be conveyed with so few words, or even no words at all. Or in the case of B.J. Novak’s latest children’s book–The Book with no Pictures–no pictures even.
For me, books have always been the gateway to another world, an invitation to leave my current reality and eavesdrop on the lives of the characters between the pages. I shared secrets with Anne of Green Gables on the Cuthbert farm and romped through Walnut Grove with Laura Ingalls and protected Ramona Quimby from her grouchy older sister, Beezus. All of these compelling characters invited me to be a member of their private clubs. I didn’t want to put down the books because I was afraid the people in them would carry on without me. To close the cover on their adventures also meant shutting the book on my own.
Did you know it took Dr. Seuss a year and a half to write The Cat in the Hat? His publisher challenged him to write a book that a first grader wouldn’t be able to put down. Easy, he thought. But it wasn’t. It took him eighteen months to get those 225 words just right, and in the process he revolutionized how we teach kids to read in the United States. It’s not just a book about a cat wearing a hat. In his words, it’s a book with a political message.“The Cat in the Hat is a revolt against authority, but it’s ameliorated by the fact that the Cat cleans up everything at the end. It’s revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kernesky and then stops. It doesn’t go quite as far as Lenin.” Even that doomsday-predicting fish is not just a fish; Dr. Seuss said he used Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan minister during the Salem witch trials, as a source of inspiration.
When my children were born, I introduced them to Sandra Boynton’s whimsical verse; The Going to Bed Book and But Not the Hippopotamus were among our favorites. Eric Carle’s beautiful mixed media pages invited us to sympathize with The Mixed Up Chameleon as we wrestled with our own identity and The Grouchy Ladybug showed us what happens when we refuse the kindness of our kin. “You need your friends!” we wanted to scream.
We read these stories to our kids in kindergarten and then pray they’ll remember the principles when they get to middle school. Curious George, Where the Wild Things Are, and Winnie the Pooh, and validate our fears and inspire us to be better. They whisper to us that it is okay to be afraid. They assure us that we are good enough and strong enough and that love can conquer anything.
Children’s books are complex because they are so simple. They explain big ideas in a way little children can understand. But it’s not just for them; good books are for all of us. The Giving Tree isn’t really a book about a tree. It’s a book about you, searching for connection and meaning in all the wrong places. And the Little Engine that Could isn’t really a book about a train. It’s a book about doing the best we can with what we have and never giving up even when what we have seems like it’s not enough.
Our lives are stories too, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. You and I are protagonists who want something and have to overcome conflict to get it. Our stories are being written even now, and most of us are in the messy middle. We think we need so much time to get it all figured out when the reality is that while some of us live to be a 102, many of us are taken long before.
We don’t need to write the next great American novel. We don’t need more pages for our life’s work to have value and for people to think it’s important. Why are we making everything so hard? We just need to be more intentional with the pages we have. I’m writing a story every single day of my life. And so are YOU.
The Story of a Lifetime
Every time I hear a great story, I’m inspired to live a better life.
I have friends who say they don’t have time to read, let alone write. You have time. There’s Facebook posts longer than some of the children’s books I know. Turn it off, and go back to that bookshelf, the one with dust on it, and choose a story from your childhood or your kids’. Read that book. In those pages, you’ll see a reflection of yourself.