Growing up, I loved fairy tales so much that for an entire year, I started every naptime by acting out Snow White. My mother would find an apple with one bite missing when she checked on me as I lay sleeping—presumably languishing under the spell of the Wicked Queen’s poisoned fruit. By the time I was old enough to babysit, I had a storehouse of vivid tales, both borrowed and my own. Too vivid, it turned out—one day a mother called to complain that her daughter couldn’t stop crying about the little white pony whose parents I had killed off in a gripping bedtime drama, leaving the anguished pony alone on a windswept moor.
Above everything, the arts—the subject of this Season’s Preview issue—are about storytelling. As a writer and editor, I’ve long understood the power of stories, but I’ve never enjoyed telling them as much as I did in Michigan this summer with my grandson, Alan. He’s almost four, the absolute perfect age from a grandparent’s point of view—easier to watch than a toddler, and more entertaining than most adults. His nonstop chatter is peppered with language any writer would love, and he’s a born storyteller, too, inventing all sorts of ways to explain the world.
"I don’t want to die, because when people die they go into the ground," he told his father one morning. "You and Mommy made me, so if I die, you can make me again. But if you die, who will make you?"
During our vacation, he also explained that the sun gets its light by absorbing light from light bulbs, asked a guest who was lingering too long after dinner, "Richard, why are you still here?" and bragged, after waking up before the rest of us, "I sleep faster than you do!"
I had packed some books to read to him, but our favorite stories were those I made up, often to dramatize real-life situations. When he didn’t want to take a bath, I told him about Dirty Dan, who refused baths for months, until trees started growing out of his mud-encrusted arms. Alan listened, wide-eyed, then hopped into the tub. "Tell it again," he demanded. "Tell it longer."
He also loves stories about the noise lizard, a silly character I invented last spring when he and his parents visited Sarasota. One night, Alan was so loud in a restaurant that I took him outside. We spotted a lizard, and I told him it was the noise lizard, who stops children from shouting by giving them a gooey kiss. I’d forgotten the incident, but Alan remembered. One day in Michigan, in the middle of a tempestuous outburst, he stopped yelling and looked at me with a sly smile. "Will the noise lizard come?" he asked.
But we told our best stories on the beach, where sand castles became the site of ferocious wars between kings and dragons. "No, you can’t catch me!" he would intone in a deep, scary voice as he waved the stick that represented the dragon. "I’m going to eat you up and"—the ultimate three-year-old threat—"poop you out on the ground!" Occasionally, when the action got too exciting, he’d look worried and ask, "Is it real?" I’d reassure him and calm things down, but soon the battles would resume.
Wicked dragons, miraculous trees, kissing lizards and kings that spring back to life after violent deaths—I began to realize they all reflect the world as Alan sees it: enormous and mysterious, at one moment terrifying and at another dazzling, a place where he feels both insignificant and filled with mighty powers. The stories we share allow me to briefly re-enter that long-lost realm, where a minute can last an eternity and a two-inch stick turns into a regal king.
Stories are how all of us—no matter what our age—articulate our dreams and confront our fears as we struggle to make order out of chaos, including the chaos within ourselves. Alan can understand himself through our stories—and sometimes the same thing happens to me.
One evening I read him The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It wasn’t really to his taste. "This is a long story," he announced several times. And he hated Mr. McGregor, the farmer who drives Peter out of his garden. I had a different reaction. I could see how hard Mr. McGregor—a nice-looking man who seemed about my age—had worked to create that beautiful garden. Just look at the size of those lettuces! Really, I thought, closing the book—by now Alan had wandered away—Peter had no business gobbling up everything in sight and making such a mess. Evidently, I reflected, I have arrived at the stage of life where the character I identify with is not little Peter but old Mr. McGregor. But that, dear reader, is another story.
Here’s a look at the children’s book that editor Pam Daniel wrote for her grandson, Alan. The illustrations are by Molly Dean, a first-year illustration major at the Ringling College of Art and Design. Molly was born in Sarasota and is interested in story and graphic novel-related illustration.