How Stories Shape Us

I recently read a terrific book for adults who love kids and kidlit.  The Girl with the Brown Crayon:  How Children Use Stories to Shape Their Lives by Vivian Gussin Paley.  If Paley’s not a national institution she deserves to be.  She was a teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School for many years and has several written wonderful, very short books for adults about her experiences.  Wally’s Stories, for example, gives amazing, magical insights into kids and how they perceive the world.

This book, Girl with the Brown Crayon, is about her last year of teaching, in which she delves way deep into the picture books of Leo Lionni.  (Lionni wrote scads of picture books before his death in 1999.  His simple-seeming, stylized artwork has always reminded me of Eric Carle.) Paley’s kindergarteners take to his stuff.  They read his books again and again, act them out, externalize them.  They analyze them and philosophize about the world in ways that even she didn’t know a kindergartener could do.  A remarkable little girl named Reeny becomes the defacto leader, caring intensely about the stories and helping them all find their path.  Little Reeny even helps the author understand and make peace with the one she has hated, Tico and the Golden Wings.

Naturally, my son and I have been reading several Lionni titles since then.  He has enjoyed them.  Swimmy about a left-out little fish is an old favorite.  A new one (to us) that we really enjoyed was Frederick (1967).  Frederick is a mouse in a family of five.  While the rest of the group works tirelessly to prepare for winter, Frederick sits.

“Frederick,” why don’t you work?” they asked.

“I do work,” said Frederick.   “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

His idea of work is much different than theirs.  Will they tolerate him?  Read how it all works out.  And if you go in for that kind of thing, check out the magical teacher and writer Vivian Gussin Paley.  If only we could all have a teacher as respectful and kid-driven as she was!



Filed under Age: Early Elementary, Age: Preschool, Non-Fiction, Reviews

4 responses to “How Stories Shape Us

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. Leo Lionni is someone that has escaped my radar…until now! I have a brand new grandson and I look forward to sharing these books with him. Also, I will definitely read The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Thanks, Dan!

  2. Melody

    Vivian Paley has been influential in my teaching career. Years ago I read, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” and it has shaped my classroom rules and interactions ever since. Just today I found that I and the book were referenced in another blog:
    THis is the first time I have looked at your blog – I like it.

    • She really influenced me too, Melody. You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is really challenging. You feel like the kid’s need some autonomy, but how can it be OK to exclude someone in free play? She definitely helped me refine my approach. Wally’s Stories is such a compelling trip into the minds of kindergarten brains. Insights, for instance, on how kids are automatically bigger on the day they turn six.

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