Sep. 7th, 2012

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You get on the subway in Boston (or the "T," as we call it), and you see a mother and toddler. The mother is very animatedly telling the child the story of a giant, a magician, and a ukelele. The toddler barely seems to be listening, until you hear her call out lines like "All gone Abi-yo!" and "Ka-ploo-ie water Mommy!" The mother is pointedly trying to ignore all the looks she is getting from fellow passengers, from annoyed to bemused, with some nostalgic looks and the occasional avid listener.

Yep, I'm that Mom.

If you see me out with my daughter on public transportation, chances are I'm telling her Pete Seeger's story, "Abiyoyo," because she's asked me for the umpteenth time that day. (This story needs a post of its own, and it is forthcoming.)

Sometimes, I am telling something else, or reading her a book. When I am telling her a story, it is usually something I deem a "classic" in our dominant American culture. Maybe the "Three Little Pigs" or "The Three Bears."

I get little bemused smiles from fellow riders when I tell these. And it is usually very clear that I've told my daughter these stories a million times, because at just 2 (last week!) she will chime in at appropriate places. People usually only pay attention to these "classics" if they are particularly bored.

Today I had an interesting experience.

I was at a doctor's office in the waiting room. I had brought several books for my daughter, but clearly not the latest obsession: "Chicken Little." It has been her obsession since Tuesday when I took it out of the library for her, and I am already extremely sick of the version I chose on a whim.

(I chose Sally Hobson's version, a book that is beautifully illustrated with bare-bones text. Unfortunately, the text is bare bones enough to have exact repetition through 6 birds and it bores me to no end. So I've been adding to it - a lot! I suspect this is why I am stuck reading it over and over. Also, my daughter seems to think that the ending is happy despite everyone being eaten. I commented at the second reading that that sated fox on the last page looked "pretty happy" so now whenever we get to that page she gleefully calls out "pretty happy!")

I told my daughter that while we didn't have the book with us, I could certainly tell her the story. So I started in, and as it was the first time I've told her this story, I had no patter set for it. It was rough, but she didn't mind.

I got through two animals, and they called us in. An older woman sitting across the way said ruefully, "Aww, I wanted to hear the rest of the story!"

I assured her that we would be out shortly, and I would continue the story. I thought she was playfully humoring me and addressing that comment to my child, or "speaking for her." While in the office, my daughter wanted to hear more, but I jokingly told her that the lady in the waiting room was waiting to hear the rest, and that we would continue out there after the visit. Mostly, I was trying not to hold up the appointment.

Well, we got back out to the waiting room, and I finished up the story. I chose the original ending from the Hobson book, as I hadn't had a chance to think over my choices. (Side note, I am very fond of both the ending and the whole book by Rebecca and Ed Emberley - it just wasn't on the library shelf on Tuesday.)

When I finished, the older lady said, "Thank you. I was raised in a non-American household, and I never heard the story of Chicken Little. I wanted to know how it ended."

And it got me thinking once again about the idea of a "classic story" in our culture.

Classics don't remain so if no one tells them. 

When I was a library student, I volunteered in a school library.  One day, the librarian chose a book for a 1st and 2nd grade storytime that involved mixed-up nursery rhyme characters. And it quickly became clear that most of these kids had no idea what the story was referring to. They had never heard of Humpty Dumpty or Little Bo Peep, so the book meant nothing to them. The librarian had to back up and start in with nursery rhyme books with 6-8 year-olds (and then with the younger kids too).

Now you might wonder why it matters. The thing is, much of our adult cannon relies on small subtle references to classic stories, nursery rhymes, myths, legends, folktales, fairy tales and the like. I would venture to say that is true in most cultures around the world - it is just that the set of references changes. My husband was in Iceland for a computer conference once, and the hosting university had a big talk that assumed that everyone knew the Icelandic sagas of old, because everyone in Iceland certainly did. They were floored to discover that people had never heard of any of the characters, much less the stories themselves. (And now, geek that I am, I am put in mind of the Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok" that includes an alien race which converses only in allusion to shared stories.)

So I feel like I should thank that woman for reminding me why I spend much of my time entertaining my toddler with classic stories, rhymes, and songs from my culture (as well as including other cultures in the mix - but that is a whole other topic) even when I get tired of repeating them. And also for reminding me that what I consider "classic" can be brand new for both adults as well as small children.

Also, it's nice to have the occasional surprise audience member to my daughter's personal storytelling sessions!

I'd love to hear which stories you consider "classics" of your culture, even if you think it is "obvious." This blog seems to get international readership, even though it garners few comments, so what is obvious to you or me, may not be so to another reader.

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This blog entry is cross-posted here at Blogger.

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