My youngest son's 4th grade class calls themselves the "Coyotes," and they've been studying storytelling -- its origins, the way it "works" -- all year. They've also been having Kate DiCamillo's "Tale of Despereaux" read to them in class. This is a piece I wrote for the parents' newsletter:
It's probably no accident the 4th grade group called "Coyotes" is so avidly studying the why, what and how of "stories" this year. After all, some of the first stories devised by humans on the North American continent - a.k.a. "Turtle Island" -- involved Coyote, the priapic, self absorbed-yet-largehearted trickster figure, who helped populate the world, brought fire, inadvertantly brought death, etc.
Coyotes -- the small "c" kind -- were, and are, everywhere. North America's most successful predator, they embody the life force, and so it's no accident Native American tribes would use Coyote to explain various facets of life itself.
Our Coyotes, being in (mostly) single digit ages, are still pretty "immersed" in the day-to-dayness, the immediacy, of their own lives. They haven't grown in to that filtering system so common to putative grown-ups, where experiences are compared/contrasted to other experiences, run through the rubric of one philosophy or another to find the "meaning" in life's various moments, etc: All that stuff adults do, actually, to try and impose a narrative on their own existence.
Part of how we feel about our own lives is shaped by the stories we take in, and then tell, about ourselves: Is there, for us, a God? Is He, or She a punitive one? A forgiving one? Are we descended from addicts, journeyers, people who are innately close and effusive, or distant and unknowable? We are embedded in our own "stories," and surrounded by them: In spiritual practices, political rhetoric, family dynamics.
So knowing how stories "work" -- what pieces make them up, and therefore, what kinds of stories you're being told -- is important. Perhaps more so in an era where information flies at us from machines and screens everywhere, and we know more and yet -- as the novelist Walker Percy was fond of observing --simultaneously less (in terms of our "belonging") than ever before.
So this is the year where our Coyotes -- and are they not, in their own way, tricksters who keep us honest, call our bluffs, and lead us to deeper insight? -- are learning to master "stories," and the very idea of "story" themselves.
My son tells me of the "ball of yarn" exercise in class -- where different lengths of colored yarn are being re-raveled (if I'm understanding his story correctly), between two students, each involved in telling the same tale. When a different color thread is revealed, the story must pivot -- a problem must be solved, a solution to a protagonist's jam must reveal itself, etc.
He's spent more time telling me about the mechanics of this spontaneous story creation than he has about the content of the tales themselves, but given that I'm wrestling with the start of a new book (well, okay, three different books at once, actually), I can report that yarn or no, this is how it works for grown-ups charged with creating stories for commodification and edification by and for readers, viewers, et al: You tell, or write, to a certain point, and then -- you make up the next part! On the spot!
And so on, until the telling is done.
Which is also why, finally, that "Tale of Despereaux" is such a perfect in-class read-aloud for our Coyotes. Kate DiCamillo's book isn't so much about a mouse (though it is) as it is a book about stories, and how they work. With her constant asides to the reader, and constant breaking of the "4th wall," DiCamillo reminds us that we're reading a story, and that we -- like Despereaux -- are just as liable to have our lives changed by them.
And since we already know tricksters are in the mix, a certain flexibility with life's "yarn" changing color at a moment's notice --knowing what events you're charge of (as "protagonist" in your own story), and which events are in charge of you -- is every bit as handy as eventually knowing the more practical, predictable things. Like, say, economics.
Oh wait. We're back to tricksters.