Acquiring a taste for stories and reading begins early ─ in picture books

Our family tree has two branches ─ the talkers and the non-talkers. I learned early about chatty, noisy people ─ and quiet, reserved people.  One of my early interests in attending family events was to acquire new stories. For the quiet side of the family, that meant asking lots of questions and hoping someone would speak up. On the noisy side, it meant waiting for a pause to ask questions or hoping a good story would emerge from the cacophony of voices. Regardless of which branch of the tree you were sitting under, neither branch necessarily carried the water on good stories. What were my criteria?

First, a good story should create worlds different than my own. Early in life, I learned that it was a good thing to explore other worlds ─ and safer and more practical to explore through stories.

To create that world of exploration, start early.  My taste for stories and reading began early, in children’s stories and especially children’s picture books.  And if the stories were about animals ─ real animals and mythical creatures ─ all the better.  For many years my preferred world included a bevy of domestic and wild cats, dogs, dragons, centaurs, mermaids, winged horses, hydra with writhing heads on scary serpent bodies, and unicorns who would come to the scene with rainbows for good measure.

To create new worlds, it’s important how the stories get told.  I was lucky on this score. Dad had good stage presence. He brought drama to storytelling with a commanding voice, flare for sing-songing poetry, and a memory able to recite whole passages from literature. Mom drew pictures to bring stories to life and brought rhyming to the made-up stories. The books I remember best were picture books brimming with big characters, interesting actions, major drama, and fabulous illustrations.

Despite my keen interest in animal lore, there were no family pets at our house. So I was left to peruse picture books and later forage in yards near our house for hungry, sick and stray animals to tend to. The veterinarian who lived next door was a helpful advisor.

This story picks up many years later. I’m peering over the cage in a pet store in St. Paul, Minnesota, sizing up one tiny grey kitten. I just concluded my first day in the PhD. Program at the University of Minnesota. There’s one bony little kitten, the runt of the litter, huddled in the corner of the cage. Her five brothers and sisters have already been adopted.  My early training as “animal rescuer” inspire me to pay $25 to take her home. I make her a promise to always take care of her.  She eventually acquires the name, Miss Kitty, after the “barista” on the TV show, Gunsmoke.  She doesn’t in any way resemble the robust, confident Miss Kitty. But I have a vivid dream that Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty has come back to life in my kitten.  It seems plausible.

Months later, on April fool’s day, I stop again at the same pet store. There’s a fat, healthy, bold black kitten jumping around the cage.  He seem like the perfect companion for the oft-grouchy Miss Kitty.  It’s my fault she’s bad-tempered.  She’s bored and angry because I leave her alone so much. So he comes along to rescue her from her boring life. I name him Chester, after Chester on Gunsmoke. Not because he resembles that Chester. But the name is fanciful and fun.  So, Chester joins the Z house – the apartment complex where we live near the university. Where we’re not supposed to have pets.  I rationalize the rule by telling myself we will no doubt be moving soon.

Miss Kitty and Chester become family. And many stories based on our conjoined lives emerge as we move to Iowa, Colorado, then Oregon. In-between, my son is born. Thankfully I do not name him Matt after Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke although I consider it. Instead, I name him Noah after Noah Webster, dictionary writer and caretaker of words; and biblical Noah, caretaker of animals. To live together well, I reason we will have to live through ─ and talk our way through ─the floods of life.

So from the earliest moments in his life, there’s story telling ─ to amuse Noah and me, to try to bring order to our world and explore new worlds. I resurrect stories learned as a child, make up new ones, and read a wide variety of picture books to him.  Especially stories about mythical creatures, strange lands, and real animal stories.

Over the years, many animals come and go in the Z house. Loved, precious animals, animals that capture our imagination with their quirkiness and magnificence. Miss Kitty lives to almost 22.  Chester dies of cancer at 8 – a truly beloved friend.  We bury him in the backyard of the Oregon Z house, covering his grave with a giant rock sparkling with quartz crystals that we transported on the moving van months earlier from Colorado, never imagining it will become his headstone.

Other animals join the Z house. When you’ve lived in 10 states as I have, you lose a place called home. That’s where the Z house comes in─ it’s where the stories live, wherever you live.

The Z House now joins the e-world, as a website about stories and reading. I hope you visit often. Mostly, I hope you keep reading and telling stories, especially to the children in your lives. It will give them a home in new worlds.  And help prepare them to live well through the floods of life.