ALICE AND MAGGIE
“See that legging sticking out of my sleeve?”, whispered Maggie to Alice, as they waddled out of the department store, layered with stolen goods, decorated like a pair of birthday cake elephants. “Pull it out gently! It’s dangling loose, like a white flag, calling for ceasefire. They’ll be after us in no time, thinking we’ve got something to declare.” They both burst out laughing. This was a thoughtless reaction, considering the size of that afternoon’s operation, but Alice and Maggie were by now well enough practiced in their arts, to avoid the smartest of the store detectives’ encounters.
“I’ve no business pulling leggings out of sleeves”, replied Alice in a momentary seriousness, suddenly sobering up herself, though not so much the whole situation, as her reply caused another ripple of uncontrolled corpsing.
“Pull it, you fool! We’re looking suspicious.”, implored Maggie, growing ever more concerned under her laughter shaken dozen of layers of designer dresses.
“No!”, insisted Alice, now in all seriousness. “What am I to do with a loose legging in my hand?!”, said she through her smiling teeth, picking up the pace towards the exit. “Just stomp your way through with all the elegance you can master – it’s too late now to fix the loose screws. Try not to faint!”
As the sweating pair of cocktail gorillas swung open the double door of the department store, they were flushed by the welcome chill of the winter air and the deafening sounds of Victorian London. Their lungs breathed the familiar car fumes and the sense of freedom made them let out a roaring screech of relief, as they ran down Oxford Street, as fast as their clothes could carry them, like two blind hulks, on a sugar rush.
Safety was near.
A little way in front of them, a commotion was gathering in the street. They approached cautiously, weighed under their loot, to see what’s going on. A well-dressed woman was holding a small boy and declaring: “He stole my purse, right under my nose, while I was trying to pay this kind vendor, for the necklace. Little brute!”
Alice and Maggie surveyed the crowd. While everyone was listening to the lady shaking the little lad, three or four other lads were checking the pockets of the by-standers for all manner of valuables. The two old friends looked at each other knowingly. In an instant, Alice whistled loudly, everyone looked round, the pickpockets dispersed, with passers-by after them, having lost interest in the lady and the boy; and now frantically looking for a copper, to help them retrieve their belongings.
Maggie approached the lady, out of breath. “Has he been at it, again? He’s been running away from home lately, uncontrollable little mischief… hanging out with all sorts all hours. I’ve been worried sick. Excuse me, madam; and thank you ever so much for retrieving him. I give you my word this will not happen again. Come along with me now, you little brute!” The confused lady let go of the lad reluctantly, half pleased that someone else will administer his punishment.
By now, the coppers were everywhere – now catching now losing the young pickpockets, the scene had become like a silent movie set, with coppers and robbers playing tag game, on a royal wedding street party, to the sound of the distant sirens.
Alice and Maggie bundled the released young prisoner in amongst their rustling skirts and into a cab, straight to their lodgings in Elephant and Castle.
“Why did you save me?”, asked the boy, nestled in front of a fire, over a mug of hot milk, that evening.
“We need a bellboy, to carry our luggage.”, said Alice.
“On a ship.”, said Maggie.
“On a ship?! What kind of ship?”
“A big one” they said in unison and laughed.
“The one that’ll take us to a better life in America. Wanna come?”
“Yeah! ‘Course I wanna come!”
“We’re going to Southampton tomorrow at dawn. We’re looking for a vessel called Titanic.”
The Extention to ALICE AND MAGGIE
One faintal Sunday evening, 24-hours cycle, they felt a sudden shake of the ship, playing poker on deck; then saw a chunk of ice on their ship. Got a bit concerned, they were at the back of the ship, then they saw one of the poker cards slip a bit and grew more concerned; then went to the edge of the boat, then realized they were sinking by the bow of the ship. Then got a series of worriness spread through them… and in three hours time, they were dead at the bottom of the ocean. Titanic had sunk.
The Beginskis are sometime lion, sometimes alien, rarely human.
They tell weather, wear ear pieces, have blue blood and facial tatoos (the last, by law). By the current tradition (which is subject to change), they also face paint on Thursday, the closest day to Friday (nothing to do with the World Book Day). By the same tradition, they make apple crumbles for their mummies on the same day.
It is illegal to dig holes in the ground, even in school.
All Beginski witches are boys. They have 6 tummies, which have to be operated on, after the age of 20, to check the Beginskis' digestion. The Beginski airplanes can fly backwards. The highest mountain is Begount Everest, in the Belimalayas.
The Beginskis sneeze when their joints go rusty. As they are robot inside, when they drink water, it forms bogey inside their stomach, which floats higher and higher up, as they drink more water, until it comes out in a sneeze.
When they laugh, their heads burst into pieces..
The main Beginski criminal is called Peugot. This is his England name, though it is his professional criminal name. We don't know which name his mummy and daddy gave him. His best friend is called Toyota (in England).
The Beginskis have not invented the electricity yet.
Some Beginski vocabulary: dectify = detect; coldinator = fridge
Dress To Impress on the World Book Day
"Dressing up is SO much fun", we hear said, over and over again. Indeed, it can be... if we let children own it. Here's a simple idea for an approach to this long tradition of celebrating the World Book Day, which bypasses the prescribed, ready-made and manufactured costume consumption.
This is actually not an 'idea'. It is more of a reminder of children's natural instincts to play; and possibly a helpful guidance on how to facilitate that.
The key is in paying trust in children's self-led action; and being sensitive and available to their ideas, without coercing. Bring to the play a selection of props and accessories from your environment, which do not make up the full costumes of recognizable book characters (or, if they do, keep them separate and introduce the game rule of not using more than one part, in making up a costume). Bring things like old belts, hats, scarves, tights... toy sticks, jewellery, cutlery, umbrellas... USB stick cases, colanders, swimming aids, interesting bags... you get the idea. Once you start looking for things which could be attached to a body, you'll get more ideas than you can manage. Bring in face paints, poster paints, paint brushes and, of course, wet wipes... fabric strips, hair pins, safety pins, string pieces or anything that can serve as an attachment aid. Of course, bring in some costumes and get children to bring in some, too. Get them to bring in 'attachable' objects they don't mind getting rid of or having painted on! Choose the costumes broadly, yet selectively! Don't go for the obvious manufactures of the well-known heroes and heroines! Choose the adult size shirts and skirts, plain shorts and jackets and, of course, a variety of children's dress-up basket items, sparingly. You may be thinking: "Where would I find all that stuff?" Trust me, in your house! 'How would I transport it?' Trust me, in two large bags!
Aside from presenting your group of children with this selection of materials, you don't have to do much. In fact, it is advisable not to, as they can do all the rest much better than we, grown-ups, can ever imagine.
The idea is to dress up, whichever way they like. Encourage them to use the items in the ways other than what the items are used for, though that will be obvious, too. Remind them that they don't have to dress up, if they don't want to! What you don't want to encourage them to do is dress up as anything specific or prescribed. Let them explore what they have at their disposal, in their own time and way! If you invest genuine trust in the value of the children's own activity design, you will be rewarded with the flights of creativity you cannot plan for. The results will be messy, imperfect, sometimes recognizable, sometimes not... just as you'd expect from children. Don't try to adjust or 'improve' it for them, unless they ask you to!
Face paints and poster paints are a messy business and, more importantly, a more elaborate business. Unlike a hat, they cannot be put on and taken off in seconds. So! Set up a face painting station and an art&craft station! Have a few mirrors, if you can, to avoid the build-up of queues! Explain to the children that, if they want to paint their face, they need to go to the station and either do it themselves or ask a friend to do it for them! Don't fall into the pit of painting a near-perfect tiger face for them! Again, no one has to recognize their invention. The idea is to have an expressive fun, rather than to create to a brief.
Explain to the children that, if they have an idea of painting or decorating an object before using it as a prop or part of a costume, they need to ask you if they can, first! If you approve, they can do it at the designated station; and will have to wait a little for any paints to dry, before using it.
Let them play... for a long time! Some of them will most definitely strike up scenarios, of their own accord. Others might need a suggestion of one. Here are a couple of suggestions for the groups of 3-5:
Adna Sablyich is a Drama facilitator, progressive education advocate and author of Andersen Retold.
Here is a short list of the classic European children's authors, translated in English, who gave us some of the most cherished stories and celebrated characters, shared and enjoyed throughout generations.
And what a lovely opportunity we had to mark it! Adna went to Darcy Bunny Brook Green nursery, co-run by our neighbour, Chloe Remy; and told stories to 8 little bunnies there, aged between 1 and 4.
A variety of objects flew out of Adna's magic 'bag on lap', including a clock, a phone, a police car, a pair of gloves and a hat. 'Adna had a hat on, hip hip hip hooray, Adna had a hat on', but most others felt too shy to take it up.
Then Adna found a Thingamabob in her 'bag on lap'. She did not know what the Thingamabob was or what it did or what it was for. She couldn't figure it out. No one could figure it out. They tried listening to it. The tried smelling it, pulling it, licking it, biting it, balancing it on the head (which almost worked). Then Adna found a little button on the Thingamabob. The button opened up. Then Lilly helped her find a sliding pole. Then the pole opened the Thingamabob into a flower looking Thingamabob. It floated in the air above children, in Adna's hand. It turned upside down and housed all the other objects, which flew out of Adna's magic 'bag on lap'. Then it took those objects for a sail. The sea got stormy. Then it calmed down again. The objects got seasick, threw up over the board of the Thingamabob and fell out. The Thingamabob became a peekaboo hide and seek Thingamabob. Then Adna felt drops of rain. 'She heard thunder. She heard thunder... Pitter patter rain drops, she's wet through...' Adna needed to get away from the rain. She ran under the Thingamabob. Everyone huddled under the Thingamabob. They needed a bigger Thingamabob.
Then Adna pulled out of her 'bag on lap', the book called The Thingamabob, by Il Sung Na; and read it to children.
Then she read What The Ladybird Heard, by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks. The children helped her with the animal sounds. The goose oinked, the dog mooed, the cats neighed and the ducks purred. They whispered into each others' ears things that nobody understood. They looked for a hidden tiger and a hidden panda around the room. They found them. They had enough of storytelling. They ran.
I have this idea for a live storytelling act, roaming round my head for the last week or so. It's a Fortune Teller, spinning the stories by H.C. Andersen, in the audience interactive fashion of looking into a palm, coffee cup, spilled beans (I'm particularly excited about the variation of the jelly beans, for the young audience), cards or even a 'magic ball' (or a bouncy one, maybe a soap bubble). A story can spring out of any of these.
I grew up with 'fortune tellers' of this kind (I wish they'd warned me). The 'readings' would happen in casual settings - chats over a cup of coffee, home visits, days in the park or on the beach. I never 'went to' a 'fortune teller', for an official prediction of my future. I never paid for it (well, not willingly). This allowed for the 'art form' to be treated light-heartedly and not be taken too seriously. It allowed for mistakes, rubbish goes at it, lack of inspiration or just a 'bad cup'. No one minded or cared much if it went wrong. Yet, at the same time, the genuine anticipation of a possible real insight into our lives was always there. Being excited about fortune telling was a cultural phenomenon. Giving insights to each other, into each other's lives and personalities, was the national pastime. While females of all ages and social backgrounds had a go at 'reading the future' in one way or another (due to their natural flair for lying, gossiping and the intuitive), the 'fortune telling' was, generally, considered the tradition of the Roma Travelers, referred to as Gypsies. Although it's, actually, not, it remains, in my mind, the Roma's largest cultural export. Having your palm looked at by your neighbour was not the same as having it looked at by a casual passer-by, dressed up in colourful dirty rags, with a scarf over her head, a baby in a wrap and a large stick in hand. The latter were trusted with insight much more. Unfortunately, the trust didn't extend to the personal possessions. It was another cultural phenomenon, for the 'Gypsies' and 'non-Gypsies', to engage in a game of cat-and-mouse, over the 'non-Gypsies'' valuables, during the 'reading'. The 'reader' would be viewed with suspicion from the start. Equally, she would assess her 'target' with forensic precision, within seconds. Sometimes she'd win the battle (I, once, had a ring stolen off of my finger, during a palm reading). The skill of these women cannot be overestimated. The fortune-telling pocket thieves were the first-class artisans.
I'm excited about this idea of stealing from my audience, especially at a London free event, let's say, so I threw a quick search, to see what the internet has conjured up about these fortune telling customs, the artistry of which was, in my youth, passed on only orally, confusingly and inaccurately, thus preserving the mystery, which preserved it. To my surprise, there's a scientific sounding name for it, I never heard of before. Tasseography is a method of interpreting the coffee sediments https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tasseography I had to burst into a laugh, as I thought of my grandma tasseographer 'reading my cup' in her knickers and bra, on a hot summer day, to pass the time after lunch. I'll also never forget the tasseographer 'klopipara', who hit me with a stick because she couldn't steal my bank note.
... is almost over. I haven't heard much about it, come across many people who knew it was celebrated, or many events in my area (of London) which celebrated it.
I did. Almost. I recycled the news of our one and only audiobook several times (and what a suitable one it is, I might add, even if I add it myself); created the beginnings of a storytelling act (a Fortune Teller of Bosnia... who spins stories out of beans, jelly beans, coffee cups, cards, balls or palms; and performs magic by stealing money and other valuables from her audience, by the end of her act. That bit needs most rehearsing. Otherwise, I think it's got potential. Didn't get to do it yesterday, though, because the children at the birthday play date we went to were too interested in screaming, eating running and opening anything that's wrapped up); I read to my son more than I have done lately (and to his friends). I have also packed off my son to the school this morning with an edited video of his own recording of our visit to his nana in Portsmouth last weekend. He's eager to share his story at his Show & Tell time. I am taking him to the library after school. Come to think of it, I have done quite a lot to celebrate storytelling this week. Pity no one knows about it.
I adapted this collection of Andersen’s stories, with moral messages for the current generation of children, in mind (all but The Princess On The Pea – I’m not sure what that one’s meant to be saying to the children of today, but it was a fun classic, difficult to resist).
I left The Ugly Duckling unchanged and unabridged; and what a beacon of identity teaching it is – a relentless, drudging struggle for inclusion, of a vulnerable individual; and, in the end, a glorious revelation that he is, somehow, above all mediocrity, by the very virtue of his ostracized characteristics. Sure, children’s literature has moved on; and, in English, we are truly spoilt for choice, when it comes to the creative metaphors for taking pride in being different, owning your identity, accepting yourself and others, for who we are. I guess what marks out Andersen (and other authors of his age) is his plunge into the darkness, so uncharacteristic of other writing for small children. Yet, it is precisely that child’s opportunity for empathy that sends a clear message across.
The Emperor’s New Clothes – I really can’t think of a contemporary children’s story with such a sophisticated, layered message – ‘if you don’t tell the truth, your lie will be exposed’ – but that’s not all – ‘if you lie for the fear of the loss of status, you will lose it in a most undignified way’ – it’s politics for the beginners, something we stopped talking about between grown-ups, at the school gates, let alone disguising it in children’s stories. There’s more – ‘if you trust others’ convictions, more than your own, others will laugh at you’... ‘if you care about appearance above all else, you will appear ridiculous’... ‘if you let your ambitions get the better of you, you will be left with nothing’... ‘if your clothes are too expensive, you will be naked in the end’... ‘if you underestimate others, you will suffer at their hand’... It keeps on giving. I set it in today’s London; and it works unsurprisingly well.
The Little Match Girl is a story close to my heart. It’s one of those Andersen’s stories, whose age appropriateness really is questionable. I think I heard it too early. The disturbing death of the little girl in the end made me remember the feel of the story, but forget what happened in it. I archived it in my mind, somehow, as a ‘mysterious’ story, for a long time, though I had heard it and should have known it well. Still, I believe, strongly, that it made me much of who I am. It affected me deeply and uncompromisingly. The message of the story cannot be more relevant today than ever; and what an embarrassment that is to our civilisation and the structure of our societies we have arrived to, after so much invention, progress, discovery, productivity, abundance of resources and knowledge! Yes, we still have and watch children die in poverty, in suffering, in loneliness, cold and hunger. Did he know we would, always and forever, when he wrote it? Did he think this was our human nature or hope that his story would effect change in Denmark? However long sighted he may have been, the crux of this story’s ending is our Western move into ignorance – not only by what the story tells us about ourselves, but by our reluctance to expose our children to it. This story is barely told to children these days. We don’t want to upset them. We confuse the ‘loss of innocence’ with the ‘empathy’. I pandered to this, in my adaptation of The Little Match Girl. I don’t regret it. I hope I have created a more accessible ending for today’s children, while still allowing a scope for the image of the consequences of the alternative.
The other three stories I adapted are less known and have suffered a heavier tailoring from my hand and my imagination. I will write about them in my next blog.
Apart from the obvious mental switch from one medium to another, in what other ways are audio books changing our perceptions of literature?
I asked a friend the other day if she bought my book yet; and she got confused. Have I written a book? She knew nothing about it. I would have expected her to get confused by my assumption that she’d buy my audio book at all, but no – her mind just could not imagine a ‘book’, without that hard, rectangular paper object, with letters and pictures to hold in her hands; and flick through, one by one, in the solitary silence of her personal space and the physical evidence of her virtual journey.
Indeed, the romance of our reading habits cannot be matched by the images of hardware plugging our ears, to the disturbing sounds of someone else’s voice eroding our daydreams and distracting us from our own imagination.
No – not if we try to enjoy the literature in the same way.
The recent surge of production in this fast-expanding medium gives audio books a place of practicality, convenience and dry pragmatism, in our minds. We tend to think of it as something borne out of necessity – a response to our fast-paced lives, which have gradually bumped the solitary moments, daydreams and reading-for-pleasure out of our life schedules... Or, maybe, we simply think of books as something that is read – not listened to.
Whatever it is, our sense of comfort with multisensory consumption of literature is only the matter of time, but that’s not all. Audio books do a lot more than replicate a book in a different medium.
What audio books do is create additional layers of literary experience, while still leaving it to the listener’s imagination to create its own vision of the journey.
Human voice is a micro-universe of unique expressive systems, controlled by willpower and breath. Each and every vocal system in our species is different. We are a race which creates by existence. No ‘book’ remains the same, once read out loud; and it changes again, when read by someone else. The sometimes subtle differences in our voices leave deep impressions on the listener, which are often more meaningful than the meanings of the words. These differences are due to the endless combinations of our different body structures and life experiences. Human voice is the window into our souls. Voice and word reveal the complexity of our beings, in bloom.
Technology has done much to change our perceptions and consumption habits, in all ways, including literature. Here, like everywhere, it manipulates. It highlights, distorts, elevates, tunes, asserts... It is our own overpowering tool; and we have to tame it, train it, restrain it – own it. It is the one segment, which stands out of all others, as the defining experiential difference – ‘is something live or recorded?’. Audio books are the recorded versions of the spoken-word art; and, by the virtue of that, they are completely different.
Many audio books these days come without sound effects or music. I think this is a pity. Of course, not all of them call for those additional layers – indeed, they may be distracting – but many of them miss out on it, due to the short production schedules, again, driven by the desire to expand and multiply. Sound effects and music play a vital part in storytelling. They are another phenomenon of unique human endeavour, which helps us define who we are. They, in themselves, are complex, multi-layered creations, often able to stand as stories, on their own.
Weaving the web of storytelling together, these different expressions of our identities are the wonders, discoveries and celebrations of our existence. Call them ‘books’... or maybe something else?
Audio books are a funny little thing, especially for children, nowadays. You’d think that that’s whom they’re cut out for, but not many children listen to audio books, actually. I remember the audio books of my childhood, strongly and fondly. You do, too, I’m sure. They, actually, make some of my earliest memories, now. I listened to ‘Ivica i Marica’ (Hansel and Gretel) and ‘Šuma Striborova’ (Stribor’s Forest), a story of dubious gender morality, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, touted as ‘Croatian Andersen’, funnily enough, over and over – as much, if not more, for the worlds they drew me into with soundscapes, music and narration, as for the story. Being lost in these forests stretched time for me; and made the experience particularly edgy, because I listened to it on my own – I got lost and found on my own AND I controlled the cassette player on my own, rewinding, fast-forwarding, stopping and starting, as I wanted to hear the story. When I catch sight of Zak now, listening to an audio book, I recognise that lost-in-story look of wonder in his eyes, that you get when no one’s watching you.
Today, while audio books are on the rise, as the fastest-growing medium, because adults welcome the consumption of literature ‘on the go’, children’s attention is being consumed by the all-powerful visual media; and parents want to spend the precious time they have with their children, reading the stories themselves. It’s understandable. I imagine, they’d also like to avoid an extra cause for a tantrum, by suggesting the listening to a story, instead of the watching of Netflix on a tablet, while the dinner is being made. Not all! I exaggerate. Still, I have had questions, from willing and enthusiastic parent friends, ‘when do you get him to listen to audio books?’. It’s an honest and fair question. The culture of this enjoyment is, simply, somewhat lost. The screen has taken over.
Obviously, I’m biased, but not nearly as much because I make audio books, as because I despise screen time. The debilitating effect of screen time on children is acknowledged by all of us; and expanding on it will add nothing to its reduction and everything to the increase of the parents’ feeling of guilt. What do we do?! Is there a way out of it?! Really?! Without damaging them in some other way?!
There are many ways and they are all different for all of us, obviously. Some of us go for the all-or-nothing approach – the hard cut of ‘all things screen’, or the go-with-the-flow licence to ‘watch as much as you want’. Others have timers / schedules / content control / technology selection / rewards / punishments... or substitutes.
Well, may I propose a substitute, softened by a still rather high level of stimulus and a potential change of routine or culture? If your child isn’t in the habit of listening to audio books, put one on in the background, while you play a board game, have a meal , help them get dressed or do any other activity, in the day time and TOGETHER! Don’t place emphasis on the audio book as an event, but introduce it as a casual by-the-by, background thing, that it will be! The books we love and, I think, make a great audio-book listening introduction for the very small children of 3 years of age and up, are The Cat in The Hat and Other Stories (Dr Seuss), read by Adrian Edmondson, Beatrix Potter works, read by Vivien Leigh, Mr Men series, read by Arthur Lowe and That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, read by Tamsin Greig. That should be enough to kick start the process. Listening to the soundtracks of the musicals the child is familiar with will also develop that habit that we all have, of having some music in the background. Over the time, their audio-book listening will grow more and more independent and they will ask for the ones they’ve heard and search for the new ones, at their own initiative – at that solo breakfast before school, while painting a new mug, building a train or sitting on one.
But, why are audio books so good for children?! Oh, my, oh, my! They are not good only for children – they are the free Masters degree holding babysitter, with an educational lesson plan, on tap. Audio books open up children’s imagination, in the way that no other medium can. They let the children create their own vision of the world of the story, increase their vocabulary, introduce them to the diversity of voices and interpretations; and, of course, like all stories, improve their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Last, but not least, they are a celebration of a collaborative human endeavour – thought, language, voice, music and technology.
So, next time you’re about to disappear for half an hour behind a stove, instead of flicking on a favourite Netflix program, try suggesting a play with an intricate toy that collected some dust in the recent past; and put a book on, in the background. If it’s good, turn it up – they’re not just for kids.