I was cruising my Timehop app not too long ago and I saw a comment that I made 7 years ago. It read, "I am sending my children's book to the illustrator. Here we go!" Little did I know that it wouldn't be held in my hands for seven long years.
I can remember the anticipation that I had as I storyboarded the illustrations. As Phillip, the illustrator, and I talked out details, we got excited about digging up our memories of a more simple time, a time without 3000 channels and a telephone that could only reach as far as the spiral cord would allow it. A time when music was the sound of nature and laughter, and you stayed out until porch lights came on, beckoning you to dinner. No, I'm not a 90 year old growing up in the great depression. I'm 36. And I lived on the corner of dead end street. Every house had kids and we all played together in the streets and in back yards. Before that house, we played in the woods and down the gravel roads. And before that house, we played in fields and in the red dirt construction zone that we nicknamed "The Pits."
Phillip and I were eager to get started because this meant we got to play with our kids. We got to open their imagination and see what they could create. I can't remember how Phillip's journey went but I vividly remember mine. The premise of my children's book series is to get kids motivated to get off screens and play pretend. That's it in laymen's terms. But in a more in-depth goal, it's to activate their imaginations to think outside the box. To see things not just as what they are but what they can be. To be able to create an experience or relive a moment but with their own interpretation.
As a theatre instructor, I often play the game "This is not a stick" with my students or actors. As basic as the game is, it gives me great insight into the creative abilities of my pupils. The game is played by passing a stick around a circle. When it's your turn, you will grab the stick and declare "This is not a stick! It's a ..." and then proceed to pantomime using the stick as whatever you said it was. Some may go for the obvious...a bat, a golf club, a broom. And that's fine. Those people need to play more. But then there are some that go fully into a story with their stick in hand and elaborate with details that can only suggest....this person has played before. I get so wrapped up in their interpretation that I lose myself and want to jump right in where they stop. "This is not a stick! It's a spyglass and I am a pirate onboard me ship searching the high seas for the lost island of Zumbibia where me buried treasure lays 30 paces north, and 43 paces northeast. Argh." Whoa! I'm all in! That stick is definitely a spyglass and can I please be your first mate?
I digress. Sorry. That happens a lot. Oh yeah! My book. The purpose of the book is to use household items that could be found in almost every home and to suggest that they become something else. So in order to work up a story board for the illustrations, I had to play. I GOT TO PLAY! I gathered my kids, gave them the assignment, and waited to see what they grabbed. Nothing. Nada. They stared at me. I said "what would you use for a hat." My son replied, "A hat." Okay okay okay. "What if we don't have a hat?" I asked. "But we do have a hat." Alright....moving on. "Okay, what about a camp fire. How can we make a pretend campfire?" I said. "We aren't allowed to play with fire," says Eli. "Hey buddy I think I hear your dad calling you. Bye now." I turn to my daughter. "Emma, how can we make a pretend campfire?" She thinks then takes off running. I follow. She goes to our fireplace. Too literal. She takes off again. Our gas stove. Not it again. She looks outside to our fire
pit. It was in this moment that I realized I had failed my kids. Sigh. Just kidding. But something did resonate with me...my kids don't know how to pretend. They have every reality in front of them so why should they stretch an item's possibilities to become what they needed?
Now, did this make me take away all their toys and give them wood and string to play with? No. But what I did do is give their brains a break from visuals. We started reading books with no pictures. We started making up stories in the car and I started to teach them how to play pretend by actually SHOWING them. Yes they thought I was crazy and that I had lost my mind. But by the end we were laughing and bouncing ideas off one another. It was beautiful.
I used my kids as glorified guinea pigs for my own book's research. Would the concept work? Would this type of storytelling encourage them to look at common household items and interpret them differently? Would it open up wonder and even the mystery of pretend?
YES! It did!
I read the book to my kids and they immediately caught on. They wanted to be cowboys and indians. They wanted to eat beans and beef jerky and look at the same stars that pioneers gazed at all those years ago. And I got to jump right in there with them.
I think somewhere along the way we, as adults, begin to feel silly playing pretend. Maybe we are in a restaurant and our daughter wants to take the food off the tray and be the waitress...(literally this happened today), or maybe our toddler wants to play superheroes and you are picked to be the joker so of course you need a a shrill voice and sinister laugh. Maybe we got embarrassed at people looking at us so we told our kids "not now" or "stop being silly". Then they begin to think pretend is silly or nor judged by others. Don't get me wrong, I completely understand that there is a time and place for things...but not to my 2 year old. So for now, I'm going to just play with him. I'm going to show him what pretend looks like and watch him basically write my next book.
Here is the stick. It's your turn. What do you say it is?