Behind the scenes of Read Me A Story, Stella, or How childhood books color your life
I think that of all the Stella and Sam books I have written, Read Me A Story, Stella is the one where I most recognize myself as the child I was.
From the age of six, I was a voracious, omnivorous and insatiable reader. I read all the time and everywhere: in bed, when I woke up at dawn; at breakfast (mainly cereal boxes); on the school bus, with erasers and paper airplanes flying over my head; in the classroom, hiding my book under my desk; and in various forts built out of ferns and branches (see Stella, Fairy of the Forest) in the forest across the road from our house. I read in the bathtub (see On my Island), which waterlogged quite a few of my books; while walking the dog; and, of course, in bed with a flashlight under the covers (I think flashlights should be mandatory in children's bedrooms). I carried the stories and images within me, making connections with the world that I was discovering as I grew up. They became part of my life, and, even today, evoke moments of great happiness.
That doesn't mean that I was a quiet, bookish, introspective child — au contraire. I was active and enthusiastic, eager to discover the world around me. But I needed books to nourish me — I was always hungry. Their characters would inspire my daydreams, my games of role-playing with my friends and my theatrical ventures in the basement of our house (see Rainy Day Magic). Big bad wolves and sly foxes, wicked stepmothers and hungry witches would make me thrill with fear, knowing all the while that there was often a happy ending. I would identify with the emotions of the heroes or heroines — the mischievousness of Curious George, the fearlessness of Madeline, the wise and mysterious Petit Prince, the hilarious Petit Nicolas, the intrepid Tintin or the tragic sadness of Hansel and Gretel abandoned by their parents. Later on, I would identify with Velvet Brown in National Velvet, Lucy and Peter in the Chronicles of Narnia or Anne of Green Gables. I would go on and on, throughout my adolescence and into adulthood.
In Read Me A Story, Stella, I wanted to suggest that books are a powerful and dynamic part of a child's life. They connect the child to the outside world and offer new perspectives. Books bring forward questions and stimulate the imagination. Books reassure children that they are not alone. But I did not want Read Me A Story, Stella, to have a heavy-handed message about the joys of reading. I wanted to continue to write about Stella and Sam enjoying another day of adventures with minute discoveries and moments of wonder, which is what childhood should be like, building a perfect wolf-proof doghouse for Fred, teaching Fred to fly a kite, watching carrots grow, and wondering if there are crocodiles and rhinoceroses in the pond. Stella and Sam see rabbit-shaped clouds, soft wriggly caterpillars and frogs that wear green velvet jackets.
But throughout this perfect summer day, Stella is seen reading books that make her laugh, that wax poetic or connect in unforeseen ways with the adventures that she and Sam are having.
Since a book shared with a child (or with a whole class) is meant to be read, to inspire the imagination and start a conversation, try this after reading Read Me A Story, Stella:
• Ask the child if she can think of a story where a wolf blows a house down. Does she think that Sam has read that story? Which is stronger, a wolf or a tornado?
• Stella says, "Caterpillars go to sleep for a long, long time and dream about flying." That's how they become butterflies. Is she right? Look up caterpillars in an insect book. Ask the child if he has seen any insects in Read Me a Story, Stella. Go through the book again and let him find them.
• Has the child ever read a book about flying cats? (see Caramba)
• Or a book about making soup with stones? (see Stone Soup)
• Or a book about bats?
• Go outside, and find a soft patch of grass to lie on. Look at the clouds and spot different cloud-shapes.
A book doesn't really end, it is the beginning of a thought process that colors our vision of the world.