Wednesday, December 2, 2015

S.T.E.A.M - Butterflies and Chocolate

Grandma Esther
One summer when I was eleven or twelve years old, my family traveled to Beaumont, TX to visit my maternal grandmother. As a point of reference here I'd like to point out that this is the same grandmother who told me that if I slept with my mouth open a witch would come into my room, put a bridle in my mouth, and ride me around in the air like a horse. Keep that in mind as you read through this little tale I'm about to share.

And before you ask, yes, many of the people in my family would qualify as 'characters'.

That summer my sister was five or six, and one afternoon, to entertain her, I spent about an hour telling her Greek Myths.


Grandma Esther was busily preparing dinner. She listened to the whole thing. My sister left the kitchen after the telling was done, and my grandmother turned from the gumbo pot and faced me with a look of heavy disapproval.

Grandma: You know what you told her isn't the truth, right?

12 year old me: What do you mean?

Grandma: Those are just stories.

12 year old me (confused): It is Greek Mythology, grandma.

Grandma: She (meaning my sister Duyen) knows that those aren't real stories, right?

Gratuitous Picture of My Gorgeous Sister

12 year old me (feeling cheeky and pre-teeny): They are real stories, grandma, that doesn't mean they actually happened, though.

Grandma (loves me, but not having it): They aren't true!

12 year old me (still confused): Of course not. They are just stories. All stories like that are just myths.

That was the day I learned that there were grown-up people in the world who believed in the literal truth of the story from Genesis about the talking snake and the woman who ate an apple and discovered she was naked.

Up until that moment I just assumed that people learned that story wasn't true about the time they threw out the Easter Bunny, Santa and leprechauns. I assumed you just got to a certain point in life, discovered that the magic of your childhood was for your childhood, and you grew up and got over it.

These are not real

I didn't even think the priests actually believed in Noah's flood. I thought the whole thing was happening on some kind of symbolic level.

Mostly, however, as I spoke to my fiery grandmother who started preaching at me after about five minutes of discussion, I was appalled at her utter lack of anything that resembled an understanding of basic science or logic as she went through the books of the Bible and informed me they were all one hundred percent accurate. Anything else I'd ever been told was flat wrong.

This is one of my favorite stories!
When I attempted to point out that snakes are physically unable to actually speak, she called me a blasphemer. I had no idea what that was, but it didn't sound good.

My grandmother is no longer with me, and I still think about that afternoon, but instead of my very shocked pre-teen sensibilities, I always remember it with fondness.

Why, you might ask, am I brining this up in this post?

Well, this week I am telling in some Mesa schools in Arizona. I am doing sets that are not typical for me. I have k - 3 and 4 - 6.

Since the age groupings aren't really composed well for age appropriate material, I tend to do lots of naturalistic beast fables. These tales have lots of things to offer for such diverse groups. The information can skew older while the characters can skew younger. The introductions and framing are for the older kids, the structure and characters can keep the younger kids.

One of my favorites to tell to either of these groups is La Mariposa, which I learned from Carrie Sue Ayvar. There are a number of variants of this tale in South and Central America. Carmen Deedy has a book called Martina The Beautiful Cockroach which is another play on this theme from Cuba.

The version I tell explains why the Monarch Butterfly is orange and black; why it is poisonous; and why it has the longest migratory pattern of any butterfly in the world.

The whole tale deals with a butterfly being courted by a dog, a cat, and ultimately by a mouse.

It is not reasonable to think that this is a true story, and yet, there are always a few children who ask if it is. An image of my grandmother always flashes through my head when I get this question. I can't help it.

I always tell children that it is definitely a story, but there is no chance it actually happened.

These entertaining stories can teach children basic behaviors of animals. Possum is able to survive being bitten by snakes, frogs start out as tadpoles and gradually lose their tails, spiders liquify their meals before drinking them, giraffes eat the leaves of the Acacia, and other such tidbits about the natural world.

I think that is one reason I like them. What I discovered was that my assumption that the audience already knew these basic facts was mistaken. Just because I know something is an actual behavior of an animal that the story is exploiting doesn't mean the entire audience realizes this.

I wish I had been old enough that day at my grandmother's table to tell her that just because I don't think a story is 'true' doesn't mean they don't hold some 'truth' for me. Alas, that line will go unsaid between us. The children who ask me if stories are true, make me think about this fact. There are elements of the beast fable that are actually true. Why not celebrate that?

Two years ago I began making a point of commenting on the bits in these fanciful tales that are actually scientifically accurate.

So far this week I've told La Mariposa almost every day. At one point in the story, the butterfly is annoyed with her suitors, and demands that they spice up their proposals with some romance. She suggests flowers and chocolate.

Neither the dog nor the cat have flowers or chocolate. Today, for no reason than it occurred to me, the dog tells the butterfly that he doesn't tend to carry chocolate around because it is poisonous to dogs.


 To my great joy, some of the adults in the audience nodded with a smile on their faces because they already knew this, and a large number of the kids looked surprised.

When the butterfly demands the cat give her chocolate, I repeated the same phrase because chocolate is poisonous to cats as well.


This time, most of the adults opened their eyes wide in surprise. It was interesting. I think the line stays in the tale.

The longer I tell, the more I learn about what I do, and what stories can do.

I often think back to that afternoon in my grandmother's kitchen when I learned a thing or two about the world. I got a fully illustrated definition of the words 'fire and brimstone' that day. The world got bigger as I sat at that table, and every day I encounter new stories, ideas, and thoughts it continues to grow.

I don't think I will ever cease to be amazed.

Stories have been teaching me things for a long time.

Oh, and just in case you aren't sure...



Happy Learning!

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