Less than a month ago, I lost my dad. He was so many important things to me, and one of them was a storyteller. I loved sitting in his lap in the evenings listening to the stories he made up as he went. One of his favorite tricks was to create a main character that “just so happened” to have the same name as whatever child was his audience, and I always begged him for “Laura stories.” Another of his tricks, as my brother explained so eloquently in his eulogy, was to:
…tell children “true” stories. He would suck them in by including real life details and string them along with the most fantastic turn of events. At some point the story line would transition into a familiar fairy tale, and he would love to see the moment of recognition when the kids would say, “Wait a minute… that’s The Three Bears!”
In addition to spinning his own tales, he loved to read, and so I wanted to share some of our favorite stories that we read together. Instead of a 21 gun salute, I’d like to honor my story warrior dad with an 8 book tribute.
1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
My dad read me this book so often, he had the whole story memorized word for word before I had my alphabet down. While he read it, I rubbed the satin Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck appliques on my favorite blankie. I found comfort in his repetition of the story and comfort in the fact that I knew Peter would narrowly escape mean old Mr. McGregor and make it back to his family to sip warm chamomile tea every time.
2. Don’t Forget the Bacon, by Pat Hutchins
The boy’s blurry memory turning his mother’s grocery list from “six farm eggs” and “a cake for tea” into “six fat legs” and “a cape for me” never ceased to make us laugh. My dad was a firm believer that funny jokes only grew funnier with age.
3. Strega Nona, by Tomie dePaola
This book may have actually been a disguised biography of my Calabrian grandmother, Nani, who loved to cook pasta. I would also not have trouble believing that in his youth, my father mirrored Big Anthony, the well meaning helper who didn’t pay attention.
4. The Story of Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman
Well, this book sure raises a lot of controversy… which is perhaps why we never read it together. Instead, my dad passed it onto me orally, like a traditional folktale. In his tellings, it was sometimes the clever young boy and sometimes a girl whose name happened to be Laura that outsmarted the vain tigers. We recently unloaded some of the often banned book’s history together, but all that mattered to me as a kid was that the tigers churned themselves into butter for pancakes.
5. Chicken Soup with Rice, by Maurice Sendak
Have you noticed a running theme of food in the books that we loved? This was no coincidence. It also didn’t hurt that we loved Carole King’s voice singing life into this story in the Really Rosie musical.
6. Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen
Walking with me along deer trails in the woods behind our house on Sunday mornings and gazing out at our backyard from the deck, my dad instilled in me a tranquil appreciation for nature, which was reinforced every time we read this tale of a father and his daughter owling in the night.
7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare
I remember my second grade rival bragging that he already read Shakespeare. When I insisted that I could do the same, my dad pulled A Midsummer Night’s Dream from his Complete Works of Shakespeare, and we divvied up the parts. He patiently waited as I sounded out the iambic pentameter and explained the plot for me after each page. Although I did not go on to read the rest of his complete works, I did make sure to laugh loudly after every line of Puck’s dialogue, because even though I didn’t understand a word of it, my dad had informed me that he was a funny character.
8. The BFG, by Roald Dahl
Now, Roald Dahl, I could understand. In fact, he spoke my dad’s and my language fluently. Disgusting villains, mischievously clever heroes, and imaginative mishaps were just our speed. We read and loved every one of Roald Dahl’s books, taking turns reading the pages out loud between laughs. I could have filled this list with just Roald Dahl books, but The BFG was far and away our favorite. Perhaps it was because the sweet, funny old giant and curious little Sophie’s relationship wasn’t so different from our own. More likely, though, it was because “whizzpoppers” were the first time we’d ever encountered flatulence in a children’s book… and we were smitten.
Reading with my dad and hearing his stories fostered my love of books, my creativity, my sense of humor and, best of all, it brought me closer to him. It’s part of who I am.
If you have any kids in your life, read with them and tell them stories. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give them.