Lisa Ripperton

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When the Curtain Rises

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 9, 2019

This is the third post in our series on ​selection criteria for choosing books for children in the early years. The first two are alluded to below, but you can read our ​earlier posts on Apperception and Sense Appeal to get the full story. The excerpt below comes from Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller" (1913). ​

Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to "stories" here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.

*     *     *

One way to begin a story

A tired-out, unenthusiastic school teacher in one of our large public schools was recently endeavoring to secure the attention of her class for a story. This story hour was, for her, just one lap in the march of the day's routine, a period to be finished as soon as possible, and she began it in a stereotyped way.

"I am going to tell you a story, children," she said, "and I want every child in the room to sit up straight, put his feet flat on the floor and fold his hands. When everybody is ready, I will begin."

​A more successful approach

In contrast one is reminded of another teacher, who opened her story hour in a different way. In point of fact, she did not really open it at all in the formal understanding of the word. Nor did she have any specified period of the day for telling stories. When her class was fatigued and needed a note of relaxation, when they were restless and needed calming, when they seemed to need inspiration, she gave the signal for books and pencils to be put away and with no further introduction she took the children with her to Story Land for a space, opening her story in so interesting a way that she compelled attention without asking for it.

The instance of the first story teller is an example of securing a child's voluntary attention.

The second story teller illustrated a method of securing a child's involuntary, almost unconscious attention.

​How to secure a child's attention

Especially in the case of the little child who is beginning his school work, and even up to the more mature years of childhood, voluntary attention, that mental operation in which the will is called upon to open the doors of the senses and let in knowledge, is almost too much for us to ask of a child. The wonderful machinery of the mind has provided another and much more economic means of knowledge acquisition. Certain mind stimuli will set the whole wireless system of perception, association and memory going​ without any effort on the part of the story teller save that of discovering the stimuli. In other words, we must secure involuntary attention in children through studying their interests.​ The story that opens with headlines of child interest  as compelling as those of one of our yellow news sheets will hold a child's attention without his being in the least conscious of his attitude of mind toward it. Voluntary attention, the mind attitude toward a story that is brought about by folded hands and straight backs, is very likely to lapse, to develop a will-o'-the-wisp character and finally lose itself. Concentrated attention can be secured in children only through the medium of appealing to child interest.

​Catching attention at the start is key

The successful story teller will bear in mind the fact, in selecting stories to tell, that the good story for children of any age, and adults too, for that matter, should have one of the qualities that characterize a successful drama. It must catch the attention of the audience the moment the curtain rises.​ There must be no long explanation, no descriptive scenes and painful dragging in of the plot. Children do not care a rap for the creating of atmosphere. They do not care how long ago the story events happened, or why they happened. What they are eager for is a quick story appeal made the second that the story curtain rolls up.

​Questions for the teller to ask

Each story told to children ought to be selected having in mind its beginning.​ The story teller must ask herself another set of questions:

"Does the story interest begin with my first paragraph, my first sentence, my first word?"

"Will the opening of my story find an apperceptive basis for attention in the minds of my children?"

"Has my story a sense appeal in the first sentence?"

Any one of these qualities of story opening will help to win the sympathy of the child audience and will find a ready response in involuntary attention.

​A compelling opener

A class of little street boys waged continued warfare upon one of the New York Settlement Houses. They broke the windows, mobbed the Settlement children and carefully evaded the police. The Settlement story teller decided, one night, to open the doors of the house to the gang of boys and see if it would not be possible to win them over to an interest in the work of the Settlement and lead them to obey the laws of society through stories. The boys entered the building like a besieging army. They shouted, stamped, stampeded into the room that had been assigned them and throwing down chairs and overturning tables they proceeded to produce a scene of Bedlam. The story teller made no effort to control the boys. She secured for herself a place of vantage in the center of the room. When there was an instant's lull in the uproar that the boys were making, as they took breath for more rowdyism, she said in a low, even tone of voice:

"There was once a little Indian boy who rode fifty miles on the cow-catcher of an engine."

Then she waited and the boys waited, too, breathlessly eager for her next words. When she saw that she had caught the interest of her audience, she proceeded with the story in the same even, low voice, not so much telling the boys a story, apparently, but just telling a story, every sentence of which painted a word picture and the whole being a graphic series of moving pictures unrolled on a story film before her audience. She gave the story facts about the Indian lad who had never seen a locomotive and stole a daring ride on one because he thought it was a fire-horse. One by one the boys seated themselves quietly on the chairs or on the floor to listen. Several lay flat upon the floor, crawling stealthily nearer to the story teller as their interest in the story deepened. Throughout the entire telling of the story the room was absolutely still, and when the climax came the boys asked for another story. From that evening they were the Settlement's staunch allies.

The wrong way to begin

It would have been impossible to secure the voluntary attention of these boys. The fact that some one wanted to tell them a story would have probably inspired them to more lawlessness. If the story teller had begun the story after this fashion:—

"Fifty years ago there were few railways in the western part of our country. The prairies were peopled by Comanche tribes who were unfamiliar with the inventions of civilization, and the first train that ran through an Indian settlement inspired an Indian lad to a strange deed"—

Not a boy would have listened. This form of story beginning is bad​ and phenomenally common in many stories for children. It is an example of words,​ not interest stimuli. It explains a story situation instead of presenting​ it. A story to secure the involuntary attention of children should have the quality of a crashing orchestral overture, a thunder clap, a pistol shot—so unexpected, compelling, and penetrating will it be.

Basis of the appeal

"There was once a little Indian boy who rode fifty miles on the cow-catcher of an engine."

Could there be a more stimulating story beginning for a group of boys than this? There is an apperceptive appeal in the Indian lad. He was not a man, not a chieftain, but just a little lad like themselves. There is an immediate sense appeal in the steam-engine image that the story beginning brings to their minds. Smoke, smell, bell ringing, whistle blowing, steam escaping, and the rattle of iron wheels on iron tracks are all recalled to a boy's mind in one glorious bit of imagination whose only stimulus is the word engine.​ Then, to clinch the apperceptive and sensory appeal of the sentence, is the quick introduction of a new story interest—the Indian boy did a deed that they, in their wildest dreams, had never considered—he rode an engine.

​​Examine story closely to discover main point of interest

If a story, otherwise good, opens poorly—is too wordy, too descriptive, too pedantic—study the story carefully for its main interest and, selecting just the right words to convey this overture of interest, begin there. It will be discovered that certain of the classic, favorite tales of childhood fulfill this story test. They open compellingly and carry the interest that was stimulated in the first paragraph clear through to the end.

​Strong Opening #1 — "The Faithful Tin Soldier"

"There were once five and twenty tin soldiers who were all brothers, for they had been made out of the same old tin spoon."

Hans Christian Andersen used the child's instinctive love of counting his toys, and a bit of humor that tickles a child's fancy, when he wrote this opening paragraph of his wonderful old allegory, "The Faithful Tin Soldier."

Strong Opening #2 — "The ​Greedy Cat"

"Once upon a time there lived a cat and a parrot and they thought they would ask each other to dinner, turn and turn about."

This folk tale of "The Greedy Cat" opens with a strong sense appeal. The children's interest aroused in the first sentence by means of the progressive dinner arrangement of the famous cat is sustained to the last word of the story.

Strong Opening #3 — "​Drakestail"

"He was a wee little duck with a very long tail, so he was called Drakestail. Now Drakestail had some money of his very, very own and the King asked if he might take it. So Drakestail loaned all his money to the King—"

In this old folk tale, the gist of which is the merry adventures of a duck, the story interest begins with the first sentence. The children are introduced, with no unnecessary preliminaries of description or explanation to the hero, Drakestail, and then they are plunged into the story itself, interesting and direct in its appeal.

Strong Opening #4 — "​Coming of the King"

"Some children were at play in their playground one day, when a herald rode through the town, blowing a trumpet and crying aloud: 'The King! The King is coming!' "

In this story, Laura E. Richards' "Coming of the King," which can be found in her collection of short stories, The Golden Windows, a strong sense appeal commands the child's involuntary attention at the beginning of the story. The familiar figures, children at play in their playground, are introduced to the sound of a trumpet's call, instantly attracting the attention of the child listeners.

​Strike the note with the first sentence

​Once the story teller has learned story selection, having in mind a beginning that will hold the attention of her audience from her first word, her success will be secured. It is also possible to carry this interest which has been secured for the child the instant that the curtain rolls up, straight through to the end of the story, because of its compelling beginning. The opening paragraph of a child's story should be the theme, tuned to the key and melody of child interest about which and on which the rest of the story plays. The noteworthy dinner of the cat, and the mouse forms the keynote for the rest of the classic adventures of the Greedy Cat. The "wee little duck" and the avaricious old King whom we meet in the first paragraph are the main actors in the story drama of Drakestail. The playground of the children that we see in the first sentence of Mrs. Richards' "The Coming of the King," is the scene of a story miracle almost unparalleled in short story writing for children.

​The way to begin a story

​Cutting out unnecessary description, avoiding any explanation as to why you are telling the story, introducing your thunder clap, your trumpet, your story hero in the first sentence—this is the way to begin a story.

*     *     *

This concludes this excerpt from the ​third chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's For the Story Teller.

The takeaway

In choosing books to read to your children rather than tell, you obviously won't want to invent a new beginning. But you can evaluate picture books by turning to the first page and reading the first sentence or two. Are you drawn into the story by the opening words? Will your child be? Take a fresh look at some of your family's favorite picture books to see how the opening words capture attention. Here as an example are the first words of one of our favorites: "In January it's so nice while slipping on the sliding ice to sip hot chicken soup with rice. Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice." Who wouldn't want to turn the page and find out what ensues in Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice?​

To give you more ​opportunity to think about ​story openings, here are ​fourteen stories (all fine choices to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of her third chapter as introducing ​the story interest in the very first paragraph:

Share your experience

​Which of your favorite picture books have compelling openings? Please share in the comments!


Books for Breakfast

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 2, 2019

​In an earlier post Not Just at Bedtime we ​suggested reading aloud at meal-time. In this post we present the possibility of ​reading independently at some of your family meals.

​When I was growing up in the 1950s as the middle child of five, our family breakfast was definitely not a formal affair. We all walked to public schools in different directions that had staggered starting times, so our breakfasts were staggered too. Choice of cold cereal with topping of fruit was what was typically set out for us on the counter separating the kitchen from the dining room. With only four stools, we had to take turns. Eating breakfast in that way, I read the backs of more cereal boxes than I care to count. How I wish there had been some more interesting reading material laid out next to the boxes of cereal! 

​What my younger self would have appreciated

  • ​A small stack of books ​in a basket on the counter that we could choose from, and then ​pass to the left.
  • Books in a variety of genres so I could ​select ​a title that matched my mood.
  • Books of short readings ​that I could finish in the time it took me to eat my breakfast.
  • Something that would gladden my heart or give me food for thought as I was filling my belly.
  • ​Something humorous or uplifting to start the day on a positive note.​

An assortment of books for different reading levels

If you want to try this out with your family, I suggest you gather a few books at the right reading level for each of your children, books that they can read easily and will especially appreciate. Hardbacks work best because they are more likely to lie flat when open. But don't offer up your prized books for breakfast reading. Expect that cereal and milk will find their way onto the pages, so worn copies from a thrift shop will be a better fit. Only put a few out at a time and rotate them regularly so there is always something new on the "menu."

Below are some ideas for types of books that you might use in this context. I purposely chose books from a variety of genres to get you thinking about the possibilities.

Dolch folk tales for emerging readers

In the Dolch Basic Vocabulary Series the emphasis is on presenting interesting subject matter in a literary way, all the while employing a simple vocabulary with an average of less than one new word per page. The pages, which feature large text and spacious margins, do not have the look of a "school reader," so they are a good match for students just beginning to read independently at home. Stories vary in length but most are five pages, and typically take less than five minutes to read. Sample pages from the three titles pictured above appear below, followed by a graphic showing a list of all the titles in the series.

STEP-UP books for the next level

The STEP-UP books are fine choices for children once they are comfortable with reading and are ​​ready to explore on their own. According to the publisher, in the STEP-UP series,

  • ​THE WORDS ARE HARDER (but not too hard)
  • ​THERE'S A LOT MORE TEXT (but it's in bigger print)
  • ​THERE ARE PLENTY OF ILLUSTRATIONS (but they are not just picture books)
  • ​And the subject matter has been carefully chosen to appeal to young readers who want to find out about the world for themselves.

​Below is a list of the books in ​two categories of STEP-UP books: Nature Library and the Story of America. Then sample covers are displayed for three of the titles in the Nature Library and one in Story of America, followed by sample page spreads from these same ​volumes.

Minute biographies for older readers

I have long been a fan of the minute biographies illustrated by Samuel Nisenson with text written by others. Each biography spans one or at most two  8 1/2 x 11 pages. There is an illustration by Nisenson at the top of each biography that draws ​the reader in and sets the stage for the story that follows. While each biography includes an outline of the individual's life, the focus is on the major impact that he had in his field of endeavour, whether for good or ill. ​The stories are interestingly told with enough detail to ​fix the ​reader's attention, but with more to discover upon further inquiry.

Below are sample covers for three books in this series along with sample page spreads.

Here is a list of all the books I know about in this series. If you know of others, please let me know. For all titles Samuel Nisenson is the Illustrator.

     100 Greatest Sports Heroes by Mac Davis

     History's 100 Greatest Composers by Helen L. Kaufman

     History's 100 Greatest Events by William A. Dewitt

     Illustrated Minute Biographies by William A. Dewitt

     Minute Biographies by Alfred Parker

     More Minute Biographies by Alfred Parker​

Joke books offer something for all ages

​Last, but not least, a set of riddle books, enjoyed by everyone! Zany illustrations and easy to read text in Bennett Cerf's Book of Riddles, More Riddles, and Animal Riddles will have your young reader in stitches.

Let children sort out who reads what book

Some days a child may want to read a book at their reading level, but other days they may want to read an easier book, or one that particularly catches their eye, regardless of reading level. Let them decide!

​Where to get these books

​Sad to say, I strongly suspect that all the books featured in this post are no longer in print. Most, if not all, can be purchased relatively reasonably, though, at used books sites such as You may also want to keep an eye out for them at library sales or thrift shops. To preview titles at Internet Archive click on the text links above, the page spreads of the STEP-UP Books, and the covers of the riddle books. ​When you arrive at Internet Archive you will be able either to Borrow the book immediately or join a Waitlist to access it at a later time. ​Examining the full text at Internet Archive can help you decide what books might be worth purchasing for your family.

Share your experience

​If you are inspired to try serving books for breakfast, please let us know in the comments how it goes! Do you have suggestions for other books that would be good to ​offer for morning fare?