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