Inspiring a future storyteller

posted in: 2010, Gwen Millward, Jenny Nimmo | 19

I’ve been itching to review The Beasties by Jenny Nimmo, illustrated by Gwen Millward ever since we discovered it at the start of the year. It’s one of those books that we’ve renewed the maximum times possible from the library because we just can’t let it go.

Photo: betsssssy

Daisy has moved house and is finding it hard to fall asleep in her new room. She lies awake listening to unfamiliar noises.

What was that?
Daisy’s heart went pit-a-pat.

Was it a truck in the street?

It sounded like…

… a story!

From out of the darkness a growly voice tells Daisy an exciting story about a faraway king and his ring.

Daisy wondered about that ring.
Was it gold or silver
or studded with jewels?
She wondered
and wondered until
she fell asleep.

The next night again there are again strange noises Daisy is not yet used to. But this time a clickety voice cuts through the darkness to tell a captivating story about a beautiful bird. Before Daisy knows it she’s transported, and happily dreaming.

The third night it’s a musical voice with a sing-song story that lulls Daisy to sleep, but on the fourth night everything is silent. Daisy can’t sleep and longs for a story.

And then there is the faintest of growls. Daisy summons up all her courage and looks under her bed and almost screams – there are The Beasties.

But the Beasties are so very small and so very friendly and it turns out that they are the secretive storytellers who have been visiting Daisy each night, leaving treasures under her bed to inspire stories.

Photo: wildxplorer

And when Daisy asks for another story, Floot (the Beastie with the musical voice) insists that Daisy tell her own story and hands her a shell. At first Daisy doesn’t know what to do but she thinks hard, and slowly begins to weave a story around the shell. As her story ends Daisy smiles, hugs the shell tight and drifts off to sleep imagining herself in her own story.

The Beasties sneak out of Daisy’s room knowing her bed won’t seem so big and her room won’t seem so strange now she can tell her own stories. Their work is done.

A book about how stories can comfort, reassure us and makes us feel at home – this is a fabulous read. Perfect for bedtime, ideal if coming to terms with moving house or rooms, I love how the story acknowledges worries, but turns them round. The girls love joining in with the repeated refrain “What was that? Daisy’s heart went pit-a-pat” and they adore the pictures of trinkets and knick-knacks littering the floor under Daisy’s bed – they know this sort of treasure only too well as it’s exactly the stuff they are always collecting; a feather from here, a round stone from there, a button, a ribbon, a broken earring.

Photo: EvelynGiggles

The stories told by Floot and his fellow Beasties, Weevil and Ferdinand, are exactly the sort of stories my girls tell – plots told with a familiar matter-of-factness, full of both straightforward and unbelievable turns as makes perfect sense to a small child. I’m sure this mirroring of behaviour my girls know so well is a large part of why the book appeals to them.

I initially picked up the book because the cover is so beautiful – it reminds me, with its chrysanthemum-like flower petals edged in silver, of fine oriental porcelain. Gwen Millward, perhaps best known her book The Bog Baby, has done a wonderful job capturing different atmospheres and creating images full of textures and details. Her Beasties are so friendly looking – I can imagine someone good at sewing could make great soft toys to look like them.

I particularly like her illustrations on the pages where the Beasties and later Daisy are telling their own stories – the images, like the stories, are all-enveloping, full to the very edges of the pages, adding further to the feeling that stories can wrap around you like a blanket and take you somewhere else.

M was desperate for the Beasties to pay her a visit. Without any prompting she wrapped up a series of presents for Weevil, Floot and Ferdinand accompanied by a letter I wasn’t allowed to see.

With such a heartfelt request put out there, the Beasties really wanted to visit. And so in the middle of one night they snuck into M’s bedroom (with a torch) and left an array of treasures under her bed.

They also replied to her letter.

M was crazy excited by all of this – it was better than a stocking at Christmas! She couldn’t wait to show us all the trinkets the Beasties had left, and couldn’t believe they’d left a letter for her.

M then announced we were to have a Storytelling Festival and she and her sister set about creating a banner for this impromptu event.

Once everything was in its place we all sat down and chose an item each from amongst the Beasties’ booty and made up a story about it. J needed a little prompting to create her story but she too was very enthusiastic about the whole thing, and now keeps asking for the Beasties to visit her at night.

Once all our stories were shared I thought that would be the end of it, but actually most evenings for the best part of the last month M has been writing letters to the Beasties, and setting up little spaces for them to enjoy in the middle of the night using dollshouse furniture.

Of course the Beasties have been visiting a lot – who wouldn’t when such a feast is provided and they are invited to party and sing all night long? And they’ve been leaving M letters which are still being greeted with squeals of delight.

M’s playing inspired by The Beasties took me by surprise. The degree to which she has been motivated to create her own stories was wonderful to see, and now we’ve stumbled on this great little activity which is giving M an opportunity to spontaneously write creatively and to eagerly read each day.

It’s also made me realise how reading handwriting is a different skill from reading printed text; during the early exchange of letters between the Beasties and M she sometimes stumbled on the handwritten characters. By now she is much more familiar with the Beasties’ handwriting, but it did make me realise that practising to read handwritten text shouldn’t be overlooked when considering all the skills needed to create a literate, happy reader.

The Beasties:*** (3 out of 3 stars)

Whilst telling our stories we didn’t have any music on – although it would have been fun to have had our basket of musical instruments to hand to use for sound effects (we didn’t think of this at the time).

However, here are some songs that go nicely with The Beasties:

  • Under My Bed by Recess Monkey
  • Telling Stories by Tracey Chapman
  • Storytelling by Belle and Sebastian
  • Fight for your Right by The Beastie Boys. I don’t think this really goes well with the book, but… well you can see why you could play it if you wanted to!

  • The play inspired by The Beasties wasn’t planned – we all just got carried on the wave of M’s enthusiasm, but if you wanted some ideas for activities to do alongside reading this book you could take a look at these suggestions:

  • Instead of reading a book to your child at night, make up your own stories. Here are some tips to give you confidence and ideas!

  • Take yourself or your kids to a live storytelling session. If you’re in the UK, a great place to start is at The Crick Crack Club, whose homepage includes a list of events for adults and children alike (don’t be fooled – live storytelling isn’t just for kids!). If you’re in the USA The National Storytelling Network might be a good place to start. Here are links also to Australian Storytelling, World Storytelling Institute (India) and Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada.

  • Listen to an audiobook together with your kids. This experience won’t be anything like listening to a live storyteller, but it’s a great opportunity to snuggle up together and relax. Try drawing the curtains, getting down the duvet and curling up on the sofa to listen. If you’re not sure where to start, I have a page about audiobook resources.

  • Before I go I can’t help but mention another story we love about what might be hiding under your bed – Jitterbug Jam by Barbara Jean Hicks and Alexis Deacon, which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago here.

    Have you got any good books to recommend about what might lurk under your bed, or about storytelling? What have you discovered that’s worked well in encouraging your kids to write and read spontaneously?

    19 Responses

    1. Zoe

      Thanks Jojoebi, yes our was a library copy which is now on the wish list!

      Hi Camille – blank books – a fantastic idea, shall have to look for a UK/European company that does something similar. Thanks for the suggestion.

    2. Becky (Book Reviews for Mums)

      What a rich wonderful post. My son has his own blog and he is 6. he writes sotries on there about his lego! It helpos him structure his imagination and gives hime an audience and comments which he loves. He sometimes with a little prompt tells his sister stories in the bath too.

      He is very lively boy and finds it hard to relax. So rather than quiz him about his day after school we listen to audio book s inthe car to help him relax …it works brilliantly. Stories are ace!

    3. Zoe

      Hi Becky,

      What a great idea giving your son his own blog – and I can just see how getting comments works as great encouragement to keep writing (it’s just the same for me!). And YES! Audiobooks are the best – we would be lost without them. Do you have a digital radio? Radio 7 does quite a lot of kids’ books and is definitely worth checking out.

      Hi Susan,
      Glad you found this post – I was definitely thinking of you when I wrote it up! Yes, your story box idea is wonderful. Boxes and treasures and stories – a brilliant combination!

    4. Even in Australia

      Great post! I love how excited M is. My 5yo doesn’t need much prompting to write – she writes letters to her cousins, thank you notes, and complaints (mostly to the City), all the time. She recently wrote to complain about people not obeying the leash laws and scaring her and her sister when we were out sledding.

      Reading is another story (pun intended). She is an emergent reader but very resistant to reading with us, although not at school. I wrote a very short story about HER, thinking that might inspire her, and while she enjoyed it and seemed proud of herself, it didn’t prompt any further reading on her own. Any ideas?

      • Zoe

        I love the sound of her complain letters Even in Australia! Does she ever get replies? As to reading, I’m so new at all this, I don’t think I can offer much insight, other than to suggest just give it time. If she’s reading at school that’s great and even if she isn’t reading aloud to you she may be reading to herself a little. Do you know The Book Chook? She’s my go-to for great literacy resources, ideas, and just great writing – she may have more suggestions, or a different perspective on the whole thing.

    5. Ali B

      What a wonderful outcome from a book, and how lovely to see both writing and story telling inspired by it! I’d recommend In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak for a great night time adventure, or maybe Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, unless it’s a little too old for them?

      • Zoe

        Oh Ali M ADORES The Borrowers – absolutely adores them. The only thing that makes me a little sad with the book is the reference made in it to bilingual kids not being able to read so well: ““I’ve just come from India. If you’re born in India, you’re bilingual. And if you’re bilingual, you can’t read so well.” – I commented on this in the comments on this earlier post – But that aside, the story is wonderful. I shall have to try The Night Kitchen again. I read it once a long time ago and it didn’t grab me then, but that was before kids and maybe now I’ll see different things (and so will M and J). Thanks for the suggestions.

    6. Even in Australia

      Yes, we have gotten replies and even action! We got a pedestrian signal (walk/don’t walk) near us lengthened (by a mere 3 seconds) and a street repaved! I suspect we’ll have less luck with the leash laws, though. But you never know.

    7. sandhya

      What a wonderful way to inspire storytelling! We love Jenny Nimmo too. Isn’t she wonderful? Will probably post on her books at ST sometime.
      As for night-time books- we recently read “The wolves in the walls” by Neil Gaiman, and loved it. A great way to be introduced to this wonderful writer.

    8. Janelle

      What a great way to encourage letter writing! Handwritten letters can be hard to read, although the Beasties look like they have nice writing! My daughter always complains about my half-cursive, half-printed writing. She really does not like the look of my s’s.

    9. Zoe

      Hi Sandhya,
      We haven’t read anything else by Jenny Nimmo, but on the strength of this book I’ll definitely be on the look out for more by her. Haven’t read any Neil Gaiman yet either but thanks for the tip.

    10. Zoe

      Hi Janelle, yes I had never thought about how difficult handwriting can be to read (not that I haven’t read enough terrible handwriting in my time – when I taught it was always difficult not to mark down those papers written with handwriting that made it simply difficult to read the paper). When we got your Flat Stanley letter, I loved your handwriting! I’m always amazed by how there seem to be national country-based styles for handwriting.

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