I picked up this unassuming book merely for the intriguing tagline – ‘how children use stories to shape their lives’. Stories did always fascinate us, when we were kids, and of course even now. I wondered what this girl with the brown crayon did…so I flipped to the first page, and read about a little five year old girl who fell in love with a character in a book…Frederick the mouse. This friendship of hers with a character from a book starts off a journey of learning that nobody had quite expected.
The beauty of this book is that it’s the true story of what happened in a preschool classroom.The day Mrs. Paley brought out Frederick to read aloud to her little students, a discussion begins. A discussion that goes on beyond the classroom, beyond the boundaries of age, colour and curriculum.
Leo Lionni is the creator of the said character. It all starts when Mrs. Paley decides to read through most of Leo Lionni’s books over a period of a year, the year which is to be her last year as a preschool teacher. The children go back and forth between the stories, and discuss them as if these characters are partakers in these sessions. This mouse is like that fish, they say…or our friend Walter reminds us of this character.
Bright-eyed Reeny is the girl with the brown crayon, making statements of philosophical depth that leave Mrs. Paley pleasantly surprised…there are times when she can’t wait what Reeny will say when she reads out a new book. Does Reeny identify with the story? Does she think the story could have ended some other way? For Reeny has a way of reviewing these stories with sensitivity and brilliance. There are times she will even empathise with the author and explain to the class why he might have led the characters one way and not the other.
The journey brings in many travellers along the way…storytellers who bring in new opportunities for children to continue this string of reflections. A mother comes in and talks about her childhood, a grandmother talks about Harriet Tubman and slavery. An Indian teacher narrates the special powers of the monkey prince, Hanuman.
And the rewardees are many. Teachers who have learnt from children, the lessons of life. Children who have opened their eyes to themselves and their friends.
How is this episode any different from what would take place in any other preschool classroom?
For one, the teacher experimenting with books from the same author, thus building a premise for the children to reflect on the author’s intent, as well as find the freedom to imagine alternatives, and most of all, relate to them and befriend the characters that bounce off the books into their very lives.
A touching account of what can happen when one digs into the heart of a simple story.