Reluctant Readers (Part 2)

An iPub Perspective Editorial

By Fawzia Mai Tung

Part 2 of my “Reluctant Readers” series further details the writing process for “The Wonderful Tale of Donkey Skin.” All the children I had previously read to were an integral part of the process. Test reads in the classroom proved promising!

See Reluctant Readers (Part 1) in case you missed it!

Cover of “The Wonderful Tale of Donkey Skin” (ISBN 978-1-948575-60-7)

When I decided to write a children’s book, my mind immediately said, “A fairy tale! Donkey Skin!” For in my early childhood, of all the fairy tales, this one fed my imagination the most. Like most other medieval tales, the savvy parents of today find it rather distasteful. So, I made sure to fix those issues, such as the forlorn, widowed king selecting a beautiful portrait from the portraits of available princesses for marriage — only to find out it was his daughter. And then, the king being insane enough to insist on marrying her anyway. Thus, setting in motion her demands for dresses and eventual flight from home. I turned the crazy suitor into a crafty and evil duke.

The other part I modified was the description of the dresses. Such magical dresses could not possibly be described simply as “astonishingly beautiful.” No, no, no. They had to appeal to the senses! Thus, I added the scents, the sounds, and the smells of those dresses.

As I started typing out the first words, something strange happened. All the children I’d told stories to over my long life started talking in my head. They just wouldn’t quit talking. I had no choice but to include them on paper. Thus, the framework of the book—story interspersed with the conversation interjections—took off. Looking back, I realize that little children do not interrupt the storyteller in order to be rude. No. They need to interact and own the story. Especially at the beginning, they need to place the setting firmly in their minds, visualize the characters, and own the plot. They cannot be expected to simply listen and not get involved.

In the “middle grades,” which is anywhere from grade 3 to grade 7, children are already very much exposed to a great amount of bits of knowledge and have often developed opinions about them. They still love fairy tales, but do not accept a vague “long ago” or “far, far away.” When exactly? Where exactly? They cannot accept a nameless king. What was his name?

These interruptions, or questions, become less frequent as the plot unfolds and they become engrossed. They start to think about the logic of outrageous plot twists, or rebel against actions they have been told are not acceptable. In real life, when I tell a story, I cannot ignore these questions, or just brush them aside. My little listeners would not let me. Indeed, they need to have their questions answered right then and there in order to continue accepting the plot and characters. Thus, in Donkey Skin, the grandmotherly narrator (modeled on myself, of course) tries to answer and explain as best she can without derailing too much from her storytelling.

A series of Polaroid prints with the questions, "Who", "When", "Where", "How", "Why" and "What" hung on a wooden fence.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Thus, the children took me on discussions about French history (which king could this possibly be?), the grossness of having to pull out daily gold coins from donkey poop, figuring out what disease could have suddenly struck a queen dead (despite the best physicians), how a depressed king did not die of hunger and thirst over a dozen years of more of starvation, what age is appropriate for marriage versus education, and much more.

Some of their questions forced me to go back and do some research. For instance, why would a prince suddenly go visit a farm? Digging into the original French tale was an interesting search. It turned out that large farms interested in raising rare animals were the prototypes of today’s zoos! I never knew that. In Chinese, the word “knowledge” is called Xue Wen, or, learn, ask. In other words, to ask is to learn. Here, the children asked, and I learned.

In fact, as the children questioned the plot, even though I’d already sanitized it, I was forced to correct it to make it more ethical and educational. A hero, or what we call today, a protagonist or main character, should be a model for character education. How could a prince, however charming, be looking through keyholes? That was the original tale, and I, the narrator, just went along, wincing a bit, but accepting it unquestioningly. The children would not. Thus, I tried first to punish the the prince for being a peeping Tom by making him go blind. But the children’s kind hearts rebelled against such harsh punishment. So, I had to change the entire thing, creating a wind that blew the door open. Now, the children were happy.

Another important aspect I added to the tale was filiality. Somehow, these fairy tales feature characters who start at home, like Thumbelina, or any of the many peasant boys who leave home for adventures, go through all kinds of scrapes, then succeed in life, usually by marrying a prince or princess. Yet, none of them go home to look for their parents and thank them for raising them by sharing some of the wealth they obtained. This kind of selfishness always bothered me. Therefore, I made sure Donkey Skin asked her prince to go home and save her father from the evil duke.

Once the script was drafted, I had to have it illustrated. It so happens that one of my daughters is a working artist who had illustrated other children’s books. Her art style is rather whimsical, and she was able to grasp the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of the storytelling. Her princess did not materialize into a dreamily beautiful creature but, rather, a modern teenager. I then asked one of my sons who is quite a cartoonist to draw opening and closing pages that would attract children who like comic books and graphic novels.

Pages 9-10 of “Donkey Skin.”

At this point, I needed to test the book out on children, to figure out whether this format would interest them. I still remember the first class I tried it on. They were a bunch of students in a reading class, mostly boys, who had to be dragged reluctantly to read books. I projected the script and images onto the screen, and had one of the students read the grandchild’s words, while I read the grandmother’s narrative.

To my great amazement, all were engrossed in the storytelling. Some of the students started climbing over their desks or under them to get closer to the screen. Were they trying to examine the illustrations more closely? After that interesting session, I asked them what they liked best about the story. Some said the dresses (mostly the girls), others liked the illustrations, but a good number said they loved the fact that the kid was able to change the story. Actually, they seemed to identify with the grandkid and think that it was they themselves who had changed the story. I almost laughed out loud when one student questioned a point in the plot, and my answer was, “Well, turn the page …” He found that the boy asked the exact same question!

I used the story time and again with various students, some in groups, others individually, and always got a similar response. I knew then that I was on the right track. Students started asking for “your stories” when given new books to read. I asked why. The answer was always, “Your stories are more interesting!”

I am not trying to preen my feathers and pat my own back. I’m only saying that young children who have not yet fallen in love with books need a middle ground. They need to have books that lead them in, allow them to proceed at their own pace, and scaffold them into processing ideas and thoughts.

And, it was thus that my series of The May Fairy was born.

The Wonderful Tale of Donkey Skin” (ISBN 978-1-948575-60-7) is available for pre-order now! Order your copy here and download free resources here.

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