As a Young Inklings and Hillview Author Author teacher, I have hosted thirty-one class parties over the last three years. I’ve heard nearly three hundred kids – Kindergarten through age fourteen – read their original stories out loud to an audience.
Each student created something unique, from her own imagination. This story – brand new to the world but very close to her heart – she shared with others, some of whom she did not know.
I usually ask the teenagers to list their fears the week before the reading. This takes a lot of paper. Fears about reading original work aloud include: “people won’t understand you, tripping up reading, being judged, being misunderstood, tripping up and other variations on what others may think.”
We discuss each of the fears. Unfortunately, these are rational fears. I never promise kids that these things will not happen. They might.
We can’t control what others think. We make mistakes.
I don’t tell students this, but I’ve seen worse things happen: accidents, tears or uncontrolled giggles. It’s scary to face your greatest fears while everyone is watching you.
So, why do it?
Well, the kids in my elementary classes will tell you its because they get a cookie afterward. At each party every kid gets a cookie. They know this from day one. Each student reads the story she has written aloud to an audience of other students and, if elementary kids, also parents – usually about 15 – 30 people. We talk a lot about this cookie for the nine weeks leading up to the party.
When we have writer’s block because we can’t come up with the exactly perfect thing to write, we talk about the cookie, and how many weeks it is until cookies. This might be a good time to go ahead write anything: it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be ready for when we have cookies together.
When we start to get scared about reading the story we have written out loud, we talk about how there will be cookies afterwards. No one will be thinking about us and whether our pants are zipped up, they will be thinking about when we have cookies together.
To be clear: these cookies are from Safeway.
Even though it’s all about the cookies, it’s not about the cookies at all.
It’s about the other part of the sentence: We will all have the cookies together.
It’s about faith. We need to know that all our effort, all our work will be valued by those around us. We need to know we matter. We need to be acknowledged. We will not be alone in the moment of our greatest vulnerability.
Promising friends and families cookies for that support seems like the least we can do. And, certainly, when kids are this courageous, they must know they we will be there for them at the end. When they face their fears – and they are substantial: rejection, judgment, and failure – we will be there.
And, we want to know everything will be OK on the other side.
The cookie is just our excuse.
And that’s just fine with me. These kids are brave enough as it is.
The holidays seem created to cause conflict. Families gather. Beliefs differ, but cannot be concealed. Time, resources, and patience are limited. It’s enough to tempt anyone to make a small, wax figurine of a powerful family figure, just to have it go along with the holiday plans.
That’s precisely what six-year-old Toad does in Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians by Mary Nash. And, who can blame the boy for trying voodoo? Miss Eva was planning to make eggplant and rutabaga for dinner. His beloved Mrs. Coverlet, who had just left for a national baking competition, would never feed him such outlandish vegetables.
I read this book at the recommendation of Deborah Underwood, author of The Christmas Quiet Book. She re-reads the book – a treasured one from her childhood – each Christmas, maybe not for the voodoo per se.
Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians deals with belief in many forms. The youngest brother believes in just about everything: the power of the magic kit he bought from the horror comic and Santa. Malcolm, the oldest brother, is more skeptical, not even believing that Mrs. Coverlet’s recipe could win a contest.
This clash of beliefs is a situation set for conflict, as are most family holidays. But, in Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians, the kids end up helping each other. Underwood says:
I respond to the love they all have for each other. The kids’ willingness to endure Miss Eva for the sake of Mrs. Coverlet’s big chance, Malcolm and Molly’s determination to have a normal Christmas for their little brother, and even Miss Dextrose-Chesapeake’s outrage at Mrs. Coverlet’s plight and her willingness to intervene–these things truly exemplify the Christmas spirit for me.
Of course, the Toad’s way of helping resembles voodoo. He makes a wax figurine of Miss Eva and puts it to bed. He uses a wand to find a Christmas tree and casts spells each night so that it will snow on Christmas.
These actions concern Malcolm – Underwood most identifies with him – and his “troublesome conscience.” Malcolm takes care of everything. He burns the horror comic they weren’t allowed to read, buys gifts for his brother and sister, and undoes the voodoo doll. Then Malcolm speaks to the Reverend, their neighbor, about what it all means. Underwood points out:
I adored that Reverend Forthright was perfectly willing to accept all the strange happenings as Christmas magic, and that he told Malcolm to enjoy the mystery of it all rather than fret about it.
Not many books deal so directly with a variety of beliefs and the doubts that naturally accompany belief. Malcolm’s confession to Reverend Forthright leads to clarity. Reverend Forthright says:
“I believe in magic at Christmas…the amount of good will which is set loose every year at this time is quite unaccountable. Take your spruce! I don’t care how the Toad found it! What good were his spells and his wand if Mr. Bouncer hadn’t let you keep it, even helped you home with it!…Let the Toad think he conjured up Christmas single-handed. You and I know how many people contributed.”
Malcolm’s fears are calmed and he can enjoy his little brother at the end of the book. Dialogue and conflict about faith and life can help readers discern their own beliefs. Despite their significant differences, the characters in Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians ultimately help each other. Underwood reflects on the theme of the book:
I did and still do believe in Christmas magic, although possibly more in the Reverend Forthright sense than in the magic-kit-ordered-from-horror-comic sense.
There are no wax figures in Underwood’s newest book, The Christmas Quiet Book. But there are characters overcoming some differences, and sticking together during tense holiday times. Perhaps that is the real Christmas voodoo.