Monday, September 5, 2011

6. Write This!

Two books and a game to turn your kids into storytellers -- maybe even get them to write stories down.

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure: A Progressive Story Game Played by 20 Celebrated Authors and Illustrators, Candlewick, $17.99. Get ready to laugh yourself silly, and not just at this story but at all of the famous writers who wriggled in their seats while writing it. In this funny collaboration by 20 top talents in children's books, author Jon Scieszka sets up a wild scenario for a story, then asks fellow authors and illustrators to run with it. With each chapter, a new author-illustrator team picks up the story from where another team left it.  As the teams wrangle with themes that are almost too silly to put together, they try to get in a doozy of a plot twist before their chapter ends. You can almost hear them tease, "Now what are you going to do?" as they pass the story on. Scieszka begins the story with a cliff-hanger that calls for a quick response, not only from the story's heroes but the authors who have to write the heroes out of immediate danger. Here's where the book starts: Two twins have just run away from the circus after receiving a mysterious birthday card from their parents, whom they thought were dead. In the letter, the parents urge twins Nancy and Joe, 11, to run out into the world and look for clues that will lead them to parts of a top-secret robot, known as "The Exquisite Corpse." But as they get started, the twins find themselves on a train set to explode if it crosses a bridge just up ahead. Thanks to Katherine Patterson they do escape alive, only to learn in Kate DiCamillo's chapter that a clown from their circus set them up and is about to juggle another bomb. By the time Susan Cooper takes over the story, the twins are being chased by a dancing pig. Could the circus they've run away from be trying to hunt them down?  Originally published on the LIbrary of Congress website, this hilarious experiment might just inspire your kids to start a progressive story of their own.
Tales from the Haunted House (Storyworld, Create a Story Kit), by John & Caitlin Matthews, Templar Books, $9.99, 2011. With Halloween creeping closer, here's a terrific way to tap into your children's imagination: a kit for making up ghoulish stories. Tale from the Haunted House is the fifth entry in a clever game series that gets kids to create stories without them feeling pressure to do so. Inside each kit is a deck of 28 cards, each with a mood-setting scene on one side and questions about possible plots on the other. Children select whichever card they like, then take turns imagining what might be happening in it. The first player begins the story, then from there, all of the players direct where it will go, adding their own details and plot twists as their turn comes along. The more climactic the plot and the more abruptly it changes, the more exciting and silly the game gets. Players can latch onto a detail in one of the pictures or a question to get their ideas rolling. Here's just a sample: On one side of a card titled, "The Friendly Ghost," players see a jolly-looking ghost waving hello to a girl as other children run away. On the opposite side, the authors ask, "Why has the friendly ghost appeared?" Other cards show bats flying in a belfry and a monster hunter weighed down by his contraptions (among them, a metal ghost detector and vacuum strapped to his back). And my favorite? A card with a boy having a nightmare in a bed shaped like a horse's skeleton in mid gallop. (Every card is so beautifully illustrated, you may be tempted like I was to string them across a child's room with clothespins.) Final thoughts? Storyworld can be played alone, but it's great fun played in a group, and if allowed, it could go on for hours. Every kit comes with a booklet explaining different ways to play the game, yet players are heartily encouraged to come up with their own rules. Author Phillip Pullman called this series "ingenious" and I agree. Even if children don't like to write or struggle to read, they'll be clamoring to get in a plot twister. And once they try one kit, they'll just have to get more. Eventually they'll be mixing kits for a thoroughly wacky game.
In Front of My House, written and illustrated by Marianne Dubuc, Kids Can Press, $18.95, 2010. In this adorable import, a child develops a story inspired by things she sees and in the end discovers she's back to where she started. The child, which we quickly assume is a girl, describes details of where she lives that lead her into her house, then under her bed where her imagination takes flight. Both spontaneous in tone and circular, the story begins in front of the girl's house, "on a little hill, behind a brown fence, under a big oak tree." There in front of the house sits a rosebush and on it is a little bird. Above the bird is a window and through it, her room. Inside is a bed and under it, "Whew! Nothing at all." But next to the nothing? An old sock. And under it? A book of fairy tales, where a princess lives and a dragon, and behind it, a frog with a crown -- her prince charming waiting to be kissed. The frog sits on lily pad -- on a pond, where a bear is fishing. Behind the bear is a bush, then a rabbit, then a whole family of rabbits. Oh no! Is that the Big Bad Wolf creeping up behind them? Could fairytale characters be in his belly? Luckily, a hunter is not far behind. But now the girl is looking beyond the hunter to a forest and a mountain rising above it. Next, she's peeking into a dark cave at the tip-top of the mountain and doing all kinds of exciting things. She's bumping into scary creatures, soaring into space, traveling down to the sea with a shooting star, meeting pirates, passing through a storm, and soon, visiting a zoo inside a city. And just beyond that? She's returning to her house on a hill. Translated from French to English, this delightful first book by Dubuc shows how wondrous it is when a child's exploration leads her into a story that's as unfiltered as she is.

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