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Threads of wonder

By Susan Morrison / July 23, 1981



They listen, these children, with their whole being. And the stories leap alive through their involvement, their total acceptance, that concentrates child and story- teller into the momentary magic of a particular tale. Another link is joined in the pattern woven between child and adult. It is a shared delight that stretches back, and beyond the present, for we know that once the thread has been grasped by these children they will not let it go.

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The future can be left. I follow the thread I know. I will not say it leads back, rather along, to those times when it was acceptable to be the listener -- that special privilege recognized by childhood. Remembering the tone and nuance of a familiar voice, I am immediately within the substance of the story. It was a vivid visual world projected by those words, and it is the images I recall, not the words themselves. The first impact is the one that remains. Our reading aloud evenings continued well past the stage where we could read ourselves -- one of the advantages of the pretelevision era. We had graduated from fairy stories, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll and such like to John Buchan, Walter Scott, Jane Austen. Some years later when I read Greenmantlem to myself I was startled to find how clear the mental picture had been. The scenery of mid-European, Baltic, Near East countries, however inaccurate when compared with fact, was vivid and detailed, alight with am atmosphere of mystery, adventure and unsophisticated suspense.

Reaching further along these threads, it is impossible to ignore the illustrations of those earlier tales. They were in a frame of their own, almost unconnected with the stories they illustrated. This throws a fascinating glimpse on the uniqueness and originality of the mental images words induce. Illustrations are like separate stories in themselves. They conjure up quite different feelings.

A few days ago I was browsing through old editions of Grimm's Fairy Talesm and A Midsummer-Night's Dream,m illustrated by millicent Sowerby and Arthur Rackham. I was engulfed by feelings of such deep familiarity, which were a fresh as the instant though they had been smothered for years. It was all there: fascination at the detail; a squirmish fearful delight at twisted face shapes emerging from trees and the half recognizable creatures peering between roots; gossamer fairies, truculent waspish imps, griffins and leaping dwarfs; maidens with flowing tresses and dresses and those pleasing individuals who came prancing to the rescue on handsome horses.It seems now as though I spent half the time looking at these pictures and venturing into one fantasy world, and the other half listening to stories that led to a different world.

As I watch these children listening we are enthralled together, and I must respond by becoming all the characters and revelling in the drama. These listening children do not allow restrictive inhibitions. I can see and feel their attention but will never know what they are seeing. That is their private domain, and I have discovered that this kingdom is closely guarded from probing adults. And as they clamour to see the pictures, look intently, silently, are they stepping along another road of their own unravelling? This too must be respected. Nothing need be forced or imposed. Our job is just to read or tell - no more.