I’m happy to have author Mark Frutkin visit the blog today, writing about nightly adventures in storytelling with his son Elliot. Mark’s gorgeously yellow novel, A Message for the Emperor, is just out from Vehicule Press, and author Katherine Govier has given it high praise:
“The prose is sleek, restrained, flawless. There’s research in there but you’d never know it. Frutkin seems to have inhaled ancient China and exhaled a parable of the artist.”
Here at Blog of Green Gables, Mark takes us to far off lands other than China, under the wing of a golden crow. Thank you Mark for this wonderful contribution!
When my son, Elliot, was three, I overheard a bedtime conversation between him and his mother:
“Mummy, can fish talk?”
“No, sweetie, fish can’t talk, not really.”
“Can cows talk?”
“No, dear; at least, not like us.”
He paused to think. “Well then, can they hum?”
The child’s natural imagination is the necessary ground for nurturing literacy, for everything read must be imagined whether it is a story, a mathematical theorem or a legal brief. Elliot, at that age, had no need for a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ for the simple reason that disbelief had not yet reared its experienced head. He lived in a world of innocent belief, where every story was real. I remember being surprised to discover that he could not distinguish between real live people and cartoon characters on TV. Everything was alive and it was not yet beyond the realm of possibility that cows and fish could talk, or at least hum.
We were typical of many modern young parents — in our house the prelude to bedtime was a time for reading and storytelling. Of course, we went somewhat overboard and fell into a pattern almost Byzantine in its complexity. Between the ages of three and seven, this was Elliot’s bed preparation schedule:
— About an hour before ground-zero (sleeptime), mum or dad would read aloud a story downstairs on the living room couch.
— Stage two involved urging a now sleepy child up the long flight of stairs to the bathroom for the ritual brushing of teeth, itself a bizarrely complex routine that has done little to stave off the inescapable genetic proclivity for cavities.
— Stage three led to the bedroom where pyjamas were donned and another story was read to a little boy now gaining his second wind.
— Stage four consisted of lights out and what we called ‘story at the end of the bed’, in which a thoroughly whacked out mum or dad would lie at the end of the bed and try to make up a completely original story that would somehow be interesting enough to entertain all concerned but not so exciting that it led to further wakefulness. It was in this stage that Elliot met The Golden Crow.
For months, Elliot had insisted that every ‘story at the end of the bed’ focus on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and conclude with a celebratory feast of pizza. I was desperate for something a little more imaginative than those dullards of contemporary mayhem could provide. One night, out of the blue, I started a tale about The Golden Crow who lived in an imaginary tree in our backyard. The other character in the tale was me. Eventually we added Red Crow Boy (a young crow) and a little kid named Rusty.
For nearly two years, Elliot and I would set out on our nightly adventures, to distant planets whose ‘people’ rode around in long-stepping robots, or into our own backyard which overnight had miraculously filled with huge (“bigger than cars!”) succulent watermelons, or to the local mall where The Golden Crow and I foiled a bank robbery-in-progress.
The stories always contained heaps of the right kinds of food: outrageous Dagwood sandwiches (no pickles — Elliot couldn’t bear even to look at such a disgusting warted beast), chocolate in all its forms (an entire chocolate world for several weeks running), and, of course, pizza. No green beans, however.
The Golden Crow was an astute fellow, full of magical powers and unforeseen abilities. I was Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. I was, basically, his chauffeur (The Golden Crow didn’t drive); also, the refrigerator was in my house and since he lived in a tree in the backyard, I played an essential role.
More than anything, The Golden Crow (and I too) loved to travel. The furthest planets were always a snap of the fingers away. Some nights I would flick on the light a moment; Elliot would close his eyes and point at random at a globe. The Golden Crow would transport us instantly across continents by holding his Magic Globe, closing his eyes and naming the land we wished to visit.
At age eight, Elliot began reading “chapter” books to himself with ease and confidence. We still read to him but ‘story at the end of the bed’ has passed, along with quarterly ear infections and those nasty Ninjas who have gone back to the sewers where they belong. Meanwhile Elliot transports himself nightly, through reading, back to the land where fish can talk and cows can hum.
Ottawa author Mark Frutkin’s novel, Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006) won the Trillium and Sunburst Awards and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Canada/Caribbean region). His 1988 novel, Atmospheres Apollinaire, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award (fiction). His most recent publication is a novel set in 13th century China, A Message for the Emperor (Vehicule, 2012). Altogether he has published thirteen books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Visit his blog here.