FORGET COLORING OUTSIDE THE LINES…WHAT IF WE JUST DITCH THE LINES? (At Least Sometimes) by Dev Petty
CLAYMATES (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) came out in June and something special has been happening, maybe even more special than kids crawling into my lap to get a better look, or giddy smiles, or belly laughs. Though those things are pretty much totally great and certainly hard to top.
Librarians, teachers, parents, and other educators have been sharing CLAYMATES with their kids and giving them materials to create their own absurd characters and concoct their own wild stories. Sometimes they even write them down, act them out, or put it all into little stop motion movies using IPAD apps.
I’m not sure I saw this coming, which is yet another reminder both of how little I know and of how freakishly awesome educators are. But it is truly one of the most awe inspiring, humbling things a picture book writer like me can be part of. Truth is- my main goal in writing this odd book was to write a funny, elastic, and goofy tale that would crack me up. Cracking myself up is very important, you know… But this is better than me cracking up. This is kids finding new ways to express themselves, and nothing is better than that!
I’ve worked with a lot of kids over the years, helping them to both draw pictures and to craft written stories. I love writing and drawing, but I realize that writing and drawing are linear…literally. Not every kid thinks in paragraphs or sentences, outlines or shapes. But kids can play from day one. It is wired into them. I used to hide outside the door and listen to my kids play…there were always horses who ran out of food, a bad monster, a variety of weather catastrophes, all of it usually culminating in a birthday party or a fancy ball. These guys could tell stories long before they could write stories. They could fashion a whole habitat for their characters out of shoe boxes and oven mitts long before they could draw them a house.
And this, I realize, is the power of giving kids the opportunity to tell stories in different ways, with different vocabularies, specifically oral storytelling. Spit-balling. And my favorite- What-if’ing? WHAT IF? This tiny, two word question is the essence of creativity, dreaming, success, possibility. Kids who struggle with writing stories may find that they can hold in their hands a character and act out a story, tell a story aloud. Likewise kids who can’t express themselves comfortably in drawing, might be able to do so with clay. Give em a lump of clay and a handful of googly eyes, and they squish and pull….and voila! A character! It may even be a GIRAFFE SHARK, as created by one student I worked with.
A few examples from our nErDcamp Junior sessions where the extraordinary illustrator of CLAYMATES, Lauren Eldridge, and I worked with clay, eyes, and random objects…
One young boy created a character out of clay with a gash across its head. We asked him about that and he said his character had an accident the day before that scratched his face. Lauren and I both noticed that the kid had a similar scratch across his forehead. We started to ask about that but realized he was more keen to talk about the character and how it hurt the character, and he was scared, but now it was no big deal.
Then there was the kid who sculpted a character that was a helicopter and told the story of how that helicopter was laughed at by his friends but ended up saving the day in bad weather. I couldn’t find that picture but here’s a quarter-eating monster and an athlete made by a couple of creative kiddos.
Finally, there were the two little girls who decided to work together. They each created a character (lots of eyes and arms if I remember), and formed a story around a rubber band we gave them to use. Turns out, that rubber band was a necklace and one young character had lost it, and the other, another student found it and then became best friends and made a new friend too! They even acted out the moment the necklace was returned.
Are these stories? Heck yes! These are totally legitimate story ideas exploring loss, fear, friendship, healing, and bravery. No less than the seeds I and other writers begin with at the start of writing a new book. In fact, these little clay vignettes could totally be written down and create wonderful stories. A little tactile storyboarding!
You know what I think? I think we are born to tell stories. Sometimes I find that quotes inspire me and help me focus in on the core of an idea. I came across the dear, departed Alan Rickman’s quote below and sat on it for a while, reading it again and again.
And it’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible. –Alan Rickman
Storytelling as a way to have control over our destinies.
What might be possible?
We are always, especially as children, shaped by the expectations of those around us. We are shaped by our history, our locales, and our families. We are labeled, good at this/poor at that, in the same way, the characters in CLAYMATES are sculpted meticulously into something, a wolf and an owl, by the hands of another.
But every kid, like those two characters, find a way to become a person, their own person, in their own way and break free of their original shape. They do this through experimentation, failure, play, risk, and creating their own stories. Kids, like those two balls of clay in CLAYMATES, have an intrinsic ability to play. To explore. To evolve. To ask what if?
What if we let them tell stories in any way they can?
What if we let them create art however they want to?
*A note to educators with an interest in classroom clay and storytelling activities. First off, thank you for sharing CLAYMATES and the other six trillion amazing things you do each day. In other matters, I have some fun stuff up on my Web site that may be useful!
In the FUN STUFF! section I have the CLAYMATES trailer, some fun stop motion with clay videos, and a video showing many of the amazing characters kids all over the country have been making in their classrooms!
In the PRINTABLES! section, I have a bunch of fun CLAYMATES activity sheets for kids and teachers you can use to get creative, silly, and expressive in the classroom. You can also print your own CLAYMATES bookmarks (or email me and I will send you some professionally printed ones).
If you’re doing a CLAYMATES activity, let us know! We’d love to Skype in, help out, and see PIX!
Dev Petty is a Berkeley native and the author of CLAYMATES, I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, and others. She used to work in film effects, but now writes picture books because that’s the best job ever and they’re sort of like little paper movies when you think about it.