September 18

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Who needs books when you have a dead chicken? by Laurenne Sala

I don’t remember much before I was three. I have flashes of imagery from preschool. Tuna casserole. Co-ed bathrooms. Puzzles. Big Bird. I don’t remember my dad leaving, and I definitely don’t recall an empty feeling when it was just me and my mom, together in a two-story house intended for a big family.

My mom did a good job of filling up the space for us, so the extra air was full of life, song, and most importantly: story. My mom was a teacher and a Girl Scout leader, so she knew her way around a kid. By my teenage years, I knew all her jokes and rolled my eyes at how she called everyone the same nicknames. But as a kid, I was hooked. She knew just how to skip with me, look for flowers, splash in a pool, and spin the softest of yarns. It was just what I needed.

At nighttime, I’d crawl into her bed that seemed gigantic to me. Sometimes we’d have a picnic there. Then she’d tuck me in with my fuzzy jammies on under a fluffy quilt. And the stories began. Cozy and safe there with her, I could let myself fly away to all the lands she was inventing. And invent she did. Every single night. Without fail. A fresh story. She’d take me to faraway kingdoms or old farms or outer space.

Her stories always had an arc and a moral. And she’d tailor them to what I was going through at the time. If I had a hard time in swimming class, her voice would lead me to a pool where a dragon was shivering, too scared to put her head under water. I can’t remember an exact story now, but I do remember how each one made me feel. Seen. Held. Safe. And giggly. Her signature came in the form of a dead chicken. Every single story had one. Sometimes he was in the middle of the road since chickens often cross those. But sometimes he ended up floating in a moat or being eaten by a dog. A genius move, the chicken began as a way to know if I had fallen asleep. If I laughed at the dead chicken, it meant my mom had to keep going. But if I didn’t notice, she could take a breath and sneak away to do whatever single moms did back then, probably dial up a friend on our rotary phone.

She didn’t set out to make me fall in love with stories, but fall in love I did. I would hang on her every word, waiting for the chicken. Hoping I would make it to the chicken. Wondering how the chicken would make it into a story about dinosaurs in space. And, suddenly, there he was. Always there. Always dead. The poor guy.

Eventually, our tuck-ins evolved into books. We’d read the same ones over and over as I’d beg for Shel Silverstein, James and the Giant Peach, Toto Chan, and of course everything Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Sometimes the chicken even made his way into those books, and I have a feeling Roald Dahl wouldn’t mind.

As early as I could, I started writing. I wanted to be like my mom, so I would create an arc and a very obvious moral. There was the one I wrote in 6th grade about a guy who covered his mole with a band-aid until he realized it was beautiful. You might be surprised to learn it didn’t sell. In 1990 I won a contest for my book about the faraway future of 2010, and the prize was a trip to a big University where I got to meet a real author. She gave me one of her books, and I cherished it for years. So much so that I didn’t read it for fear of ruining it! Books and words were so special to me then, and they still are today— although I try to read most of them nowadays. I knew then that I wanted to be an author too.

It didn’t happen immediately. First I had to go through an ugly braces period in 5th grade. And teenage growing pains in high school. Whatever season I was hurtling through, there was always a mom waiting for me at the end of the day with soft jammies, a comfy bed, and a story. Oh, and a dead chicken. Stories were the soft place where I could land and breathe. They still are. You are never too old to be tucked in.

Now that I’m a mom to three girls, I find myself tailoring stories to their lives and snuggling them to sleep. I’m trying to teach them that the bed is not only a place for sleep and dreams, but a place where the events of the day are not invited. Where stories take over and lull you into another land. Where anything can happen and everything will be ok.

Laurenne_SalaLaurenne Sala is the best-selling author of picture books You Made Me a Mother and You Made Me a Dad. Her most recent bilingual picture book, Mi Casa Is My Home, is a love letter to her cozy childhood home. She has three daughters and lives in Long Beach, CA where she tries to swim in the ocean every single day. Find her at laurennesalabooks.com