Johnny, Johnny. Yes, Papa.
Eating sugar? No Papa.
Telling lies? No Papa.
Open your mouth! Ha! Ha! Ha!
One of my favorite little rhymes to do with preschoolers. And the beginning of literary analysis. I have a pre-story of a hungry Johnny going to the kitchen late at night and seeing an apple on the counter next to a bowl of sugar. He knows that he shouldn’t just eat sugar, so his hand reaches for the apple, but keeps wandering over to the sugar bowl. Finally, he looks around to make sure that no one is around and reaches into the sugar bowl. Just at that moment, his Papa comes in and the above dialogue takes place (Papa, left, Johnny, right).
At the end, I ask the kids why Johnny is laughing. The theories range from, “Because he really did tell a lie and he’s pointing to the sugar in his mouth. ‘Ha, ha, I’m just kidding. I did it!’” Or “He swallowed the sugar so Ha ha, he didn’t get caught.” “It’s under his tongue.” “He never ate the sugar, it’s in his hand.” At the end, I ask “Which one is right?” And with the information given in the story and the poem, the correct answer is “All of them.” Welcome to the world of literature and art.
In the world of the poetic imagination, a lie can be the deepest form of truth. When kids hear a story and ask, “Is it true?”, I often try to explain, “It is truer than true in your imagination, like the way dreams are true.” And even when it’s based on something that actually happened, the story teller has to play with the events and make them yet truer by exaggerating things that happened or adding things that didn’t or subtracting boring details.
So today I told the first and second graders that unknown to us, every night the vegetables in our refrigerator sneak out and hold a big party and went on to sing “The Barnyard Dance” to tell the story of what happens. I told the preschoolers that there is a man in the moon named Aiken Drum who dresses in food every day, starting with his peanut butter hat. At the end, I tell them that when I first heard this song, I made myself a peanut butter hat. But it was a bad idea, because when I took it off, the sticky peanut butter took off all my hair with it and that’s why I’m bald. “Kids, don’t try this at home,” I warn them.
And this is why little kids seem to love me so much. I tell great lies that is just the kind of truth they like. And it’s why I love them so much— they get it! I’m sure it’s a crime to enjoy my work as much as I do and if the F.B.I. was truly doing their work, I would be on the Ten Most Wanted List. (But I’m glad they missed me, because I couldn’t work at school with an FBI record. And neither could Pete Seeger or Dr. Spock or Martin Luther King, etc. But that’s another story and it ain’t no lie.)
The lies being told daily on Fox News and in government buildings are wholly unimaginative and causing so much harm. The lies that good artists and storytellers and writers tell the children are so delightful and bring so much joy. The moral?
Pick your lies carefully. And don’t eat sugar straight out of the bowl.