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Believable unbelievable stories for children

By Sergio Troncoso

I asked our children what they liked to read, and why.  "Believable unbelievable stories," they said.  Stories about "Mom and Dad reading the newspaper, being tired, desperately wanting a cup of coffee, that's boring."  But stories with fantastic twists of plot, in unique settings, or where imagination runs rampant, say, when a father eats a bagel and finds cockroaches inside, which give him a "weird disease," and so his son must go "to Africa" to find a cure, now that might be a good story.  But, as our eight-year-old Aaron said, it has to be a good disease that doesn't kill the dad too quickly.  We need time to develop the plot.

Okay, I said after I threw away my sesame seed bagel, so you need good details, an exciting plot, a little drama, likable characters.  What else?  What about history?  Well, they said, the real characters still have to be fantastic in some way, like Moses or Benjamin Franklin or Babe Ruth.  "When you read about something long ago, you can travel back in time.  Like when they had no electricity.  These people were sort of like us.  But also different.  That's believable unbelievable.  Come on!"  So even a good story about a historical character can catapult the imagination not only to other possibilities of existence but also to reflect on our own.  Got it.

Our six-year-old Isaac also said that he liked rereading stories he more or less remembered because "some stories make me remember how I felt happy when I first read them and I like that."  So even when we read, we remember how we once read, a sort of self-reflection, a comfort, a gathering of the self.  It's no surprise our children are very attached to the shelves upon shelves of books in their room.  I guess in some way these books represent who they were, who they are, and maybe even who they might be.

After my conversations with Aaron and Isaac, I thought about how we, as parents, have helped instill a love of reading and books.  One thing we did, and still do, is tell stories.  Before our children could read one sentence, they had already heard countless of stories about my growing up in Ysleta, especially adventures with my dogs Lobo and Princey.  I told them stories about my abuelita, who was herself a great oral storyteller.  This oral storytelling is one thing we can all do well, with a little practice.  The kids are constantly trying out new stories on us, and on each other, and they are forced to think, in real time, about plot, character development, realistic details, and even what might be the moral of their nascent story.  Tell your kids a few good stories about disco fever and Aqua Velva.  See if that doesn't shock the imagination.

Herewith are a few (possibly eclectic) believable unbelievable selections, for the summer and beyond.  For Middle School and older kids: Dan Gutman is a favorite in our household: The Kid Who Ran for President and The Kid Who Became President (Politics), Babe and Me, Honus and Me, and Jackie and Me (Baseball).  Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt, by Jean Fritz (History).  Ancient Civilizations of the Americas, by Antony Mason (History).  Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, by Steven Isserlis (Crazy composers).  Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli (Community), and Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain (Adventure).  Parrot in the Oven, by Victor Martinez (Adolescence).  101 Ways to Bug Your Parents, by Lee Wardlaw (Humor, for kids, Agony, for parents).  Anything written by Lemony Snicket, even on a napkin.

For younger kids, Lotions, Potions, and Slime Mudpies, by Nancy Blakey (Science), and Fortunately, by Remy Charlip (Cliffhanger).  Musicians of the Sun and Arrow to the Sun, by Gerald McDermott, and The Kitchen Knight, by Margaret Hodges (Mythology).  Also, Bible Stories for Children, retold by Geoffrey Horn and Arthur Cavanaugh (Religion).  How to Talk to Your Dog, by Jean Craighead George (Ruff Ruff).  Jalapeño Bagels, by Natasha Wing, and The Old Man and His Door, by Gary Soto, and A Gift from Papá Diego, by Benjamin Saenz (Community).  Borreguita and Coyote, by Verna Aardema (Trickster Tale).  Edward and the Pirates, by David McPhail, and Tomás and the Library Lady, by Pat Mora (Adventure and Reading).  For favorite detectives, try Nate the Great and Encyclopedia Brown.

This newspaper article appeared in the Sunday Books section of the El Paso Times on June 22, 2003.

See the video of Sergio Troncoso's speech for the President's Program of the American Library Association:  From Literacy to Literature (Real Media Player).