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Week 4: "Let Me Tell You a Story"

Daniel Barash

Let me tell you a story, Abba...

A quiet, small voice in the dark. I’ve just tucked my 3-year-old in bed for the third, and (final?) time, but am called back once again as I try to take my leave. 


I hesitate, and ultimately succumb. I know she’ll tell me the same story that she’s already told me 20 times throughout the day; a scared bird named Chicken escapes from inside someone’s house, and a crow is about to eat it. But she rescues the bird just in time, and brings it inside our house to keep it safe. This tale, inspired by an actual event that happened at her preschool, has many variations. The predator and prey roles sometimes change, but the basic ingredients of the story are always the same: a creature in need, the threat of danger, and a caring rescue. I don’t know what motivates her to tell and retell (and often ask her parents to do the same), but I’m guessing that she is working out what it means to be safe, what it means to care for one another. There’s a comfort in the arc of the story, and it bears repeating again, and again, and again…

Stories are like recipes.  A story has characters, some major and some minor; a recipe has ingredients, some essential, some serving to spice things up. Stories have a plot that moves events forward; recipes have steps to follow, one after the other. Stories reach a resolution, hopefully satisfying; recipes reach the plate, hopefully edible! 

Children understand the structure of stories from a very early age. This is due in large part to parents telling children tales from the day they are born. And in contemporary society, it’s due in no small measure to the genius of the picture book, which blends words and images in ever-creative and engaging ways. With both of these storytelling forms, children first listen and look, and then they begin to tell by themselves.

Since I’ve brought Aviva into the kitchen, I think she’s beginning to understand the structure of recipes fairly well, too. She’s beginning to get a sense of what ingredients to combine for our challahs, and when. 

But as I have relied on numerous cookbooks for our weekly recipe variations (Rosh Hashanah challahs, Yom Kippur loaves, Seven Species Sukkot challahs, honey-sweetened whole wheat), I’ve realized that most cookbooks are not geared for the younger set. While they often have a beautiful photograph or illustration of what the finished “product” should look like, most don’t provide images for the process, the step by step, the “bones” of the recipe. It’s just word after word after ordinary word. 

Thus, what a fun surprise it was to recently discover Molly Katzen’s “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up" at our neighborhood bookstore. It’s in essence a “recipe picture book,” complete with a storyboard visual for every step of the process. In the brief time that we’ve had a copy, we’ve already made blueberry pancakes (repeatedly), popovers, and waffles. And because of the visuals, Aviva's been able to begin recounting the “recipe story” herself, telling Abba and Papa what to do next! 

This inspired me to create “Challah Cards” this past week, tiny flashcards featuring images of different ingredients and actions within the basic challah recipe. While the cards all started out in one big pile, as we progressed through the recipe, Aviva arranged them sequentially. Over the coming weeks, she’ll surely begin telling us which ingredients to add, and in what order; she’ll become the teller of her own challah stories. 

As she delights in these tiny recipe images and the picture books that fill her shelves, I’m actually a little bit sad, as I know that the days of her appreciation for the image are numbered. She’s quickly become fascinated with letters over the past weeks, choosing favorites ("A" for Aviva of course tops the list!), and attempting to write her name (very creatively)! Soon she’ll begin decoding the words that surround her, and by the end of this year may well be reading. She’s on the journey from a world of pictures to a world of printed words, and there’s no returning to the station. But it’s my hope that in her mind’s eye, she will delight in the wonder of images for the rest of her days. That she won't lose her ability to, in the darkness, actually see herself rescuing a little bird from danger as she gently falls asleep.