Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Soulful Stories #1: Will It Be Okay?

I don't usually fall instantly in love. So I am speechless on this day in Toronto to find myself completely surrendering to a stranger, one that I can't not take home with me. An unexpected stranger with a voice that fearlessly speaks the whole truth—with simplicity, beauty, and brevity.

Like many love affair stories, this one occurs while I am doing something else. I had traveled to Canada from my home in Wisconsin to attend a weeklong workshop in story from a self-described “Itinerant Fool,” the late Ken Feit. I remember Ken as a complex, paradoxical man—gentle, yet fierce; joyful and angry—whose marriage of imagination and message in his teaching and performances both enchanted and provoked me. Ken included children's books within his storytelling tools—I recall Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books, endearing stories of friendship, and Hyemeyohst Storm's telling of a soaring American Indian “medicine” tale, Jumping Mouse, were among them. Listening to Ken, I gulped these down like a life-saving meal after prolonged hunger. No, I did not have children to read to, and I taught older kids, not younger ones. (And as for writing children's books1. twenty years later, I had no clue then.) It didn't matter: whatever else I took home from that workshop, children's books would have to be a part of my life.

I couldn't wait for my first rendezvous.

At Ken's suggestion, I find myself in a Toronto children's book store, wandering the aisles in search of the books he's already shared. Hugging these securely in my arms, I give in to the lure of enticing titles and jubilant colors of other children's books. I pick up one after another, scanning often turning into full reading, putting each book down again, sometimes in tears, sometimes shaking with giggles.

Then it happens...the encounter...when time and place blur while focus crystallizes on a single love object: Will It Be Okay?, an unassuming children's book written by the the fantastically named Crescent Dragonwagon.2. I open the cover and read the summary: “A mother comforts a child about her special fears concerning dogs, thunder, snakes, and other things.” I find much, much more.

Will It Be Okay? is a tender love story. Unconditional, neverending love between a mother and her little daughter, for sure, and depending on reader perspective and need, perhaps also that thick-or-thin love that persists between some committed lovers, within some families, and among some life-long friends.

Still, I sense another layer of love, another relationship is embedded in those pages. A relationship that joins you and me to the Source of Life with its many names—God, Mystery, All That Is. A relationship that the author herself confirms in her dedication: “To the One who's always with us, whispering 'It's okay!' this book is humbly and lovingly offered.”

Even so, falling in love with a children's book...?

Okay, perhaps you and I are no longer afraid of little things like big, barking dogs; thunder and lightning storms; snakes that might appear in the night; huge piles of snow; and cabbages that don't grow.

Perhaps trifling events such as getting a little soap in an eye or water splashed by a zealous parent trying to clean up a messy kid would not shake us, as it clearly did a little boy I heard yesterday in full-throttle meltdown in the bathroom of a favorite cafe.

Perhaps our fears—wearing numerous clever costumes: anxiety, exhaustion, frustration, anger—are more...reasonable, or at least justified. Loss of homes and jobs, an unstable economy and family life, disposable values and relationships, crumbling trust in corporations and institutions certainly are worth worry, meltdown, and despair.

Certainly, believing that “everything is okay” is child's play. And as for adults like Trevor Romain3. whose blog bursts with such Pollyanna goodies as, “”Everything is all right in the end. If it's not all right, then it's not the end”...what planet is this guy living on?

Time to put the snarky thoughts (wearing yet another fear costume) aside and tell the real truth.

I bought Will It Be Okay that day because of the mother's answer to the child's—and my—final and painful question: “But what if you die?” (What if I am left completely alone in the world, powerless without love?) That will never happen, the mother says: “My loving doesn't die. It stays with you...When you remember you and me, you say: What can I do with so much love? I will have to give some away. So you love thunder and lightning, dogs, snakes, snow, and planting cabbages....”

Many years, cities, and work assignments have passed since I, a fully grown adult, fell heart-over-head in love with that children's book. It accompanies me to each new home, speaking the whole truth—with simplicity, beauty, and brevity—that I still need to hear:

So will it be okay?”

Yes, my love, it will.”

Hey, other children's book lovers:

  1. For a list of my own published children's books as well as several annotated lists of kids' books that I especially love, please visit my Web site:

  2. Crescent Dragonwagon (daughter of legendary children's book author and editor, Charlotte Zolotow) books are easily available...except Will It Be Okay?, which is (sadly) out of print. A few pricey used copies are available here, and the complete text of the book is online at Steve Krause's Stories for Free Children Web site.

  3. Fortunately, author/illustrator Trevor Romain is firmly living—and loving—on planet earth. See his blog for a moving narrative and graphic record of his work with terminally ill kids.