When my daughter's two best school friends slept over last weekend, the incipient waning of her childhood hit me full force. She is eight (and two-thirds!) and her friends are both are nine already, and the three of them together were just so BIG. Physically big. They took up a lot of room. They weren't that much shorter than us grownups. The cadences of their voices, as they compared their favorite TV characters and gossiped about school, weren't those of little kids. The three of them practiced their dance moves for the upcoming school performance; they watched "High School Musical 3" and ate popcorn; they ran around screeching and generally acting like lunatics.
As they were settling down for bed, somehow the conversation turned to Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man, which all of them had read and loved. They spent some time chuckling together over it, reminding each other of the funny parts, asking me if I remembered how that little red hen on the back cover gets all freaked out about the UPC barcode, and just generally enthusing.
I was quietly amazed. I mean, here were these Big Kids, who just an hour earlier had been doing their best to practice at being teenagers...and now they were all getting equally worked up and excited over a picture book.
We turned out the lights and told them it was time to go to sleep, but the energy was still running high, and the shrieking didn't stop, so after a couple of attempts to shush them I asked if they wanted to hear a story. Maybe Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock?
"Oh, we know that one," they scoffed, their scorn for such a babyish activity as storytelling obvious in their manner (my daughter was the most scornful). Same thing when I offered to tell Mabela the Clever.
But then, in one last-ditch attempt, I suggested the story about the man whose house was too small. (the most famous book version is Margot Zemach's It Could Always Be Worse.) Two of the girls dismissed that story too, with a "We know that one already!" but, "I don't!" said the third girl, and her friends agreed to let me tell it for her sake.
But once I'd actually started, even the two initially-reluctant girls got into it, suggesting what terrible effects each new animal might have (poop! noise! feathers!). They were a more sophisticated audience than the five-and-six-year-olds with whom I've mostly shared that story, and could tell right away what the pattern was--man complains to Rabbi, Rabbi suggests bringing more animals into the house, things get worse--and predict what would happen next. And they were even patient, if not particularly forthcoming, with my teacher-ish leading questions after the story (What do you think the moral is? What changed between the beginning and the end?)
When I'd finished, my daughter, stalling for more awake time, begged for a read-aloud story, so I read them a section from a library book we had around, Cornelia Funke's A Princess, A Pirate, And One Wild Brother, a lively story of a little girl who defeats some terrible pirates. Again, all three girls were totally into it.
After that, they were finally calm enough to at least act like they were going to go to sleep. Even though they didn't actually conk out for a while, the screaming stopped, and the energy was distinctly more low-key. It made me think about the magic of story shared out loud, and how grounding and relaxing that can be, how it can bring a group of people together, even if they're divided by something as fundamental as age.
I'm grateful that telling stories, talking about books, and reading aloud together is something that she feels comfortable doing with her friends and parents together, even at the advanced age of almost-nine. I don't have any illusions that my kid will welcome a storytelling intrusion on her parties for much longer. But, come to think of it, maybe there are some advantages to having an older, more autonomous kid. Like, maybe next time they can tell the stories...