Child development professionals agree that reading and telling stories to children builds motivation, curiosity and memory. It also helps children cope during times of stress or anxiety, and creates a relationship with books and fosters a sense of being loved and nurtured.

As a small child, stories and books were a slim bridge between me and my father. After I became an adult, they were a life-line. He could be an eloquent speaker if he was engaged in a discussion about the interpretation of some bit of Bible scripture, but he was not a conversationalist with his children about everyday events. Most evenings after supper, he withdrew into the Encyclopedia Britannica until it was time for me and my brothers to go to bed. Then, at our bedside, he magically became an animated storyteller of tales by Thornton Burgess, along with Bible stories.

I don’t remember that he held a book but it was dark. As I pulled the covers up to my chin in the blackness of our tiny room with barely enough space for our three small beds, he would start with a dose of biblical lore, perhaps Daniel in the lion’s den or Jesus with the moneylenders, and then launch into the adventures of Sammy Jay, Blackie Crow, or Mr. Toad. The details were colorful and precise. I could see the forest creatures in their hats and vests as Dad spoke, and I imagined them cavorting in the woods outside our window.

The next day my brothers and I combed the backyard for evidence that Uncle Billy Possum or Bobby Coon had been there as Dad had described. My older brother might spot a dent in a tree and shout, “Yup! You see that! Reddy Fox did that – bumped into it on his bicycle.”

I would strain my eyes looking for Reddy’s bushy tail disappearing among the ferns as he slipped off into the Green Meadow. The amazing thing to me was that, by some kind of magic, my father told these stories as if he had witnessed Brer Rabbit falling into the briar patch or Gruffy Bear reaching into the beehive for honey. I yearned to read so that I could check the facts in the books that contained pictures of these antics against my father’s version.

My father, Jacob Austin Whipple, in 1943

My father’s enthusiasm to tell us stories at bedtime shimmers in my memory. It was my most comfortable time with him during my childhood. Other aspects of his parenting remain an enigma. He didn’t give advice other than describing the consequences that arrived for Biblical characters who strayed from their faith abandoning the Green Pastures, and that was short-lived because the storytelling moved swiftly on to the personified animal adventures in the Green Meadow. He never proselytized to us about the joys of reading and never took us to a library; He just read and read whatever was available.

Years later, at age sixty, he accidently fell thirty-five feet from a roof he was shingling.  He survived but was unable to read and restricted to lying flat on his back with metal screws securing his head and spine.  Reading books out loud was the most comfortable way to be with him; the only way I could support and nurture him in the aftermath of this tragedy.

Tree of Stories

I read to him because I didn’t know what to say about the apparent permanence of his injury. His optic nerve was damaged and his spine crushed. He listened to my stories intently and thankfully. The readings were possibly the only distraction he had from the growing reality that he would live the rest of his life unable to walk or read. Weeks of reading to him passed and one day something provoked his desire to tell me stories again. This time they were his own stories, not Thornton Burgess’ or sages of the Bible.   These were the untold, sometimes devastating stories of his childhood. Finally, I met the sadness and ferocity of his life in an impoverished, dysfunctional family during the Great Depression after his father’s sudden death at age twenty-five. My father frequently compared himself to Job in the Bible, but also described the adventures he had with his brothers in the woods surrounding his house as a child hunting for food and making fun at any opportunity.

Once again, I was listening to my father restored to his most radiant self – a storyteller – but now I could better understand his need to balance the Green Meadow with the Green Pastures.

Experts say that stories and books take children to places they’ve never been. At age thirty-five, thanks to his true stories, I finally left the land of mystery about my father’s life. We finally comfortably conversed during that last year of his life and recognized each other as book lovers, storytellers – and loving fans of each other.