Real writers steal. Sometimes from children.

(Author’s note: I have never done this.)

(Or, at least, I have never been caught.)

I just got back (like, this very minute) from doing my little song and dance at a Kindergarten class at Wenonah Elementary School in Minneapolis. And it was wonderful. The kids sang their Get In Line Songs and their Transition Song and they sat on a brightly colored checkered rug – each child in his or her own “learning box”, and they peppered me with questions (a few were on topic) and lots and lots of nonsequiter comments. (“Oh,” says I. “You also live in Minneapolis and Minnesota. Marvelous.) And we talked about stories, and why we tell stories, and what we need to make a good story.

And the kids nearly crawled out of their skins trying to participate.

I love Kindergarteners. They are so wonderfully random and impulsive and sweet. Trying to get a bunch of Kindergarteners to do a thing – from listening to writing to learning to becoming minions in my eventual Evil Empire and helping me on my quest of one day Ruling the World (probably shouldn’t have said that out loud) – is like trying to get a roomful of butterflies to stand in a single, straight line: clearly impossible, but fun all the same.

And it’s wonderful, because who, really, doesn’t like butterflies? No one that I want to spend any time with, that’s for sure.

But there’s an ulterior motive as well. There always is. And in my case, it is my incessant and pervasive thievery.

Or not thieving, exactly. Collecting. Saving for later.

For example, in our character-making exercise, a kid came up with a villain named Mr. Mustache. He was hard at work, drawing his villain on his card and explaining to me that Mr. Mustache’s feet were of differing sizes and his eyebrows were as sharp as cacti and his mustache had two sharp points because he was always twisting it.

“That’s a pretty rad idea, kid,” I said. “Mind if I steal it?”

“Sure,” he said, and handed me his card.

I handed it back. “Not the card, sweetheart. The idea. I want to put the idea on my idea shelf and save it for later.”

He stared at me. “But how can you keep the idea if you don’t have the card?” Because he is six. And ideas are things.

“Trust me,” I said, patting his shoulder.

I friggin’ love Kindergarteners.

Other things that I have….not stolen exactly, but collected. Things that have been poured, unbidden, into the imaginary soup of my overheated brain:

A girl with invisible wings.

A magic stone that changes color depending on what kind of magic it’s making.

A planet made of cake.

A villain with two pet monsters – one bad, the other just pretending to be bad.

A mom with magical keys.

A very lost dinosaur.

A dog that fights crime.

A butterfly that saves the world.

I won’t use these things today, and I may not ever use them at all. But I’m terribly sure of one thing: these things feed whatever it is inside me that makes stories. And these things combine to make new things. This is the primordial ooze from which crawls a fish with legs or a multicelled organism or Grendel or God or sixteen eyed aliens or whatever. We who are in the business of Stories act as collectors. Our Cabinets of Curiosities are filled to bursting and spilling onto the ground.

I won’t say it makes my – or anyone’s – job any easier. It certainly doesn’t. In fact, I think I excel at making my job harder for myself. But it certainly makes it interesting. And in the end, interesting is as good a thing as any.


Farewell, Kindergarten!

Today is Leo’s last day in Kindergarten.

Just looking at that sentence makes me fall into grief.

Yesterday, in celebration for their hard work as Kindergarteners, the parents were invited for a Recitation and Ice Cream Social. Now, at Leo’s school, the concept of a recitation is nothing new. It’s part of their School of Oratory curriculum, and they learn how to speak in front of a group, how to communicate effectively, how to make eye-contact and etc. But this was the first time they spoke in front of parents, so it was a big deal.

What’s more: they were reciting poems that they themselves had written. As part of their unit on insects, each kid learned everything they could about a bug, and wrote a poem about their bug. Leo chose spiders. “Why spiders,” I asked. “Because spiders are awesome,” he said.

To get ready to write his poem, he wanted to look at every youtube video ever made that had a spider in it. Like this one:

“I like to know how they move,” he said. “Also how gross they are.”

I arrived a little early with my assigned contribution (caramel syrup; on sale), and was greeted with the requisite Kindergarteney hugs (Look! It’s Leo’s mom! I love Leo’s mom!). I always get hugs from Leo’s class. This is partially because they think I’m funny, but it’s mostly because they love Leo. Because he is funny.

There was a little podium in the front of the room, set up on a small wooden dais. One by one, the Kindergarteners walked up, took the podium, recited their poems, and bowed.

Then, it was Leo’s turn. Leo the class clown. Leo the constant performer. Leo who was sent to the principal’s office during his first week as a Kindergartener. That Leo. He stood up, took the stage, paused to gaze at the audience and made a silly face. The other Kindergarteners thought it was hilarious. He took the podium and cleared his throat.

The Awesomest Spider
By Leo Barnhill

The Spider will leap to its prey
it will quietly creep.
The Spider is big.
The Spider dances a jig.

The Kindergarteners erupted with cheers. It was, as far as they were concerned, the best poem that had ever been written, or would ever be written. Leo bowed, then raised his hands in a two-fisted Victory sign. The crowd went wild.

And then, as his piece de resistance, he lifted his shirt, exposed his bare belly and chest, and rolled his stomach muscles like a belly dancer.

He was escorted out of the room.

Later that day, as he played at the playground and I sat on the bench, decompressing (did I wish for a gin and tonic? Or two? Why yes, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I did.), fifteen different Kindergarteners came up to me and gave me a hug.

“Thank you for putting Leo in my class,” one kid said.

“Leo is my favorite friend,” another kid said.

And last, the kid who gave me no less than four hugs that afternoon, motioned for me to lean down so she could tell me a secret. “Leo,” she whispered, “is my hero.”

“Mine too,” I whispered back, as my son, oblivious to our conversation, scooped up handful after handful of playground woodchips, and shoved them in his pants.