In Deep Water with a Speechless Swan
For the first time in four years, Becky and I really struggled with our plans for a workshop. It wasn’t a difficult book that threw us off — in fact, it was one of the simpler tales. Or so we thought. E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan is, on the surface, about a voiceless Trumpeter Swan and his trumpet-stealing dad. Of course we went below the surface, plumbing the pond, so to speak. Right away we came up with some obvious themes: ethics, overcoming obstacles, and conservation. We began focusing on props and projects that would let kids get their hands on these ideas.
The pond was deeper than we thought, though. Every time we put our heads together to talk about the story, something new splashed behind us. Like dignity, attitude, and self-expression. Having a say, speaking your mind, being yourself out loud. Big, rich topics. Exciting stuff, really — and we love passing along our signpost-spotting and “aha moments” to our LitWitters. The thrill of discovery is the reason we don’t consult scholarship first.
But we felt overwhelmed by so many surprises, each with the potential to become a rich tangent itself. We had too many ideas and choices for a four-hour workshop. And we got hung up on the fear that our youngest kids might check out. It’s not a problem we’ve had before; we’re used to translating abstract ideas into hands-on activities, and finding real things that make symbols concrete for a wide range of ages. But suddenly this simple, funny book seemed so complex. Two days before the workshop we stopped analyzing and firmed up our plans, hoping we’d chosen well.
We’d chosen well enough, at least. The workshop was an overall success. The kids loved the book, appreciated its depths, and were joyous about the jazz music, journal making, what-if writing, swan sounds game, watercress sandwiches, and more. (Better yet, they all promised to read Strunk & White…someday.) But when it was over, Becky and I looked at each other and knew we had somehow not done the book justice enough.
All children’s literature is rich, its treasures often hidden beneath plain language, straightforward plots, even comical characters. We know we can’t cover – or even discover – everything. But something about E.B. White and his swans made us wish we could have done more.
Is there a little book you’ve taught that seemed, halfway in, too big to take on after all?