Thursday, January 04, 2007

Porch Lies

Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters by Patricia C. McKissack, Illustrated by André Carrilho.

Yesterday I read the auto-biography of Patricia McKissack (Can You Imagine?) to my second graders. She says that when she was a child she loved to listen to her grandfather tell stories. When she was writing Flossie and the Fox she tried to imagine her grandfather’s Southern speech infusing the dialogue. Here in the introduction to Porch Lies she says:

In the evenings when dinner was done, the dishes washed, and the dish towels hung out to dry, my grandparents Mama Frances and Daddy James spent the rest of the evening on the porch. …One those hot summer evenings, it was not uncommon for family members, friends, and neighbors to drop by for a visit. … Some of these visitors loved to tell stories, or porch lies, as we called them – tales of humor and exaggeration told to listeners of all ages gathered together on the porch. When the teller’s eyes grew mischievously large and bright and his or her hands became as animated as a puppeteer’s, we knew that a porch lie was in the making. Mama Frances always welcomed us kids to join the circle of grown –ups, with the strict understanding that we were to remain unobtrusive. Somehow we managed to sit still in spite of our excitement.

Here she has collected some of her best porch lies. Characters such as Pete Bruce, the prince of confidencers (con-artists) and Mis Martha June, always prim and proper, come together in adventures as “odd as a fox and a hen striking up a friendship”. Then there’s Mingo Cass, who always carries a 100 dollar bill but never has change for a shoe shine. McKissack says “Whenever we were unsure of ourselves, or when our ever-changing world collided with our concepts of justice and honesty, Daddy James would summon up Pete Bruce. He used Pete Bruce as a vehicle to teach a value, to encourage us to think critically, or just to entertain us by putting a little joy in an otherwise gray day.”

The storyteller's voice here is authentic, the vocabulary rich and expressive. The humor is outrageous and the wisdom deep and personal. These stories will entertain and inform listeners of all ages. The characters are quirky, wily and memorable. Among the best of folktales that transmit values, strategies and life skills, this collection is a treasure. The black and white illustrations pick up on the movement and emotions flowing through the stories and add an exaggerated zing. This book is a delight. I am looking forward to spending time on our front porch swing this summer reading these stories to my boys, hearing their laughter and seeing the light in their eyes. I think it would work just as well on a cold winter’s night, snuggled up on the couch, now that I think about it.

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