The Skeleton Girl

“Where are my own fictions and fantasies? In what form can I bring them out and best employ them as another voice in the classroom? Can my role as observer, listener, recorder, interpreter, discourser, and connector be expanded to include mythmaker?”

– Vivian Gussin Paley

Vivian Gussin Paley helped establish the link between storytelling, language development, and literacy in young children and documented it through 12 groundbreaking books during her long career. Patricia M. Cooper of the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU writes of Paley’s curriculum, “It has long been recognized for its impact on young children’s psycho- social, language, and narrative development” (Cooper, 2005, p. 229). Nancy King showed how creative storytelling and writing development were linked for older children: “Teaching literacy through image-making and story-making in a collaborative learning environment makes it possible for children with varying abilities to learn from one another ... where they can risk asking for help, knowing that no one will be judged or ridiculed” (King, 2007, p. 214). Both Paley and King listened to children with curiosity and compassion, and by recording their stories and imaginings, they told children that their thoughts were worth recording, and that they, too, could find themselves in a story. The nature of story collaboration between storyteller and children enables the scaffolding of language development in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, where Vygotsky “believed, and found evidence to demonstrate, that what a learner could do with assistance at one point in time she would eventually be able to do on her own” (Beck, 2001, p. 297).

In New York City, Dr. Stephen Rudin has used Vygotsky’s principle, and the rich artistic resources of the city, to pair autistic children with artists, poets, physicists, and even a tango champion to coax language development and social relatedness from them. By enriching their experience and deepening their social connections, he helps them navigate an otherwise bewildering sea of language and learning.

In the story below I have used a traditional Inuit myth, “The Magic Drum,” to help a traumatized homeless immigrant child develop language skills. Trying to relate to my student’s hunger for connection and love, I named my version of the story “The Skeleton Girl” and framed the story to help my student, Moon Orchid, find the words to express the wish to be nourished and loved. I used my skill as a storyteller to mine my personal associations with hunger to build a bridge of metaphor to my student’s associations with starvation. Paley said that as teachers we are all “anecdotalists” and that we learn our craft best through stories and our places within them (Paley, 1991). Here, then, is the story of “The Skeleton Girl.”

“OWWW! I’m hungry!” the little girl howled as she raced through my living room to my tiny apartment kitchen. She flung open the refrigerator and helped herself to some roast chicken.

She gnawed at it, down to the bone. Nine years old, this tiny Chinese American child was living in a shelter five blocks from where I live in Hell’s Kitchen, in New York City. It was early fall, and the girl was in the third grade. She had repeated second grade, retained because she had made no progress in school the year she had become homeless.

I had begun teaching her to read at the shelter, but the noise and chaos in the one common area made it very hard to work. Her mother would interfere with the lesson, scold her child, and bring her other two toddlers into the common room, making it impossible for the little girl to relax. The girl’s reading was not progressing.

When I observed her at the shelter, at her school, and in her after- school program, I saw a thin, withdrawn girl, who wouldn’t eat any more than a bit of rice, and perhaps some soup, no matter what nutritious meal or snack was being served. Moon Orchid was never hungry, she told me. Her schoolmates ignored her, though once I asked two of her classmates in the after-school program why few children chose to play with Moon. “She’s homeless, that’s why. She smells.” Well, Moon Orchid didn’t smell; what she did was keep her head down and her lank hair over her eyes, never acknowledging her classmates’ tentative greetings. The other girls shrugged and walked on. My client remained alone.

So I began to teach her at my home, though I was unsure that I should do so. Would it hurt Moon Orchid to be in my home when she had none? Would I identify with her too strongly, and become too angry at the world to take up my role as her reading diagnostician and teacher? Once she was in my home, would the phenomenon of transference, especially if it led me to act as a rescuer, cause me to cross the boundary of my limited role as her educational therapist? Would I be able to remain her “true friend and good writer,” as Ann Kaganoff, PhD, describes the process of being a good educational therapist? There didn’t seem another choice. The local library was closed for renovation, and the shelter’s offices were off limits. So to my home she came.

The materials I chose for Moon Orchid were books that I was hopeful would be easy reading for her: Corduroy, by Don Freeman, and The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. I wanted to use stories with predictable patterns, and I wanted her first experience with me to be one in which she was completely successful in her decoding, so I could gauge whether Moon Orchid had had enough reading experiences to internalize common narrative structures. I wanted to know whether she could make good predictions about stories, and to observe her decoding and comprehension skills with material that offered little challenge to her. What decoding strategies did she know and use? Mostly, I wanted her to have fun reading with me.

But reading proved very difficult for Moon Orchid. I read her The Carrot Seed, a little allegory of faith in which a little boy plants a carrot seed that nobody thinks will grow, but to everyone’s surprise, the seed becomes a giant carrot. She liked the story and could decode it, although her reading was dysfluent. When

I asked her if she’d like to make a drawing about the story, she seemed unable to understand my desire to see her interpret the story in her own way. Instead she carefully traced a drawing from one of the pages of the book. When I asked Moon Orchid to retell the story to me, she grew frustrated because she couldn’t remember the story “exactly.” The child appeared too frozen to make any mistakes that might allow her to learn.

In late October of that first year, I picked her up at the shelter, as I always did, to walk her to my apartment. She flung herself down at the table, and after she had downed the milk and chicken she had come to expect and relish, she was agitated. I brought out my copy of Corduroy, a sweet story about a teddy bear who is passed over by customers in a toy shop because of a lost button on his overalls. Happily, a lonely little girl takes him home, sews a button onto his overalls, and he is as good as new.

However, it was exactly the wrong story to read with Moon Orchid that night—or was it? She hated it. “Look at that stupid bear! He must be Chinese!” she cried. I was dismayed. With the crayons and drawing tablet that I kept nearby, I asked her to draw me a picture of what was going on. She drew an enormous black spiderweb with a bloated spider in the center. The spider had a human face, and the face was Chinese. Scolding words poured from Moon Orchid’s mouth, and I felt grief and anger as the voice she channeled sounded so much like her mother’s voice. So the little bear with the unlovable defect was this poor child.

I pleaded, “All right, Moon, all right. Let’s make another drawing together while I tell you a good story.” Since I told stories on radio and at a few venues in New York, I had a good stock of them. Images of ice and snow kept coming up for me, even though Moon’s temper that night was white hot. So I started a drawing of a snowscape, with a beautiful woman’s face in the snow smiling up at us, while Moon gave her a white dress. I told her a version of Cinderella in which the fairy godmother is a spirit in a tree, and when Cinderella shakes the tree, the things she needs fall down out of it. I drew a tree into the snowscape. “Now, who is this lady we made?” I asked. “I wonder who she is?” Moon Orchid wrote under the picture, “The Woman in Charge.” I was deeply moved. This was the first original writing that Moon risked during our sessions. It would make a good title for a fairy tale.

Later that session, Moon Orchid took another risk; she dictated a poem called “The Flower,” modeled on the language of The Carrot Seed. It went: “We could look at it and love it/ We could wait for it and watch it/ Then it grew. It was beautiful.” She had absorbed the narrative of that story!

The memory of her gnawing a chicken bone and now the loveliness of our snowscape drawing gave me the idea of telling her a story based on the Inuit legend mentioned earlier, “The Magic Drum.” My adaptation of this tale turned out to be what broke the ice in Moon’s reading development and helped in the important work of freeing her imagination from her starved reality. Moon asked me to tell it over and over, and to write it down so she could read it.

These are the bones of the story:

Once upon a time an old married couple had a daughter who would not marry. Many hunters came from far distances to win her hand, but she turned them all away until one day two brothers, alike and tall of stature, strong as bears, came to see her. They did nothing out of the ordinary, so her parents were amazed when she became attracted to them. She invited them inside her parents’ igloo and fed them. As they stood up to leave, she even followed them outside of the igloo to see them off. Once at the door, however, these two men put on the form of white bears, for they were really bear spirits. They seized the girl and dragged her away from home until they came to a hole in the ice, and down they dove with her. Finally, at the bottom of the sea, they left her alone.

Now all alone, this girl looked around her. “Hmmm!” she said to herself. One part of the ocean behind her was black and dark, but the way before her was lighter. So she reasoned, “I’ll go walking toward the light, and then I’ll find my way up somehow.” And that is what she did. But as she was walking under the sea, the animals that lived there nibbled on her until she had nothing left to her but bones. It was as a skeleton that she found her way to the surface again and came out through a hole in the ice to the world above.

The Inuit girl sat down and wept. “Who can ever love me now that I’m a skeleton,” she wailed. Finally, to comfort herself, she took some snow and made a toy igloo that fit in her hand, and lay down with it. “If only I had what my parents have,” she thought, and fell asleep. When she awoke, what did she see but a full-sized igloo standing next to her! Every day she made a model of something else she needed, and the next day it would appear. In this way she got clothes to hide herself in, because she reasoned, “If anyone comes along who wants to be friends, I don’t want to scare them.”

One day some hunters came by, and when they saw the igloo, they approached. The girl was very lonely so she ran out to meet them, but they were frightened and ran away. That night they told their father about the strange girl, and he decided to go see her for himself. “I’m not afraid of anything, because I am old and have lived a long time already.” So he went to see the skeleton girl. While he approached, she sat quietly, so as not to scare him, and invited him inside to eat. They talked a long time and had such a good time that she decided to dance.

“Take this drum and make music, old man. I will blow out the lamp and dance to it.” And that is what they did. The beat he called up was like the heartbeat of the whole world. When she lit the lamp again, she found that she had become a beautiful maiden. The girl was overjoyed to see her flesh restored, but the old man was even happier.

“You play for me now,” he said, and she blew out the lamp and played the drum for him. When they had finished, she eagerly relit the lamp and sure enough, a gorgeous young warrior stood before her. The man took her back to his village and everyone was amazed.

“You see,” he explained, “I was an old, old man, and this girl was forsaken; a living death was her lot. But we found the rhythm of the magic drum and here we are, man and wife.”

Moon Orchid asked to hear the story many times: it spoke to Moon and to me. Hardship is real for many children, and disasters happen. Traditional oral literature includes many stories of hard realities that children face. Fairy tales begin with premises that reflect what poor children understand: “They were hungry ... their parents were not their true parents ... they were lost in the woods.” So I would argue for starting reading programs with material that reflects the child’s world in some removed but palpable way.

I cannot say that my teaching was the only literacy breakthrough for Moon Orchid, but it was an important one in which a caring educational therapist could unlock some of literature’s delights for her and set her back on the path to learning. Moon Orchid escaped her abusive mother, who threw her out onto the street one rainy night when the girl was sixteen, and rang my doorbell, asking for help. I dried her off, and fed her. At my kitchen table once again, she made plans for her future. Eventually, Moon Orchid found a true home with her aunt, a restaurant worker, and, later, Moon Orchid went to college.


Cooper, P. (2005). Literacy learning and pedagogical purpose in Vivian Paley’s storytelling curriculum. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 5(3), 229–251

Freedman, D. (1968). Corduroy. New York: Viking Press.

Beck, S. (2001). Editor’s review of Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry. Harvard Educational Review, 71(2) 296-309. Retrieved January 7, 2010, from ISSN 1943-5045.

King, N. (2007). Developing imagination, creativity and literacy through collaborative storymaking: A way of knowing. The Harvard Educational Review, 77(2). Retrieved January 7, 2010, from ISSN 1943-5045.

Krauss, R. (1945). The Carrot Seed. New York: Harper & Row. Paley, V. (1991). Storytelling as teacher research. The Quarterly, 13(4), 18.