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Susan Schubert on her book I'll Believe You When and the ways idioms spark the imagination, give us a good laugh, and powerfully bring us together in any language.
I have spent almost 50 years teaching people basic reading and writing skills. The first 30 were working with five and six year old kindergarten children, and the remaining time I have been teaching ESOL to newly arrived immigrants. Although specific lesson content differs according to age groups, many strategies remain the same. All ages enjoy experiencing the rhythm of language through songs, poems, tongue twisters, chants, raps, etc. which allow students to practice new sounds, phrasing, and grammatical structures in a non-threatening way. I also notice that both groups responded with enthusiastic curiosity to idioms.
Idioms are colorful phrases that don't make sense if taken literally. Everyone knows that pigs don't fly, you do not really pay for something through your nose, and nobody actually has a green thumb! What do these phrases really mean? When do we use them? Having students speculate on true meanings leads to lively discussions and often very creative theories. With the immigrant population, speakers of various languages often find similar idioms in their own culture. While an English speaker would say, "You're pulling my leg!", speakers of Spanish and Russian would say, "You have me by the hair!" or "You're hanging noodles on my ears!" respectively! Soon everyone is laughing and sharing examples of these "linguistic oddities"! The verbal vignettes might be different, but the basic idea is the same: you are teasing me!
Over time, I informally collected idioms in various languages. One day while looking through my list, I thought that comparing matched idioms might be the basis of a children's book. The idioms were funny, culturally diverse and ideal for bright, creative illustrations. The material would be relevant to both young readers and to my ESOL adults. Thus, after several drafts, rewrites, suggestions from my editor and the illustrator, I'll Believe You When... came into being.
On writing: observe, imagine, and create
Like many authors, I am an observer of life. I am the lady on the park bench "people watching", catching snippets of conversations and noticing the body language of passersby. I then imagine back stories of those who caught my attention.
The lady buying a big bag of peanuts at the convenience store might be going to feed squirrels in the park. More interestingly, maybe she has a pet monkey she named Harold because its sparse, wild hair reminds her of her favorite uncle!
The man in car next to me in a traffic jam is honking his horn because he will be late for an important presentation. What he doesn't know is that when he finally arrives, he will lock himself out of his car with all of his materials left on the back seat! It is the beginning of a very bad day for him, indeed!
There is a young child ordering an ice cream cone. He is taking f-o-r-e-v-e-r to make his choice. What busy customers don't know is that he is spending the first money he has ever earned on his own. He spent two hours in the hot sun weeding the garden, so his handful of coins are very valuable to him. He wants to be sure that he makes the best possible flavor selection.
Three key words that describe my writing process are observe, imagine and create. Observing common events, imagining alternative motivations and creating new outcomes are my tools for writing. Start with a known, and then reconfigure it into something new and more creatively exciting.
Perhaps this is why idioms have been particularly interesting to me; they twist an ordinary idea or comment into something quite novel. In I'll Believe You When..., I started with the common word "never", and unearthed outrageous phrases in ten different languages that change a mundane response into a vivid flood of mental jokes! Thus, this book encompasses my love for word play, children and multiculturalism.
I hope you will find I'll Believe You When... a fun and useful addition to your reading and teaching library. Other books highlighting Idioms and similar phrases are "The King Who Rained" and "A Chocolate Moose for Dinner" by Fred Gwynne* and "Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag" by the fourth-grade students of Newcastle Avenue Elementary. The latter is a class created book, a tool which I have often used in my own classes.
*Fred Gwynne was a well-know character actor. He played in many T.V comedies such as "Car 54 , Where Are You?" (1960's), and he was Herman Munster in "The Munsters" series which ran in various incarnations, sequels and reruns from 1962-2004. His Hollywood film career began with a bit part in the classic "On the Waterfront", and ended with his role as the bemused judge in the comedy "My Cousin Vinny." He also happened to retire to this area and is buried only a few miles from my current home.