The Planting Stones by Lauren S. Johnson, Illustrated by Susan Lake
This is a beautifully written and illustrated story. It was written by a Waldorf teacher to mark the beginning of Advent. It is a lovely tale to read year round. Please see the story below written by the author for more information about the tale and how it came to be.
It can be purchased on its own or as a set with a pouch of planting stones.
Paperback, 35 pages
The Story of the Story
(How the Planting Stones came about - It's a long post...best to read when you have a bit of time.)
Once upon a time there was a lively, mischievous, curious passel of children who formed the first grade at a young and growing Waldorf school in Oregon. They had a newly-minted class teacher who guided them to draw and read letters and words, to add and subtract and multiply and divide numbers, to paint and care for their materials. She taught them songs and to play a little wooden flute.
The children also learned to listen and remember stories — and to retell them later on. This is the foundation of teaching literacy in a Waldorf School. Nearly every morning just before lunchtime, after the rambunctiousness of the morning lesson of letters or math had been worked through a bit, the teacher would signal the time for telling a story. Hoping to foster a mood of calm, if not reverence, she carefully lifted a candle which rested on a corner of her desk and placed it atop a little wooden stool in the front of the room. She would watch the children settle into their chairs, waiting until they seemed ready for the candle to be lit and the story to begin. It was one of the very best parts of the whole school day.
This wasn’t a story to be read from a book - it was told completely from the teacher’s memory. The teacher had prepared for each day’s story for this first grade in many different ways. She began by asking herself all sorts of questions. Should the story be filled with a long journey, a magical elf, a wicked king, a brave princess, or a poor woodsman? Would there be something related to the letters the children were learning or numbers that could enliven the lessons later that week? Or, perhaps there should be some other message the children might benefit from hearing. Are they getting along with each other? Are there some very shy ones who could build some confidence? Are there others who could learn to slow down a bit or not step on the other children’s toes?
The teacher mostly drew her inspiration from a thick volume of Grimm’s fairy tales, but she also discovered wonderful stories from China, Russia, Ireland, Ghana, Native America, and Mexico. The teacher would read and read, and finally put to memory a story she hoped none of the children already knew. She adapted the stories to build suspense, or added details about the characters to round out images the children could later clearly recall. But, essentially, she relied on the narrative arc, the core plot created by other authors rather than crafting something wholly new – there certainly was no lack of wonderful and reliable, time-tested material from which to draw.
One afternoon in late autumn, the teacher was at a meeting with the other teachers at the school. They were discussing the upcoming assembly that would mark the beginning of Advent. In a Waldorf school this is not an overtly religious expression, it’s rather a universal recognition that the daylight is waning quickly and there is a lot of excitement coming up to the year-end celebrations at home and the return of the light.
The teacher was asked to share a story for all of the students — from the first grade all the way to the seventh grade — at the assembly that would occur each week until the darkest day of the year and holiday break. The first candle of Advent, as a favorite verse in Waldorf schools asserts, is the light of the stones. What kind of story could suffice for the whole school - and also speak to her rambunctious group of first graders? The teacher looked through all the story books she could, searching far and wide and then… finding nothing suitable, she started to craft, finally, her own story.
As it happens, her first graders were enamored of the little stones she would place on a seasonal table in the classroom. The children would often pocket the little quartz and obsidian and amethyst stones and then admire them in secret, often outside at recess. Two girls got in the habit of hiding them in planters around the school grounds. At first, this very much vexed the teacher. Were they stealing the stones? What would be the right response besides chastising them? No, she realized, they were really cherishing the stones and then planting them as a game. But still, they were doing something that wasn’t quite right by taking them. They had been asked to keep the stones on the table for everyone to enjoy. What to do?
What was to become the book The Planting Stones was born from this conundrum. I (the teacher) didn’t have a name for the story I told to the school that December morning - the tale of Jaq, a boy who set out to find his way in the world and discovered the beautiful gems and the fairies of the fields who tended them - and of his return to his parents with all of the wonderful knowledge he’d gained.
Later in the year I thought about writing it down more fully. Some themes in the story that are near and dear to me revealed themselves more overtly. One is the importance of humanity's care for the earth and thoughtfully considering the unseen, earthly elemental forces as essential partners in this task.
Another important theme is understanding that young people have so much to teach adults. It can be a challenge, but older people have an opportunity to remain open-minded and learn from young adults as they take their place in society and become leaders.
Finally, and a theme that’s very central to the story, is that we all make mistakes and can exercise poor judgement. But with a sincere effort to rectify these errors, we should also be forgiven.
Another year later, I shared the idea of creating a book from the story with my friend Susan who is an artist and illustrator. She thought it was a good challenge, as she’d never tried to craft drawings from another person’s story. We both loved the strong lines and muted pallets in the illustrations of Arthur Rackham and she set out to create a mood that would not overwhelm the eyes. Susan got to work and brought Jaq and the farmer and the fairies to life in pictures. She added whimsical details like a wise owl and curious rabbits who kept an eye on the proceedings and which we hope younger children will especially like. She also planted some hints about Jaq's state of mind at points of the story- the astute observer might take note of Jaq's hat as he moves from page to page.
The next major step was finding a person who could arrange and design the book. Three different people over the course of a year who had the right design software started to put the words and illustrations together, but none of them followed through for one reason or another -- it was really frustrating! We were under no time constraints, thank goodness, letting the project unfold without pressuring ourselves.
Finally, one November day in 2017, almost exactly five years after the story was created, I ran into a young woman I knew from our Portland Waldorf School community. She happened to be in a book publishing Masters degree program at Portland State University and thought she might know someone who could help. That’s how we met Hope Levy, our enthusiastic, talented designer. Hope designed the interior and the cover, and even selected a font that people with dyslexia would find easier to read (you can Google OpenDyslexic to learn more). Hope used the project in her Masters portfolio. Susan and I were very honored.
Now the book was getting really “real” and I started exploring printers. I found a company in Maryland which was very customer-focused and accustomed to amateurs like me. They walked me through all manner of questions very patiently – paper types, weights, bindings, and inks. Meanwhile, I was also figuring out how to pay for the printing – we really did not want to incur any debt and didn’t have the few thousand dollars on hand that it would take for a print run. Kickstarter was the perfect platform to raise what we needed to create the physical book.
Now it was getting really, really real! We reached out in emails and on Facebook, and in only 10 days, 86 of our friends and family from all over the U.S. stepped up to back the book and meet our goal to print 300 copies. It was rather terrifying to realize it was no longer our little “DIY” project, but that it would become a thing in the world.
Very different from a purely oral story, which lingers in the mind, and evolves with the telling, this would be out there concretely, static, to be critiqued, and doubtless fall short of expectations. Or, hopefully… maybe… it would be appreciated for what it is.
However it turns out, it is a project born out of love for story, an exploration of the artistic process, and a true collaboration between friends.
At its core, we hope you find in it hope for the future, and a deep admiration for the verve, curiosity, and goodness in young people. Thank you for joining us on this journey!