Author Showcase: Reg Down Talks About His Book Series, Tiptoes Lightly
Reg Down is the author of The Tales of Tiptoes Lightly series, a collection of vivid nature- and spirit-filled stories.
TCBR: You are a father of three and have taught in Waldorf schools in Australia, Canada and the United States for many years. How much of your teaching background would you say inspired your Tiptoes Lightly book series?
Reg Down: They are the literary version of stories I used in my lessons for kindergarten and the younger grades. I think this is the reason kids love the series—the content has been tested with children, in some cases for decades. In real life, a story that does not work in the classroom gets dropped – quickly! I teach eurythmy, a moment art that incorporates language, music and gesture. It is a wonderfully active way to weave story, song and ‘dance’ together. Imagine a large, beautiful room with no furniture, a good hardwood or carpeted floor to move around on, a piano and pianist tucked out of harm’s way, plus you, plus a class full of energetic children. Now what?!
Well, through movement, rhythm, music, gesture, poetry and choreography you create a eurythmy lesson. Eurythmy taps into the underlying movements, colors and gestures of speech and music and makes them visible through bodily gesture, color, and choreography. In the younger grades and kindergarten the ability to create a story, or a storyline throughout a lesson, is a prerequisite. Children live in feelings and imagination, and the stories used must swim in the imaginative-musical element. This is what I have tried to capture in the series. That and the ever-present humor and positivity children carry with them as a birthright.
Reg Down: The first book, The Tales of Tiptoes Lightly, is my flagship. Tiptoes Lightly is a fairy who lives in an acorn, high up in the branches of an oak tree. She is the golden thread that runs through the tales which host a diverse set of characters, from Farmer John and his children, to Pine Cone and Pepper Pot the gnomes and Ompliant the Elephant, to name a few main ones. They get into all sorts of adventures – such as sailing down to the sea to untangle a little Octopus who is too young to count properly (he can only count to seven) and gets his legs hopelessly mixed up whenever he tries. Or Tiptoes and Jeremy Mouse try to discover who the real mother of the half-egg is that Lucy the Goose found in the mud. Lucy is determined to hatch it even though it is only half the size of her own eggs. In the end it hatches – and out comes a turtle! Lucy calls him ‘Feathers’ as she is convinced that he will soon grow feathers and learn to fly.
As you can tell there is lots of humor in these tales! Other books in the series are centered on a theme. One is filled with spring tales, for instance, while another follows the festivals of autumn and winter – Michaelmas, Halloween, Advent and Christmas. The Magic Knot, on the other hand, is a making-tale comedy in which Pine Cone and Pepper Pot make Tiptoes a birthday present of a table and three chairs – a simple enough task for intelligent gnomes (one would think). Naturally things go awry, but in the end they manage to haul their present into Tiptoes’ house. The latest book, The Lost Lagoon, is the largest of the series and follows Tiptoes and friends as they journey up Running River to find a lagoon that only appears when the river is in flood. They spend the night there and magical events happen under the light of the full moon.
TCBR: When you hear from children and families that have read your books, what kinds of things do they say?
Reg Down: The predominant theme is how much the stories live in their family life. The children take up the tales, make them their own, and the characters become part of their imaginative world. I have heard this repeatedly. Parents also like to read the books to their children in the evening as most chapters are short, self-contained stories in their own right. In addition, the content engages adults as well – I even have fans with no children of their own! Another group I hear from are teachers who use the stories in their teaching—for storytelling, as readers, as a springboard for their class material, even as the basis for a class play.
TCBR: Recently, there was an article in the New York Times titled Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children. In current times, it seems that some parents are pushing for young children to progress to chapter books at a much faster rate. Do you consider the Tiptoes Lightly series a good choice for parents looking to make the leap from picture book to chapter book? If so, why?
Reg Down: Yes, I read the article. It’s a pity about the loss of picture books. A fill-the-bucket thinking does not apply to children and forcing them to read before they are developmentally ready is counterproductive in the long run. (Notice what the mother says about her child in the article, that he is still a “reluctant reader.”) It seems that many will have to learn this lesson the hard way—which is a pity because informational access about successful educational systems and approaches is readily available on the internet. I’m thinking here of the Finnish educational system or Waldorf education; both are successful, have strong parallels, in practical terms, in how they approach education, and neither start formal education (that includes reading) until the child is 7 years old. Seven! There are good reasons for their success, and recognizing that the child lives in a pictorial, non-abstract consciousness in the younger years is one of the keys.
Although I did not intend it, my books are very much a transition from picture to chapter book since they are chapter books filled with drawings. One of my reviewers brought out this point specifically. My feedback is that the stories are mostly read to children in kindergarten and first grade, but then are used as readers in the second and third grade. For myself, I hope that parents read to their children (once a day, please) until they are genuinely ready to read themselves.
TCBR: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Reg Down: I am hopelessly sanguine and so nothing is full time and forever with me. I have binges of writing, illustrating, carving, puppetry, eurythmy … even pine needle basketry. In many ways I feel like an accidental writer. I was asked by a publisher to write a book about eurythmy, which I did. That started things as I realized I enjoyed the process (most of the time). I also have a book out on Color and Gesture that took seven years to write and illustrate (I call it ‘The Monster’). The children’s books, however, have a special place in my heart. My girlfriend says (in a nice way) that that’s because I never quite grew up—I think that’s true.
TCBR: Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?
Reg Down: The books are popular in Waldorf school circles; for this I am highly grateful. But I am also interested in getting the books out to a larger audience. I wrote the books because creating beauty is what an artist does. But I am also a teacher and I know how important and precious childhood is. Children are children and imaginative, nature-filled stories are valid for all of them; it does not matter where they go to school.