In my travels throughout the Toronto Public Library branches, I have admired the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collections at York Woods, Malvern, Maria Shchuka, and Parkdale. This morning I had the good fortune to observe the legendary Ms. Cox tell stories to a large group of children at Queen and Saulter Library.
She began her program at 10 o’clock with an interactive street rhyme, explaining the call and response structure. It went something like this:
Rita Cox: Did you milk my cow?
Children: Yes, ma’am.
Rita Cox: Will you tell me how?
Children: Yes, ma’am. (Children make milking motions and sounds of milk swishing into a pail).
Rita Cox: Did you milk her good?
Children: Yes, ma’am.
Rita Cox: What did you feed her?
Children: Corn and hay.
Rita Cox: Did my cow die? (Very sorrowful voice).
Children: Yes ma’am.
Rita Cox: How did she die?
Children: Aaaaack. Aaaack.
Rita Cox Did the buzzards come to pick her bones?
Children: (sadly) Yes, ma’am.
The next two stories were equally interactive but contained cheerier endings. One was about a funny little man who lived in a funny little house and spent his day playing hide and seek with a neighbour. When the funny little man looked up and looked down, Ms. Cox raised her arms and lowered them, encouraging the audience to mimic her movements. The other short story featured hand signs and gestures to illustrate important objects for baby: a ball, a hammer (!), soldiers, and a cradle.
Three entertaining longer stories rounded out the hour-long event. My favourite one was an island version of Little Red Riding Hood in which a little girl foils the dangerous Gunny Wolf by singing him to sleep as she picks flowers. Her tune contains the words “coom-qua-keen-wah,” the perfect combination of sounds to induce lupine drowsiness.
When the Gunny Wolf wakes up, he chases the girl, making the noise “unk-cah-cha” with his giant paws as he runs after her. (Rita Cox sang the girl’s flower-picking song gently but slapped her thighs with fierce wolf-claw hands when she imitated the running animal).
At the end of the story, the girl returns home safely and the Gunny Wolf complains that there’s nobody to sing him to sleep.
Cox asked the kids if they would like to sing him to sleep, and there was a chorus of “Yes!” However, one dissenting child said, “No!”
It was very warm in the large room with wooden floors above the Queen and Saulter Library, and after half an hour of listening to the storyteller’s wonderful voice, many of the kids had shifted from sitting on their jackets to reclining on them.
Responsive to the needs of the audience, Cox decided everyone had most likely had enough stories for the time-being, and around quarter to eleven, the children’s caregivers called for a water break and a stretch.
After a round of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” Cox led the group in another energizing chant:
Rita Cox: (spreading arms wide) I have a large and funny hat and glasses on my nose. (Here, she curled her fingers into circles in front of her eyes). I have a long and furry beard that reaches down to my toes. (Mimes length of beard and then touches her toes).
I was sorry to miss the last ten minutes of the program, but I had to get back in time to go to work this afternoon. It was a privilege to observe a gifted educator in action as she enriched our morning with stories. Thank you Rita Cox and Queen and Saulter Library! I take my large and funny hat off to you!