The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were this past weekend, and as usual, we were treated to the sorts of speeches that make one want to run and add to one's current manuscript. There was Julie Fogliano's earnest story of a musing-for-the-day that turned into And Then It's Spring, Mal Peet's rant to the choir about writing "against the grain," and Jon Klassen's reminiscences about imagination taking over when stories know where to stop. The speech that stands out to me most, though, was Mac Barnett's, and not just for its hilarity. Barnett talked about that phase in childhood when kids are able to understand when stories aren't true, but at the same time, believe that they are. He used examples from his time as a camp counselor, when he had campers convinced that he used to be a spy, and even got one girl to believe she had grown a cantaloupe by tossing her daily melon chunks into the bushes.
Camp Givah, the day camp I attended for seven years and staffed for six, has had a monster-in-residence for much of its fifty-plus-year history. The leaves in the lake are the Givah Monster's hair, which is why wise campers should keep their hands in the boat. Clothes that are left out will be eaten by the Givah Monster, and he's to blame for any and all missing items. He has sharp teeth and green fur, or maybe orange or purple. I can recall only one instance in all my years there of a child being scared of the Givah Monster. Mostly, what I remember is eager camper participation in the legend. The kids might not have fully acknowledged that the monster wasn't real, but they knew that they could make up details about him, as evidenced by the many camper-penned articles about him and interviews with him that appeared in the camp newsletter. (I will neither confirm nor deny that I threatened other counselors with Givah Monster consumption if they were late with their articles.)
Once you know deep down what's not real, you can have fun with it. You can try to badger your counselor into telling you whether the Givah Monster really exists without actually thinking he'll bite off your fingers. You can believe in a place of escape and Wild Things, a fairy who comes into your room and takes your teeth, or a guy who uses your chimney as an entry point, and it's all safe.
I suspect Mr. Barnett was a great counselor.