From Stage To Page

Oral storyteller tries out the written word

By Jessica Laskey
October 2022

A farmer in overalls and rugged brown boots kneels next to a large, orange pumpkin, its stem neatly crosshatched in vivid green. This is the work of Matthew Patrick Callaghan, son of celebrated oral storyteller Mary Lynne McGrath and illustrator of McGrath’s book, “The Farmer, the Thief and the Pumpkin Patch.”

“People often ask Patrick how he got the ideas for the images to match and support the words,” McGrath says. “He’s very good at figuring out the heart of each page.”

This collaborative project is the result of years of work by both writer and illustrator. McGrath, a local legend who has taught and performed storytelling for children and adults, got the idea for the book while studying for her master’s degree in early childhood education at Sacramento State.

As part of her studies in Spanish and English, she came across a concept in Spanish storytelling that when a pumpkin is cut, you can match the fruit back to its stem in an exact fit. The idea appealed to her in ways poetic and practical: As an elementary school teacher, she takes classes on a field trip to a pumpkin patch to teach about plant life cycles.

“It’s my favorite field trip for the whole year,” she says. “We run through the vines and pick out pumpkins in beautiful sunshine. It’s a happy day.”

McGrath, who’s lived in a century-old Craftsman near McKinley Park for more than 40 years, longed to have a book she could use to introduce the growth cycle to her classes before each trip. So she wrote one.

She sold it to Children’s Press and asked a friend to illustrate it, but the schedule fell behind and the book was dropped. It sat in a file folder in McGrath’s office for years before she realized she had another illustrator—her son Patrick.

Callaghan studied fine art at Short Center South. (He uses a wheelchair as the result of head trauma from being hit by a car as a child.) He spent years working on the drawings. The mother-son duo finally published with I Street Press last November.

“It was a big education for me on how much work goes into getting a book into print,” says McGrath, winner of the National Storytelling Network 2018 ORACLE Regional Excellence Award.

“When you’re writing on paper versus speaking, everything that goes into the way you present a story orally is lost—your hand gestures, facial expressions, your body.”

McGrath called upon her Irish storytelling background, where the two keys are “brevity and clarity. You’re only going to say it once, so the audience has to be able to get it. I tried to bring that over when writing the words down.”

McGrath visits local schools for author talks and to sell copies of “The Farmer, the Thief and the Pumpkin Patch.” She has designs on another book about the creatures that populate the Sacramento and American rivers through the lens of Native American folklore.

She’s also trying her hand at poetry—a necessity of the pandemic, when storytelling gigs stopped. She took Zoom classes through the Sacramento Poetry Center and with poet Nick LeForce. She’s ready to submit her work to the wider world.

“It’s a shock to give up the physical audience and imagine an audience reading instead of listening,” McGrath says. “It’s distressing at first to think about losing everything I have to put a story across, but once it’s written down, it will outlast me. You become immortal.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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