How to Tell a Bedtime Story

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Several years ago – four, at least, because my daughter hadn’t been born yet – Kate and I were over in London for Monki Gras. The night before the event, we were out with James and his lovely family at one of those places where sushi cruises by at a stately pace on a conveyor belt. Dealing with some issue or another with one of his younger kids, he asked me to occupy his eldest by telling him a story.

As a kid who heard far more than my fair share of bedtime stories, this really shouldn’t have been too much to ask. But it caught me completely flat-footed. I stammered out something, I don’t remember what, and then trailed off Tommy Callahan-style talking about niners.

Neither father nor son appear to hold that failure against me these days, but it was an event that haunted me during Kate’s pregnancy. What if my daughter asks for a story and I can’t come up with anything? What if I miss out on an opportunity to bond with my child because adulthood meant, as Stephen King once put it, the “ossification of [my] imaginary faculties?”

Fast forward a couple of years and this is no longer a concern. I will never be mistaken for Beverly Cleary or Roald Dahl, and I have absolutely no business telling anyone else how to tell their kids stories, but at one before naptime on weekends and two before bedtime every night, I’ve told enough of them now to have some experience making up fictional adventures that only a kid would listen to. I’ve learned a few things over that time, things listed below which may or may not be useful to you.

In all probability, whoever you are reading this right now, you’re better at telling bedtime stories than I am. But this isn’t for you. This is for the few of you that get, as I did, a deer-in-the-headlights sense of impending doom at the sheer prospect of having to telling a story to a kid, yours or someone else’s. There might – emphasis on the might – be something here that can help you.

Before we get to that though, some brief background because otherwise you’re going to be confused when I start talking about Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon.

While my daughter will occasionally ask for real stories – how I met our cat, what happened the day she came home from the hospital, the time my best friend and I got in a shitload of trouble as kids for throwing several boxes of beads down three flights of stairs at my house – more often than not she prefers the made up variety.

Kate was the original creator of the Puppy and Kitty characters, and provided the foundation that everything below is built upon. When we were going through potty training, Eleanor got stickers for successful visits to the bathroom, and a bunch of the early ones were puppies and kitties. Kate used that as the basis for her stories, which are now colloquially referred to as Puppy and Kitty stories. I took her characters, added a raccoon and they’re now the basis – the stars, if you will – of our fictional, bedtime adventures.

With that out of the way, here’s what I’ve learned.

When In Doubt, Fall Back on What You Know

One of the more common phrases in creative writing courses is “write what you know.” The basic idea is that by relying on earned expertise, it will be easier to render greater levels of detail and you won’t have to work as hard for authenticity. I was reminded of this when I thought back to the stories I was told as a kid. My grandfather on my Mom’s side used to tell my brother and I stories about two brother donkeys who had a variety of fictional adventures.

But in between those adventures, this former shipbuilder would talk to us about how the magazine and ammunition/powder storage for the main turrets of WWII battleships worked in great detail. We ate it up, because we were little boys who thought battleships were cool but more because we just liked having time with our grandfather. You may not have a lot of expertise having built 16 inch guns on battleships – I don’t – but odds are that there is something you know well that your kid will find interesting. When all else fails, rely on that.

Crossovers are Popular

If you think crossovers are popular in superhero movies, you should hear your kid the first time they make a personal appearance in an otherwise fictional bedtime story. Or when Captain America pops in. Or your best friend’s veterinarian wife. It’s a simple mechanism for taking an otherwise absurd and non-sensical story and connecting it back to your child’s actual world. It can also be useful for taking people your kid doesn’t get to see too often or characters they may otherwise be too young for and giving them a relevance in the child’s life.

Morals Are Fine, But Not the Point

A month or two back, Kate thanked Eleanor for taking her plate in from dinner and putting it in the sink, and my daughter said, “You don’t have to thank me, Mummy, I was just doing my job.” This is the exact same thing, not coincidentally, that Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon say when they are thanked for saving a lost goose or returning an escaped peacock to its owner.

Besides making my heart burst with pride, this was a big reminder that bedtime stories need not be merely vehicles for talking animals having ridiculous adventures, they can also emphasize the lessons you want your child to absorb. Whether it’s a story about sticking up for each other when one friend is bullied, using whatever they have on hand MacGuyver style to show adaptability, a wild boar that Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon saved from starvation coming back to sacrifice itself by shielding them from the spray from a skunk, or one of them rubbing some dirt on an injury and getting back up to do their job, it’s amazing how adept kids are at picking up the subtext.

All of that said, however, the point of the story is still the story. As John D. MacDonald said, “Story. Story. Dammit, story!” The last thing in the world I want is for this bedtime ritual to turn into a tedious lecture about a particular moral lesson. I want her to enjoy the stories, and if I can find a lesson in there somewhere to highlight, great. If not, hopefully she’s at least entertained.

Nothing Has to Make Sense

When asked how he became a writer years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez replied that Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was a revelation. Until reading it, Marquez had not realized that you could write about literally anything, up to and including turning into a bug overnight. Afterwards, well, we got One Hundred Years of Solitude.

No transcendent or even borderline average work has thus far resulted from this realization on my part, unfortunately, but keeping that lesson in mind makes telling bedtime stories, much, much easier. Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon are talking animals, not much older than my daughter, who attend a school with a playground (they’re partial to the swings, just like my daughter). But Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon also have built an ultralight plane, a dune buggy, a hovercraft, a jetpack, a collar that allows wild animals to talk, and a concrete tunnel with submarine-style hatches between their two houses. Oh and the tunnel flooded at one point so they had to build a sump pump using a concrete saw and a pump left over from a previous nautical adventure.

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An approximate count of the number of times my daughter has thus far complained about the fact that Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon have to ride their bikes to school but also have a speedboat that outran the coconut pirates from Moana would be somewhere around zero.

Don’t worry about anything making sense. It’s just kids stories.

Inspiration Comes from Everywhere

This should be obvious, given that two of the main characters weren’t my idea but Kate’s, but it’s worth restating: borrow from wherever and whatever you need to.

The Adventures of Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon have included a cage diving expedition with white sharks (on my bucket list), the line “I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from” (which is from here and which my daughter has watched probably fifty times), and two lynxes that got in a shouting match with each other (happened here in this great state). Even more fundamental than that, Noble Raccoon’s mechanical abilities have some strong similarities with another Marvel character. Hell, even the name “Noble Raccoon” is a Simpsons reference that I hope my daughter will get someday.

The point is that when you’re so tired while telling the stories that you fall asleep during them (guilty), you might not be able to come up with something on the spot that is fully your own creation. So borrow whatever you need from wherever you need to. Your kid will not care, and who knows, they may end up loving Captain America as a byproduct so everyone wins.

Recurring Characters are Huge

As mentioned above, Kate created the original duo in Puppy and Kitty, to which I added my own main character in Noble Raccoon. But they are joined by a literal fleet of recurring characters from friends like Brian Bear, Harry Hedgehog, Marty Moose, Party Penguin, and Rainbow Unicorn to bullies like Spike, Owen and T-Bone to teachers like Ms Giraffe to grownups like Mr. Turtle to the aforementioned crossover characters and, well, you probably get the point.

Much as series can be easier for audiences to follow than anthology alternatives, kids – or at least my kid – loves having a known, regular cast of characters she can get to know and treat like old friends when they make an appearance.

World Building is Also Huge

Over time, and both purposefully and by accident, we have built out a little world with our stories. Besides being populated by a regular cast of characters, the stories have some built in continuity, consistent elements from story to story. After building a tunnel between their houses, for example, all of the stories now start with Puppy and Kitty waking up and walking over to Noble Raccoon’s house via that route. The fort they built in the woods made of concrete and replete with a moat and drawbridge has made multiple appearances, as has the wild boar they saved from starvation and the whale shark they saved from fishing line and hooks embedded in its pectoral fin. Another time a hungry polar bear showed up at Noble Raccoon’s house, and the three of them had to trap it wearing suits of armor they made to fight the Big Bad Wolf and using the cage they used while shark diving.

Often as not, these story elements make a reappearance because she asks for it. When Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon were considering whether to build a “boarhouse” for the wild boar they saved, Eleanor told them to put on the animal translator collar that had originally been created to communicate with a “sad and angry” zebra at the zoo that turned out to be the victim of a bully.

The bad news is that if you indulge in a bit of world building, you’re obligated to remember enough details of the world you’ve created to at least fake it. This, in my experience, can be a challenge – it took a minute for me to remember what the collar that translates for wild animals was for when she first asked for it. The good news is that it allows your child to think beyond the boundaries of a single story, to consider the wider world it inhabits and solutions or challenges that that might present.

Make the Stories Collaborative Affairs

While most of the stories I tell are purely my responsibility, it’s good to solicit direction where and when you can. After we had a family talk about bullies and bullying, for example, my daughter requested little but “bully stories” for a couple of weeks. In them, her talking animal friends confronted bullies in a wide array of places and situations, and learned to stick together, let teachers know if they couldn’t handle it, and so on.

Eventually I had to put limits on the number of these I’d tell, because there are only so many variations of bully stories you can tell, but it was an opportunity to talk indirectly about something that was clearly top of mind for her. Similarly, asking her what she thinks characters should do gets her to put herself in different characters’ shoes and think about what she might do under the same circumstances.

Nine times out of ten I’m still responsible for everything from subject matter to plotting, but it’s nice for her to have input.

Make the Material Challenging

As with morals, our bedtime stories are intended to be entertainment, first and foremost. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities to learn along the way.

For example, while we have limits because toddlers, when I use an unfamiliar term she is generally allowed to see one picture of it from my phone. In this manner, Eleanor has learned, among other things, what fisher cats, mountain lions, humpback whales, manta rays and wild boars look like, what a suit of armor is, what a submarine hatch is for and more.

The key to this is not dumbing everything down (and, probably, having a curious kid). It would be easy to say “door to the tunnel” instead of hatch. But if I use hatch, I can be pretty confident that she’ll stop me and ask what that is, what it’s for and what it looks like. I have absolutely no idea how much if any of it she retains, but my theory is that it can’t hurt to drop references that are above her head in and let her develop an appetite for asking about what she’s unfamiliar with.

Of course I’m the same guy who used a stuffed shark’s Ampullae of Lorenzini to find her during hide and seek today, so it may just be that I’m insane.

If All Else Fails, Relive Your Day

As mentioned on Twitter, the quality of my stories is directly correlated with my overall levels of fatigue. Which is why every so often, there are no morals, no challenging materials, no wild adventures, but just Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon doing something like buying the ingredients for and then making homemade salsa as Kate does (which is really excellent, by the way).

While I have gotten comments like “that story was weird, Daddy” and even “I didn’t love that story, Daddy,” I haven’t yet gotten one that indicated an understanding that a particular bedtime story was merely a thinly veiled recap of my day repopulated by her talking animal friends.

Until I do, this will be my break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.

You’re not going to have it every time out, but as Puppy, Kitty and Noble Raccoon might say, being tired doesn’t mean you don’t have a job to do, and in our house we always do our job.

 

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