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Oregon Family Magazine

Dad's Eye View: 5 Tips on Telling Bedtime Stories

03/29/2010 ● By Anonymous
“Tell me a story about The Green Man Goes Trick-or-Treating.” When my daughter Sally was 3, that’s what she’d demand every night at bedtime for about a year. The Green Man is a weathered bronze statue of a soldier that stands on a big rock about two blocks from our house. I’d tell Sally bedtime stories in which the statue comes to life and has adventures with her.

Sometimes Sally’s older sister Marie would join us, and sometimes I’d tell Marie a separate story about something else. Telling stories while lying in my bed, in the dark, with a child snuggled against each shoulder, is about as cozy as home life can get, and I recommend it. And you don’t have to be a talented raconteur to pull it off. I’m not, but I have developed a few helpful techniques:

NEVER INVENT WHAT YOU CAN STEAL. A good easy recipe is to insert the child into a nursery classic to create “Sally and the Three Bears” or “Marie and the Billy Goats Gruff.” Or you can borrow millions of dollars’ worth of characters from Disney, Warner Bros. or anyone else, use them in the dark of night for the amusement of your kids, and all the high-priced legal talent in the world can’t make you pay a penny in licensing fees. (If anyone asks, you didn’t hear it from me.)

LET THE LISTENER PARTICIPATE. Give the child a speaking part, let him provide some detail, and invite him to decide which way the story will go when you get to a turning point.

But if you give away too much creative control, a kid can shut your story in a big box, padlock it, drop it into the sea and then complain that it’s not going anywhere. One night I was trying to tell Marie a story about naughty beaver children who clogged-up a toilet with paper towels, but she blocked my every move. She knew what I was up to and wouldn’t even let me get my beavers into the bathroom. I think the toilet was an object of mystery for Marie, and she didn’t want to anger it. When you have an audience of one, you have to respect her sensibilities. I sent the beavers outside to gnaw down lifeguard stands.

TAKE A FAMILIAR PET AND MAKE IT TALK. Our neighbors’ dog Cinnamon is the only surly Irish setter I ever met. Besides snarling at me whenever I go outdoors, he thinks we run a restaurant. Our trash cans are the all-you-can-eat buffet and our yard is the rest room. I could make the kids squeal with mirth just by soliloquizing in a growly voice about the tasty trash treats he’d find in the course of a midnight raid. (In the morning, the kids would awaken to find our lawn strewn with garbage, and it was like discovering Santa’s cookie crumbs on Christmas morning – corroboration of a magical world.)

FIGHT TO KEEP YOUR STORIES LEAN. A detail or characters inserted frivolously into a bedtime favorite can’t be easily omitted and your story will end up with more useless decoration than the uniform of a South American dictator. A case in point is The Green Man Goes Trick-or-Treating. I let Sally have too much input and soon the Green Man was going door-to-door with a vast entourage of superfluous characters, which included Whitey the Talking Cat, Quacky the Talking Duck, SpongeBob, Pinocchio, President Obama’s daughters and The Bad Boys (two nameless boys who throw rocks at anything they see and can absorb an infinite amount of scolding without improvement).

Then, as the Green Man and his associates went foraging across town, Sally would want to add stops to his itinerary. But I caught on to this early and managed to hold it firm at 11 visits. Sallie got to specify what kind of candy they collected at each place, and she was as serious about it as if she were selecting her first wedding gown.

WHEN A STORY BOGS DOWN, HAVE SOMEONE TURN INVISIBLE. This always loosens up a story, but don’t over-do it. One night I turned EVERYONE invisible, and they ran around bumping into each other. It was a cute piece of business, but the idea of invisible people trying to see each other made Marie’s head hurt and she demanded that I try something less strenuous.

Even though anyone can entertain a child or two at bedtime, a few amateurs have made it big. A.A. Milne used to amuse his son Christopher Robin with tales of the lad’s teddy bear, and during World War One a British soldier named Hugh Lofting sent the first Dr. Dolittle stories home to his kids.

My own bid for fame and fortune is almost ready: The American Dog series will include: “Meet Cinnamon,” “Cinnamon’s Night Out,” “Cinnamon Never Learns” and finally “Cinnamon Shot by Neighbor.” We could market it with a stuffed animal, heavily accessorized. Publishers, call my agent.

Rick can be reached at [email protected].