Homemade Stories: Spinning Tales for Your Children
from Mothering Magazine Online
By Theresa Rose
Issue 107, July/August 2001
Everyone agrees that reading to children is very beneficial. Rarely will you meet parents who do not read to their offspring; composing stories for our children, on the other hand, is usually left to the experts. Few of us are so brash as to attempt to actually write a story. But children don’t expect us to be Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. Although my children like to hear “professionally written” stories, when given the choice, they will opt to hear one of my “homemade” tales.
For instance, take my story about a dishrag. My son Matthew and I were in the kitchen when he asked for a story, and the dishrag was the first object that caught my eye. One day, I told him, this dishrag became bored with his mundane life in the kitchen and ventured outside into the wintry Great Unknown. To his dismay, he found that a wet and soppy dishrag would freeze in such frigid temperatures and was thankful for his warm dry home when he got back.
For days after I came up with that fable, my son pleaded, “Tell me the story again about the dishrag.” That story quickly became a serial, with the dishrag having different adventures every day. Even I was amazed by the stories I created. All I did was follow a simple formula I read about in a book called Tell Me a Story, by Chase Collins: find a hero/heroine, make up a situation/conflict, and find a resolution/ending (optional).
Conversely, don’t be insulted if your child falls asleep in the midst of one of your most creative moments. Matthew made his way onto the astral plane one night just as Bobby’s spaceship was on its way to the moon in what I thought was a very exciting story.
Fortunately, you can always rerun your story the next night; chances are, your child will probably ask you to do so. Don’t be surprised to find yourself rerunning some stories long after you thought they’d be forgotten. What may have been a dull story to you could end up being a favorite of your child’s.
I made up one such story about a mouse who lived in Times Square and partied with his friends one New Year’s Eve while they waited for the ball to drop at midnight. My daughter Maia, four years old at the time, especially marveled at all the food the human merrymakers dropped on the streets that fed the mice. She helped me compose the story by coming up with more and more crazy and exotic foods the mice found.
Ali, who was two at the time, loved the story about the little girl who lived in a teeny, weeny house and played with itty, bitty toys. Each of the children, in turn, came up with other objects the girl had and more ways to describe them: “little,” “small,” “tiny,” “minuscule,” and so on. These kinds of stories stretch the imagination and strengthen the vocabulary as well. More often than not, my children will come up with a plot twist that I would never have conceived.
One night Maia asked me to tell a story about a mouse. A few sentences into the story, she informed me that the name of the mouse should be Mickey. Of course I went into a description of Disneyland, and when I was describing the “It’s a Small World” ride, I broke out into song and sang all the verses I could remember. Singing was healing for me and left me with a feeling of well-being before I went to sleep. My children were slumbering at the end of the song, and I felt good knowing they ended their day in a tranquil way (in sharp contrast to how the rest of the day went!). Simple, even monotonous tales have a place in our lives, too. Plots can be rudimentary or nonexistent, and even parents who think they have little imagination should try making up stories for their children.
Bedtime stories are a good place to start. Just the sound of mother’s or father’s voice is music to your children’s ears. I’ve lulled my children to sleep many times with “dull” stories. The most successful one to date is the one about the Sandman who traveled the world over helping people get to sleep. There was not much of a plot to that one-it was just a long list of places that he visited, like Singapore, Australia, Columbia, Madrid, Istanbul, Belgium, Siberia, and Timbuktu, and a little bit of information about each place (if I knew any). By the time he had gone around the globe, the children, too, were “gone.”
Educational, yet sleep inducing.
Another smashing success was the story about Timmy, who loved to play with balls-red balls, blue ones, green ones, striped ones, and polka-dot balls, to name a few. There were wooden balls, rubber balls, bowling balls, and glowing balls in his collection, too. After I had exhausted all the ball possibilities I could think of, I brought Timmy’s friend Bobby into the story. He collected blocks-alphabet blocks, metal blocks, shiny painted wooden blocks; you get the picture. And Timmy and Bobby would get together and build forts and pyramids with their blocks and balls. This story can be either monotonous or stimulating, depending on the time of day I tell it, how much my children are interested in participating in the telling, and the tone of voice I use. Of course you run the risk of overstimulating your children by telling bedtime stories. The mouse at Times Square was a nighttime story that ran a bit too much on the exciting side. Maia grew more awake as she helped me come up with the list of foods that I hoped would lull her to sleep.
Late one night when Maia asked for a story about an elephant, I composed a simple, short one about an elephant who was tired and couldn’t find a bed he could fit into. I began the story slowly and in a very soft, sing-songy, sleepy voice: “The elephant first tried to sleep in a crib just like your baby cousin John has-and then it went crash.” (I said the word crash in a whisper.) “Then he tried a bunk bed just like you and Ali have, and it went down with a big bang. He tried a water bed just like Aunt Julie and Uncle Tony have, and the water sploooooshed and splaaaaashed under him. He was so tired that all he wanted to do was snuggle under the covers [just as we were doing] and go to sleep. He finally went into a store and bought ten sturdy double beds that he lay next to each other. The elephant just nestled down in those warm, comfy beds and was so happy and sleepy that he went right to sleep and had happy dreams.” By the time I finished the story, Maia was snoring quietly next to me.
As well as a sleep-inducing story, the sleepy elephant is what I call a “here and now” story. These stories have a quality that can help children learn about and accept what is going on in their lives. They can be obvious representations of your life or your children’s lives or similar in nature. Whether it’s a trip to the family doctor or a mouse celebrating New Year’s Eve, you can tailor a story to match events that are occurring or upcoming in your family’s lives.
The “moral story” is an important part of American and English literature. Most times you do not have to look past your own life or the lives of your acquaintances to find such stories. I told one about a friend whose son woke up feeling cold one winter morning. He took his mother’s lighter and attempted to start a fire, just as he had observed his father doing several nights before in the family fireplace. My children listened in amazement and horror. Of course I gave the story a happy ending, with everyone being fine and the boy learning a valuable lesson.
The most engaging stories that you can tell your children are about yourself, your family, or people you know. Stories about yourself as a young child are usually very interesting to your children. Blending true stories with moral stories is a natural progression and acts as a buffer when, for instance, your child goofs and you tell him about a time when you were young and in a similar situation, with feelings identical to his.
Sometimes just a fleeting thought or memory about yourself as a child can turn into a nice little story. My children love to hear about my first bike. It was blue and had training wheels; we have photographs of me riding it down at the shore. I describe how I felt receiving it and mastering a two-wheeler. Grandmom and Grandpop can also add their recollections of the bike.
What could be more interesting to your children than a story of you as a child? Why, stories about themselves as babies, of course! I keep a small, hardbound journal about each of my children, in which I periodically jot down the funny things they’ve said or done. It serves to jog my memory and will certainly become a keepsake for my children. Matthew likes to hear about the time when he was three and running around naked. I asked him, “Matthew, why are you naked?” and he answered, “Because I have no clothes on.” It’s a simple story, but the children always ask questions about specific details about the day, and it makes for a five-minute quick tale in the car.
I wrote down the following story for posterity. I’m sure that as adults we will all get more than a laugh or two when I tell about the time Matthew announced to me that he was a boy and his baby sister was a girl. When I asked him how he knew, he looked pensive and did not respond. I tried prompting him and said, “What do you have that Maia doesn’t have that makes you a boy and her a girl?” Matthew’s eyes brightened as he exclaimed, “I have teeth!”
With my three children, I’ve found that storytelling has become an all-day affair that can take place in cars, on couches, and under comforters. With my arms free to hold babies instead of books, we’ve become closer as a family. Lying on my back with Matthew tucked within my right arm, Maia snuggled in my left, and Ali lying on top of me, we’re all set to listen to a tale about the very first thing that pops into my mind even if it is as common as a dishrag!
In Telling Your Own Stories, Donald Davis reminds us to use all five senses when telling stories. “Try to take the listeners into a scene through smell, taste and touch,” Davis says. He suggests taking your audience into your grandmother’s kitchen on Thanksgiving Day through the smells, tastes, and sounds you would meet as you entered there.
Here are some other tips that will help you get started in telling stories:
Stop believing you can’t do it.
Observe your child’s reaction to your stories.
Let the stories come from your heart. Don’t try to force them or overthink them; just let them flow.
Let your child help create the story if he or she wants to. (But beware: an overzealous child might not let you get a word in if you encourage too much input.)
Use everyday people or objects in the story. Looking around the room for material is helpful.
Use hand puppets as narrators of stories.
For young babies, plot is unimportant. Place your baby on your chest and yarn away!
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Champlin, Connie, and Nancy Renfro. Storytelling with Puppets. American Library Association, 1985. Collins, Chase. Tell Me a Story. Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Davis, Donald. Telling Your Own Stories. August House Publishers, 1993. Shelly, Marshall. Telling Stories to Children. Lion Publishing, 1990
Theresa Rose is the mother of Matthew (10), Maia (8), and Alexandria (7). Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Compleat Mother, Two Attune Newsletter, Vegetarian Times, and Vegetarian Journal.