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How to Tell a Bedtime Story

Illustration of a bedtime story
Charlotte Trounce

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When my daughter Lily was three, I used to tell her about a tribe of mer-kitties that had fishtails and lived in the East River. They had a high old time of it, the mer-kitties, playing in the neat patch of sand on the river floor where they held their nightly dances—until a giant purple octopus came along and tried to ruin the party. (Every story needs a villain.)

Each night, I tried to think up peaceable ways for the mer-kitties to handle the octopus. Until the moment my daughter politely interrupted to ask why they didn’t just kill him with a sharp rock. That was the first time (but not the last) that my daughter taught me something important: A well-told tale doesn’t pull its punches.

Telling stories to kids isn’t always easy. We know how stories should begin (an orphan child, a witch in the woods) and how they should end (happily), but the stuff in the middle is a trickier proposition. You have to lay out clues to a mystery you haven’t solved yet. Ideally your imagination and your child’s work together to guide you both through a tale that neither of you could have dreamed up at the beginning.

Children have emotions just as big as ours, and stories help them manage those emotions. Narrative is how we organize our experience of the world, how we give it meaning and put it in perspective; it’s the trail of bread crumbs through the dark forest. Psychological research has shown that the more a child hears tales that include characters’ thoughts and feelings, the more keenly he or she understands the emotions of others. (Listening to stories can also improve vocabulary, reading comprehen-sion, social skills, and even math ability.)

In the end, I let the mer-kitties triumph, just as Jack kills the giant. The world holds challenges even greater than purple octopuses. Before Lily goes out there, I want to know she’s ready, and she has to know she’s ready, too.

— Lev Grossman


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