How to Tell a Bedtime Story
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
A Bedtime Story, in 5 Steps
A story is a mysterious creation, but it’s also a recipe: You need a hero, a world for him or her to live in (that’s the setting and the time), something to imperil that world (the plot twist), and a happy ending. Of course, it’s hard to come up with all of that when you can barely keep your eyes open. So we tapped a few children’s-book authors—Christopher Healy, the author of The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom ($17, amazon.com); Laurel Snyder, the author of Bigger Than a Breadbox ($7, amazon.com); and Barry Wolverton, the author of Neversink ($17, amazon.com)—to do most of the work for you. Pick a story element from each of the following sections and you have the building blocks for a rip-roaring tale.
1. Choose the hero.
2. Choose a setting.
• Your child’s school
• New York City on a snowy night
• The site of your child’s favorite vacation
• The caverns of Neptune
• A secret tree house in your own backyard
• A ship on a magical ocean that’s full of serpents and helpful mermaids
• Grandma’s attic
3. Choose a time.
4. Choose a major plot twist.
• A bird poops the seed of an Evil Tree in the heroine’s backyard.
• All the world’s pies have been stolen. Even potpies!
• The hero wakes up in a cave, surrounded by treasure and sleeping dragons.
• The crew of space rangers won’t be able to make it home unless the heroine can build a rocket engine out of dinner scraps.
• The hero is locked in the zoo overnight.
• The super-villain reveals himself to be…Mr. Wiggles, your pet dog!
• That mysterious new hat starts eating people’s hair.
5. Choose a happy ending.
• The heroine founds Upsidedownlandia, where every dark place has a night-light and books are the most popular form of entertainment.
• The hero rescues the puppy and gets to keep it.
• Mom and Dad promise to never again use the time machine without child supervision.
• The heroine’s exploits are made into the world’s best-selling video game.
• The feared, gargantuan beast is banished to its lair under Antarctica for the next 200 years.
• The hero eats the biggest ice cream cone ever.
• The heroine wakes up in bed to discover that it was all a dream.… Or was it?!