Last month Charlie discovered the power of “stories” and since then, life has not been the same!
It all started one night after I read Charlie his usual books before bedtime. He kept begging for more books, but I didn’t want to set a precedent where I read more than books than usual (plus I was really tired). So I just made up a random story.
I told him about Charlie (“the world’s greatest adventurer”) and how he got a call on his phone from a little boy in Africa who couldn’t sleep and so he flew across the ocean to Africa… but on the way he was attacked by the Blue Baron in his aircraft (clearly, the brother of the Red Baron). Then Charlie shot down the Blue Baron’s airplane but he saved the Blue Baron when he was coming down in his parachute and then they became best friends. Then when he landed in Africa, the Blue Baron was an expert in sleep and helped the little boy fall asleep.
I was totally unprepared for the response. Charlie sat straight up the whole time, paying attention in a way I didn’t even know he was capable of! He LOVED the story, and wanted more more more! So I told him another story, which turned out to be about how Charlie’s dad (i.e. me) wrestled a lion and defeated him then he rode on the lion’s back and then they came across a witch riding a tiger. When I revealed that the witch was really Charlie’s mom (Mrs. Bee!) and the tiger was really Smokey the cat… Charlie’s jaw literally dropped and he gasped! It was a reaction that we had never ever gotten when reading him a book.
After those two stories, I was too tired and so I told Charlie to tell *me* a story. He got soo excited and told me this really complicated story involving dragons that I didn’t really understand but that seemed to quote heavily from all the books we’ve ever read him. Then he fell into a deep slumber… and when he awoke, the first thing he asked me to do was to tell him more stories!
Since then, Charlie has been regularly begging us for stories. We’ve learned a lot about telling stories since then, and thought we’d share our tips for other families considering getting in on storytime.
1. Come up with a cast of characters
a. Make up your own characters!
Charlie and I are always talking about the Red Baron. It all started when he climbed up on me one day, and pretended I was an airplane.
So I started “taking off” and we would dogfight with the Red Baron, the World War 2 fighter pilot that Snoopy from Peanuts would frequently encounter:
I spun that into a whole family of Barons, all brothers and sisters named after a different color. The Blue Baron is now Charlie’s best friend and traveling companion, the Indigo Baron is his sister and ally, the Scarlet Baron is a loyal dog, etc. All 12 of the Baron brother and sisters are unaware that there is a 13th Baron: Charlie, aka the 3/4 Yellow Baron! Meanwhile, the Barons all have an evil dad who is always interfering: the Black Baron.
If you don’t want to come up with your own cast of characters, feel free to use the Baron family…
b. Use characters from classic fairy tales and your LO’s favorite books
You can also recycle characters from the classic fairy tales! We use a lot of characters from various fairy tales… like the Big Bad Wolf, the Evil Queen and Little Red Riding Hood. If you watch Grimm or Once Upon a Time, you should have more than enough characters to drawn upon!
Also, Charlie loves when we use characters from his favorite books, like The Wonderful Pumpkin. The Gruffalo and the other animals in his books (i.e. the Owl, the Fox and the Snake) make frequent guest appearances in Charlie’s stories.
2. Use a standard plot engine to come up stories
a. Steal plots from fairy tales and children’s books
There are so many classic plots in fairy tales… like when Goldilock slept in the beds of the Three Little Bears, or when Little Red Riding Hood visited her Grandma’s and it was a wolf. Feel free to adapt one of those stories and stick your LO in there as the protagonist… just be careful that the story isn’t too scary!
b. Make up plots using a standard plot engine
All of the stories that I tell have the same plot engine: the evil Black Baron. The specifics of my plot engine may be a bit complicated, so feel free to skip this section.
Ok, here’s the deal. The Black Baron is evil for 364 days of the year because he was placed under a spell. The basic plot of every story is that in every story I tell him, Charlie is trying to break the spell and free his dad. To do this, he has to track down each of his brother and sister Barons.
This forms the standard plot for all of our stories, which go like this:
* First Charlie has to find one of his Baron brothers or sisters. A map shows him the journey he has to take… usually it involves three intermediate destinations. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the plot of every Dora the Explorer episode ever.
* Then once he finds the Baron, they sometimes fight because they don’t know who the other person is. This is based on the plot of every Smallville episode ever (yes, I used to love that show. No I can’t explain why).
* Then once they’re done with all that, they decide to become best friends. Charlie always asks them to be his best friend… he is a lover, not a fighter.
* Finally, the Baron brother or sister will tell Charlie a clue to finding either the next Baron. Usually this involves finding out the time and location where the Black Baron will become the White Baron. (One day a year, the Black Baron becomes Good and turns into the White Baron. On that day, the White Baron is sent to a secret island that nobody knows about. So Charlie has to discover both when and where the Black Baron will become the White Baron, so he can find him and they can become best friends.)
By using an algorithmic plot like this, it becomes really easy to tell stories. Before I figured this out, I had to use my creativity constantly which was tough sometimes at the end of the day.
3. Stories can be a great reward for kids
Charlie has always been a horrible eater, but that’s been changing since Mrs. Bee came up with the idea to tell Charlie stories over dinner. If he stops eating, then we just stop the story. This has been huge for getting him to eat meals!!
We’ve learned that stories can be a powerful bribe, if used sparingly so they retain their power. Charlie loves stories more than even candy… and I feel way better bribing him with a story than I do about bribing him with candy!
4. Stories are a great way to deliver values and (let’s be honest) propaganda
Charlie is a very picky eater. Telling him stories kept him at the dinner table, but sometimes he wouldn’t even touch his plate. So Mrs. Bee and I started telling him stories about Clark Kent, the little boy who arrived from the planet Krypton and ate allll of his food and grew BIG AND STRONG! And that if Charlie wanted to be BIG AND STRONG too, he’d better eat all of his food! We were amazed that Charlie immediately ate his food. (We’ll have to work to reconcile that with having a healthy relationship with food.) This has also helped a lot with getting Charlie to try new foods (which he usually won’t even taste).
We found that we could use stories to deliver all sorts of meta-messages. If Charlie wants to be big and strong, he has to eat… and he has to get a lot of sleep too! If Charlie wants to be best friends with the other Barons, he has to be nice to them and not push them. Etc. etc. And if Charlie is in bed, I always have the hero end the story by falling asleep in his bed and sleeping all through the night and then sleeping in late the next morning!
This is an amazingly powerful technique. I feel a little awed by the responsibility to use it properly… definitely be careful with this one!
5. Be careful to retain the structure of your bedtime ritual!
Charlie would beg us for stories at night, and we were happy to oblige. But he started to have problems falling asleep, and that created TRULY HORRIFIC behavioral problems during the day. We realized that one cause might be that stories don’t have the same clear end point that a book does, so it wasn’t clear to Charlie when we were done and it was time to sleep. He would just beg for us to, “finish the story!”
So we went back to our very structured routine: we pick out three books and read them together, warning him after each book that there are only 2 stories left… then 1 story left… then no more stories. Then we’d kiss him good night and leave the room.
The increased structure has really helped Charlie fall asleep again, and things are much better now. I’d love to reintroduce bedtime stories again, but if we do they will have Chapters and we will only do three a night. And I’ll follow the same format of warnings as we use now for the books: only 2 chapters left… then 1 chapter left… then all done!
6. Remember to let your kids tell you stories too!
Ever since we started telling Charlie stories, I’ve noticed that they’ve really impacted his imaginative play. For example, he will act out stories involving the Baron family while playing with his trains. This really surprised me at first… but once I thought about it, it made perfect sense.
Now I always try to trade off stories with Charlie, so that he gets a chance to practice using his imagination. And let’s face it, his stories are way more imaginative than my stories could ever be! So I steal parts of his stories and tell them back to him later, after he’s forgotten them haha!
Overall, the stories have been a lot of fun for the whole family, and a really powerful motivational tool for getting Charlie to eat (or get in the bath, or get dressed for school, or whatever the current Mission Impossible is for that day). And I like that it might become a nice memory for the kids. On the boards, community member Lemonlong shared how a common story mythology has become a great shared memory down through the generations:
My husband’s family is famous for what they call “Johnny stories” they were started years ago by a great-great someone and passed down through the family, with each family giving it their own twist. They always start with a boy named Johnny walking into the forest and then there’s talking animals, witches, and all kinds of stuff. We plan on doing Johnny stories for our kids. We went to a recent reunion and it was so much fun to hear all the different Johnny stories and everyone from adult to kid had such fond memories of them.
I hope that Charlie and Olive have fond memories of their adventures with their extended Baron family! And who knows… maybe they will tell the same stories to their kids some day!
Do you tell stories to your LO?