Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bedtime Stories


Somehow I’ve set the expectation with my kids that they get an original bedtime story every night. This is no easy matter—they can be a pretty tough audience, and have the power to refuse to sleep if the story doesn’t satisfy. So every night, after the pajamas are on and teeth brushed, I crawl into the lower bunk with Lindsay and try to think something up.

I suppose a stronger parent might simply refuse to tell these stories, but in this matter I’m inclined to indulge my daughters. After all, the story tradition cuts both ways: not only do they get entertained, but I have a rapt audience whose beliefs, values, and worldview are still highly malleable. One of my greatest joys as a parent is the opportunity to inculcate young minds literally from birth with the stamp of my own predilections.

I mentioned these bedtime stories to a few friends at a cocktail party, and they suggested I set up a bedtime story blog, selling stories to other parents. But before I get all entrepreneurial, I need to deeply ponder the question of whether these friends were being sarcastic. (From time to time, since childhood, I’ve suspected my “friends” are mocking me, and not infrequently I’ve been right.) In any event, I think the topic deserves at least a post. What follows is a brief how-to of bedtime stories, an examination of my story-rotation system, and a sampling of recent tales that were well received.

The making of … bedtime stories

I’ve taken some creative writing classes in my lifetime, and the most prescriptive of them made much of the classic “arc of the story”: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. When I first encountered this concept, I was skeptical; however, looking at how my bedtime stories have evolved, I realize they fit this model pretty well. In fact, if I don’t apply this dramatic structure, I get complaints: “It doesn’t seem like it’s over,” “Nothing happened,” or “That was boring.” To satisfy Alexa, I have to build in just enough conflict and excitement that Lindsay clutches my arm and says, “I’m scared!” but not so much that Lindsay starts to cry. The balancing act is not easy.

This doesn’t mean I strive to create lasting, high-quality tales. By bedtime, I’m almost desperate to get the kids down and salvage what’s left of my grown-up time before exhaustion claims me. My holy grail is a story that is extremely short but still satisfies the kids. I dare not start a story without having the plot worked out in my head; making it up as you go can lead to a rambling mess that lasts half an hour or more. The idea of a rote, formulaic story actually holds great appeal for me, and in the early days I managed to float a lot of cheap retreads before I started getting complaints. Still, kids do like structure, so while I’ve gotten away from totally modular stories, we’ve settled into a rotation of characters and plot elements.

The story rotation

For some reason, probably related to how fried my brain is in the evening, I haven’t managed to memorize our story rotation. Only Alexa knows the exact schedule, and often has to tell me which kind of story I’m to do. (She has to whisper it in my ear because Lindsay insists on its being a surprise.) As luck would have it, as I was here typing Alexa wandered by and I asked her, at long last, for the official story schedule.

Monday – Princess Dariella, without Astavus Gadolphus
Tuesday – Choice Night
Wednesday - Princess Dariella, with Astavus Gadolphus
Thursday – Jimella/Carmella/Len
Friday – Flujee
Saturday – Jimella/Carmella, no Len
Sunday – Peter & Edwin (with Ken every other Sunday)

Dariella is the princess of Monaco. (I actually know very little about Monaco, but fortunately my kids know even less.) Astavus Gadolphus is Dariella’s nemesis, a former suitor who is always trying to ruin her plans. Jimella, Carmella, Peter, and Edwin are all mountain lions who live in Tilden Park. (I wish I’d never introduced them, because they mostly run together in my mind, except for Carmella, who was raised by Wildcare.) Len is a mountain lion cub who can’t wait to grow up. Ken is a bobcat with a Napoleon complex. Flujee is a non-extinct backwards-flying dodo bird (a character thought up decades ago by a babysitter who delighted my brothers and me with a long series of Flujee stories). There have been other stock stories that I’ve discontinued, and Choice Night (anything you want) has begun to feature Alexa and Lindsay as special guest storytellers.

And now, here are a few tales, which are as faithful to the originals as my memory permits. I’ve included some commentary as well.

Princess Dariella and the African Safari

My first sample story is a Princess Dariella. On the night I told it, just before the kids’ bedtime, I was reading a brilliant short story in the “New Yorker,” and I stole from it not only my plot but several important particulars. (I don’t often steal ideas this blatantly, but, like a decorator crab, I’ll tend to use whatever I come across.) In this story I also included a special guest character, Kim, whom I appropriated from Rudyard Kipling’s novel. Kim shows up in a number of my stories, though in my stories he lives not in India but at the San Francisco zoo. (Now, in case you think it’s wrong for me to borrow characters and plots like this, I’ll remind you that Shakespeare stole the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”)

____“Alexa and Lindsay were playing Sorry in the living room when the phone rang. The ring tone was ‘Madame Butterfly.’”
____[Alexa breaks in, “I know who that is!”]
____“Sure enough, it was Princess Dariella, inviting Alexa and Lindsay to go on an African safari with her. Since the Princess was a family friend, their parents let them go with her. So, less than two weeks later, Alexa and Lindsay found themselves in Africa, sitting next to Princess Dariella in the back seat of a Land Rover. There were a couple of tourists in the middle seat whom they didn’t know, a hired driver up front, and in the seat next to him a slender fellow who seemed vaguely familiar to Alexa and Lindsay. They couldn’t see up there well enough to figure out who it was, though.”
____[“Not Astavus Gadolphus!” says Lindsay, sounding concerned.]
____[“No, because it’s not his night,” Alexa says.]
____“Girls, please be quiet and let me tell the story. Now, the girls were enjoying the sights when suddenly the driver stopped and shut off the engine. Amazingly, there were three lions only about twenty feet from the Rover. Alexa and Lindsay were so interested in the lions they didn’t even notice that one of the tourists had gotten out of the Rover and gotten closer to the lion to take a picture.
____“Now, that was a really dumb thing to do, because one of the lions was provoked to attack the tourist. And what happened next was truly amazing. Several things happened almost at once, within a split second, but during the crisis time seemed to slow down and Alexa and Lindsay could watch everything unfold, like in slow motion. Just as one of the lions prepared to leap at the tourist—”
____[“I’m scared!” cries Lindsay, clutching my arm. Alexa, rapt, shushes her, but Lindsay is on the verge of crying. “Is he going to be okay?” she whimpers. This frequently happens: she needs to be assured that things will come out well, but Alexa doesn’t want the surprise spoiled, so she (Alexa) plugs her ears and sings an impromptu barebones la-la-la song in her upper bunk while I whisper assurances in Lindsay’s ear. Either my kids have failed to observe that things always come out okay in my stories, or they assume past performance does not guarantee future results.]
____“So just as the lion was preparing to leap, Alexa and Lindsay cried out. This caught the attention of the person in the front seat next to the driver—the one who had looked familiar to Alexa and Lindsay—who had been looking elsewhere. Once he saw what was going on, he did something remarkable. He leapt straight up out of his seat, and straight through the open sun roof of the rover. Then he did a somersault down the windshield, and sprang again straight up in the air, extending his arms and legs as far as possible, to make himself as large as he could, while sounding a very loud cry. The girls suddenly recognized him: this was their good friend Kim!
____“Kim’s leap distracted the lion for just an instant—long enough for the driver to pull out a gun and fire it, straight up in the air. The tourist scrambled out of the way, and though the lion did leap, that moment of distraction caused him to narrowly miss his prey. And because of the gunshot, all three lions then ran away as fast as they could.”
____[“All this within a split second,” Lindsay says in wonderment.]
____“The tourist with the camera was so scared he wet his pants.” [I don’t often include potty talk in my stories, but occasionally I indulge the immature tastes of my daughters. Sure enough, they laugh uproariously, right on cue.] “Kim got back in the rover and was congratulated for his quick thinking and his acrobatic feat. The driver, totally disgusted at the tourist, began to drive away, leaving the tourist standing there. ‘I’m not driving anybody around who has soiled his pants,’ he muttered.” [More tittering from the girls.] “But once the rover was about fifty feet away, the driver sighed, shook his head, and drove pack to pick up the tourist. ‘The fool wouldn’t last half an hour out here by himself,’ he growled.”
____[Lindsay knows the story is over and comes in for her goodnight hug and kiss, and I can hear Alexa swing down to the bunk bed ladder to receive hers.]

Flujee and the Peacocks

It’s hard to know where the ideas from my stories come from, as hastily contrived as they are. I often consider the idea of working on a story idea in advance, but it never happens; I don’t have room to think until I’m lying in the bunk, in the dark, and have managed to shush my children. It’s actually kind of fun to reflect on a story after the fact. It can be a glimpse into my subconscious, I suppose. In the following story, the key environmental factor I lifted from the memory of my pre-dawn bike ride that day.

____“Alexa and Lindsay were having a picnic in Tilden Park with their good friend Flujee. They had some good food, flew a Frisbee around, and rested awhile, and then Flujee had to go. She thanked them for the picnic and flew off, backwards of course. Shortly after she left two beautiful peacocks walked out and said hello to Alexa and Lindsay. Their tails were all fanned out and were brilliantly colored.
____“‘You can talk!’ Alexa and Lindsay said, amazed. ‘Yes, of course we can talk,’ said one of the peacocks. ‘That’s amazing!’ Alexa and Lindsay said.” [As characters, Alexa and Lindsay aren’t well developed in my stories. I frequently have them sharing an action or a bit of dialog. This is to keep them from getting jealous, fearing that the other has a better part in the story. They may outgrow this—or not. I’ve read that William Shatner’s “Star Trek” contract guaranteed him more lines of dialog, in every episode, than Leonard Nimoy was given.]
____“‘Why is that amazing? Your friend could talk,’ one peacock said. ‘Yeah, but she’s a non-extinct, backward-flying dodo bird,’ Alexa and Lindsay explained. ‘I noticed that—her flying was very impressive,’ the other peacock replied. ‘In fact, the reason we came to talk to you is that we were intrigued by your friend, and wanted to see if we could hang out with her sometime.’ Alexa and Lindsay replied, ‘Why didn’t you just come out and strike up a conversation then?’ The peacocks looked at each other, then back at the girls. ‘We’re shy,’ one of them said.
____“So Lindsay and Alexa promised to talk to Flujee about the peacocks, and arranged to meet the peacocks at the same picnic area the next afternoon, bringing Flujee with them. They found Flujee at Terrace Park and mentioned the birds’ desire to meet her. To their surprise, Flujee wasn’t interested. ‘I don’t really like peacocks,’ she explained. ‘They’re so flamboyant, so proud, always wanting to be the center of attention.’ Alexa and Lindsay explained that no, these peacocks were actually kind of shy, and seemed really friendly. But Flujee was having none of it, and changed the subject.
____“This was a real shame, of course, because as Lindsay and Alexa well knew, Flujee was a very lonely bird. Her entire species had gone extinct three hundred years ago, and other birds either teased her, like the pigeons did, or intimidated her, like the hawks did. The girls felt sure that Flujee would hit it off with the peacocks and be glad to have met them.”
____[“Hit it off?” Lindsay asks. “It’s a figure of speech,” I explain. “It means to get along well.”]
____“So after talking it over for some time, the girls devised a plan. They invited Flujee to join them the following morning in Tilden Park, way up on the ridge at the top of South Park road, to watch the sun rise. Then they found the peacocks, and invited them as well. On the appointed morning, Alexa and Lindsay met up with Flujee at 5:30 a.m.
____“Why so early? Well, it was important to be up on the ridge before civil twilight, so that their eyes would be adjusted to the dark and they’d get the full effect of the sunrise, from its faint beginning glow to the first thin rind of sun popping up over the horizon. When the girls and Flujee arrived, the peacocks were already waiting there. Alexa and Lindsay were nervous about Flujee’s reaction to the peacocks, but their scheme worked perfectly: because there was so little light, nobody could see the brilliant colors of the peacocks’ feathers. All the colors were so muted and dull, Flujee couldn’t even tell what kind of birds they were.
____“As they waited for the sunrise, every chatted and got along really well. But Alexa and Lindsay were still nervous about what would happen as it got lighter and lighter and the peacocks’ colors became visible. Would Flujee turn on the peacocks? And would she be upset with Alexa and Lindsay?” [Lindsay starts to worry aloud here, and as Alexa plugs her ears and la-la-la’s, I assure Lindsay that everything will work out.]
____“It gradually got lighter and lighter, but as the horizon began to glow orange, the birds were so transfixed they didn’t take their eyes off it—so they were no longer looking at each other, though they continued to chat. It was a wonderfully clear morning and everyone enjoyed an exquisite sunrise, and by the time Flujee realized she’d been hanging out with a couple of peacocks, it was too late—they were all already friends.
____“Eventually both the peacocks and Flujee figured out that Alexa and Lindsay had set up the whole thing, but how could they be angry? Thanks to the creative arrangement the girls had made, all three birds had a new friend. And Alexa and Lindsay had two!”

Farm Story

A year or so ago, I hit on a plug-n-play story idea that gave me some really easy breaks in the rotation. One rote plotline concerned Francis, a hen, and another was about Marilyn, a cow. Depending on the bedtime stories these animals were told, they’d have crazy dreams that would affect what food they produced. The hen’s eggs would have something besides a white and a yolk in them, and the cow would give something other than milk. The dreams that caused these oddities wouldn’t be revealed until the end, so there was a slight element of mystery in the stories, but really they were largely unimaginative and utterly simple to contrive. The kids eventually protested, and we retired the series. But on Choice Night recently, I made a fairly successful play at injecting new life into the tired old genre.

____“A farmer was being audited by a government inspector.” [Some tedious explanation of the USDA is omitted here.] “The inspector took a tour of the farm, starting with the barn. He watched as the farmer milked his cow, Marilyn. The farmer did this the old-fashioned way, with a pail and a stool. But what came out of Marilyn’s udders wasn’t white—it was yellow! The inspector raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. The farmer shook his head, then moved on to his next chore. He collected several eggs from Francis, and brought them into the kitchen, the inspector tagging along. The farmer looked carefully at the viscous yellow liquid in the pail, sniffed it, thought a moment, and then melted some butter in a pan. When the pan was good and hot he poured in the yellow liquid, which sizzled and began to set up. ‘Aha—I guessed right,’ he said. ‘Scrambled eggs.’
____“The farmer cracked one of Francis’s eggs into a bowl. What came out wasn’t a white and a yolk. Instead, out fell a couple of strips of raw bacon, folded up like an accordion. The farmer shrugged, pushed the eggs to the side of the pan, and threw the bacon in. Then he cracked open the rest of the eggshells, which also contained folded bacon. The inspector was incredulous. ‘We have some strange animals,’ the farmer explained. ‘It’s because my farmhands tell such outlandish bedtime stories.’
____“At that very moment Alexa and Lindsay came through the kitchen. ‘Hang on, I want to talk to you,’ the farmer said. ‘By any chance did you tell my livestock some strange stories last night?’ The girls explained that they’d simply described, to each animal, what life was like for the other animals, so all the animals could better relate to one another. The farmer showed them what Marilyn had produced instead of milk, and what came out of Francis’s eggshells. The girls giggled. The inspector, savoring the delicious smells, no longer seemed upset by anything. ‘Would you girls like to stay for breakfast?’ the farmer asked.
____“‘That sounds lovely, but we’ll have to pass,’ the girls replied. ‘We have to go milk the pig.’”


  1. I loved this posting, Dana. I used to try and tell Sally original stories at bedtime too, from the coziness of the lower bunk, she always and still preferring the loftiness of the upper level. She was a gracious and attentive listener who never complained. Sometimes she would help, if I asked what happened to so-and-so, but often she would simply say, "I don't know Mom, you decide". I can't speak to the satisfaction for her, but there was some measure of satisfaction for me. It was a lovely time. I miss it.

  2. There's certainly something magical about the bedtime story. I must confess, we don't do them, and it's a shame, especially since our kids do love it when I tell them a story, usually some funny story from the Albert Story Archives. I'm just not good at fiction.

    Come to think of it, when we were down visiting a few years ago, I was tasked with delivering the bedtime story, and Dana, your kids were far from satisfied. You've certainly got a groovy thing going there. I thought it was funny how they kept pointing out that I was doing it wrong, now I understand why.

    We sure did love Harvy's Flujee stories... I remember trying to explain to our friend Rob a Flujee story. Even though Geoff and I were so excited about it, he just didn't get it. We figured it was the delivery, so we had him listen in when Harvy told the next story, but he still thought it was boring. I think he had just been spoiled by T.V. and all the spoon-fed magic it had to offer.

    I should definitely try harder. Or maybe I should try to remember more stories from my childhood and tell those. We sure loved a good Grandpa story! That may be the ticket, that way they can get some Albert history in their memories, too.

  3. Thanks for the comments! I'm glad people are still interested in kids' bedtime stories.

    Here's a tip for any bedtime storyteller facing "writer's block." We've adopted the "element" method where each member of the audience provides a detail to be included in the story. They can be basic (e.g., arrow, cage, storm) or fanciful (e.g., a matryoshka doll that comes alive, a girl from ancient times). Oddly, I find that having to incorporate these two elements into the story actually helps me come up with it. Having limitations on possible plot directions is often easier than plucking ideas from thin air.