On Telling Stories to Children

I’m not a mother, but children are a big part of my life. I’m a doting auntie and I see my nephews and nieces a lot. They are a big reason why I moved away from NYC and back to my region of origin. I get the distinction of being the “crazy aunt” with them because I lived in a big city and I dress weird and sometimes I drop an unintentional swear-bomb. (I know, I know. I try hard, but sometimes they just slip out! Especially when driving!)

But mostly my role as the eccentric Uncle Jesse equivalent in my own personal “Full House” involves me telling stories to entertain the kiddos. They’re always wanting to play “Story Hour,” and let me tell you — I had some tough instructors in my writing classes, but they were not nearly as tough as this pint-sized set. The minute one of my stories get boring, they simply walk away. Tough crowd!

Kids are so ruthless when it comes to stories. They don’t care so much about evocative language, beautiful atmospherics or penetrating insight. They like action, they like boldly yet simply drawn characters, they like happy, triumphant endings, and a dose of silliness at the right moment doesn’t hurt, either.

The minute something gets slow, or boring, their wide eyes begin to glaze over, they get fidgety, and before you know it, they’ve dissed you for some Barbie coloring book or a wrestling match with their Real Steel action figures, and you’re sitting there like last year’s Disney sitcom princess in rehab.

Funnily enough, I get super-terrified when my nephews and niece demand a story from me. I’ve pitched managers and agents before, but telling stories to the kids in my life makes me even more nervous for some weird reason. Not nervous exactly, but I definitely feel the need to stay alert and responsive in a way that doesn’t exist when it’s just me, my imagination and my fingers flying over the keyboard.

Being the kids’ storyteller makes me remember that stories are, on a basic level, meant to be entertaining: meant to draw people in, meant to enchant and, above all, captivate. You have to weave a spell, and weave it quickly.

There’s kind of a stage fright for oral storytelling, of course, but there’s also the pressure of having to weave a story on the spot. You start to understand how techniques like repetition, stock characters and build-up are so enduring: they help you vamp for time while trying to cook up something new.

But being put on the spot has its unexpected benefits, too: having to invent right then and there makes you un-precious about the act of creation itself. There’s no time or room to be perfectionistic; you simply have to go for it. I’ve definitely had moments when I’ve wondered, in the middle of telling a story, Oh god, what am I going to put in this magic cupboard to keep the kids interested? And then I look at the groceries on the table and think, A haunted bag of potato chips! (They loved that.)

The saving grace of telling stories to kids is that they like to hear the same story over and over again. More than like: they LOVE hearing the same story again and again, repeated ad nauseum. It’s like writing draft after draft, reworking certain crowd-pleasing elements to bring them to the fore and ruthlessly dropping what doesn’t work. It’s live testing in the moment: a quiet hush and wide eyes means it’s working, but the minute my nephew starts punching on his sister, I know that it’s not. (And that’s when I get to yell, “I don’t care who started it, I just know that it needs to STOP!” And then I become slightly terrified that I’m sounding like my mother.)

Anyway: I’ve come to embrace the times when one of my get-along gang demands a story from me. It’s so much fun, and such a good exercise I’m almost convinced writing programs should have an on-going exercise in telling stories to kindergartners. It’s oddly terrifying, but hearing all those kids cheer when you get to that hard-won happy ending feels more viscerally pleasing than anything. Well, almost anything: not quite as good as getting all hugs and kisses from my favorite little ones for taking the time to tell them a tale in the first place.

4 thoughts on “On Telling Stories to Children

  1. I’m jealous of the skillz to make up a story on the fly! I have enough trouble trying to retell fairy tales without a reference. My uncle fiction duties are limited to reading books aloud to my nieces. But if I do say so myself, I am really good at doing the voices.

    1. awww, that’s so cute!! we’re at the age where i try to get my niece and nephews to read along, and they are the ones that like to do funny voices. i’m really good at “dramatic” pacing and dynamics, though. like…i start slow…and slower….and slower……AND THEN GET REALLY LOUD!!

      xo k.

  2. this was wonderful! that’s a serious test of creative powers that i’d never really thought about… I remember my mom telling my little sister stories when she was little, all featuring the same heroine (betty lou?) who had some kind of catchphrase – wish I could remember it!

    1. thanks, mary! ooh, yes, catchphrases…that’s something i need to throw into my kids’ storytelling arsenal! the kiddos will love that! xo k.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *