My grandfather, whom we called Papaw, was good at many things including growing green beans, teaching dream interpretation, baking cinnamon bread and playing competitive senior-citizen tennis. But for us grandkids, his greatest talent was telling bedtime stories.
Papaw’s real name was Bob and so, of course, all the heroes of his stories were called Bob. Cowboy Bob. Garden-boy Bob. Spy-boy Bob. Fish-boy Bob. They all started the same way, with young Bob’s mom packing him a sandwich in a paper bag before he answered his call to adventure, Cowboy Bob jumping on his horse and Fish-boy Bob jumping into the lake. I never did get how that boy’s sandwich stayed dry all the way to lunchtime.
But now it’s up to my husband and me to defend the logic of our own bedtime stories, should our son question us. As part of the next generation of storytellers, I’ve discovered a few very grown-up truths about bedtime stories:
1. They are not planned in advance and retold on the night. Bedtime stories are actually made up on the spot. Did you know that? Because I didn’t.
2. There are facial muscles that you must absolutely not scrunch up when asked for a story about a green mail-delivering elephant, in order for it to sound not like a made up story, but rather like a series of well-known facts.
3. Bedtime stories may not all have a satisfying ending. But that’s OK, because your audience won’t be awake to hear it.
4. You’re lucky if you are still awake to hear it.
Now, when my husband tells our son a bedtime story it sounds something like this:
“There was once a little red train who wanted to explore outside the train station where he grew up. So one morning he went chugga-chugga chugga-chugga down the longest track he could find. He didn’t know where it was going but he just kept down it as fast as he could. Soon the little train was going really really fast because he was actually speeding down a really steep hill and then suddenly CRASH! He fell off the tracks, but luckily just at that moment, whoosh-whoosh a big dragon swooped out of the sky with huge big wings. And the dragon picked up the little red train and put him on his scaly back and together they went flying over the countryside till they reached the sea. And the sea was full of pirate ships, hundreds of them! And the little red train was so amazed that he leaned over to get a better look when the next thing he knew – SPLASH! – he fell straight into the cold blue sea…”
You get the idea. It’s action-packed adventure with colors and sound effects. It might as well be scratch-n’-sniff. That’s how my Papaw’s Boy-Bob stories were too.
On the other hand, when I tell our son a bedtime story, it goes more like this:
“Once upon a time, there was a fuzzy little rabbit who lived in a hole in a tree with his mother. It was oh-so-cozy in there and he felt so safe and warm. There was always plenty of yummy food to eat, like carrots and beets, which are both very rich in antioxidants and should be consumed daily, as you already know. And every morning, Mama Rabbit would make a nice cup of green tea – the cancer-combating properties of which are widely known – with a spoonful of honey. Mmmm. He didn’t think there was anything more a little rabbit could desire from life.
But then one morning, he woke up with a start and said to his Mama, ‘I just had the most amazing dream!’ When Mama Rabbit inquired further – because with a hook like that you just can’t resist asking a question – he told her that he’d dreamt about making friends with a wolf. A wolf, of all creatures! Because you should know that rabbits and wolves are – evolutionarily speaking – a bit at odds with each other, if not sworn enemies.
‘It could be a premonition,’ said the little rabbit’s mother. She was talking about his dream, of course, the one about the rabbit and the wolf forming a forbidden bond.
Now just as the little rabbit was drinking his green tea, there came a rapping at the door. It was an adventurous little hedgehog looking for new friends.
‘Hey little rabbit, come out and play with me,’ said the hedgehog.
And the little rabbit tentatively went to the door, opened it just a little and whispered, ‘No!’
‘Why not?’ said the hedgehog, ‘We can play in the woods and collect pinecones.’
‘But my Mama says there are wolves in the woods and I’m afraid.’
‘I bet you don’t even know what a wolf is,’ said the hedgehog with a rather haughty air. ‘If you knew what a wolf was, you wouldn’t be so apprehensive.’
The little rabbit felt ashamed and in fact he was blushing under all that fur. ‘My mama once told me a story about a wolf broke into a farm and ate a chicken.’ But, of course, this story just demonizes the wolf, who is actually a victim of human reduction of the wolves’ natural habitat and their food source. But that’s a whole other story. Anyway…
The hedgehog answered very knowingly. ‘Look, don’t worry. If a bear comes then I’ll prick it with one of my quills.’
‘Quills?’ said the little rabbit. ‘My mama once told me a story about a quill…’”
The little rabbit hasn’t even left the house yet and my son is already asleep. In fact, you might even be asleep. But I have to admit the soporific effect of Act One Scene One is entirely unintentional. Because I’m busy here trying to build a story from the ground up: setting the scene, building characters, creating tension. And all these things take time.
But I do realize that the story is a little heavy on the adjectives and adverbs and could do with a little less dialogue and a bit more action. I am also well aware that the use of speculative “if” sentences and stories (and dreams) within a story may be slightly beyond the reach of my two-year-old’s comprehension. However, I do think the nutritional titbits and doses of realism are well-placed. And even though he may struggle with the difference between “afraid” and “apprehensive”, it’s never too early to start understanding the nuances of your own feelings, right? I mean, how else is he ever going to relate to others?
And how else – when he’s a father himself – is he ever going to get the kids to sleep?