go ahead, make them a story, daddy

by Carl L. Biemiller

This story telling article appeared in Holiday Magazine

April 1946, Vol. 1, No. 2, Curtis Publishing Co.

Biemiller was with Holiday at it's inception as an Associate Editor. He later became the magazine's Executive Editor.

There are four boys at my house, one too small to make much of a dent yet. But ever since the other three could hear and understand a few simple words, I have been lying like a madman for their amusement.

It’s a toss-up as to who has the most fun, the kids, their mother who sees in the stories confirmation of some private ideas concerning her husband, or me. I knock myself out. And every man can do the same thing. All he needs is a passel of kids, which I understand, can be obtained through the usual channels. For “tell me a story” is a child’s theme song. That story need not be an epic. It need not be fancy, and, thank heavens, it doesn’t even have to make sense.

At my house, for instance, there are Nazi submarines that have been captured by fish. There is a delirious bluebird who flies north in midwinter under the impression that it is springtime. We have worms in red coats and polar bears who hate cold weather. There are crows that leave bicycles in the streets to be stolen by squirrels—not the squirrels who save war stamps, but some other ones, bad ones. We have a sea turtle named Gus Galapagos, pronounced like a Greek restaurant owner, who acts as an airplane carrier for a bird pal. And so help me, we have a character starkly named “belly-button” that came into being one anatomical night in defense of parenthood.

I used to worry about the things I was doing to tender young minds, but inasmuch as the tender young minds are beginning to look like tough steel traps, I quit worrying.

I suspect that the stories have something to do with it.

By and large, parental excursions into the realm of minstrelsy are of two types. There are the disciplinary, point-a-lesson, reason-for-rules stories and there are screwball yarns for sheer fun. Often the two can be combined. In any case, there is only one basic ingredient, and that is the incongruous. Jack, age 9, Carl, age 6 and Gary, age 5 can be mildly amused by the adventures of a boy on roller skates. But they howl when you tell them about… A little octopus who skated… the one whose father had eight arms and eight hairbrushes to beat him with when he didn’t put his skates in the window seat out of the way.

And they go nuttier than fruitcakes when they hear about the cat with four left feet…the one that always fell against the coffee table and made his mother unhappy. In case you’re interested, that cat later swapped with a friend who had four right feet, and everything came out dandy.

While the incongruous is essential at our house, there is another sure-fire recipe for a successful story. That is a device which, for lack of any name at all, I call the multiplural cognomen. The kids would chuckle at that to. The idea is never to call anything by a simple name, and to get as much alliteration into your titles as possible. After all, it is rude to call an animal like a bear just plain Bear. The one that hates cold weather is Paul, the Pretty Shivery Polar Bear. The bluebird, the delirious one, is named Boppo Bluebird

Another certain success factor lies in letting the sprouts participate. This will also give you a breather and get you out of many a jam when your imagination bogs down. For instance, suppose you have a baby eagle that doesn’t want to learn to fly because he wants to be an airplane pilot and thinks that bird wings are not designed to proper aerodynamic specifications, you simply say, “Well, men, what do you think happened to that bird?”

They’ll tell you what happened to it, and leave you breathless. The above baby eagle, for instance, simply rescued a wrecked pilot who didn’t like airplanes because he wanted bird wings.

This active participation has many additional qualities. It improves the kids’ own appreciation of books, for instance. Many a night the boys will decide that it is my turn to have a story. They will then haul off and give me a variety of tales which they have garnered that day from a junket to the public library. Maybe I will learn about a character known as Michael Sebastian McKinley Smith that turns out to be a cat who owned that name for Sunday use. He was called plain Mike during the week. Or maybe I will meet the little princess that wanted the moon. Recently, son Jack who acquired a new accent due to several football broken teeth, has been introducing me to several versions of Kit Carson and other historical beings. I am also getting a liberal introduction to pensive fire horses, steam-engines-that-could, and several Biblical characters who need some cross-checking with the standard Bible.

In fact, I can hardly wait until the gents get bedded down for the night so I can sneak a look at their books myself. I read one about a boy’s trip up the Erie Canal the other night that was a dilly.

Child participation also has some strange results on the building of your stories. I give you this as a warning. Suppose you are all tucked into one chair, which will later cost $93 for re-upholstering, and you say, “Well, Gary, what would you like to hear tonight?”

“Tell me about a caterpillar,” answers the object of your question. “Tell me about a horse,” adds Carl. “Never mind that sissy stuff,” says Jack. “How about a big fight with airplanes?”

Obviously your stage is then set. To please all concerned you begin to build a thing which goes something like this…

Once upon a time there was a horse named Emmett Percheron Morgan Hamiltion who had a very good caterpillar friend called Fuzz. They were very patriotic folks, this horse and caterpillar, and when war broke out they rushed to enlist in the Army. Naturally, the Army didn’t have any uniforms, which would fit at the moment so they were told to come back later or else join the secret service for spy duty.

Spy duty sounded good to them. So Fuzz shipped off to Japan as a stowaway (explain what a stowaway is) in a cargo of prunes for the soldiers. Emmett Percheron Morgan Hamiltion went up to Alaska and swam the Bering Strait (define a strait and show where Alaska is on the map). Well, the two of them met later in the Mikado’s courtyard. Fuzz was disguised as a silkworm and Emmett as a cousin of the Mikado’s white horse.

One night when they were sneaking around they were discovered by the Japs. Fuzz jumped on Emmett’s back and they charged off to an airport where they stole a plane (discussion of various plane types, B-29, Zero fighter, etc., and how much a solid model would cost).

Now you see? Your climax comes with the big plane fight. And everybody has a wonderful time.

Naturally, you may have to go over and slap your wife on the back to stop that choking fit.

There are other direct benefits from allowing the kids an active role in the story construction. No matter what it does for them, the minutes you gain while they plot are all pure golden quiet when you’re not confronted with ah-ah-ah-ah-ah noises of machine guns and sundry weapons. I don’t claim wonders for this, but you might get a newspaper read after dinner.

You may even save some money on comic books. I don’t know how it is at your house, but at mine there are days when you can’t climb over the stacks of pulp which your sons have swapped, haggled and bled to obtain. By bribing (a nasty word) the guys off with your own stories you may be able to hold them down to only one comic book a week, although this figure will be subject to change without notice.

But more important than your piece of mind and the dimes you might save is another quality known as character, which will give you comfort in many ways.

All kids live in a world of their own, and all kids are natural-born liars. There is nothing wrong about this. It is simply the way a kid explains his world to himself.

It is part of a parent’s function to square away the real world with the child’s concept of it, to point out to him the distinction between direct distortion of fact and the unadorned truth. Story telling is a marvelous way of doing this because every story is clearly labeled “just pretend.”

Once that “just pretend” tag is clearly established, even major disciplinary chores become easier.

“I did so hang up my coat,” says Carl, outraged.

“Are you sure? Or is it just pretend?” asks his mother. The coat is on the floor, well away from any hook, so it couldn’t have fallen, and the conclusion is obvious.

“I did not break the garage window. Some man came in the driveway and poked it out with a stick,” explains Gary.

“That’s pretend, isn’t it,” asks his mother. “You used a stick yourself, didn’t you?” “It wasn’t a stick, it was a magic wand, and it slipped,” says Gary.

“Everybody in this house hates me,” wails Jack. “You’re all against me. Nobody wants me here.”

“Just like the wicked witch in Snow White,” interrupts Carl. Gary laughs. The next thing is a chuckle from Jack. “I was just pretending,” he says.

There are doubtless other virtues in plain old-fashioned story telling. We had a man at the house one night who had made a career of social-service work and allied psychology. After the kids had gone to bed he started to tell me of the virtues of family solidarity in a day of shifting social and economic concepts, how parental discipline based on mutual understanding between child and parent had a great role to play in a world strained by a generation of crises and confronted with the unpredictable doom of the atom bomb. He spoke of released child inhibitions. He even compared our gooftime fables with the old moral plays and the early pageants. That was the night I had told the sprouts about…

Old Man Angleworm who walked loppety-loop, loppety-loop in the dry grass and glumph-spurt, glumph-spurt in the mud. Old Man Angleworm, incidentally, ate rubber so that he always had some extra stretch in his tugs-of war with the Loud Robin.

Well, all that man’s learning bogged down when he got to thinking about that worm, and he laughed so hard that he spilled a drink on my wife’s end table.

Which only proved to me that you can dress anything up in the fanciest jargon in the world but you can’t beat simple fun.

And story telling to kids is fun that anybody can have. Believe me, all you need is a tongue. You don’t need plots, characters or anything else, in the final analysis.

Children are in a world that baffles them, and they get a lot of comfort just from hearing a voice. After all, what’s a mother’s lullaby but a story without words?

So go ahead, do it tonight, any time, make them a story, daddy—and find a lot of extra fun at home that you never dreamed existed.


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