Once upon a time…

My son now needs a bedtime story, whispered in the dark, to go to sleep. My wife and I both love good story telling. She even took a course on it once, and told a story to an audience as the final project. We go to le Nuit des Contes every year here in Lausanne, and I’ve picked up some tips from watching the (literally) professionals there. A key to oral story telling, certainly for small children, is to use a structure with repeating sounds and phrases that they can get wrapped up in.

In order to have these some day to look back at, I’m going to start writing down summaries of stories I tell. If one is good enough to develop and retell, perhaps one day I’ll tell it at the Nuit des contes!

Our 1974 VW Type 2 camper van (“Bep” is his name) would be the star of every story if Elio got to choose. Instead, we offer him a choice of three characters and then go from there. The key, I find, is to start slowly, describing the character, throwing in some fun details right away. This gives you time to race ahead in your mind and choose a rough storyline. The easiest is to choose the end state first, so you know where you are trying to get to. Then, like a dot to dot painting, you need to fill in a few intermediate hops along the way. These are attempts the character makes at achieving the goal, or increasingly dire straights the character finds himself in. These stretch out the story, but more importantly, give it a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/verse structure, which is where the real magic comes from. And the rhythm necessary to put a fidgety 2-year old kid to sleep, as well, which is the point afterall!

What do I mean by verse/chorus? The chorus is the catch-phrase, the repeated element that signals another loop around. It gives the story rhythm and momentum. The verses carry the story forward, so that you get to where you are trying to go and you get that nice satisfying conclusion.

So here are several stories that I’ve told so far:

  • Bep and the Doubting Family: A story from real life, about a little camper that joined a new family and though it had been crossing the passes of Switzerland all its life, the mom and dad were worried it couldn’t do it (a family version of the Little Engine that Could). For each pass: Daddy said, “I don’t know if he can make it”, and Mommy said, “I’m afraid he can’t make it!”, and Elio said, “Go Bep, Go!”, and Bep said, “beep beep, vroom vroom, I know I can make it… I know I can make it… I knew I could make it!”.
  • Bep and the Big Campers: Big campers at a campground are making fun of Bep (“He’s only got 4 cylinders!”, “No fuel injection!”, “He doesn’t even run on diesel!”, “He’s got no toilet!”, “His exhaust stinks: che sputzza di benzina!”). Bep says he’s as good as other campers, but they demand proof. He names all the passes he’s done, and the bigger campers say, “Wait, they let you do that pass? I’m not allowed on it because I’m too big!”. The Dutch camper says, “My owners drive me all night long on the autoroute here, and go through all the tunnels to save time!”. The big-ass bus starts crying because he’ll never get to see Passo del Lucomagno because he’s too long. Bep makes him feel better by reminding him that he can drive all night from Barcelona and his owners don’t even have to go pee at the gas station. All the campers are friends after that.
  • Bunny and the Giant Carrot. A little bunny tells her mom that she loves carrots. She loves them so much she wants to grow up and be a farmer and grow carrots. She’ll sell them all around the forest. She’ll sell them by the big rock, and past the oak tree, etc, etc, etc. (This was inspired by Elio’s cousin, who told us this summer of a plan to be a farmer and sell his produce all around Switzerland in order to get out and see the country. Good plan, if you ask me!) She tells her mother the same thing every night, each night adding one more place she’ll sell her carrots, and naming all the others. One night, her mother reminds her that tomorrow is a special day, her birthday. She receives a single carrot seed, but it’s magic. The next morning, she has a regular carrot in her plot. But her mom convinces her to wait another night (and another and another, as many as it takes to make your fidgity 2 year old tired). Then it goes to seed and gives her all the seeds she’ll need to achieve her dream of being a carrot farmer.
  • Bep and the Apple. On a long trip, the daddy stops the car at a fruit stand. (Based on real life, and my fond memories of driving from San Francisco to Arnold as a child). He buys an apple for everyone (mommy, daddy, Elio and Emma). Each person crunches their apple, except Emma who coos because she knows she’ll get her apple cooked for snacktime later. Bep complains that he didn’t get an apple, and daddy explains to Bep that he can’t eat them, Bep eats gas. But daddy promises to make it up to Bep by getting him an apple anyway. Bep goes su, su, su! the pass, turning left and right and left and right and a moto goes by and goes zoom! (Repeat for as many switchbacks and/or passes as necessary until kidlet is cuddling and knodding off.) Bep is running out of gas and worried that daddy won’t fill him in time. But just when he’s sure he can’t go another kilometer, around the corner comes a giant sign with an apple on top. It’s Apple Gas, where Bep gets his gas, just as daddy promised!
  • The Lonely King. The king of a country with one citizen (the king himself) is lonely. On the plus side, all his subjects follow his orders, but having more people to play with would be nice. So he tries everything he can think of to get more citizens. He plants flowers on his castle, but the tourists just take pictures. He makes a decree that all the women of the kingdom (i.e. zero) must marry him, but that doesn’t work because there are none and because women don’t like to be told what to do like that anyway. He tries giving away cookies, but he runs out and no one moves in anyway. One day, a nice lady goes out picking mushrooms. She goes up up up the mountain until she finds herself in the kingdom. She asks the king if he’d like to look for mushrooms with her, and they laugh and have fun until sunset. She comes back for more mushrooms, day after day. After two weeks, the are in love. After two months, they are married. After two years, they have a family. And when the king and his queen had a happy family in the kingdom, other people came to join the happy kingdom and the king was no longer lonely (though he was likely exhausted from staying up late into the night telling stories to his kids).