Once upon a time, a mother read bedtime stories to her children out of an enormous, time-worn storybook. Her children listened in rapt attention, their eyes shining. When the children got older the mother read to them from classics, books that she loved as a child. As she read Treasure Island and The Little Prince the children learned to love literature, and those bedtimes became treasured memories for the mother and the children.
Of course, it’s just a fairytale.
I’ve never been the bedtime story-teller of choice in my house. My husband Stan and I take turns telling the kids bedtime stories, and he is much more in demand than I am. When it’s my turn, Kyla and Charlie groan and whine in unison, “But we want Daddy!”
Pretending that I’m not insulted by their rejection, I cheerfully say, “Well, tough. It’s Mommy or nobody.”
There is usually a split decision, five-year-old Charlie choosing Mommy, and eight-year-old Kyla choosing nobody. She’s got an advantage over Charlie, because she can read whatever she wants herself. That’s part of the problem. Since she can read books on her own, she wants to be told a story, not read one. So if I want to get her to listen to a bedtime story, I have to invent it.
My made-up stories are usually well-liked by Charlie, but not by Kyla. Honestly, I don’t know what her problem is. I think that I do pretty well. My favorite story is about an anthropomorphic sock who is tossed aside by a little boy who is careless with his things (“Not like you, Charlie,” I always interject, “You always put yours in the hamper” and he nods in agreement, even though it’s a lie.) The sock ends up behind a plant in the corner of a room for many years, where, being anthropomorphic, it cries in desperation and loneliness. Finally when the boy is ready to go to college, for some reason, he moves the plant, finds the tiny sock, and remembers that day long ago when he threw it there. Remorseful about his carelessness with his things, he brings that little sock with him as a reminder to be more careful and he keeps it with him always, until (and this is my favorite part — I came up with it halfway through, and was just bursting to say it) he has a son of his own who is born with just one foot (Stan overheard this part and looked up in alarm, but nothing could deter me — I was on a roll) and the man gives his son this very sock to wear.
Charlie is genuinely moved by this story, but Kyla thinks it’s dumb. She’s unfailingly polite, and would never say it, but when I start telling the sock story, she says, “You know, I think I will just go and read.”
Stan’s stories, on the other hand, are big hits. The kids laugh so hard that they fall off of the bed and roll around clutching their stomachs. Kyla is reduced to gasping, “Stop! Stop! I can’t breathe!” and Stan regularly has to tell them to settle down. Kyla never sighs and says, “I think I’ll skip this one tonight,” as she does with me.
I finally asked Stan what his stories were about, and he said that they were all basically the same. They were takeoffs of the Harry Potter stories, with Kyla and Charlie playing pivotal roles. They are in Slytherin House (they like to pretend that they are evil) and they take over Hogwarts School. Along the way, they do things like turn Professor Dumbledore into a pig, or make Hermione grow a tail. But the best part, the thing that sends them into hysterics, is that the characters all pass a lot of gas. The flatulence is often a plot device, emitted at a strategic time, to disorient an enemy.
So that was the secret.
“Don’t you think that’s a little crude?” I asked Stan.
He replied by saying something that boiled down to, “Give the people what they want.”
I did have a few months during which I found a book that both kids liked to hear. It was actually my all-time favorite book to read: Uncle Wiggily. Uncle Wiggily is not, as you might infer by his name, an exhibitionist. Far from it. He is a rabbit gentleman who wears clothes and a tall silk hat and has a red, white, and blue striped rheumatism crutch, and goes on adventures. What I like best about the Uncle Wiggily books is that you never knew when you’d come across a scene like this: A wild rabbit (that is, one who had no clothes or hat, and didn’t live in a hollow stump bungalow) had decided to destroy Uncle Wiggily’s garden. When Uncle Wiggily asked him why he was spoiling his garden, the wild rabbit said, “You’re rich and I’m poor, and I’m going to spoil everything you have!” Uncle Wiggily responded, “That’s the way Bolsheviks talk!”
Now, it doesn’t matter what your politics are. Knowing that at any moment you might come across Uncle Wiggily lecturing a wild rabbit about communism keeps you on your toes. That’s the kind of children’s literature I like. And Charlie was at the perfect age for Uncle Wiggily. He was four, and not quite sure if a talking, hat-wearing rabbit was in the realm of possibility. He asked me if Uncle Wiggily was real, and I sidestepped the issue by saying, “Well, I’ve never actually seen Uncle Wiggily, but I think that he lives in Upstate New York and I’ve never been there.”
I liked that Charlie thought Uncle Wiggily might be real. I think that it makes the world seem a little nicer when there’s a possibility of a polite, well-dressed rabbit having adventures and helping other animals out of jams in the forest.
It was during the Uncle Wiggily months that I came the closest to the fairy-tale ideal of bed-time story reading. That was definitely the high point of my story-reading career. It went downhill when both kids had simply had enough of Uncle Wiggily, and they wanted more made-up stories.
I will admit that I’m a little put-off by their preference for Stan’s stories. As the only member of this parenting team who has written things that people have bought, I would think that I’d have a bit of an edge in the story-telling department.
Stan complains about how they always want him to tell stories. He reminds me of those popular girls in high school complaining about juggling boyfriends.
I have no sympathy. I reply, “Well, what do you expect? You’re telling them stories about farting.”
But I think that I’ve worked out a way to make everybody happy. I’ll read them literary classics, but I’ll insert farting incidents. I’m thinking about reading The Wind in the Willows to them, but have Rat propel his boat through the water with flatulence. Or maybe I’ll read Little Women to them and have Jo and Amy have farting contests by the fire at night. I think it might work. I’ll get to read good literature to them, Stan will get a break, and they won’t complain when it’s my turn to tell bedtime stories. In other words: Give the people what they want and they will all live happily ever after.