“Once upon a time there was a knight named Ned who loved eating noodles. All day long he ate noodles, noodles, noodles, topped with different sauces: pesto, tomato, olives. One day as he was tucking into his third bowl of noodles, his page came and said, ‘Sir, there is an ogre threatening the kingdom! Put on your armor, take your sword, and defend it!’ But Ned said, ‘I’ve got another pot of noodles on the boil. I’ll finish them and then go fight.’ Meanwhile the ogre was busy eating everything in its path: trees, bees, houses . . . .”
We are walking along a street lined with towering date palms, making our way to my children’s school in the Israeli town of Modiin. My son, clutching my hand, adds to the story: “There was a commotion outside.”
“Finally,” I say, “Ned put on his suit of armor, took his sword, saddled his horse, and flung his sword at the ogre’s eye. ‘Ow!’ said the ogre and stomped off.”
For several years now, at bedtime and on our walks to school, I’ve been telling my six-year-old twins “mummy stories,” a series of ad-lib tales with multiple chapters and alternative endings. I can’t remember exactly when I started this oral tradition, but it was probably one evening when my son or daughter did not want to go to bed. In the darkness, I began to conjure up a story, making up the plot as I went along, asking my kids to name the characters. “A green rabbit.” “A friendly dragon.” “A slug.” The dragon, the slug, and the rabbit travel the world, stowing away on ships, having adventures in places I have never seen—Zanzibar, Timbuktu, Siberia.
As a science journalist, I report facts. So I was surprised to find within myself this never-ending well of odd characters and their convoluted narratives: Chocolate Boy and the Zombie Strawberry, The Runaway Bowl of Jelly, The Flying Lion. In other stories, Mr. Elastic Man and Mrs. Elastic Woman (along with their baby son, Stretch) catch bank robbers with their infinitely extendable arms. In the tale of Princess Esmeralda, a lonely girl has every toy she wants but is sad because her parents, the Queen and King, are always driving around in their carriages, waving at their subjects. In my version of Cinderella, the enslaved orphan girl puts down her tools one day, saying “I’m out of here,” opens the front door, and hops on a bus to New York City, where she applies to medical school and later opens a free clinic for women with no health insurance.
After reading Alison Gopnik’s book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children, I realized I was engaging in a tradition perhaps hundreds of thousands of years old—transmitting moral and cultural wisdom to the next generation through spontaneous storytelling. Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, cites a 2014 study by anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, who recorded and analyzed both daytime and firelight talk of the nomadic Ju/’hoansi people of Namibia and Botswana. During the day, the Ju/’hoansi devoted one-third of their time to discussing foraging plans and hunting strategies, and much of the rest of their time to gossiping, joking, and complaining. But at nighttime, gripes and concerns were set aside as fireside gatherers spent more than 80 percent of their time telling stories “about people they knew, about past generations, about relatives in distant villages, about goings on in the spirit world.”
“Stories conveyed unifying cosmologies and charters for rules and rites governing behavior,” Wiessner writes. This capacity for expanding the imagination by night may extend back to the earliest hominid use of fire, perhaps one million years ago. As in most hunter-gatherer societies, Wiessner says, the fire-lit hours “provided time for ventures into such virtual communities, whether human or supernatural, via stories and ritual.”
The fact that the origins of my stories stretch far back into history is significant. During the autumn Jewish festival of Sukkot, we traditionally chant Ecclesiastes in synagogue. In this book of the Hebrew Bible, the world-weary author articulates the recycled nature of storytelling: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Though none of our stories may be “new under the sun,” we are still driven to repeat them over and over, defining our own existence by creating contemporary versions of the old narratives, as a 2016 study shows. Researchers at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont applied mathematical models to 1,327 pieces of fiction and found that almost all stories follow six emotional arcs: rags-to-riches (rise), riches-to-rags (fall), man-in-a-hole (fall-rise), Icarus (rise-fall), Oedipus (fall-rise-fall), and Cinderella (rise-fall-rise).
In telling stories to my children, I am participating in a ritual thousands of years old, which provides comfort to me as well to my children, as stories have for millennia. My own stories depict human and supernatural communities similar to those Wiessner describes among the Ju/’hoansi , as well as my own “charters for rules and rites governing behavior.” In my tales, good always triumphs over evil, love over hate, liberty over tyranny. I also try to convey my own personal vision of a harmonious world, where a stick insect can be friends with a jellyfish and Queen Unicara, the queen of the unicorns, is revered for her ability to bring peace to warring neighbors. While I don’t tell overtly moral tales, in my narratives no person or animal is excluded from the story because they look or act differently, or because they are in a wheelchair, or because they have a different color skin or a different religion.
Such ethical messages are inherent within the tradition of storytelling, where animals (often dressed in human clothes) teach us such lessons as mercy-brings-its-own-reward (The Lion and the Mouse) and persevere-and-you-will-conquer (The Hare and the Tortoise)—both Aesop’s Fables, which were originally handed down as an oral tradition. Variations on these tales are very popular with my children: Sometimes the hare is a cheetah, or a race-car, while the turtle is a mechanic who helps fix the car when it breaks down mid-race.
My children have evidently absorbed my vision of harmonious multitudes, because when I ask them to name the story’s characters, their heroines and heroes cross cultures, species, and worlds: they are birds, insects, inanimate objects, spirits, and magical beings. I have related countless sagas of vampires, ghosts, zombies, skeletons, wizards, a tree with a runny nose, bee-biting fleas. My daughter requests a story about a fan and a light, and I begin: “Once upon a time there was a fan and a light. They were friends, but each one was always trying to prove that one was better than the other. ‘I cool people down!’ ‘I help people read and see!’ One day the fan had had enough and refused to turn . . . .”
It’s important to me that my children can relate these stories to people in their own world, so in separate conversations we talk about how we must respect people who do not look the way we do or share our Jewish religion. When we see women wearing the hijab in our town in Israel, I say, “As-Salamu Aleikum,” to them and explain to my children that the women are Muslim and the Arabic words mean “Peace be upon you.” We talk about their teenage cousin, who faces multiple physical and mental challenges in her life. My kids know they must treat their cousin with respect, even if she doesn’t always act in ways they can understand.
My children absorb and apply these lessons to their own lives. For example, when my son found a tiny lizard in his bedroom he named it, and both of my children show respect for small animals and invertebrates such as snails, which emerge from the soil after the winter rains. Instead of squealing and showing fear, they crouch down to examine the mollusk, wondering aloud what it is thinking. I know they ponder the moral implications of my stories, because, for example, my daughter will say, “If I found someone without a home, I’d invite them to stay in ours—for fifteen years!”
The tales I tell not only help shape my children’s character and world view, but they are also soothing for them—my daughter tells me how she thinks about each story before she goes to sleep—and help them wrestle with their fears: the terror that the mother or father will never return, the fear of death, the fear that the heroine or hero will not survive. The stories are soothing for me, too. After a long and tiring day, my stories help entice my children to sleep; the child who was running and jumping and shrieking a few moments ago now lies peacefully in the semidarkness, listening to my rambling tale and often supplying the details. I incorporate all of these, no matter how strange—”the baby hid in the bear’s belly button”—often taking the story in new directions.
Like the oral tales of countless families and cultures that went before us, our Mummy Stories are transitory and rarely written down. I frequently forget the actions and events of the previous night’s story. But like the transient art projects my kids create—inexhaustible combinations of beads or sticks or shells—my stories profit from their endless loops and infinite directions: there is no pressure for perfection, editing, an audience beyond the darkened room. This looping also provides an opportunity to teach my children about the endless cycle of life. In “The Tale of the Puddle and the Drip,” a puddle, sick of her boring life next to a dripping pipe, said, “I’m tired of being a puddle!” She turned into a stream that ran down a hill until, in the distance, the stream saw a river and said, “I’m not happy being a stream! I want to be a river!” So the stream flowed into the river and became part of the river that flowed into the sea.
My daughter asks, “And then what happened?” I say, “Well, the puddle was now part of the sea, but she wasn’t satisfied and wished to be a puddle again. So the sun shone on the water and turned the puddle into steam, and it became a cloud, and it rained on the place where the puddle had been, and she became a puddle again.”
Once again I turn to the book of Ecclesiastes for wisdom about not only the water cycle but also the endless cycling of stories through families and cultures: “All rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is not yet full; to the place where the rivers flow, thither they return.”