A Path to Story, Ch. 7: On the Road

One of my favorite times to tell stories with my kids is during a road trip. While many of the newer mini-vans are equipped with DVD players complete with multiple screens to help entertain the family, I’ve found that storytelling, with a captive audience, can be as equally entertaining if not more. An example of this was during our Thanksgiving trip to my wife’s relatives. I think one-way, complete with a rest stop was about 1hr 30min. It wasn’t super long at all, but just enough to get something started. Before we began, I thought maybe we were going to tell one for a couple minutes till the kids fell asleep. But I was surprised to find that we told the same story all the way there and all the way back, rest stops included.

The best thing about stories on the road is you don’t have to come up with everything yourself. It’s very similar to using your kids’ favorite characters from shows they enjoy. You don’t have to create them, it’s already done. You are merely incorporating them into something new. When traveling, let the road tell the story. Your only responsibility may be to keep the story intact. Each new place, car, and building can be your characters. It’s funny how well things will fit into the story you’re telling.

Our story began as we traveled down a road near our house that went between a military base and a bioengineering plant. Naturally, the military base side of the road became home to a power hungry, weapon-bearing, world-dominating general, and the bioengineering plant side was home to mad scientists. As soon as we started, everything from electric towers to nondescript factory-type buildings became incorporated into the plot. We would duck down and hide while sneaking past both groups. We watched out for snipers and were careful of any gas attacks that if breathed would make you crazy. In case of such an attack, we would shoot missiles back at enemy encampments, hold our breath, and tell the driver to get us out of there fast. I would use the electronic dials- radio/ac, etc. in the front of the van as the command center. We would listen in on top-secret conversations between the general and the scientists when we would pass by telephone towers that spanned the road we were on. Bridges would block us from any military helicopters and would momentarily scramble their search signal long enough for our escape. It was a full-on interactive story, where everyone and everything played a part.

My kids’ imaginations were engaged and they would shout out warnings of impending enemy attacks. They weren’t just looking out the window to pass the time, they were a part of an elite team sent to infiltrate enemy territory. Depending on which side of the car even the rest stop building was determined which camp it was associated with. The story had a plot twist as on the way back the sides were switched. We celebrated as we victoriously passed by both the base and the plant on our way home. It was a close one.

Some people like road trips to be quiet and meditative, if you’re one of those or are in a mood, use the DVD and get your kids some headphones. As for me, I see too many benefits of storytelling to not do it. I’d rather have them look out their window than at a screen any day.

A Path to Story, Ch. 6: A Trail Mix of Story

When telling stories to my kids, my favorite mediums to use are characters they already know and enjoy. A couple days ago, I told them a story that even this morning they incorporated into their imaginations.  I love it when my kids do this; I feel like I’m truly giving them something. When you don’t have money and your health limits you, tell stories. You can take them anywhere, do anything, and have everything.

A couple days ago I combined two stories that my kids really liked. I started in Cinderella’s world when she was in the garden after her step-sisters had destroyed the dress she was planning on wearing to the ball and her Fairy-godmother appeared. Only this time the stepmother and stepsisters were still there picking on Cinderella. And instead of her magic wand only being used to make a new dress etc., the Fairy-godmother hit a secret button, and suddenly a familiar sound beamed forth. A familiar lightsaber sound. The stepsisters quickly threw on dark cloaks and beamed forth their own red ones, and of course, the stepmother became the lightning shooting Emperor-like character to the Fairy-godmother’s Yoda-like one.

Why did I do this? Well, as a parent, you notice when your kids are engaged or not. And though my daughter is a fan of the Cinderella story and is never tired of it, my boys had an almost “here we go again” kind of expression. So I knew I had to do something. It didn’t hit me till I changed the story they knew to make it fresh for them, and for me too honestly. Have the Fairy-godmother fight with the stepsisters! And when she busted out her wand it hit me, I heard the piercing buzz of the Jedi weapon and it was on.

When I looked up to see their reaction, my daughter had a smile (it was important that she approved since it was her favorite story I was tampering with), and my boys cheered. They let me know I stuck the landing. This morning my kids were playing with pencils they received as awards for excellence at school. First, they were magical wands and then instantly they became lightsabers.

It’s just plain fun people. You don’t need all the new toys, video games, etc. Just a willingness to play and this is something all the stores in America don’t want you to know. They actually thrive off of parents who don’t have time for their kids.

So tell a story, take time to turn off everything, and play with your kids. Obviously, I’m not anti-movies since both the stories I used were ones my kids have seen, and you don’t have to be. I’m merely hoping to help arm parents with tools to make it more fun for everyone. Being a parent is awesome and for the time we’ve been given, we each get the chance to make it what we want it to be.

May the force be with you, Cinderella.

A Path to Story, Ch. 5: The Bible

When I think about what it means to read the Bible to my kids, I think about the story I’m subjecting them to.  The love that’s worth leaving everything for. The life that has no end. The ultimate destination of evil, and my part in all of it.  It brings eternity into our grasp and it gives purpose to this life that far outshines anything else in this world.

Yes, there is violence and sexual content to be censored, especially if you’re reading to your little ones.  Read ahead, or stay in the New Testament till they get older.

As I was attempting to write about this, I found myself facing all kinds of disruptions.  I kept thinking about all the Bibles sitting on shelves gathering dust.  How does one inspire others when it comes to something as important as reading the Word of God?  Over the years, I’ve been exposed to very learned professors and preachers and it seems interpretation can be as fickle as beauty.  Even so, I’ve come up with 7 questions to consider if you’ve never opened the pages of the Bible or even thought about reading it to your kids.

If there was a book that has been around for hundreds of years, explains how we got here, who we are, and why, would you read it?

If there was a book that has been used to shape nations and provide a map for our consciences, would you read it?

If there was a book that countless brilliant minds have tried to refute, but are unable as archeology continues to prove its accuracy, would you read it?

If there was a book that provided the basis for our understanding of human rights, revolutionizing cultures time and again, would you read it?

If there was a book that has inspired more works of art and music than any other, would you read it?

If there was a book that was translated into over 500 languages that people have died over so that others could read it, would you read it?

If there was a book that can guide your relationship with God, would you read it?

It defines faith, hope, and love.  It gives out knowledge and wisdom.  It opens eyes and doors, revealing to the oppressed their true value.  It continues to change lives as it inspires people to become more.

May your times of reading the Bible unlock its power into your life and that of your family.  May both parents and children learn and understand why and how we are to love one another.  May the Bible introduce you and others to the greatest person they will ever know, Jesus Christ.  And may it bless and usher you into His Kingdom.

A Path to Story, Ch. 4: Accents

If you are wanting to unlock a new level to storytime; if you want to tap into the characters of your kids’ favorite books and bring them off the pages; if you are ready for more of a challenge/embarrassment, there is nothing more effective than adding a good accent.

For me, I learned most of the accents I incorporate in story time from watching movies. Being a musician who learns primarily from hearing it first, movies have been a great way for me to figure out how to do it. This may not be the best way for everyone to learn accents, but since I don’t know any other way, this is it.

Learning accents is mostly done by trial and error. This is where the challenge and embarrassment are found. Most of it is by hearing, but if you can find someone/actor etc. who you can watch closely, you’ll see it is also in the muscles of the face, the shape of the mouth, and the movement of the tongue. All three of these aspects are used to create different accents. If you watch enough documentaries on a specific people group you can even see common expressions and facial features that lend themselves to the different ones. When employing an accent, it helps to let your face mimic what you see. It links your memory to the sound in a visual way.

Now other than documentaries, most if not all of the movies I learned from probably wouldn’t be ones I’d recommend to watch with the family, but I’ll list them along with the accents so you can at least know some options.

Australian- Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin

Chinese- too many martial arts movies to count, Jackie Chan movies
are pretty good, Rush Hour movies, Shanghai Noon and
Knights

East Tennessee Southern- I lived there for 5 years so I caught it
from them

English- Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Beatles documentaries,
Austin Powers movies, Sherlock Holmes movies, Spice
Girls, James Bond movies, really there are so many just
take your pick.

German- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, WWII movies

Irish- Lucky Charms commercials, U2 documentaries, Liam Neeson
movies, Chris O’Dowd movies

Jamaican- Psych tv show when Gus does it, Bob Marley
documentaries (not a lot here which is probably why I’m
terrible at it)

Pirate- Pirates of the Carribean, Veggie Tales’ “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything”, a lot of shows have pirates in them

Scottish- So I Married an Axe Murderer, Brigadoon

Spanish- Antonio Banderas movies- Puss in Boots, Zorro etc.

These are just a few I’ve used and/or tried to use along with the movies/bands/actors etc. that exposed me to them. Sometimes it’s fun to slaughter accents and not be so worried about authenticity. Unless your kids know different, it’s all good. I’m not from these areas- lived in Michigan for most of my life, so I don’t know how accurate they are, but it passes for story time and that’s all I care about.

One thing about websites that try to teach accents, I have yet to find one that is truly helpful.

For any of the women storytellers, I imagine it would be helpful to find women who articulate these accents. Sorry, most of the ones I know, except the Spice Girls, which is why I included them, are male.

Now after you get accustomed to any of the choices above or of your own, you can pick whichever character to have whichever accent. Unless it is in the book or linked to a movie, Puss in Boots etc., you should be good to go. Try not to go too thick with any of them as it is more important that your kids can understand you.

As always, remember this is supposed to be fun. If it isn’t, then let it go. In the end, I hope you find the bravery needed to master the use of accents. It has made story time that much more enjoyable for me let alone my kids. You’ll know you’re getting a little cocky with it when you begin to use it to fool people into thinking you’re from somewhere else. If you are that brazen, you could undoubtedly share some insights of your own.

A Path to Story, Ch. 3: Going Further

Ok, you’ve read all the stories you can find, you’ve even added your own additions to what was written, but part of you wants more. Maybe your imagination needs a little more room. Maybe the stories you’ve read just aren’t cutting it anymore no matter how much you expound on them. Or maybe it’s a need for more that you’ve seen in your kids. If that is the case, then you may be ready to try for a more advanced level of storytelling.

In the last chapter we talked about expounding on a story and how fun that can be. It’s a relatively safe place to go because you don’t stray very far from the story itself in plot and message. It is similar to having the training wheels on and a path with guard rails. You can’t really end up in trouble since the boundaries are already in place for you. In this chapter, however, we are taking the wheels and rails off.

Now, we are NOT talking about master-level storytelling where you create a story with your own world and your own characters, but telling stories from ones that already exist. It is like jumping into a pool. It already has its form with boundaries, it is already filled with water, and you already know what you’re supposed to do with it, but like the removal of the training wheels, you jump in without water-wings. The post about the Avenger cup and the Hulk trying to learn to smile is an example of this. The characters are already created, their personalities already defined. Even subplots are already in place- Thor and Hulk tension etc. This is work you don’t have to do. This is where I create most of the stories for my kids. I like to take characters they already connect with in worlds they already know. If I even try to stray from what they are familiar with, they are quick to correct me. For example: making the Hulk weak or intelligent. Both of these can be used for interesting storylines, but only if it remains based on who they already understand the Hulk to be, as in a short-term change where the Hulk returns to being the strong inarticulate guy.

And that brings me to the first and most important tool you can use as a guide in this form of storytelling, your children. The reaction of your children is of utmost importance. Through the first step, reading stories to your kids, both you and your children were exposed to examples of what is generally accepted in the range of censorship. Most of this is obvious- subjects such as death and appropriate level of violence should be handled with care. You really can’t kill characters your kids love no matter how much you may want to. Doing that is like blowing the pool up with dynamite.

If you’ve chosen to use characters from cartoons, which is where I usually pick from, keep the cartoon world intact. Think of it like the ‘Leave No Trace’ approach to camping- take only memories, leave nothing but footprints. This usually will keep everyone happy and generally safe from trauma.

For decision making in plot direction, I use my kids’ expressions to help me choose which path to take. I have started stories that very quickly inspired frowns or uncomfortable shifting from them. If it is unsalvageable then let it go. In some cases, I literally have had to start over and tell my kids to erase it from their minds. They are your chief investors; let them have a stake in it. Let them teach you about what they are ready for and what they like.

Through storytelling, you can learn a lot about your kids and you can learn even more from them. By keeping a close eye on how they respond, you can adventure and explore together to create great stories you all will enjoy.

A Path to Story, Ch. 2: A Second Step

If you think you’ve found your stride reading stories to your children and are ready for the next step; if you have found some confidence amidst the risk of embarrassment; if you have begun to master the different voices you can achieve; if you have read all your kids’ favorite books so many times you have them memorized, then you are most likely ready to continue.

This next step for me was out of necessity because my kids have an amazing propensity for repeating things, especially when they were around 2 years old. Over and over and over, it wouldn’t stop. My antagonistic side kicked in and I started reading as if I were an old-time gospel preacher by making one sentence last 10 minutes because I really didn’t want to read it again. Reading it that way I would rarely get past the first page.

For example: If the sentence was, “He went in the house.” I would read it expounding on every word. “Who went in the house? It says, ‘he’ went in the house. Not ‘she’ went in the house, if it was a ‘she’ that went in the house then that would be an entirely different story.” Etc.

Amazingly enough, this made repeating the stories more than tolerable for me. I almost enjoyed it, almost. Feel free to have that be your next step, but that’s not very fun. I challenge you to let go a little and use the story that’s written as a basis, a launching pad for your own imagination. Instead of expounding on every word, like the Gospel preacher, expound on the story.

For example: If the sentence again was, “He went in the house.” Begin to ask yourself “why?” If this is one you already have memorized and you know that the “He” character is named Jim and he’s going in the house to look for his dog, then a good place to begin could be all the other places Jim has looked before going in his house. Even if the written story goes in that direction, make it more. Get ridiculous if you have to like outer space, underwater, back in time, etc. When you’re done you can bring it back so you can turn the page.

You might be surprised at all that can happen during this step. People quote movies all the time, but in my family, we also quote stuff we’ve made up, and that right there is gold to me.

I remember one I told based on of a book about a cat who imagines himself to be a bunch of different things. The cat imagined himself fighting an evil knight. The story didn’t go into detail, so I did. The quote I made up before he struck was, “Oh no you don’t!” and then I would make a punch sound of the cat hitting the knight. The kids loved it. The written story went on to tell how the cat imagined himself rescuing a princess. The picture on the page had the cat swinging down the tower with the princess in his arms. Again it didn’t go into detail, so again I did. When I had the princess say, “Thank you, my brave knight.” I had the cat say, “Oh no you don’t!” And suddenly the cat is punching out the princess. Now, you really need to know your audience. My kids screamed with laughter because they all like that kind of physical humor. I actually didn’t know I was going to say that till it came out of my mouth. If that happens to you, enjoy it, you’ve officially plugged in.

And if you’re like me and you’re a closet competitor, that was a checkmate on another author’s story. It changed it forever and now we can’t read it without saying, “Oh no you don’t!”. We don’t even bother waiting for that part of the story and start saying it from the beginning and the cat ends up punching everyone out.

My family uses that quote for many things in different situations. It breaks up fights between the boys and can get my daughter laughing when she’s frustrated. The power of story is unparalleled. And the thing with that is, you are now approaching an area of caution which I’ll try to get in more with the next chapter.

A Path to Story, Ch. 1: First Step on the Journey

If you’re new to storytelling but are one of the brave that will give it a try; if you find yourself getting jealous of the attention your kids give to the mindless drivel on most TV shows; if you want more for their imaginations, cause God knows we have to be on guard against all forms of evil out there; if you want to contribute to their formation as little creators, then for their sake and yours, take that step. Every journey worth taking begins with one.

If you’re stuck looking for a place to make that first step, take up reading stories to your children. There are some really good and entertaining ones out there. I’ll grab a short list of ones my kids and I like later, but for now, since that list is primarily personal taste, I’ll stick with the idea behind it.

“Practice, practice, practice”, is a common phrase, and of course it is true. By working with stories, like Berenstain Bears, for example, you can begin to develop a repertoire of voices. Dad, mom, brother, and sister bears are the main characters, try to give each their own voice. Think of your voice as having different rooms to keep the sounds separate. Dad can be the lowest your voice can go (Bass- add hard strong manly tones to your voice if you’re a female storyteller), Mom a little higher (Tenor- add some breathy soft feminine tones if you’re a male storyteller, but don’t go too high), Brother (Alto- boyish can be higher than Mom, but depending on the character’s age you can flip the ranges making Mom the alto and the son tenor, think of trying to be tough and bigger than he is), Sister (Soprano- add breathy soft feminine tones again if you’re a male storyteller but aim for a less mature tone, think innocent yet smart depending on the story). Keep it simple. There is so much you can do from here it’s pretty amazing but getting comfortable is the most important thing. Always be thinking of the story and character development as you read.

Some of the bravery in storytelling is being willing to be embarrassed. Some can’t do it, and that’s ok. If it’s just too much, there is an option. Pick a character in the story that you can make into the one that’s most comfortable for you. Many times I pick the main character to have my natural unchanged voice. If it fits the story, make that person into the most unembarrassing character you can do. Make that one the cool kid. Your own ego is important in this because if you aren’t enjoying yourself, it’s a difficult sell to your kids.

It is brave enough for some to even pick up a book and try to read it to their kids, forget about doing voices. If that’s your first step, that’s great! As you do it more and more your level of comfort can and will increase. Don’t be afraid to push yourself, learning to walk for the first time requires some to crawl. That’s the process, be patient with yourself. Remember this is supposed to be fun.

A Path to Story, A Prelude

The dinner table is “where?” Mealtime is “when?” My family is “who?” My kids eat more if I do this is “why?” My eldest son, without fail, asks me almost every meal to tell the family a story. Sometimes I begin one that is linked to one I’ve already told, or if I didn’t start it, maybe the Bible did. But tonight’s dinner was set up for me to share here because it seems more clear cut.

If you are a parent who enjoys imagining with your kids, teaching them through metaphor, shaping their inner world with adventure, or just messing around, hopefully, you’ll find this helpful.

My son began tonight with a question. The kind of question that hit the door of my imagination so hard he didn’t have to ask for a story. I preempted it, and that is rare in my house. My kids have Avenger cups- they have a picture of the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man on it. My son didn’t like how the Hulk looked mean in the picture and asked why he didn’t smile.

Tonight’s story began with one thought: “Hulk doesn’t know how to smile.” That was all I said for a moment, then we dove into the camera shoot with an impatient cameraman and everything. From trying to find out what makes Hulk happy like smashing things, which isn’t helpful on a shoot, and having Thor try to tickle him, which just didn’t work either and reminds me of when Hulk punched Thor in the movie, to trying to teach him how to smile, the cameraman ultimately had to deal with his mean face and go with an adventure shot. Thor of course being the glamor boy kept stealing the show by taking up the shot with poses with his hammer.

Capitalizing on the antagonism between Thor and Hulk made a lot of funny moments. I get spurred on by my kids’ laughter, but I try not to ride it in the ground. I use facial expressions and voice modulation to detail the story by giving Hulk a dumb voice with simple words. Captain America gets a hero voice who always tries to set things right. Iron Man more sarcastic. Thor selfish and glamor model (it’s my own take).

The story usually makes my food cold- tonight’s story 30 min., but my kids’ wide eyes and laughter warmed my imagination and heart so much I didn’t really notice till the last bites.  They were just cold.  But seriously, if you’re into this kind of thing or even want to be, it gets addictive.  Even when I’m tired and burnt out, sometimes that makes for some of the funniest stories.  I’ve told ones where all of us get laughing so hard we give up on eating and just enjoy each others’ imaginations.  The funniest ones are when my kids take the story over and throw some of the craziest curve balls to recover any kind of plot from.  It’s a blast.

I’ve also had some bombs, but that’s ok because it can give the kids a chance to save it. Make it a team thing. If you are having a hard time, start over.

If you’ve never tried this before, or think you can’t do it, so what? Just like a story, it has got to start somewhere. You can do it. We all are storytellers, every last one of us.