When my kids were little, we used to make up stories in the car all the time. Blaine’s stories featured a ghost named Spookella with poor impulse control. (She always had to push the red button!) Larrabee’s had a penguin named Ping and a python named Pi who would travel through a portal to a faraway place or time and find themselves with new and useful superpowers.
Larrabee and I have recently rediscovered the fun of car stories thanks to the Rory’s Story Cube app. We have a set of physical cubes too, but the app is perfect for stories on the go. You just shake the phone or iPad to roll the cubes, look at the nine random images, and let your imagination take over.
Sometimes the juxtaposition of images gives us a funny idea for a character. For example, a clock followed by an eye became a one-eyed clock — or Cyclocks.
A lot of the resulting stories have a crazy dream logic. “And then the arrow went through a keyhole. And then it slid down a rainbow. And then…” The best ones, though, have a little more structure. Inspired by images of a turtle and a smiley face, Larrabee told an Are You My Mother?-style story recently about a turtle who asks, “Why do people smile?” I hope he’ll write it down.
While Grandma and Grandpa were visiting last week, Larrabee pulled an old favorite off the bookshelf: Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman.
It’s an early reader, first published in 1958, about an owl (Sam) and a firefly (Gus) who become nocturnal playmates and friends. It was one of my brother’s favorite read-aloud books and one of my boys’ frequent choices as well.
This time Larrabee read it to Grandma. I’m not sure he remembered it. But all of the adults sure did. Mom, Dad, Mark, and I could recite whole pages by heart. “Look out!” we used to say. “The Hot Dog Man is MAD!”
As a read-aloud, this book is a good one for talking about words–and about the difference between bad tricks and good tricks. It also makes a good early reader because it tells a long, satisfying story with simple words and lots of pictures.
Larrabee mainly reads longer books now, but I’m glad we still have a chance to revisit some old favorites every now and then.
A few years ago, we watched Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 with my brother. After the second movie, Blaine observed: “In the first movie, they said, ‘I don’t know why anyone would ever want a fart gun.’ But in this one, it turned out to be really useful.”
We all laughed, but he was right. In Despicable Me, Dr. Nefario misunderstands Gru’s request for a dart gun and invents a fart gun instead. He tests it on a minion and then tosses it aside saying, “I was wondering… Under what circumstances would we use this?” But in the sequel, the fart gun proves key to defeating El Macho.
That’s an example of a Chekhov’s gun, a memorable but seemingly unimportant detail introduced early in a story whose significance becomes clear later. It gets its name from the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who advised storytellers: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Larrabee is re-reading one of the Harry Potter books now, and they are full of such details–from the Dumbledore card that Harry finds in his very first Chocolate Frog on the Hogwarts Express to Regulus Black’s locket. Particularly on a second reading, he spots these relevant tidbits with a delighted “aha”!
She also talked about how she plots her books. She said that she puts her main character into some sort of interesting situation (e.g., he falls into a pit or is attacked by ninja frogs). Then she asks herself:
Why is this happening?
Who is responsible?
What happens next?
She proceeded to brainstorm a plot with the kids in attendance. I don’t remember all of the details, but it featured a platypus. Not just an ordinary platypus. A giant platypus. A Platypus-zilla threatening the town of Santa Cruz.
Her presentation made us want to come home and write a story. Or draw a comic book. Or read (or re-read) one of her books. Hopefully, we’ll do all of the above this summer.
Speaking of Ursula Vernon’s books, the boys and I highly recommend Dragonbreath and its sequels. These books are wacky and funny and full of adventure. They’re ideal first chapter books because they’re easy to read, with a mix of text and comic book panels.
One of the joys of parenthood for me is sharing stories with my kids. I love curling up on the couch to read aloud. I love making up stories during long car rides. I love helping them find books in the library or bookstore and reading the books they recommend to me. I love family movie nights. I love reading the stories and comic books they create.
I’m working on a children’s book of my own now. And it’s got me thinking about what my kids and I like in a book, what engages our imagination, and what stays with us long after we’ve closed the covers of the book.
This blog is about the imaginary friends that my kids and I find in stories. It’s a place for me to to share book reviews, original stories, and musings on the task of raising readers, writers, and storytellers.