Adrian, who turned five last week, is a burgeoning storyteller. During the eight months of Pandemic School at Three of Earth Farm, he and I spent an hour on the living room floor every morning, surrounded by stuffies or tiny plastic figures or dinosaurs (or decorated paper cups and Duplo blocks) making up conversations among the characters.
Could I just say here, that two months after school reopened and the family stopped coming to my home four days a week, it feels like those exhausting eight months never happened? I don’t mean it feels like a long time ago. It. Feels. Like. It. Never. Happened. So weird.
While I embraced his love of story—how could I not?—it got quickly tedious each morning at 8:30 when I gave into his “Are we going to do our pretend stories, Gigi?” He is quite a dictatorial storymaster, telling his story partner exactly what to say and correcting altered words with, “You mean . . .?” then repeating the expected dialog. Get it wrong too often, or sometimes on just the first egregious attempt to be creative, and he would throw down his stuffie and stomp off to his room, yelling, “I’m the Storymaster, Gigi, and that’s not in the story!”
I had made him a picture book for Christmas with Chipster (the decorated paper cup) and Flashlight (a flashlight) and all the stuffies. I refered to him as the Storymaster, and it gave him power he grabbed and ran with.
I decided to introduce a little intentionality into the activity, perhaps staving off the loss of my mind into the abyss of boredom.
“Do you know what the word ‘plot’ means, Adrian?” I asked him. He did not. “It’s what the story is about, and you decide it before you start the story so you can plan what the characters do.”
“Okay,” he said. It was going better than I expected.
For a few days we wrested briefly with plots until he began to start our sessions with, “I don’t want to say the plot.” Sigh. I had more lessons planned when we got this one down, but he doesn’t take kindly to direction so I was taking it slow. But we seemed to be at a dead-end for now.
And then school reopened and my time with the boys decreased and Emma became puppet-in-chief to the story puppeteer. One day, she sent me a text: “Adrian said, ‘do you want to ask me what is the plot?'”
Whoa! Small children and old people, kindred spirits. You introduce a thing then wait until they think it’s their idea.
This week, after a three-week hiatus while cross-the-continent grandparents were visiting and learning the joy of pretend stories, I was back on Adrian’s living room floor this week. I decided it was time to move on.
“So you know what plot is now, right?”
“It’s what the story is about,” he said.
“That’s right,” I said. “Another big part of a story, is the characters. Who is going to be in this story?”
He surveyed the array on the floor around us and chose a large plastic dinosaur that roared (the Mama) and a small rubber dinosaur (her kid). And one of the ridiculous (and kind of gross) stretchy rubbery creature things (goo jit zu toys). “That’s the bad guy,” he explained. And a large number of bakugans.
What the heck is a bakugan, you are probably asking. They are rather ingenious action figures that fold up into a ball. Drop them on the ground, or make contact between the magnet on them and a small magnetized hexagon card, and they pop open.
“Okay,” I said, “we have our characters, now what’s the plot?” He pulled out his plastic tree house and put the dinosaurs near it. Then he closed up all the bakugons into balls, setting them off to the side (which, blessedly, took a good deal of time and I could go somewhere else in my mind and drink my coffee—did I mention it was only 6:30?).
“The dinosaurs are going to the pet store to get a pet. That’s the plot,” he said.
“Great,” I said. “So you also have the setting. That’s where the story takes place. The tree house and the pet store are the setting. So now you have the characters, the setting, and the plot!”
We played for a bit, all the bakugons had to be opened. And the kid dino wanted to take them all home for pets.
Pressing on, I said, “Okay, here’s the next story part we need: the journey.”
“The journey?” he said.
“That’s right. So first there is a problem and the story will need to solve it. (Okay, I simplified the hero’s journey, he’s five.) So the problem here is little dino wants ALL the pets. Their treehouse is not very big. What will Mama say?”
“She says he can have them all!” Bless her big heart. This is Adrian’s fantasy life.
“And the next thing is something bad happens. The characters solve that and then something even worse happens!”
Adrian grabbed the bad guy. “The bad guy is at their house,” he said menacingly.
“Another name for bad guy,” I said with equal menace, and why not throw in a little more vocabulary while I have his interest, “is villain! What is the villain doing at their house?”
“He wants the pets!” he said, as the bakugons and dinosaurs got closer.
Mama dino was the sole character under my control, sort of under my control. As we approached the tree house, the bakugons back in balls (more coffee) and rolling along, I made Mama roar. “I feel something isn’t right,” I said for her, roaring some more as one by one, Adrian opened the bakugons, revealing their identities as they neared the treehouse.
Long story short, it turned out the villain was not there trying to steal the pets. Also, he wasn’t really a bad guy! Some of the pets were actually his pets and they had been stolen from him and taken to the pet store! (“An assumption was made,” I said—always grabbing teaching opportunities. “We think something is true before we have all the facts.”)
When the pets the “villain” said were his ran straight to the him, Little Dino knew he was telling the truth and said they could go home with him.
“And that, my friend, is the resolution! It comes at the end of the story!”
We found a turtle on our walk and took it home for a while. And that wasn’t even a pretend story! Need I point out young Adrian, who makes temporary pets of slugs, was over the moon?
The next episode (a story feature Adrian is familiar with) of Dinosaurs in the Treehouse continued outside where we could keep an eye on the turtle, who had escaped the pool once already and gotten himself into trouble. (He finally came out of the shell and the string released itself, but not before we were very concerned.)
The next day, the turtle having been released in the bog, episode three happened in the pool and I declared myself the audience and we did a melodrama with appropriate yaying and booing.
And that is how I attempted to teach storytelling to a five-year-old. Now I’m resting on my laurels in the home of Christina Baldwin, my own writing mentor (who is away), with my writerly friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, finishing looking through the proof copy of my self-published book of war letters. On Thursday, after my arrival, I joined my memoir publisher, She Writes Press, on a Zoom call with my Fall 2022 publication cohorts for our “Onboarding” call. Monday I will be doing pretend stories with Adrian, hopefully with some structure! Post-Covid-vaccination life is good.