A Dad's View: Bedtime stories
Making up stories leaves Tom Dunmore in awe of children's books and captivated by the imagination of his son and daughter
Once upon a time there was a little girl,' I begin. 'Called Ava,' interrupts Ava. 'Of course,' I say. 'And Erik,' says Erik. 'And she had a little brother called Erik,' I agree, continuing, 'and they lived together in a big castle...' 'With unicorns! And a witch!' 'Yes, yes,' I sigh, 'give me a chance!'
It's storytime, and I've made the mistake of agreeing to make up a story instead of reading a book. This happens once every few weeks.
I always fall into the trap of picturing myself as some sort of modern-day Lewis Carroll, casually extemporising tomorrow's children's classic. In reality I'm lazily regurgitating snatches of fairy tales while being heckled by the world's most self-obsessed audience.
'Does it always have to be about you two?' I ask. 'Yes!' reply Ava and Erik in unison. And so I do my best to jazz up the usual narrative mix of small children, witches and unicorns with a burst of interplanetary travel, and revel in watching my children cower as I deliver the hammiest performance since Max von Sydow's Ming the Merciless faced Flash Gordon.
It's easy to assume that creating children's stories is simple. They're short, bright and, at first glance, not particularly sophisticated. It's only when you try your hand at improvising or, worse, writing a story for children that you realise the incredible talent required. Using just a few words means there's nothing to hide behind. It all has to be gold. To make matters more difficult, you have to think like a child, setting aside your adult cynicism and embracing the fantastical world where giants roam, animals can talk and newts' eyes are a sustainable source for the world's magic.
My own first memories of books are – unsurprisingly – all about the pictures. But the books I loved then, like The Hungry Caterpillar and Where The Wild Things
Are, would be nothing without those few, deceptively simple lines of prose. It's a whole new joy to share those same books with my children. And the joy doesn't stop. The world is awash with so many wonderfully written, beautifully illustrated children's books that I've actually given up reading grown-up novels.
Faced with this genius, I'm happy to set aside my own literary aspirations and luxuriate in The Gruffalo or Peepo! They provide the magical landscape that makes bedtime brilliant. I also try to savour the magical moments because I can already see signs of my own obsolescence. It's wonderful to watch six-year-old Ava learning to read, and her three-year-old brother imitating her by making up his own stories as he flips the pages. Playing together, they make up stories more bizarre and wondrous than my ageing brain could possibly conceive.
'Quick, the monster's coming!' screams Ava.
'Ice magic!' says her brother, stretching out his hands and making a whooshing sound.
'It's got fire! I'll use my water magic! Ggggssssh!'
'Look out, Ava!' Ava falls onto all fours.
'Are you a puddy cat?' asks Erik. Ava miaows affirmatively.
'Awww,' says Erik, stroking her hair. 'You're a magic puddy cat. And you're only this big,' he says, holding his thumb and forefinger together in front of his eye.
'Careful not to squash her, then,' I warn.
'No,' says Erik sternly. 'She lives in my ear!'
'Daddy,' says Ava, shaking off the spell, 'will you make up a story about the Ava cat who lives in Erik's ear?'
'I tell you what,' I reply, 'why don't we all make up a story together?'