Or Harry Potter. It’s classic escapist fantasy: These aren’t my real parents. My real parents are special, and someday I’ll get taken away from these people who don’t treat me right and end up in a magical place where everyone knows how special I am. It’s a common fantasy, and we all remember feeling abused (though, I hope, not to the extent of Harry) and wanting to be taken away.
I’ve been spending time recently with my three-and-a-half-year-old niece. (“Three and three quarters,” her dad insists.) And spending time with her is making me think about what makes a story a good story.
My niece asked me to tell her a story from when I was a little girl. So I told her a story about her father: One day, my parents were awoken by my brother walking into their room (which surprised them, as he was still sleeping in a crib). He proudly announced “Get down bed!” Then, looking surprised, he added, “Faw down fwoor.”
This is where the story always ended when I told it in the past, but my niece asked, “Then what happened?” I thought quickly and told her that he got into bed with our parents. “And then what happened?”
Stories for a kid have different significance than they do for adults. Later that evening, she told her mother that I was telling stories that day. She said that I had told her two stories. (Which confused me, since I thought I had only told one.) I asked what the other story was. “About Aunt C!” she said.
What I had told her was that when I was three-and-a-half, my parents had brought home a new baby–Aunt C–and I was excited to be a big sister. “And you’re three-and-a-half, and you have new babies to be a big sister to, right?”
This suggested to me that for my niece, stories mean the most when she can relate them to her own life. Adults do this too, but we have more experience at making those connections. Kids need the storyteller to make the connection explicitly. But for all of us, identifying with story characters makes the story meaningful.
I may never have been the last survivor of a destroyed Earth, trying to survive in a strange galaxy, but I can identify with the confusion and upset of Arthur Dent in that situation in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
A few days later, Niece asked me for “a great story.” So I told her about when her Uncle Neil and I met for the first time, we went out and had lunch and watched a movie. “Then I didn’t see Uncle Neil for several weeks. And when I did, he was playing his guitar, and sang a song about me.”
“And then what?”
“And then we went on another date.”
“What’s a date?”
“A date is when two people spend time together to see if they want to get married. And guess what–Uncle Neil and I did get married. And your mommy and daddy were there.”
“And they got married.”
“Yes, and after they got married, they decided to have a baby. And you know who it was?”
Niece laughed. I’d finally found a good ending to a story.
Martha Turner Fein is a trainer with a degree in communication. She grew up in Washington, DC, and she loves books. And coffee.