Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Kislev 5759 - November 10, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
About Bedtime Stories by Professional Writers
by Devora Piha

Possibly, the most important time in a child's daily life is when he goes to sleep. This is when he reviews the day's activities, experiences, lessons and his impressions about them, consciously and subconciously, and digests them emotionally during his sleeping hours.

We have interviewed three professional writers, mothers, about bedtime stories. These are their insights.

Combined, they suggest six main points to keep in mind at bedtime storytime.

1) The personal warmth and attention that a child receives from bedtime stories goes far beyond the message of the story itself. It is chicken soup for the emotions. Story time implies love and attention, care and concern for the child.

2) Messages come through naturally in stories and are best when they are subtle.

3) Be real, not perfect, when describing the characters of a story, whether they are fiction or non-fiction. Show human struggles and challenges. Real people must work to overcome obstacles.

4) Tell stories about your own childhood and family history. Children (and adults) are drawn to real life stories from the past. Heritage and tradition is rooted in our Torah. Besides, many good attributes are carried over to the succeeding generations and should be nurtured. [Even if you are a baalas tshuva, there is much to be learned (which you, yourself, learned) from your parents' good deeds and traits. Emphasize them.]

5) Encourage participation by letting the children put in their endings to stories or asking for their solution to a situation. Children will be attracted to the points of interest in a story according to their own personality and level of development and maturity. Two children the same age may not hear the same meaning into the story or even be interested in the same aspects of it. Take a story about a family fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, kidnapped by pirates at sea. One child may be worried about the outcome of the abducted family, while another child may be more curious about how deep the ocean was and what the ship was like.

6) Find the parables in (educational) non-Torah secular books and discuss the Torah view of the story with the children.

Our first author, SHOSHANA LEPON, has written several Torah-based children's books, often in rhyme and rhythm: The Ten Tests of Avrohom; Holiday Rhythms and Riddles; Torah Rhythms and Riddles; Torah Games and Quizzes -- which is a CD and for teenagers and adutls; The Greatest Treasure, a collection of Midrashim about great Jewish women. All available at your local bookstore.

Bedtime is a difficult time, especially with a large family close in age, but I try to be a bit creative. I usually make the stories up. One of the stories I invented at Succos-time later became a book: Hillel Builds a Succa. It was about a little boy who likes to build houses, because when I was little, we always liked to make club houses everywhere. We'd take a tablecloth and put blankets over the table and hide underneath. So it struck me that on Succos, it is the grownups who are all excited about building, with the comparable enthusiasm of children building club houses [you'll allow for the differences and inject that this is lesheim shomayim]. The serious adults are acting like children again, in a way. Actually, this particular activity always brings the family closer together, as it should. Children love watching their father putting up these `shacks,' helping a bit here and there, and then decorating them. It is a joint mitzva.

I discussed this idea and created a story about a little boy who loves to build houses all over the place all year round. His parents are always telling him that he is getting in the way. On Pesach, he wants to take the Seder pillows and build a fort on the Pesach table. On Chanuka, he makes a little house in a cardboard box and wants to put his Menorah there, but is told that this is dangerous. Whatever he wants to do always falls through for one reason or another. Finally success comes around and his parents say, "This is the perfect festival for you, Hillel. Now you can build your house. Go out and build a house with Abba."

I was really thinking of my son who was little, then. He always liked to build. So I just jotted down the idea and wrote it up after having told it a few times, improving on it, with the children's help, with each repetition. I had to do a lot of real research on all of my other books, like looking up midroshim on Avrohom, Noach etc. Then there was the work of content and rhythm and rhyming. I wanted to put in as much information as possible. But this particular book came one-two-three. And it came out real sweet. The kids loved it, so I sent it away. Having my children as my audience brought out spontaneous writing and when the book was finally published, they were thrilled. They felt they had a part in creating it and, in fact, it was dedicated to them. I'd like to do more of this.

Storytelling can be difficult when you have many children close in age. They interrupt each other and it's hard to focus. What I do is to get the youngest ones asleep, separately, and spend time talking and reading with the next older ones. Sometimes I read to them from my books. Sometimes I have to change some of the English words or explain, if I want them to learn them.

One main purpose achieved by bedtime stories is the closeness with the parents. They know parents are busy in the evening but have put everything aside [and it is a good idea to take the phone off, too] and put an arm around them or hold them on their lap. During the day, children have less patience and run about, but at bedtime the choice is either a story, which puts off the bedtime, or going to sleep with lights out. With nothing more exciting on the agenda, they suddenly become very cooperative.

I want the children to think we have time for them; I wouldn't want them going to bed lonely or sad for not having had a chance to tell what is on their mind. Often, I start a story, but end up putting down the book and listening to them, instead. Sometimes, when I am very tired, I ask them to read to me or tell me a story. My second and third graders are proud of their skills, and I praise them. Sometimes we begin early and do workbooks together. I let each one have their private time.

Occasionally, I have to skip a night because of a wedding or PTA meeting etc. Or we come back late from shopping. Mothers shouldn't feel guilty if all they can manage is three times a week; in the end, it's the feeling that counts, the warm memories. Even weeks may go by before a big yom tov before we get back into schedule. When I'm overloaded with laundry, I sometimes take the whole pile and fold it on a bed while talking with the children.

All my stories have a message, but I don't underline it verbally. It's in there naturally. How can a Jewish story not have a message? I try to make my characters real, with difficulties to overcome because there is no such thing as perfect little kids, a perfect little tzaddik, like the little girl who is always helping and never says a bad word. This is not a good example because they can't relate to such a character. You must depict an inner struggle, of children with faults; that's life.

Q. What can you tell us about the mechanics of storytelling?

Tell the story spontaneously and forget about style. Your kids are not literary critics. Repeat yourself, go off on a tangent -- so what? Your kids are happy to hear your voice and to feel your closeness. Sometimes I begin with "Once upon a time" and describe characters just like my children. Halfway through, they'll get the point and say, "Oh, you're talking about me" and get very excited. You can stop and ask the kids to take over. "What do you think happened? What would you have done?" You'll be surprised by the results.

Q. How do you maintain interest on a favorite story repeated indefinitely?

Get the children involved, to comment. Take a classic nursery tale like Henny Penny. This is a repetitious tale, parable style, about a hen who makes bread from seeds she planted. None of the farmyard animals want to help at any stage of the work, but all want to eat the bread at the end. What lessons can be extracted? Was she exercising nekoma? What would a Jewish Henny Penny do? Give them the food and say, "Next time we can make more if you come and help." These secular stories may be a waste of time, or they may be a setting for injecting Jewish hashkofa values. Many secular stories have good messages: how to be careful etc., and can be educational. Fairy tales, in general, are violent and gruesome and have strange messages [Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White]. Many were written as political satires. You have to watch out.

Q. Could you give us some tips on creative writing?

You have to think things out and proceed from step to step to get from Here to There. Take a story about a miser in Europe and how a rabbi got him to give charity. First, I think about the need for the money. Of how someone was taken to jail on ransom. Or the plight of a needy bride. I put myself in the shoes of my character and proceed from there. It's like a puzzle but the stories somehow develop on their own through relating to people and their problems. People haven't really changed from Biblical times. How would a woman without children have felt then? It's important to inject specifics and not to generalize too much. "The woman felt lonely" is too general. Portray her on Chanuka, lighting the candles and remembering when she was little and the whole house was filled with children. There is no one to sing the songs, no one to play with, to tell the story to. I could have picked Pesach just as well and filled in different details, like asking the Four Questions herself. I described a scene of a dark window, symbolizing the emptiness she feels before her husband comes home. This came by itself because I felt it. Writing has to do with adding two things together, feeling them, and seeing what emerges.

Any suggestions about creative story telling?

A mother can write down what her children tell her. They can draw pictures and make little books. They can talk about trips to the zoo etc. We may be overwhelmed by the end of the day, but a book like this takes only minutes.

You can tell about your own childhood. Children love that. Show yourself as real, with conflicts, difficulties, feelings. Tell what you used to be afraid of -- the dark, dogs, neighborhood bullies. They see you grew up to be a strong woman so they don't have to worry. It's normal and human to be afraid. Tell how you overcame weak points: you didn't like to clean your room, but learned how. End with a good message.

Talk about how things were different. We grew up in America. I want my kids to feel how lucky they are. We didn't have the Kosel or Jewish neighbors next door. We didn't have Hebrew to understand our prayers as we do now. Tell things at their level.

And let them do some of the telling, as well.

To be continued


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