I have always been envious of those natural storytelling parents, the kind who sit down next to their child's bed each night and invent rich tales full of memorable characters and exciting plot twists. On the rare occasions I've attempted this, I've found myself internally grasping at straws, with results that are both bizarrely random and overly fixed on getting to the next plot point. ("Once upon a time there was a...muskrat! And he lived in the forest next door to his best friend, a...sloth! And one day they awoke to find...the forest was on fire! So they rushed to...their other friend, an elephant, yeah...and he lived next to a lake, and he took the water in his trunk and put out the fire with it, and the forest was saved. The end.") At the abrupt endings of these tales, my sons tend to look more bemused than amused.
I had more or less given up, accepting that facile, spellbinding storytelling wasn't among my gifts, until I saw the new StoryWorld, by John and Caitlin Matthews. It's an originally British package of beautifully illustrated cards, very much in the style of tarot cards, each featuring a character ("The Mother", "The Youngest Daughter," "The Cat"), a location ("The Castle"), or a magical/potentially magical thing or place ("The Magic Mirror," "The Door to Faeryland," "The Star Blanket"). Each contains a few leading questions on the back ("Where is the cat going on this starry night?"), as well as a number of suitably ambiguous happenings in the background of the illustration on the front.
The point of all this, of course, is inspiration. As the small included instruction book explains, you just pick out a certain number of cards—your child's favorites, or random ones—and then weave them together into a narrative. You can use the provided questions as jumping-off points, or ignore them and come up with your own ideas; you can do the same with all the little things occurring on each card. (You soon discover that these all link together, with major items on one card turning up in supporting roles on others—besides being gorgeous, these illustrations are intricately conceived and crafted.)
The stories still don't tell themselves, of course. But I found these little crutches remarkably freeing the first time I tried: I wasn't grasping for the core characters and ideas of my story anymore, and so I could devote my (clearly limited) creative imagination to filling it out with descriptions and plotting. There's certainly a learning curve—I don't mean to imply I've been transformed into Elmore Leonard or something—but I can feel myself moving along it, rather than completely stuck in place as I was before.
More important than my own storytelling education, though, is that my five-year-old is mesmerized. He's enjoying my stories from the cards, sure, but he's also been eager from the start to use these tools to engage in his own tales. Right now he's in the middle of a stretch where he's adding a couple of cards' worth of plot to a continuing story we both contribute to each night. Nothing like this ever happened before StoryWorld.
I'm hoping we can both eventually reach a point where we don't need the cards anymore. (Dash is a lot closer than I am.) I'm optimistic, and if I'm right to be, StoryWorld will have taught us how to invent compelling tales at a moment's notice. While my son may have been on his way to that anyway (his mother is much better at it than I am, so he has those genes or environment, or both, working for him), I certainly wasn't, so I'll be forever grateful.
[Photos: Whitney Webster.]