Tellin’ Stories

In which our reluctant hero discovers that there’s more to life than books. But not much more.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This week is National Storytelling Week. Coincidentally, it is also the first week this year that I’ve started reading a book that doesn’t feature princesses or a monkey that has lost his mum. And what better excuse for the evil natured programme planners at CBeebies Towers to spice things up by wheeling out Tom Hardy (whoever he is) to do “Bedtime Stories” for the second time in a month. Can’t you give us poor dads a break?

21st century almost-grown-ups are apparently reading more than ever. Sadly, for many of us, this is largely noise, cranked up to eleven, from the endless inane soundbites and clickbait that we are bombarded with during our waking hours.

For may parents, the exception to this involuntary rule is the bedtime story. Children’s fiction may not be Shakespeare, but at least it contains coherent chunks that span more than 140 characters.

Story time is often presented as an idyllic parenting ritual, where sleepy-eyed little people hang on mum or dad’s every word before cuddles and the nightly lecture about not getting out of bed until the sun is “up up” on the Gro-clock.

And, to be fair, it usually is. It’s the bouncing on the sofa, emptying the re-stocked toy cupboard, arguing over telly programmes, refusing to go upstairs, splashing in the bath, refusing to brush teeth, suddenly becoming hungry seconds after eventually brushing teeth, jumping in the wrong bed and arguing over who’s turn it is for mum to do the stories beforehand that’s the problem. Every. Single. Night. But that’s not the story’s fault, is it?

We read to our children because it’s important. Important as part of the bedtime routine. Important as it’s usually calm one on one time doing a shared thing, which is nice whether you’ve been out at work all day and missed everything else or not. Important as it fuels the imagination in a way that telly just can’t. Important as it can help increase literacy and learning in the long term, and help shape the next generation of cool kids that hang around in libraries and Waterstones at a certain age.

But what chance have we got of keeping our children interested in reading once they can do it by themselves?

My book is on my tablet which is convenient for commuting. But with the tablet comes distractions. There’s enough games, music, films and telly to provide a lifetime of entertainment and the temptation for me, an adult-ish man, not to read is often overwhelming. Children hardly stand a chance.

Creativity requires time and patience, and often rises from boredom. Proper boredom rarely happens with so many distractions and the constant flitting from one thing to another must have a negative effect on our attention span. (Ooh, look… an aeroplane.) If we can’t concentrate long enough to read a book then we’re unlikely to do so long enough to write one. At this rate we’ll have run out of authors by the 22nd century. Perhaps we just won’t need any by then.

However, all is not lost in the battle to save the humble story.

Making time to read with children is the obvious first step. I’m finding that as our eldest is growing up and able to read some words, she is showing far greater interest in the actual stories and is asking questions about them. Which is great when they’re about things that I know about or can make up, less so if querying holes in the plot or anything Disney related, two concepts that sort of come hand in hand.

Technology, used in the right way, may help too. Love them or loathe them, the gadgets are not going away, so why not give them a big cuddle? The tablet is not just your fifty quid babysitter from Amazon but a seven inch personal tutor too.

While I’m in no hurry to ditch the old fashioned hardbacks at bedtime, there are plenty of alternatives for the bits in between. We have a free app with old stories like The Gingerbread Man on that our eldest likes, and the CBeebies Storytime app is excellent entertainment for a variety of ages. Even Dr Seuss is available for a couple of quid and there’s loads of phonics apps to help develop reading skills too. Sneaking some fun learning into playtime has to be better than another half hour of American children opening Kinder eggs on YouTube, right? I reckon that our two year old will be reading Dostoyevsky by the time he gets to nursery at this rate.

There’s creative things to try too. After we read Alice in Wonderland one bedtime, our daughter discussed using our imaginations, being a central theme of the story. She was adamant that she couldn’t make up her own stories until I suggested that changing bits of her favourite story may be a good way to start. So she had a go. Ok, “The Bear Who Came to Tea” may result in a lawsuit if it ever gets published, but she really enjoyed doing it and there were sparks of proper creativity going on, even at such a young age.

If I can nurture this creativity, I reckon that I can handover blog writing duties by the summer. After all, banging the same old rubbish out each week with a few words and ideas changed is all that I do. In the meantime, there’s always Tom Hardy for her to watch on telly with all of the thirty and fortysomething old girls across the land.
Fin.

Eat Your Words

In which our reluctant hero spells it out. Or something.

Reading is back in the news. No, not the birth town of cheeky, chubby japesters, Mr Tumble and Ricky Gervais, and (more impressively) the Little Chef. The other one. You know. The one where you join up letters and words and stuff and try to make sense of it. Like you’re trying to do now. Good luck with that.

If social media is any barometer, mums have gotten all hot under the collar about reading for starters, with the news that actor, heartthrob, dad and all round nice guy, Tom Hardy (whoever he is) will be reading the CBeebies Bedtime Story on New Year’s Eve. Blimey.

“Sit down, it’s starting.”
“But Mum! This is a baby programme! I’m nine!”
“Will you be quiet for five minutes? I’m trying to watch!”

With this much excitement brewing over five minutes of action at bedtime, Lord knows what the reaction will be when news finally gets out that Ross Poldark is replacing Gem as guest presenter on the Swashbuckle Christmas Special. ARRR!

Bringing in a Hollywood ringer hardly seems fair to the average dad like me. Our two only get to listen to my weary mumblings at bedtime (on the few occasions where they don’t like Mum best) rather than the elegant diction of a trained thespian. Poor dad.

It’s the same with the gardening. It doesn’t matter how many miles you tot up, plodding up and down with the mower, you feeling that everyone else thinks that it would all have been done that much better by Mr Bloom.

Parking the mower for a moment and wheelbarrowing back up the garden in a desperate attempt to get this post back on track, earlier in the week, I was drawn to this quite bizarre headline. On the BBC website of all places.

POTATO LETTERS RUIN DINNER FOR MUM AND HER COMPLAINT GOES VIRAL.

Brilliant.

My first thought was why on earth would a grown woman think that the introduction of potato letters to a plate of food wouldn’t ruin it?

I’ve watched a couple of Masterchef’s this week, and at no point have I seen Marcus Wareing conclude that the potato foam was OK, but adding a couple of Tesco Crispy Potato Letters would really have brought the consommé to life. Maybe the professional chefs are missing a trick?

Having stopped guessing and read the article (do, it’ll make you feel so much better about your own parenting skills) it turns out that a mum purchased a bag of oven ready potato letters which didn’t contain all of the letters required for her to teach her son, Logan (4), to read his name. So she complained.

“It is misleading, why would you sell them as alpha-bites, really they should just be called ‘certain letter bites’.

“In the end I improvised by using an ‘I’ as an ‘L’ and a ‘C’ as an ‘O’ so spelled ‘icgan’ which obviously isn’t his name.

“He noticed this straight away and I had to explain why. Very disappointed.”

I swear that I’m not making this up. But here’s the best bit.

“If you buy them you expect all the letters to be there, that’s why I emptied them all out. Apparently it does say on the packet that not all of the letters are in there, but again I don’t see the point in that.”

And she still complained. Genius.

So, where do I start with this?

First of all, having tipped the frozen letters out and realised that a few were missing, why not pick another word? There’s half a kilo of letters to pick from and loads of words in the dictionary. It’s hardly the Countdown conundrum.

Had all letters been available and subsequently scoffed, what would mum have done next mealtime? Demand that Tesco stock them individually? (See above for alternative options.)

If her son can’t read anyway, why not wing it and make something up like the rest of us? (“Yes, ‘kpqde’ spells ‘Logan.’ Clever boy!”) Or use the 15-17 minutes that they were cooking to sit down and teach him with letter blocks or good old fashioned pencils and paper?

And what about children with names with recurring letters? What about their feelings? You didn’t think about the children at all, did you Tesco? Thought not.

And did I complain to Heinz when my two year old could only express Pi to 286 decimal places because the tin of Numberetti Spaghetti ran out of number threes? No, I didn’t. Actually, that gives me an idea…

I could go on.

At a push, some credit could maybe go to the mum for trying to use mealtime as learning time and coming up with something to hopefully make the process slightly less torturous. We’ve all been there.

So, click bait or genuine cause for complaint? I think we can probably guess the answer.

Andy Warhol once said “In the future, everyone will be world- famous for 15 minutes” and it looks like this mum just got hers. Which is, coincidentally, about the same time needed to cook some more frozen potato letters.

Fin.