The Power of Story

It’s SUMMER! I don’t know what all y’all are up to this summer, but I just returned from a loooooong trip in the family roadster.  Ten states, twenty-four days, and 4000 miles later, the six of us are finally home and enjoying a little down time.

grand canyon

Somehow, in the midst of our road trip, I was able to be unexpectedly productive. I sent out seven queries and two requested manuscripts, which is a lot for me. Usually I will send out one or two queries, get a rejection, and stop because that obviously means the story is terrible. (It, of course, does not mean this, and is a horrible submission strategy that I do not recommend!)

As I’ve been pondering what it is exactly that prompted the flurry of activity and the uncharacteristic hopefulness I feel, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was inspired by the power of story. You see, on this 4000 mile road trip, I read the first Harry Potter book to my kids. The older two had read it before, but for my younger two, it was their first time experiencing it. And it was a definite highlight…a bright spot as we covered what felt like never-ending miles. Moments of family respite in the midst of earphones and tablets and incessant pleading for more snacks. It reminded me of why I continually get back on this crazy, exhilarating, vomit-producing roller coaster we call “submitting our work.” It reminded me of why I write.

It also reminded me of a post I wrote a few years ago about reading to my kids, which I’m sharing with you below. As you read it, I hope you too will be inspired by the power of story!


Every year on their birthday, our kids ask us to “tell them their story.” I’m not sure quite when or how this tradition started, but they want to hear the story of the day they were born. Josh loves the part where we tell him that he was supposed to arrive on Dad’s birthday, but waited until 2 days later so they wouldn’t have to share a birthday cake. Lucy wants to hear the story of how we played cards with Auntie Jill and Uncle Seth at the kitchen table while we waited for her to show up to the party. Gracie begs to hear about how she was almost a whole week late, but once she decided it was time to come out, she couldn’t even wait until the doctor arrived. And Lily likes to tell her own story…about how we walked and walked and walked around the hospital, and about how mad Mommy got when the nurse tried to send her home. Now, to be clear, we leave out all the gory details…because there are parts of these stories that Mommy, in particular, would rather forget. But I am always amazed at how our kids…these ipad-swiping, Netflix-streaming, let-me-see-the-picture-you-took-3-seconds-ago kids…can sit, completely enraptured with the stories we tell them. There is just something about hearing a story out of the mouth of the person sitting next to you that is so compelling. Our kids, who are constantly bombarded with instantaneous images, can listen to the words and let their minds and imaginations fill in the blanks. When we tell stories, we experience the story with another person, and that is powerful.

This past Spring Break, my family was in a cabin in Ojai, CA. It was a whole 5 days of nature. Our cabins had electricity, so it’s not like we were truly roughing it, but we didn’t have a TV, or wi-fi, and I was happy for the escape from screens. As we settled in the first night in a new and unfamiliar place, I thought it would be fun to read aloud to the kids. They could lay in their beds and be comforted by the sound of my voice. I chose a story that I had loved in my childhood, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Once I started, I began to have doubts about my choice. My kids were 4, 6, 8, and 10, and the language seemed more than a little over their heads. Take for example this gorgeous description:

“Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, where an amber-hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues—the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows. Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tip-toeing to her own reflection.”

Anne

A bit out of a first-grader’s league, perhaps, but I was having fun reading it, and it was soothing them in the pitch black of the cabin, so I continued on.

What I didn’t know that week was that I was creating an experience for all of us that was profound. After we got home, I kept reading. One chapter each night. The questions came, sincere and silly alike. ”Is there actually such a thing as an asylum for orphans?” “Why does Anne hate her red hair so much?” “What is raspberry cordial and can we have some?” and, “Did Anne whack Gilbert on the head because she actually likes him?” Together, we laughed when Anne accidentally dyed her hair green, gasped as she took the dare and walked the ridgepole, and cried (and cried some more) when they lost Matthew.

I could see the story taking root as I watched the language of Anne Shirley creep into my kids’ conversation. Known for her theatrical way of seeing the world, Anne often renamed ordinary things, in order to better reflect their beauty. Barry’s Pond became, “The Lake of Shining Waters,” and The Avenue became, “The White Way of Delight.” As we took our weekly drive to church, I heard our kids recognizing the beauty around them and renaming parts of our town. The orchard became, “The Trees of Infinite Beauty,” and the rambling old farm house became, “The House of Awesome Wonders.” My oldest daughter, Lucy, who is probably the closest in personality to the ever-dramatic Anne Shirley, was often heard saying things like, “I just couldn’t bear it if I had to clean my room today!”

So I knew my older kids were engaged, but I wondered about my youngest, Lily. She was only four at the time and I wasn’t sure how much she was absorbing. After we finished the book, we had an ANNE OF GREEN GABLES party, where we made homemade raspberry cordial and old-fashioned biscuits, and watched the movie. As we watched, Lily played quietly in the corner of the room. At one point near the end of the movie, she came over and tapped me on the shoulder. “That wasn’t right, Mommy.” I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. “In the book,” Lily continued, “Diana is the one who tells Anne she came in first place, NOT Gilbert.” I took a moment to try and remember, but it was only seconds before the other kids chimed in, “Hey! Yeah, that’s right, it was Diana!” I was floored. Yup, sure enough, little 4-year-old Lily had it right. I guess she was listening after all.

And this is the part where I suppose I could spout some statistics…tell you how kids will become so much smarter and more successful in life if you read to them. And while I am sure all of that is true, what I really want to encourage us to do is this:

Take the time to invest in the experience of story.

Life moves so fast, and we are so tired, and sometimes it is all we can do to keep our eyes open long enough to plop dinner down on the table and chuck our kids into bed. (who has the energy for all that bathing and brushing stuff?) I get that. But I find for me, it is especially on those days that I have snapped or sighed at my kids one too many times that I need to be with them in this way. All it takes is one giggle in the dark over a clever line or one gasp at the end of a chapter to remind me that all is well in my world.

Since reading Anne, we have read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Penderwicks, and Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh together. And it is crazy to see how these stories have infiltrated our family. Our kids can be heard calling meetings to order with “Dixon Family Honor,” declaring their macaroni and cheese as delicious as a snozzberry, or nicknaming the stray cat down the street, “Dragon.” Choose something that you loved as a child and share it with your kids. And together, you will be creating your own stories; ones that perhaps their future kids will ask to hear over and over again.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Story

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  1. I love how the phrases get absorbed into our everyday conversations. We have a lot of Junie B. Jones and Harry Potter references. Now that my kids are older, we tend to listen to audio books on long road trips. Those stories become linked to the place we were when we heard them. I’m going to give Anne of Green Gables another try…

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