As I read to my young children (four and five years old, as I write), I hope they find reading to be fun. A key challenge I often face is keeping the reading experience fresh and engaging for them (while passing along memories – as well as lessons – from my childhood that I hope they will want to share with their children some day).
Finding Tales to Tell
Finding an engaging story can be as simple as recasting a well-known classic with unexpected characters or plot twists. For example, blackbirds in the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ have on certain occasions become crocodiles “baked in a pie”.
Mother goose is a rich source of inspiration and Project Gutenberg is a veritable gold mine of nursery rhymes, including over 300 (many with illustrations) that are in the public domain.
One approach I find useful to engage a young audience is to work in the names of they and others they know. In ‘Rub-a-dub-dub‘, “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker” often become the names of my children and whichever of their friends has a name I can think of a clever rhyme for.
Tap Your Inner Genius
Generating your own story from scratch can feel daunting when staring at a blank canvas. However, I find that focusing on a few principles helps move the process forward.
First, identify one or more themes that you want to share (a rich vein of inspiration for me are the teaching moments that arise almost daily with children – particularly siblings who are close in age). For characters, rely on things your young audience identifies with – such as occupations they know (police woman, fireman, mail person), vehicles (train, bus, truck) or animals (I particularly like farm animals) – and give those characters defining attributes that help your story. Those characteristics can range from complex human-like features – from the trill of their voice or an unusual name (like a duck named Quincy Quacker or a pig named Oliver Oinkwell Stinker) – to very simple attributes, such as color, size or shape. to very simple attributes, such as color, size or shape.
If your an amateur writer like myself and struggle to find just the right word, sites like RhymeZone and Rhymer can help you complete a line, while other web sites like this one are a useful source of adjectives to add color to your prose.
With a growing extended family spread over ever-widening distances, I find that capturing and passing along family stories helps foster a sense of identity in young children. These family treasures range from photos of times past to other information passed down across generations.
For example, my grandmother painted a number of paintings during her lifetime – all of which have far more sentimental than economic value. Over 50+ years, she shared those paintings amongst her ever growing family and they now hang in households that are (literally) thousands of miles apart. Nevertheless, by grabbing photos of those paintings when I can and putting them in a central place that my young children can access (with bits of history narrated by family members), I can preserve a bit of who my children’s great-grandmother was (and in turn, who they are).
Dazzle Your Audience
Nothing enchants a story for a young child (apart from your voice and attention) as much as a colorful picture . But where to find the right pic to complete your gem?
In the book “Creativity, Inc.“, the author (Ed Catmull) describes the founding and early growth of Pixar (the animation studio that brought us digital movies such as Toy Story). In one anecdote, he describes how the animation team had decided to show one of their first digital short movies (about 2 minutes in length) at a graphics conference in 1984. Given the level of technology then available, the animators had insufficient time to complete rendering of the film, which left certain portions as crude, uncolored animated wire frames when displayed on screen. The animators fretted at the rough, unfinished look. However, when these segments replayed at the conference, most attendees were so emotionally engaged in the story that they did not even notice. Ed notes that the same lesson regularly repeated itself throughout the early days at Pixar – visual polish is not as important as the story you tell.
I have found a similar experience in story telling (at least with young listeners). An illustration of some sort is powerful. It provides context for a child to visualize the story being told. However, I find that the quality of the photo is much less important than the story you are personally telling (and inconsistencies between photos can provide a rich source of questions from young listeners – providing no shortage of challenges for a story teller’s own creative thinking).
One source for photos I find useful is of those I have taken myself (or sourced from friends via social media). While not required, I try to take pictures at “eye level” (meaning the eyes of the photo’s subject). This pic of “Myrtle and Hurdle Turtle” was taken from about 30 feet away using a Lumix 60x zoom lens (although, the cameras on most smart phones these days are equally capable of taking excellent photos for story telling purposes). I find that capturing both eyes conveys a sense that the character is engaging with the reader, while profile views (with only one eye visible) can indicate that the character is engaged with other elements relevant to the story itself.
For example, “Farm Tales” (starring a young chicken named “Chick”) is a short story I created using only public domain photos found on sites like Pixabay.
Work with a Professional
Sites like Fiverr and Dribbble make it surprisingly easy (and affordable – as low as $5) to find professional illustrators who will create an illustration to your specifications. The ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ and ‘Rub-a-dub-dub’ illustrations above were created by illustrators I found at Fiverr.
If you want to read a bit more about engaging an illustrator, I have written another blog post (Engage an Illustrator to Enchant Your Stories) highlighting a few points I have found helpful in managing that process (in particular to minimize costs).
Share Stories. Create Memories. EpicGem.
So you have a story to tell – perhaps drawn from a rich family history, or just a little diddy you whipped up to pass the time. You have an eager audience – grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, sisters, brothers – maybe even parents, friends or colleagues. You want to not just share that story with them, but also preserve it somewhere each member of your audience (young or old) can access it over and over again – on their own time, as many times as they like (perhaps hearing your voice each time for added impact).
How do you capture that story, share it and preserve it? This is what we hope to achieve with EpicGem. We want to provide you with easy to use tools to create and share the stories and memories that you want to pass along, told in the way you want to tell them.