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I babysit for a variety of families, and over the course of that career I’ve told kids a lot of stories. Mostly tales of a fantastical bent, because those are the stories I like, but it’s still a wide range. It’s great practice for writing, and learning more about the mechanics of stories, and also for figuring out what kids like to hear and when they’ll just give me a blank look.

The inspiration for these stories can sometimes be a bit random. Sometimes the kids have specific requests for characters or scenarios. Sometimes they want me to tell them an old favorite, and other times they expect something completely original and woe betide the unwary if the story ends up sounding even the tiniest bit like Cinderella.

For the road, I like listening to movie soundtracks, so I usually have one playing in my car, and when I do the kids always ask me what’s happening. Which sometimes results in some really strange stories because I can’t tell a toddler the exact plot of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s also a bit tricky because the tracks can sometimes skip around the story of the movie, jumping from beginning to end to middle to end again, or some combination thereof. At least in those cases I have a basic story to work with.

The older kids require coherent stories. If I tell a story one way and then change or misremember a few details later they’ll let me know about it. (Actually, all kids are like that but with the little ones I can just pretend I’m telling a completely different story and they’ll go along with it.) At least in the case of the girls I watched, they favored stories about children their own ages, and usually set in careers that interested them (in this case, usually dancers).

The younger ones, the toddlers, like retellings of stories they already know. Some days we’ll just act out the plot of Tangled over and over and over (and when I finally talk her out of Tangled we’ll move on to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and Aladdin and…). For the ones I watch the most, one is old enough to almost be reading, so most of the stories are read straight from books. The fun part there is all the questions they’ll ask that the book offers no answer to. Some of those picture books need a reference section in the back so that beleaguered parents and babysitters can finally have definitive answers to these questions! Or I can just keep doing what I’m doing and making up the details.

For the little ones, when an original tale is called for (usually in the car when I am the sole source of entertainment) drawing from what I see works just fine. For example, if we drive past a fire truck, it is acceptable to come up with a story which features an anthropomorphic fire truck whose best friend is a semi that bears some resemblance to the one we just passed. Or having a character from a show they watch have a brand new adventure that happens to involve a similar activity to the one we’re driving to.

Honestly, I love telling stories to kids. They can be picky, but they also have fantastic imaginations and challenge the storyteller to do their absolute best. What kinds of stories do the kids in your life ask from you?

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