How to Tell the Best Bedtime Stories

An award-winning novelist and 29-time storytelling champion shares his tips.

by Aaron Stern
Originally Published: 

Being a parent means you’re automatically enrolled in the age-old fraternity of oral storytellers. That doesn’t mean it comes naturally to you: Effectively conveying emotion, meaning, and morality with the power of the spoken word takes practice. You probably have plenty of that by now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from some tricks of the professional storytelling trade.

That’s where Matthew Dicks comes in. By day, Dicks is an elementary school teacher; by night, he’s a novelist and a 29-time StorySLAM champion at The Moth, a non-profit dedicated to the craft of oral storytelling. Dicks also produces Speak Up, a Hartford, Conn.-based storytelling organization, and he’s the father of an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son who both get to reap the benefits of his expertise.

The secret to good storytelling, says Dicks, is to create connections with your audience, whether that’s 200 strangers at a bar in Brooklyn or a lone pajama-clad child before bedtime. Here’s how to create those connections if you’re trying to do the latter.

Establish the Mood

You can create the right atmosphere for the story you’re reading through the appropriate intonation and physicality. For instance, Dicks will read Neil Gaiman’s Instructions to his kids calmly and quietly, because it’s a solemn book.

“I read that book slowly, and my words connect more smoothly,” he says. “I read it almost in a whisper, letting her know how important I think it is.”

Conversely, he’ll read B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures loudly, standing up at times and gesturing wildly, because physicality is as important to creating the mood as intonation.

“Sometimes it’s actually my physical posture, the way I’m reading to the kids,” he says. “Am I up or am I relaxed? Do I pull them in closely to me?”

Inhabit the Character(s)

The hardest part of bedtime storytelling for parents who aren’t working method actors can be to get the feel for the different characters in each book. Dicks has a solution: create a parallel between each character in the book and someone from your own life.

“I’m quickly trying to figure out, ‘Oh, this guy reminds me of __,’ and therefore that’s the person who I’m going to frame in my mind as that [character],” he says.

In Mo Willems’ Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, for instance, the titular character reminds Dicks of a friend from high school who prided himself in wearing unpopular clothing to such a degree that his uncool sartorial choices eventually grew so polarizing that they came full circle and made him cool. And the wise, elderly Grandpa in the story reminds Dicks of a contemplative principal he once worked for. So, both key characters in that Willems story are expressed through the prisms of those two people in Dicks’ life when he reads it to his children.

Spot the Teachable Moments…

You’re going to read the same books dozens, maybe hundreds of times, so the way to keep it interesting – for both of you – is to spot opportunities to create conversations. Each time Dicks reads a story he’s looking for a detail in the story that he hasn’t considered before. He files that detail away, then brings it up the next time they read the book.

These conversation starters can be guided or open-ended, and can cover everything from moral quandaries and character quirks to simple visual details.

“I say, ‘You know what, the next time we read it I’m going to ask her what she thinks about that mountain in the distance that I think is supposed to look like an animal, but I’m not sure, but I’m going to save it for the next time we read it,’” he says. “And that sort of keeps the book alive for her and me in a different way each time because the conversation is sort of guaranteed to be different.”

…But Don’t Teach it to Death

Don’t make it a book report. Bedtime stories are supposed to be fun, so if you have one eye on your child’s future college application whenever you read them a book, stop, says Dicks. It’s simple: read to them, and talk to them — casually — about what you’re reading together. You don’t need dissect the social dynamics or grammatical intricacies of Dr. Seuss for them to reap long-term intellectual benefits.

“That commitment to reading and conversation is about all a parent needs to do to get their kid to love books and to get that jumpstart that they need to be successful,” he says.

Remember What Time it Is

Reading stories typically happens before bed, so choose your books appropriately to get them into the right mindset to go to sleep. Dicks likes to have three stories that cover the spectrum of silly, contemplative and sweet, starting with the silly and finishing with the sweet.

“I try to make sure that the books we’re choosing, that it’s a good collection,” he says. “Like I’m not going to read The Book with No Pictures and Tickle Monster on the same night. They’re both sort of the same — they’re both sort of wacky, physical, laugh-out-loud kind of books.”

The actual selection process can be negotiated: If Dicks wants to end up with three books, he’ll pick out five, then his daughter or son will choose one, Dicks will choose one, and the third they negotiate. But he makes sure that within the five that he selects initially, the desired outcome is guaranteed.

“I think pairing books is a smart thing to do to stay interested in the book we’re going to read,” he says. “I like to think when we’re done reading three books that we’ve taken a journey.”

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