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The best gift I’ve ever received was a slim black folder that my dad presented to me when I graduated from college. Inside were about 15 different letters, not from my dad (or at least not officially), but written to me from all of the imaginary characters we’d created together during my childhood.
My parents separated when I was two, and I lived with my mom. One of the ways that my dad worked to keep a connection between us was to tell me stories. In the early years, he’d talk to me on the phone in the voices of my toys — included in that folder years later were letters from a plush rattle named Art and a stuffed lamb named Ginger Ale — and when I was about four, he began a series of stories about a girl named Aiko and a boy named Lonnie that continued until I reached high school.
Aiko and Lonnie were exactly my age, and they had adventures that grew increasingly complicated as I got older. Every September, their first day of school was interrupted by a gang of mischief-makers called the Back-to-School Elves. They dabbled in time travel, aided by a hip young guy named Pop Time, who was perpetually 32, because my dad insisted that was the best age.
My dad’s stories were a source of joy to me throughout my childhood, adding a touch of magic to the realities of our long-distance connection. They solidified my love of reading and played no small role in my decision to become a writer. They remain one of my favorite memories of childhood.
So when my own kids were born, I thought I’d be a natural storyteller. And I was … kind of. My kids liked my stories about Stewie the worried bunny, kind of an “Amelia Bedelia” character who took everything to its worst possible conclusion. But it felt a little bit like work to me. As a novelist, I’m used to making decisions about plot and character development, but not usually on the spur of the moment while an impatient toddler urges me to continue. I had trouble maintaining the kind of silliness and spontaneity that made my dad’s stories so much fun.
Luckily, my husband picked up the slack. His stories were wide-ranging and absurd: Whaley and Tailey were whales who made soup; Floodle was a strange guy who liked to eat garbage; Frogshef was a frog who was a chef on an ocean liner. (His name was spelled with an S instead of a C because that’s just how his name was spelled — the fact that he had a job working as a chef was completely incidental.)
Our children — a boy who is now 14 and a girl who is 10 — are smart, funny, creative kids. The fact that neither one of them likes to read remains a mystery to my husband and me. We’ve tried lots of strategies; we’ve read to them throughout their lives, we’ve listened to audiobooks on long car trips, we’ve encouraged them in every way we know how. But it just hasn’t taken.
This summer, we were on vacation, and my daughter was having trouble sleeping. Her brother, wholly unsolicited, offered to tell her a story. He used a figure from his dad’s stories as a jumping-off point, a character named Fred who started off as a dentist, though that career path seems to have been abandoned. Fred’s current job is buying restaurants and running them into the ground in creative ways; in doing so, he runs into all kinds of flamboyant and memorable characters, like Mr. Beef, who is (in my son’s words) “250 pounds of pure muscle and wears vegetarian sausages around his neck.” The two of them were in hysterics by the end.
As I eavesdropped from the other room, it struck me that somewhere along the way, my children had picked up the great love of stories that my father spent so much time passing along to me. As much as I’d like for them to love books — and I’m still holding out hope that they may yet become devoted readers — I’m delighted that they have this foundation, that they appreciate the great power of the phrase “once upon a time.” And I’ve got a new goal: to be able to give them the kind of gift my dad gave me, their own sheaf of letters from imaginary characters, to remind them that the exhilaration of creativity doesn’t end with childhood.
Carolyn Parkhurst is the New York Times bestselling author of the novelsHarmony, The Dogs of Babel, Lost and Found, and The Nobodies Album. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two children.