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When I was a child I enjoyed my mom's bedtime stories so much, and even now I can still remember some of them. Now it's my turn to pass such a wonderful experience down to my daughter. However I am having a hard time looking for quality bedtime stories and every night I have to spend almost half of an hour googling.

How much time do you spend a day on bedtime stories? Can you recommend any place that I can find good materials?

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    Are you looking for physical books, made-by-someone-else stories that you can memorize and recite (or at least memorize the plot and make up a similar), or making up by yourself from scratch? And what age is your daughter? – Joe Jan 15 '15 at 17:47
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    Joe's questions plus: what is your daughter interested in? and what are you most enthusiastic about? – A E Jan 15 '15 at 18:03
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    What did you like about these stories? Why don't you retell them? If you forgot them, then 1) this is a good reason to talk again to your own mom and ask for them, and 2) you seem to be overly worried about content when it obviously wasn't the most important part of the storytelling event (else you'd remember them better). – rumtscho Jan 15 '15 at 18:50
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    thanks for the suggestions. The problems are: 1. I work long hours and have limited time preparing for the materials, if there are good materials available online then it could save up a lot of time, 2. I think making up my own stories is a good idea, but I also think bedtime stories are a convenient way for the kid to have early access to children literature. – myang Jan 15 '15 at 19:19
  • Can you clarify any of the points above? At least the age? – Joe Jan 15 '15 at 19:53
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Since you don't provide an age, there are a few different guidelines based on age.

For children under about eight or nine months, stories primarily serve the purpose of hearing the parent's voice, as a soothing influence and helping to develop language. Therefore, any story will do. Books primarily should be high contrast, black and white in particular or very bright colors with few variations (ie, an entirely green turtle, not one with various lines of different colors that is more realistic).

Between nine months and two years or so, they often enjoy books with pictures (in particular, photographs) that they can identify. Books with lots of pictures of trains or trucks if they're a transportation kid, animals if that's their thing, etc.; ABC, color, or number books; or "Baby's First Word" books are all good here. Stories in terms of plotted stories won't be very effective, because they won't understand the concept of plot or know why they should listen, and they don't necessarily want to go in order.

After about two and a half years, varying based on the child, you can start having plot-intensive stories. Fairy tales, Curious George or Clifford or other characters, Dr Seuss, etc. are all fair game. They'll like to listen to the story, and begin to be able to discuss some of the elements of the story. Some children will even begin to role-play around 3 based on the stories; my three year old likes to make up stories of his own, where he's a main character alongside Curious George or similar.


Once they hit the age that 'plot' stories make sense, and you manage to find out what they enjoy (by trial and error, most likely), I like the idea of taking formulaic stories that they enjoy book versions of, and make up your own versions. This doesn't require any preparation other than knowing what the formula is from having read quite a few. My son likes Curious George; for that, the formula is:

  • "This is George. He was a good little monkey, and always very curious."
  • George is [somewhere] - establish the location
  • George is doing [something] or going [somewhere else]
  • George is curious about [something] and does [something]
  • This leads to trouble
  • George is sorry he got in trouble
  • George manages to get out of trouble
  • The trouble turns out to have been for the better because of [some reason]
  • George is happy, the end

You can make that up that 'on the go' pretty easily, even if you're not creative (I am absolutely not!). Several of the other book series work similarly, as well as Aesop's Fables and some of Grimm's fairy tales: there is a fairly simple formula that anyone can follow, just filling in the details around the formula. The nice thing is that kids don't care too much about the actual quality of writing - so just make it customized to the kid, and you're all square.

For example, one story I'd tell my son (let's call him R) goes something like this:

This is George and R. They were good little guys, and always very curious. One day, George and R were going to the store. The Man with the Yellow Hat came by to pick R up, and he was very happy to get in the blue car and go. They drove up to the store, and R and George got out. After they went in the store, they got a shopping cart, and R got in. George pushed R around in the cart for a while, then they traded places.

The Man with the Yellow Hat needed Sugar, Baking Powder, Chocolate Chips, and flour, to bake the cookies they wanted to bake. While they went past the cookie aisle, George saw something he liked, and ran off. R followed him, and said "No George, don't run away!" George stopped, and saw a little boy crying in the aisle. R couldn't find the Man with the Yellow Hat, so he found a worker at the store, and told him the boy was missing his mommy.

The worker paged the boy's mommy over the intercom, and his mommy came by a little later, and everyone was happy. The Man with the Yellow Hat also came, and told George that he shouldn't run off, but that he was happy George and R knew what to do to help the little boy. They went to the checkout and bought the ingredients, then went home and baked cookies together. R got to eat the first one out of the oven, and it was very yummy

I wrote that in about 3 minutes, and largely copied off of a similar story I read frequently (George goes to the Baseball Game, or something titled like that). It has elements of my son in it - he likes to run down aisles, like every kid - and elements I like to teach him (asking a store worker if he's lost). It also has a lot of 'hooks' for him to interject details - for example, he can provide the details of the shopping list, and what they're making at home, or the store's name, or what aisle George ran down. It's also a terrible story from an adult perspective, but it's loads of fun for a three year old.

What's nice about doing it this way is not only that you have a story wherever you want, and you involve the child; but also that it encourages the child to make up his/her own stories (both by involving him/her in the process, and by modeling the process). I found that more and more of the story would be made up by my son in this process as we went along - starting by just adding a few hooks for him to add, but as we went on he'd insist on more and more details, and as long as I didn't resist too much it worked well.


Adding a bit for older kids, there are formulas you can use even for quite complex stories. If your kids like Tolkien, there is a common Tolkien-ish formula. Here's my approximation of it:

  • Unassuming hero learns he is the key to saving the world from something
  • Hero finds a group of friends, each of which adds a different element to help him along
  • Hero and friends must take a long journey to [find|destroy] something which will [prevent|enable] the bad guy from [destroying|conquering] the world
  • Bad guy sends various enemies at the hero's party
  • Relatively early on the mentor either dies or is removed from action, forcing the hero to grow up
  • Hero makes mistakes, which cause a visible change in the hero and showing he is growing up/becoming less naive
  • Major battle occurs, forcing the hero to go it alone (or almost-alone) for the final part
  • Hero accomplishes the goal, but not seeing his life change

You could watch Star Wars, read (or watch!) Lord of the Rings, or read countless fantasy books and see this same formula used over and over again. Some stick more closely to it - see Terry Brooks or David Eddings, both of whom unabashedly stick to it fairly tightly - perhaps the closest of which is Star Wars itself. I am not going to replicate this here due to space and time constraints (and I'm pretty terrible as an author), but it's not all that hard to replicate - and in fact, many D&D games that are more on the storytelling side end up replicating this (often intentionally). By 8 or 10 you could easily do something like this with your children, and involve them (perhaps with some roleplaying aspects, perhaps not) and have a lot of fun.

There are also other formulas; famously, most romance novels published by Silhouette or Harlequin are explicitly formulaic (they are expected to follow certain formulas). See Wikipedia for some details and examples.

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  • If you want to make them up on the fly: yes, formulas like that work amazingly (For a more adult example, especially the first Star Wars movie follows classic formulas VERY closely). And they certainly don't have to be perfect stories. Up to a certain age, she will be just happy about time with you and your voice, later she may happily fill in stuff, and by the time longer books become a topic, you can just read those to and with her... and she will most likely still remember "mommies silly bedtime stories" fondly. – Layna Jan 16 '15 at 10:34
  • Everyone's answer is very good and to the point. Yours is implementable and something that my kid would like. Answer accepted. – myang Jan 16 '15 at 16:38
  • Awesome! This will be a huge help. My current stories just meander until someone gets tired, and would benefit from the structure of a formula. But - how do you 'reverse engineer' these formulas? Your statement that 'knowing the formula ... from having read quite a few' implies an analysis step where you look through the book; I haven't tried this (except when asked to do so by a teacher school) do you have any pointers for this type of analysis? For example, is there a set of more generic story formulas (tragedy, comedy, ..., ?) from where such formulas are derived? – David LeBauer Jan 18 '15 at 6:39
  • You don't really need to reverse engineer. Try reading up some things about "Hero's Journey": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth provides a good starting-point :) . – Layna Jan 20 '15 at 7:17
  • @David I'm not sure about reverse engineering; in my case I just read a few and it was obvious. This is very different for 3 year olds (my son) than older children expecting complicated stories; I don't claim that constructing a good 8 or 10 year old level story is easy (or I'd do it and publish it!) but it's certainly possible. As noted above, George Lucas did basically the same thing with Star Wars, and there are some effectively formulaic popular authors in fantasy - Terry Brooks for example - following the Tolkien formula. – Joe Jan 20 '15 at 16:07
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I always asked my dad for stories from when he was younger. He had the most fantastic stories about his experiences in the Navy. He's not very imaginative so I (still!) believe they're reasonably true.

He probably didn't spend more than 10 minutes per evening, often followed by a little discussion about some detail or other.

Perhaps you can dig up some of your best bar brag stories and use those as a basis?

I firmly believe that kids love repetition, so don't strain yourself trying do dig up new material all the time. Find a small handful of stories she likes and every evening, give her the choice which one to tell.

We also watch some short movies (5-10 minutes) right before bedtime. There's a Pixar short called "La Luna" that I like to recite from memory. Sometimes, if I want participation from my kiddo, I leave out some bit, or I ask what that next bit was going to be.

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    I like the idea of telling the kid about my life when I was a kid. Not sure typically how long should each story be, any suggestion? – myang Jan 15 '15 at 19:23
  • As long as it takes, @myang. Some stories are really just an anecdote, so you might like to tell two of those in one evening. Some stories are extensive, and you could either simplify as needed, or split into two nights - if you manage a cliffhanger, that would certainly help getting your daughter to bed the next evening! – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 16 '15 at 20:07
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  1. Retell those of your mother's stories that you can remember (if she's still around, ask her if she can write down any of them for you).
  2. Go to the library or a good used book store and try to find some favorite books you personally enjoyed as a child.
  3. Make up your own stories -- they don't have to be perfect.
  4. Get a collection of fairy tales or folk tales --these have enchanted children for hundreds of years.
  5. True life stories --your own life, or family history. Research has shown that stories like this are very good for children psychologically, even when the stories are not happy ones, because they provide some context for their own experiences.
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  • True life stories- great idea! – David LeBauer Jan 18 '15 at 6:40
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My kids are 10, 4, and 2.5 and we read or tell stories for about 15-20 minutes a night with the younger two. My ten year old prefers to read to himself now, but he got the same amount of time when he was younger.

My kids typically want to be read to because they like to look at pictures in books, but sometimes if it's late I will do a story so we can turn the lights out. Our stories are always recollections that we talk about together. So, it's actually less story telling and more conversation, but that's only because my kids can't help but take an opportunity to correct me if they think I'm not remembering clearly. For instance, I will talk about the time my 4YO and I went to "the little waterfall" as if I'm telling the 2.5YO about it and his brother isn't there. I will pause and let my 4YO finish a thought, or I'll say something silly like "and there was a purple frog on the rock" and let him correct me. Sometimes he'll go along with it. The point is that it usually starts out a true story they both or at least one of them knows and then we change it. All my kids enjoy this and it's very easy to do. You already have memories and experiences, you just have to get a little creative with it. Little kids like to know how the story goes (for this reason they ask you to read the same book a hundred million times till it gets "lost" because you can't take it anymore), but they also like to go off on a tangent too.

The other option you could try is poetry. I have about ten or eleven poems memorized that my kids like. They are ones I liked as a child, which is why I know them. Some are kid poems, some aren't. Either way, they have either a pleasant cadence, an interesting word or phrase, or an easy rhyme. Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, and Edward Lear are a few of my favorites. Poetry is pretty easy to memorize, in my opinion, and easy to have fun with. You can swap out a different word that rhymes (or when your child is old enough, ask her to do think if a word), and you can play with the tempo and use voices to mix things up.

The point is, more or less, the best place to find materials is right in your own head, in your own life. It shouldn't be like work, or else it'll be as interesting as a PowerPoint presentation at work. Just have fun! It does take practice, but you'll get the hang of it.

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My mother would read books to me. A good book would solve your problem in that you wouldn't need to spend a lot of time each day/week.

You can probably find great deals on some good books via Craigslist or garage sales. There's plenty of "top books for children" lists. The following is a google search to get you started. Go with some all time favs and you can't go wrong...

https://www.google.com/search?q=top+books+for+children

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  • The library is also a great place for books - and don't forget to ask the librarian for suggestions, or help with a particular interest. – David LeBauer Jan 18 '15 at 6:42
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At the risk of being harpooned by the community, I'll tell you what I did for my daughter.

When she was about 3 or so she noticed a little character I painted in the mural that covers her whole room. Tons of animals and every sort of environment and nothing human related at all, except I hid the predator in the trees of the jungle. That's what she asked about. So I thought about the story of the predator, yes, the schwarzenegger movie, and how you might go about telling that story to a 3 year old.

I cleaned it up a bit - not remembering just how vulgar that movie actually was - and told it as I remember. I don't know if that was a huge mistake or not because she loved it and asked me to tell the story of the predator every night for about a year. Eventually she would tell it to me, which is hilarious to hear a 3 year old's version.

It occurred to me sometime in this fiasco that there are an astounding number of movies I really like, and no real reason why I can't tell her my version of any of them. Try as I might though, she always asks for the ones that you would never expect. The Predator was her favorite so much so that she asked to be the predator for Halloween, which I gladly made for her. She could have won a cosplay award.

I usually told the whole story in about 15 minutes. Some movies are harder to strip down, but it's usually in that range.

I think it also helped her imagination seeing me just tell stories instead of always needing to read them out of a book.

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