My Daughter the Fox and the Making of Children's Stories

A parent's job is not only to serve as a storyteller, but also to create the conditions for the stories of children to emerge.
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The best stories are the ones we write by living.

This is especially true, I find, as I push into my late 30s and my two daughters push from the early bloom of babbling babyhood to the flowering of their first school years.

Think of the scene at the start of Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951), where Alice dreams amid the swaying summer grass of a "world of her own." When our children are babies, their reach is not much different than that of a clump of grass blades amid the swaying rush of reeds and flowers. Their world is pure sensation. The pre-lingual child is in the world, but in some ways perhaps not of it.

Now, my daughters, Kallista, four and Athena, five, have become Alice in the grass. They feel the sensations at the boundaries between their bodies and the world. A parent's job is not only to serve as a storyteller, but also to create the conditions for the stories of children to emerge. By this measure, Athena's and Kallista's young lives have become stories -- and their bodies, as they grow, become written and re-written.

Here, then, are some methods I have stumbled upon, as any writer does, to inspire composition.

1) Transform the world: In a morning rush, I once served my daughters strawberries, yet misspoke them as "blueberries." This was enough to transform the fruit for Athena, who spent the next 40 minutes delighting in eating blueberries turned magically turned red and bulbous. This is the literal logic of Wonderland, where the Mad Hatter or the Caterpillar makes their madness real, simply by articulating his desire.

2) Start young: In my role as an avant-garde novelist, I spent a recent summer making a series of "Deconstructing Books" videos, leading to a trailer for my largely blank novel Blank, in which over 200 books are chainsawed, hacked apart, and otherwise mishandled in order to be pulped into "new" paper for a blank book. One video in this series was the apparent sinking of a first edition of Moby Dick in Lake Michigan. Thus began my daughters' fascination with Moby Dick.

On one memorable occasion, we took over the local park to play pirates. Athena and Kallista began to imagine Moby Dick helping them to find treasure, the great white whale rehabilitated from his destruction of the Pequod. Athena yelled for "Moby Dick! Moby Dick!" while Kallista, somewhat like Jim Morrison in the eponymous Doors' song, screamed "Land Ho!" They were Ishmael, Queequeq, Starbuck. My wife, watching us unobserved, then noted, "Well, you've just taught them slang for male genitalia and prostitutes."

3) Really, start young: "What are you reading, Daddy?" "A story called The Nose (Nikolai Gogol). I'll read it to you when you are older." "Read it now!" (They plead, and even say please). I read a few paragraphs and to my surprise, they became completed engrossed in the basic premise: a man wakes up to realize his nose is missing. The nose takes on human proportions and replaces him, etc.

So began a series of regularly occurring nose stories: their noses go missing in outer space; the noses of their friends and relatives run of for country weekends; a princess, in crises, has lost her nose and a menagerie of friendly animals must assist. They often want the noses to be in the end returned to their rightful owners. They enjoy happy endings.

4) Walk the story: During the unseasonable warmth of early January 2012 in Chicago, Athena and I took a walk through the restored garden of a now-gone Lake Michigan estate. The romantic ruin-like quality of this city park, high along the bluff overlooking the water, proved intoxicating. After an hour of stepping on tree stumps and discovering secret bridges and gazebos, Athena moved back through the garden: "There are no plants here. Take my picture from a distance for my book cover: The Garden with No Plants." On the way home, a bright orange fox appeared.

Later than night, as I tucked her in, I asked about the fox. She answered, "Yes, the fox went to the garden and wondered why there were no plants... because the fox did not realize it was winter."

Me: "Ok, and will we still use your picture for the cover of your book?"

Athena, about to drop to sleep, "Yes... because I am the fox."

There is a secret to parenting hiding here, hidden among brambles and talking animals. I've never been happier to find my child transformed into a creature from the woods -- into a fairy-tale of her own making -- as she writes story after story after story.

This is a world that still, for a scant while longer, shines as bright as a blank page for my fox-daughters.

The least I can do is help them dig their dens.