Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Cure for Bedtime Book Boredom? Improv

“Dad, read it funny!”

Like all good parents of young children, my wife and I read to our kids. We happen to read to them each night as part of their bedtime ritual. Two books each, as a rule. We’ve always done this, taking turns or dividing and conquering as the number of kids multiplied.

Like most kids who get read to each night, my kids have their favorite books. These tend to change as time passes. But they’ll get stuck on a book or two for long periods of time, which means we can find ourselves reading the same darn book, to the same darn kid, every darn night for months and months and months.

It’s all fine and good if they pick a short book, or one we particularly enjoy. I can read, Moo, Baa, La La La by Sandra Boynton with my eyes closed in less than 30 seconds. (I know, I know; Quality reading time with the children is not a race). There are also long books I truly enjoy. I could read Pickle Chiffon Pie every night for many months. I know, because I have. And starting each fall, some kids always picks How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and we read it right up to Christmas Eve. I never mind it. Both of these books are 64 pages long.

But, like all good parents who read the same darn books to the same darn kids each night, I often get completely and utterly bored.

That happened a few years ago when one of the kids started picking out Dick and Jane: A Christmas Story each God-forsaken evening. If you’ve never read this book to your kids, consider yourself lucky. Here’s a synopsis. It snows, and Dick, Jane and Sally go out and play, taking turns getting cold and going back inside to make cookies with their mom, who goes by the 1950s moniker of “mother.”

An excerpt:

Dick, Jane, and Sally skated on the lake.
“I am cold,” said Sally. 
“I want to go inside.” 
Sally went inside. Sally baked cookies with mother.  

It goes on and on like that, cyclical and overly simple. Sure, it’s written at the first-grade level for a reason. But it’s done so with absolutely no consideration of the parent who’s going to suffer through reading it each night.

"Cheerio, Molly!" "Cheerio, Sally!"
-- channeling your Dick Van Dyke
voice. Or better yet, John Cleese.
So one night, probably after having a second glass of wine making dinner, I took matters into my own hands. I changed the words, gave Dick and Jane and Sally new names, and had the characters make lasagna and pizza and beef stroganoff, instead of cookies. And I made the mom, who doesn’t have much of a speaking role, sound like Julia Child. My kids howled with laughter.

“Reading it Funny” was born.

Now, at least once a week, I get a special request to read a book funny. Luckily, we’ve moved on from the Dick and Jane book – which is really hard to make enjoyable time after time. Usually, the kids will pick a book we know well, and I’ll just be as silly as possible, making Cinderella a pizza delivery guy who has to get a veggie-lovers deep dish to the castle, or reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go like Droopy Dog. (That got a little long, but I enjoyed it).

For any parents bored with reading the same old books, and who’ve never done this silly sort of thing, here’s a few quick tips on how to do Improvisational Bedtime Books.

Improv tips:

·       Pick books that have colorful pictures, and just forget reading the words altogether – try the Stephen Huneck series of Sally Goes To … books. Beautifully illustrated and awesome inspiration for kid humor.
·       Select funny-sounding voices and accents, like a pirate, or Scottie from Star Trek, or a Dick Van Dyke-inspired English accent. And don’t forget the words that define those accents, like "arr, matey"; “lassie” or “arse” for Scottish; and calling things “dreadful” in the Queen’s English or adding "governor" to things in Mr. Van Dyke’s. (Apologies to my Scottish and English friends. Your accents aren't inherently funny, only when impersonated by Americans, or attached to Monty Python quotes).   

·       Replace words with the most random things you can think of, like an ad-libs game. Pogo Sticks, Boomerangs, and Eyeballs seem to always get laughs.

·       Feel free to use age-appropriate potty humor (as long as mom isn’t listening). There’s a reason so many cartoons have fart jokes. Farts are funny. Make that, farts can be funny. They’re not always funny.

·       Don’t worry about the story line. If you do it right, the kids will be rolling with laughter and won’t have clue what’s actually happening.
You don't have to try too hard to be funny. Just get your silly on. Kids find humor in the weirdest things. So be weird.

"I always say, it's better to eat the bacon,
than to be the bacon. Right-o, Sally?"

In our house, we’ve done “Reading it Funny” countless times now, with lots of books that would otherwise be retired to the boring, over-read book pile. It’s usually a blast.

We don’t overdo it though, as there are other utilities to reading to kids each day, like having them read along with you, and, in turn, learning how to actually read themselves. But, on occasion, a good improvised story can be just the cure for bedtime book boredom.

Two bits of warning.  

First, it’s very hard to repeat a really good improvised bedtime book session. The kids will want you to read that book again, just like last time. If you did it right, you simply won’t be able to replicate the feat. Try another accent and a different book.

Second, if you do it well and the kids have fun, they aren’t likely to fall asleep any time soon. Sorry about that.

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Daddy's in Charge? said...

I started to sing some of the parts… change up the voices a bit. I found that it was much more enjoyable for me and the kids loved it.

Cort Ruddy said...

Voices are so much fun. And the kids can't tell the difference between a good attempt at Scrooge (or others) and a bad one. They can tell that I can't sing, though. Thanks for reading.