Belle stories - we've got 'em. Oh boy have we got 'em!
Belle stories are a year old now and a staple of our bedtime routines, but they've evolved over the course of the last year.
These stories started as simple, ~5 minute tales about 2 girls (coincidentally named K & L) and a horse named Belle who followed them home one day. The girls want to keep the horse, and their parents think it's imaginary (though this is a subtle touch that seems to have passed over the heads of my usual listeners) so they say "fine." And the girls get to have a horse in the house. That was the beginning.
I'd already been contemplating writing a couple of short stories like this, when, a year ago, we were in the final hour of a 5 hour drive back from Walla Walla and the girls were done being in the car after being in a hotel room for 2 nights, and I started telling them about these 2 girls and a horse named Belle, and they wouldn't let me stop for the remainder of the ride. I think we did 4 or 5 different stories that first afternoon.
Since then, the stories have become a vital step in the bedtime process, coming immediately after toothbrushing which follows jammie-getting-into which follows bath.
The stories evolved into a more complex formula with 2 horses (Belle and Delilah, coincidentally sharing names with 2 of the Saddle Club horses) and a stable that was first in the backyard and then later moved up onto a hill behind the girls' house. They also grew from the original 5 minute tales to something over 20 minutes and occasionally more than 30 minutes. Various humorous and not-so-humorous happenings happened, including sleepovers, trailrides, encounters with other animals, horse shows, etc. Not so oddly, many of the supporting characters shared characteristics with Saddle Club characters, but I did my best to steer things toward new story lines and a new character or two.
We had a standard starting point each night: One morning K&L woke up and went to the window to see what the weather was. (The weather was generally dependent on our actual weather, but not always.) The girls get dressed and slip out of the house, early on with their dog, and later, after Lucy's death, on their own, and go up to the stables.
The girls, and K especially, insist on hearing a story every night. The nights I paddle are hard because she knows there won't be a story that night (though M has started telling stories about when she was a little girl, or when K or L was a baby, and that seems to be an acceptable substitute).
Over the last year, K's interest in Saddle Club and in horses in general has moderated a bit, and now there's a new focus on mermaids and so the Belle Stories have evolved into stories focused around a mermaid named K and another named Cassandra, and a third who is named L but who wanted to go home to her parents so isn't often included. There are no horses (excepting a seahorse that I, very creatively I thought, developed from Belle who needed to be turned into something sea-related when K turned into a mermaid from a little girl), and there is absolutely nothing named 'Belle,' yet these stories continue on as the Belle Stories.
Our bedtime routine lately has shifted: first I tell a story about something that happened to me when I was a boy (recent examples: when I went "scoopa" diving with sharks, getting my dog Debbie (best dog ever!)) - this is primarily a story for L, so she can then fall asleep during the Belle story, which she rarely has any interest in hearing, then books, usually one per daughter, then L curls up against me and sometimes falls asleep and sometimes just snuggles in (either way, I love this part of the evening) and I tell a Belle story to K, who is almost always interested and sometimes quite upset when I finish it up for the evening.
Things I've learned over the course of the last year of story telling: 1) just because I think I know where the story should go, this doesn't mean it's going to go there, 2) trying to resist the girls' ideas about where the story should go is futile, 3) letting the girls have some control (asking "what was K wearing?" and "what did L say?" "No, I'm Barbie, not L!" "Ok, what did Barbie say?") goes a long way toward keeping them engaged, and 4) sometimes the least expected turns end up being the most enjoyable/fruitful/interesting.
We're still refining the process, obviously, and I can imagine that L might decide she wants a different type of story tailored for her interests, now that Belle has become a variation of "Mermaid Island," though there are enough differences in personality between the girls that I wouldn't be shocked if L didn't follow K's lead regarding stories. (L is the one who likes to take books off by herself and "read" them aloud: "And then the bird said 'You can't go there because you can't go there and so you can't go there. And the bird didn't go there." Maybe she'll be my writer?)
Some evenings I dread the story telling. I don't particularly want to talk about mermaids, I don't want to have to come up with a story line that doesn't make narrative sense to me. And then I remember that all of this is a passing phase in this thing called life and I think about lying in the middle of my bed after dinner with one daughter on my right side and the other snuggled in on my left and I realize that it's just about the best place in the world I could be right then.
And so we start:
One morning, K was swimming in the lagoon with Cassandra as the sun made sparkles in the water, and Cassandra said to her, "Come, I want to show you something" so they ducked down and swam through the underwater tunnel with the dolphins and the seahorse until they were out beyond the island where the water was blue and clouds were white in the sky, and Cassandra pointed down and said "If we swim down there you'll see something you've never seen before...."