A couple years ago my good friend Grace and her two daughters moved north of Atlanta.
Our kids were young enough that they would have all but forgotten each other if it weren’t for a unique brand of e-mail pen-pal friendship that developed between our oldest kids, Will and Ella.
It started with my own realization that my oldest son, Will, loves to tell a story for an audience.
I think most educators and parents recognize the vital importance of story time for young children. We read a lot to children so that they will become masters of the English language and learn a lifelong love of reading and learning.
But sometimes I like to let my kids do the storytelling. And I find that I am a more attentive listener — and that they feel empowered as authors — if I transcribe their every word.
As a 3- and 4-year-old, Will had “written” several wild tales about zoo animals and wild wolves and the like. It was all fantastical and often illogical, but he loved the adventure of authorship.
Then one day, about a year ago, we decided to make our story-transcribing habit collaborative.
Will, who had just turned 5, wrote the opening two sentences of a story about a princess, king and prince who were planning a tea party and thus launched his first story-telling project with Ella, who was 6 at the time. They hadn’t seen each other for over a year, but they eagerly became long-distance partners in inventing tales.
Ella wrote back with a few paragraphs to add to the story and every few days we were e-mailing back and forth, Grace and I typing our children’s storytelling to each other from our separate cities.
Soon Will and Ella had finished their first tale, “The Story of the Missing Teapot” complete with a few pictures of castles, princesses and floral teapots.
Early on, I was amazed at Ella’s storytelling prowess. Will was a year and a half younger than she, and he would go on whimsical and sometimes nonsensical storytelling tangents. I sometimes asked him questions to clarify but for the most part faithfully transcribed his pieces of the story regardless of their inanity.
One dragon would turn into 100 under his watch and then Ella would work her magic to rein things back in and restore some semblance of plot. And somewhere along the way, perhaps under her subtle guidance, Will’s storytelling became a bit more logical too.
Over the course of a year, Will and Ella have written more than 50 excerpts of stories back and forth as they co-authored four different stories including one about unicorns and giants and another about a filly named Skipper.
But it is their current story — about a frog named Toosabobby who aspires to be an actor — that they both regard as their masterpiece in progress.
It is a perfect solution for that youthful tendency to stray from a unified plot, since the frog can star in all sorts of plays, which become stories within the story. There is Toosabobby playing a witch in a Halloween play; and Toosabobby playing Scar, the pirate frog who encounters golden treasures, treacherous thunderstorms, humpback whales and sharks on his journey to Antarctica, California and unnamed islands.
A couple weeks ago, when we visited Grace and the girls in Atlanta, I asked Will and Ella how they thought the story might end.
“It will never end,” said Ella, quite certain.
“Yeah,” said Will. “We’re going to do it and do it and do it until we’re 100.”
If there is a moral hiding in the frog story so far, it might be that with perseverance and hard work, you can achieve your dreams, especially if you are an aspiring amphibian thespian. But there is also a moral for us as parents: If we listen to our children and honor their stories they are likely to surprise us with their creativity, or at least make us laugh out loud.
Annie Addington, an independent correspondent, can be reached at email@example.com.