Mom putting daughter to bed

Tired Tales at Bedtime


“Can’t we have separate stories?” My 8-year-old daughter, Marie, lay on one side of me in the darkness. Her little sister Sally, age 5, lay on the other side.

“Sorry,” I said, “tomorrow’s a school day, and it’s late already.” But I understood her problem. My stories are not very good to begin with, but when I try to pitch them between the two age levels, I please no one unless I’ve got a really strong plot or some really funny business. Tonight, I had what was, for me, a strong plot.

Boy sleeping with teddy bear

“As I was saying,” I said, “the whole class was camping on the mountain, and Sally the Squirrel was in her sleeping bag right at the edge of the trail.”

Sally the human interrupted with a bulletin: “Sally the Squirrel had rainbows and flowers on her pajamas.”

Marie sneered, “And little pink dancing people on her sleeping bag.” Sally always annoyed Marie with the interruption and with the fussy fashion details she had to add when Sally the Squirrel was mentioned.

“Fine,” I said. “So anyway, Sally the Squirrel was having a bad dream.”

“No, she wasn’t,” Sally said. “No bad dream.”

I was trying to get the squirrel stirred up, so she’d go tumbling down the mountain in her sleeping bag. “OK,” I said. “Sally the Squirrel was squirming around trying to get comfortable on the hard ground. She accidentally wiggled onto Tommy the Tiger who pushed her away and sent her rolling down the trail.”

“No, she didn’t!” Sally said.

“Don’t worry,” I told Sally, “She won’t get hurt or scared.”

“Dad!” Marie protested. “She rolls down a mountain and she doesn’t get hurt or scared?” A typical bind: Sally was out to protect her namesake character, and Marie wanted some excitement, especially if it would ruffle the fur of the fancy little squirrel girl.

“No,” I said, “Sally the Squirrel was very brave, and the sleeping bag cushioned her from the rocks and trees along the trail, and as she tumbled down the mountain she laughed because it was a fun ride.”

“No, she didn’t roll down the mountain,” said Sally.

“Well, she’s already DOWN the mountain and didn’t get hurt. So, what’s the problem?” I asked. If I could get the tumble to remain in place, I planned to have the squirrel adopted by friendly bears.



For the past couple years, most of my “tired tales at bedtime” have revolved around one classroom full of animal children. Whenever I’m low on ideas, I introduce a new student, so by now the classroom has more species than a rainforest.   

And ever since my oldest passed age 4 and was no longer happy with the retelling of the same story night after night, I’ve been in trouble. Over the years, I have stolen plots from books, TV shows, movies and even, God help me, the Bible.

These bedtime stories, shared in the dark, provide instant intimacy as we play inside each other’s minds.

Like a pirate captain sending his men to operate a captured ship, I have peopled these stories with made-up characters and with ones I’ve shanghaied from Disney, Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros.  

When time permits, I do tell them separate tales. That way, Sally can describe in loving detail the attire of her squirrel self. And Marie can enjoy a higher level of danger and mayhem, as well as more sophisticated plots of extortion and espionage.

Mom putting daughter to bed

Well-behaved Marie takes a strange delight in naughty pranks in our stories, although the characters she plays are usually the indignant victims.   

Sally, who is usually mischievous, doesn’t like anything too bad to happen in our bedtime stories. And if the unthinkable does occur, such as when Hopper the Misguided Kangaroo Boy pours yogurt on Striper the Skunk, Sally has her squirrel self immediately put things right.  

But even with the interaction of my kids, my story-telling abilities are second-rate, and it would be fair to wonder why I work so hard to maintain this particular family tradition. It’s because I don’t spend enough time with my children. On weekdays, I don’t see them between breakfast and bedtime. And on weekends, the lazy afternoons of romping in the park or tossing a ball around in the back yard don’t happen often enough.

These bedtime stories, shared in the dark, provide instant intimacy as we play inside each other’s minds. Although a sister can slow the stories with their additions, the kids NEVER fall asleep during them, no matter how rickety the plot or dull the dialogue.  

Maybe they like these sessions because they want to be close to their dad. Or maybe, it could be that they hang on, night after night, in hopes that the quality of these tired tales at bedtime will improve. Lately, the girls have been phoning me at work with story ideas. Last week, I had to break off a conversation with my boss to hear Marie say, “How ‘bout if Hopper puts Super-glue on the toilet seats?”

Such a heavy-duty shenanigan would be hard to sell to Sally. So, that night I prefaced the story by telling her about the hydraulic cutting and prying apparatus that rescue squads use to extricate people from wrecked cars. And when Hopper’s cruel prank had claimed a row of wriggling, weeping victims, we sent Sally the Squirrel into the lavatory equipped with The Jaws of Life.

One thing I’ve learned about storytelling: You don’t have to be William Shakespeare if you know your audience.

Enjoy more humor and parenting articles by Rick Epstein here, as well as in each issue of CharlottesvilleFamily.


RICK EPSTEIN works for a chain of newspapers when not orchestrating the comings and goings of his children., a collection of local resources including a popular calendar of events, family services guides and features on education, health and family day trips for parents and teachers in Charlottesville, as well as Virginia Wine & Country Life, a semi-annual life & style magazine, and Wine & Country Weddings, an annual art book celebrating elegant Virginia weddings.