Griffin, to my delight, loves a good story. Actually, quality isn’t the issue—mediocre stories will do. And I know that I shouldn’t be surprised because who doesn’t like a good story? But I do find real joy in the fact that we can share them together and that our made-up stories have evolved and shifted in ways I never planned, with Griffin engaged not just as audience but as creative partner. Below are three examples of how Griffin has helped shape our fictional landscape.
Za Za was Griffin’s first recurring character, invented some time in the past 15 months. I can’t remember when Za Za started, but it was in this house, maybe around his second birthday. I think Griffin just created Za Za out of the blue one night while telling stories at bedtime. Za Za is not an imaginary friend, exactly, but originally seemed to be an alter-ego for Griffin. Griffin would ask us to tell him about Za Za which would prompt us to ask who “Za Za” was, but Griffin couldn’t say. After some questioning, we discovered that in Griffin’s mind, Za Za had done many of the things that Griffin had done that day. So if we had gone to the park, Griffin would want to hear about Za Za at the park. At first we stuck to this, and basically retold our days using Za Za as the protagonist. Griffin loved this and would jump in to add key moments from his day, “Then Za Za went down the BIG slide and bonked his head!” Riffing off of this we would talk about Za Za and Griffin playing together, as if Za Za had been with Griffin all day. Pretty soon I was fictionalizing things and Za Za became Griffin’s partner in numerous adventures across time and space. Sometimes Griffin wasn’t even necessary, so we might tell the story of Za Za and the pirates or the time Za Za went to the moon to deliver a package to the queen of the lunar mice. Recently, Za Za has faded in importance. Griffin still likes to invoke his name, but doesn’t need him to be a central character. I often use him as a framing device, so he becomes the narrator of another story involving other characters. Which brings us to the Fuzzy Wuzzies.
Unlike Za Za, I remember exactly how the Fuzzy Wuzzies arrived on the scene, but I had no idea how important they would become.
First, some context. Most of our stories take place at bedtime after we’ve read a few books. We turn the lights out, cuddle up in bed (before Griffin’s loft and “big boy bed,” I would somehow cram myself into the crib) and tell a few stories or sing a few songs. At this point I am usually much more sleepy than Griffin. This casts a surreal tint on everything. It is not uncommon for me to fall asleep in mid-tale, at which point Griffin pokes me, “Hey! Daddy! Is that the end?” My imagination is already fairly weird and dark, in a fairy-tale sort of way, with lots of old D&D plots rolling around: all bridges have trolls under them, most plants are carnivorous (or at least poisonous), and every sidewalk square is a trap door to a subterranean lair. Compound this with sleep-visions and things get fairly outrageous. Sarah and I used to worry that some of my stories might be too scary for Griffin. He has always been fine with them, but the age of nightmares hasn’t really kicked in yet, so I want to be careful not to fill his sleepy head with fearful thoughts. The tension between my natural storytelling inclinations and my responsibility to keep Griffin safe and secure (both mentally and physically) creates a back-and-forth quality to some of our stories, a thematic dance between Dr. Seuss and H. P. Lovecraft, butterflies and lava pits.
Thus one fine night a year or so ago, I found myself telling Griffin a bedtime story about how he and Za Za were playing at Mattocks Park, our neighborhood playground. They played on the swings, the see-saw, the climbing structure, and then went down one of the slides together. Suddenly, the ground opened up at the bottom of the slide and the two kids fell into a tunnel. The lid snapped shut behind them, and they tumbled down in darkness for a long time before landing in a heap in a dim cavern. They heard scuffling and snuffling noises in the darkness. Now we had a story! I was thrilled, but then thought I might be piling it on to thick. Looking back, this seems innocuous enough, but Griffin was younger and still a bit timid about slides, even without deadly trap-doors at the bottom. I needed a new story ingredient quick… something subterranean that scuffles and snuffles but isn’t scary. Out of the darkness emerged a rolling, smiling pile of Fuzzy Wuzzies. (Physical details are sketchy, but I was picturing something between a Star Trek tribble and Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal.) Fuzzy Wuzzies are shy creatures that live in extensive underground kingdoms linked to the surface world through secret doors. They come out when people aren’t around and particularly love parks and playgrounds. Griffin and Za Za were taken on a tour of Fuzzy Wuzzyland and eventually returned to Mattocks Park before any adults noticed they were gone. The Fuzzy Wuzzies promised that they could visit again some day.
Griffin was thrilled, and I was satisfied that I hadn’t generated any nightmare material. I figured that would be the end of it, but the next night Griffin wanted to hear about Za Za and the Fuzzy Wuzzies. In short order, the Fuzzy Wuzzies took leading roles in our nightly dramas. We’ve discovered entrances to Fuzzy Wuzzyland in remarkable places: Griffin’s closet, the back yard, the basement, a few public restrooms, and in pretty much every park in the Twin Cities. In Mattocks Park, in particular, Griffin has identified a number of secret entrances to Fuzzy Wuzzyland, and happily points out the “Fuzzy Wuzzy Tree” to befuddled playmates. The Fuzzy Wuzzies are also good friends with any other characters worth knowing in the fictional universe. They have introduced Za Za and Griffin to Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, Puff, the three little pigs, and most recently, to three grumpy goats.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff
Ok, so this is just a minor tidbit, but since the number three is sacred in fairy tales, I figured I’d better tell three stories in this post. A few nights ago I was telling the story of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” It was Griffin’s first time hearing it, so I hammed it up as best I could. (Fuzzy Wuzzies and Za Za were, of course, involved.) As we approached the climax, with the third goat coming out onto the bridge, Griffin interrupted me: “The third goat is too BIG to fit in the troll’s mouth!” He was clearly very proud of his prediction, and while technically incorrect (the big goat butts the troll off the bridge), he exhibited a much deeper understanding of narrative structure than I would ever have expected. He understood that the third goat had to defeat the troll somehow and that his victory would be due to a feature already mentioned in the story. The only thing that differentiated the third goat was his size, so Griffin came up with a plausible explanation based on size that would prevent the troll from getting his meal.
I am staggered not by Griffin in particular, but by this example of how impressive the growing minds of children are. Kids digest the hidden structures of language and culture around them at an astonishing rate. As a teacher I have worked with middle-schoolers who struggle to perceive the underlying structure of stories even when I’m explicitly revealing it to them. By that age they are distracted by so many other things, but a toddler’s mind is primed and ready. Cool.
Although I liked Griffin’s too-big-to-eat version, I figured he also needed to understand the importance of fight scenes (or how can he hope to unpack Hollywood?) so our old-fashioned goat sent the nasty troll into the river, howling all the way.