An interview with John Olive about Tell Me a Story in the Dark

Janet Preus, interviewer

You may be more likely to know John Olive primarily as a playwright or as a reviewer for, but he’s also written a book about storytelling. “Tell Me a Story in the Dark: A Guide to Creating Magical Bedtime Stories for Young Children” is not a book of stories for children, although there are stories in it; it’s a book for parents about how to tell stories, and that makes it virtually one-of-a-kind. I was curious about so many things when I sat down to talk to John recently about the book. ~ J.P.

J.P. Why did you want to write this book?

J.O. Writing is what I do. Over the years, because of raising a son, I’ve become a maestro at bedtime stories, and I realize that there are no books about telling bedtime stories, so I think the book’s quite unique for that reason. That’s why I was compelled to write it.

J.P. You make quite a point about creating the right environment before you begin: a dark room, the child’s head resting on the pillow, and so forth.

J.O. This is about creating magic, so the child will lie still and listen. You want to hear snoring. That’s the whole point, to put them to sleep!

J.P. Did it occur to you that you could be “preaching to the choir,” that people most likely to read this already tell stories to their children (and conversely, the people who might most benefit from it, are not so likely to pick it up)?

They might know how to do it, but what this book provides is stories that they can actually use. Part II of the book is a long series of stories – some originals, some adaptations, some classics – and the book provides the story in a tell-able way, with a bulleted list of things to remember when you’re going in to tell a story.

J.P. So, it really is a how-to, constructed in a practical way, and not just theoretical.

Yes, that’s it. And it’s a great gift. A lot of people are buying them to give to parents,and others, including people who wouldn’t otherwise buy it.

J.P. Since there aren’t other books out there like this, where would a bookseller shelve it? Has that been an issue?

J.O. I had an interaction with Majors and Quinn who didn’t want to do a presentation of the book because they thought it was for children, and another – a children’s book store – didn’t want to do it because they thought it was for adults. In fact, a children’s book store, Wild Rumpus has taken it and have sold out. Kids don’t spend money; adults do. That’s why a book like this is going to do well in a children’s book store.

J.P. I want you to talk about vocabulary because you use words that little children wouldn’t necessarily understand. It appears to be quite intentional. Tell me about that.

J.O. Dr. Seuss was extremely careful about this and would only use words that all kids would understand. As much as I admire this, I don’t think this is what you should do. Kids have two vocabularies: the words they use, which is a small number, and the words they understand, which is huge. Eventually the child will move a word like “complacency” from understanding to use, and she will love you for using it! Children may not be able to articulate that “you’re talking down to me,” but they “smell” it, and they don’t like it.

J.P. You also use different vocabulary for different stories. Riff on that a bit.

J.O. The book wants the tellers of the stories to “fall into it.“ It’s important to do that to keep them interested. So you don’t want to fall back into the generic storytelling mode. When you “let it rip,” the listener will become more interested, and then is more likely to fall asleep, which is the point!

I remember listening to my son’s steady breathing. At that point, I could be speaking Urdu. The way to get the child to stop moving is to get them interested in the story, and the way to get them to do that is to find the heart of the story.

J.P. How about the age of the child, or children?

J.O. There’s a cutoff age. Maybe eight. Sometime after they can read for themselves. “I’ll take care of this,” they maybe think. When they’re five or six, they’re able to follow complex narrative, more detailed plots, with a number of characters. That’s beautiful, because then you can tell stories like “Moses” [one of the story examples in the book]. Once they become more independent readers, they aren’t so likely to listen to you. But it depends on the kids.

J.P. Some parents are very sensitive about fairy tales, tall tales and fables, because they’re not “true.” That and all the really bad things that happen in them!

J.O. Fairy tales always always, always have happy endings. The hero survives, triumphs, returns home, older and wiser, and “lives happily ever after.” Real stories always have tragic endings; everyone dies in reality. This is not something that young children need to hear.

It’s a complicated issue, but I think there’s a lot more truth to “Jack and Beanstalk” [a story used as an example in the book] than a lot of news in the newspaper. It’s about dreams, confronting difficulty, dealing with your mother – things kids deal with every day. There’s a wonderful book about this called “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettelheim.

“Telling the truth” may not be the right expression. Fairy tales may not be “real,” and they usually involve large dollops of fantasy, but there is something exhilarating (especially to children) about the way ordinary Joes (fairy tale heroes) find courage, make friends, make allies, find resources to defeat the witches, wolves, orgres, orcs and goblins that populate these tales. This is why children need fairy tales: They need to be told that they have the resources to survive in this cockamamie world. “Real” stories don’t provide this kind of optimism.

The whole point of the book is that there is enormous truth in these fairy tales and other stories. They are teaching children how to live – how to be courageous, how to live in this overwhelming world. The truth that is there is important.


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