Saturday, December 14, 2013

Very Young Adult

By Mark Alpert

The drawbacks of the writing life are well-known. Long hours, low pay (if any). Frequent bouts of insecurity, hysteria, despair. And don’t forget the rejection letters and snarky reviews! But this profession has one wonderful benefit that almost makes up for all the pain and suffering. Writers are great at telling bedtime stories.

My kids are fourteen and twelve now, but we still do the bedtime reading ritual. My son prefers that I read out loud to him, usually from action-adventure young-adult novels. We’ve gone through the Maze Runner series, the Divergent series, and the I Am Number Four series. We’ve also read all the Lord of the Rings books and some adult sci-fi novels such as Wool. We recently finished Feed, an amazingly good YA novel about a dystopian future where all the teenagers’ brains are directly hooked to the Internet. I loved the teen lingo that the characters used in Feed. Whenever I finished one of the chapters, I’d start speaking to my son in that futuristic way. (“You are so null, Unit!”) Now we’re reading Ender’s Game, another great sci-fi novel. I can’t wait to see my son’s reaction to the surprise at the end of the book.

My daughter likes science fiction too -- she loved Wrinkle in Time -- but she usually goes for the more humorous books, such as Savvy and The True Meaning of Smekday, which features a lovably bone-headed alien who calls himself J. Lo. She also enjoys the earnest, realistic, middle-grade family-drama books, the kind I would never read if I didn’t have a twelve-year-old daughter. I have to admit, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good some of those books are. I loved The Romeo and Juliet Code, a novel about a British girl sent to coastal Maine during World War II. And I was choking back tears at the end of Eight Keys. (I couldn’t help it. The girl’s parents are dead but they left her a bunch of letters. Believe me, you would cry too if you were reading the book to your kid.)

Lately, though, my daughter has been asking me to invent my own bedtime stories rather than read books to her. This can be a challenge at the end of a long, trying day, but I’ve had a few successes. After we read Animal Farm last year, I concocted a similar story involving rebellious, talking pigs and sheep, but instead of taking over the farm and creating an allegorical Communist society my animals ran off to Atlantic City. The pigs played blackjack, the chickens crapped on the craps tables, the horses bet on the horse races and the sheep invaded a luxury clothing boutique and carried off a bunch of winter coats that they claimed were made from their father’s wool. Then the animals commandeered a cruise ship and set off for Europe, chased by the drunken farmer and the one animal that remained loyal to him, a homicidal goat.

Another popular bedtime story features a headless girl named Headless Hattie. Her parents have even stranger deformities: her father (Pantsy) is just a pair of pants, and her mother (Susan) is nothing but a brunette wig and a pair of sunglasses. Pantsy’s dream is to become a police officer, but when he goes to the precinct house to apply for a job, the desk sergeant laughs at him. “How are you going to shoot a gun, you don’t have any hands!” But Pantsy learns how to carry the gun in his pocket and pull the trigger by swinging his hips. He arrests a gang of bank robbers and becomes a hero. And so on and so forth. I keep making up new adventures until I run out of ideas. When I get desperate I try to work President Obama into the plot. (For an example, consider the recent episode “Pantsy Joins the Secret Service.”) In my stories, Obama is an amusing figure, easily exasperated by Headless Hattie and her truncated father. As if he doesn’t have enough problems already!

A few days ago my daughter informed me that the Headless Hattie series of stories had “jumped the shark” and I needed to invent something new. So I started a new series featuring a girl named Peggy who has a very small man living inside her belly button. His name is Herman and he’s barely visible, only an eighth of an inch tall. He was a normal-size man two thousand years ago, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but he wandered into some Italian cave and ate a weird mushroom. The fungus stopped him from aging but also started the slow shrinking process that gradually miniaturized him. For the past few hundred years he’s been living inside belly buttons, jumping from one person to another whenever he gets the chance, but he’s starting to tire of this nomadic life. He convinces Peggy to fly to Italy so they can find that mushroom-growing cave and try to undo the effects of the fungus.

Here’s the latest installment of the story that I told my daughter earlier tonight: Peggy is on the plane to Rome, trying to surreptitiously talk to the tiny man in her belly button, when the passenger sitting next to her overhears their conversation. Peggy claims she’s just talking to herself, but the passenger -- a kindly old woman -- winks at her. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” she says. Then she lifts her shirt and points at her own belly button. “I’ve got a man in there too.”

Good cliffhanger, right? But I have no idea what will happen next.


  1. Hilarious! I had a few giggles explode out of me while reading this, which is not a good thing at 5 AM when you're reading blogs in bed. I think your belly button story needs an antagonist. Maybe someone has harvested all the mushrooms and is planning to open a restaurant where people pay millions to stop aging---without realizing they'll shrink.

  2. I want to read the Headless Hattie stories! What a hoot!

  3. Love it. Kids are a great test audience when you're writing for kids. My last project, now at the agent, was written and read chapter by chapter to the fifth grade class my wife teaches. Their reactions told me when it was working, and they weren't afraid to say quite clearly – "That was kind of boring" – when it wasn't.

  4. Loved the animal story. I wrote a short a few years ago about two cows that "busted out" from their pen. The one cow tried to get all the cows to escape by warning them the humans were getting ready to kill all of them. The cows didn't believe him, the humans were too nice, fed them well, provided vet care, etc. Written as if they were in prison, "I'm busting out of here tonight Lefty. You want to come along?"

  5. Lucky kids! And the improv story-telling is great brain exercise!

  6. Author Ingrid Law can thank you for just selling me a copy of her book SAVVY which I had not heard of.

  7. Mark--
    I have to second KT Sweet's comment: lucky kids! But having a dad as imaginative as you are is not going to make things easy down the road for the boys in your daughter's life. Or is that your "hidden agenda"?

  8. These stories are awesome! Know what cracked me up? That your daughter knew "jump the shark."

  9. Excellent that you do that Mark. It really makes a long term impact on the kids, especially when you make up originals just for them. I did bed time stories with my sons until recently as well. We did do some reading, but more often made up stories. Their favourite series was one we titled "Jack of The Mountain", where Jack found himself fighting cave trolls, evil witches and dragons.The series went on for a couple years off and on.

    It is pretty awesome to be able to spend that kind of time building the relationships with our children.