Every night when I put my girls to bed, each one gets 10 minutes of uninterrupted, sister-free cuddle time with me to do with as they please. My 8-year-old likes to spend her 10 minutes telling me about her day as she sketches her endless fashion lines. At 8 years old she has more fashion sense and style than I ever will. I've made peace with that. And I'm ridiculously impressed with her skills. She can craft an entire seasonal wardrobe in about ten minutes, from clothes to shoes to accessories. I have no idea where this innate sense of style comes from, but I'm glad one of us has it.
My 6-year-old, insatiable reader that she is, wants a story during cuddle time every night. She's read every book in the house a dozen times, so she wants something original. My task is to tell her a new story every night, developed on the spot, to fit within the 10-minute time-frame. I can get behind that. This child was made for me. I mean, of course she was...I made her. But you know what I mean. The 8-year-old is my physical mini-me. We have the same face. But my 6-year-old is my secret mini-me. She's me on the inside. Only better.
I come into her room at night and find her flipping through books, scouring the wall-stickers decorating her room, the toys strewn about the floor. She quickly picks a few objects/characters, say: this sticker of an apple, this lion puppet, and this Rapunzel book. She steers me onto her bed, climbs in next to me, hugs her pillow, and says: "Okay. Go!"
And in ten minutes I weave a quick tale about a very hungry lion who wants the last apple from the top of a tall tree, and how Rapunzel shows up in the nick of time, using her long hair to hoist herself up and fetch the apple, saving the starving lion and making a lifelong friend. The end. And then I get graded. My little listener will tap her rosebud lips, look up at the ceiling with her big blue eyes. "Good, but I think it needs a better ending. With a witch." So I tack on a new twist that just when the lion and Rapunzel thought they were home free an evil witch appears to tell them it's her apple tree and she will now be keeping them prisoner for stealing her apple. On the way deeper and deeper into the dungeon, which is full of magical creatures the witch has trapped over the years, Rapunzel uses her hair to tie up the witch. The lion frees the unicorn, pegasus, leprechaun, mermaid, and fairy that have been held prisoner. Together they lock the witch in her own jail. When they flee the witch's haunted house, on their way through the barren orchards, the apple trees bloom and fill with apples. Magic returns to the land, and the lion will never be hungry again.
"Better," my critic tells me. When I get a really good one she'll launch across the bed and hug me. "Best story ever!" she'll yell in my ear. Those are the best cuddle times.
I've been through the wringer of grad school writing workshops, so I have a thick skin. I've been an editor for 17 years. I am not thrown by criticism. And yet pleasing this little girl with my tales matters in a way that nothing else has. I spend all day writing, either on the page or making endless notes in my mind for the next time I'm in front of my computer. I eat, drink, sleep, breathe writing. But none of that has prepared me for the joy I feel at making up a story a day, every day, for my little girl. It's good exercise for my writer-mind, to have to come up with a beginning, middle, and end without any prep time. It's great to get instant feedback in that unfiltered ego-free way that only children have. I love to watch her expression as I make it up, to see which parts get her more interested and which ones get less of a reaction, so I can steer it in the direction that makes her light up the most. But best of all, it's great to see that she gets it: what I love about words and characters and settings and plot twists and humor and dialogue. It's great that she understands inherently about story arc the same way her sister gets clothes-as-art.
I'm also pretty proud of her editing and critique skills. I can tell you from years of experience that she knows what she's talking about. When she gets a little older, ready for more grown-up themes, I have no doubt that she'll be my best beta-reader. In the mean time, if any of you ever need a good, honest critique of a children's story, I've got your girl. She's the little blue-eyed pixie, hugging a pillow and waiting for me to come up with an adventure involving a potato, a dragon, and Snow White.