I’m straining to name a dragon and coming up short. My son is looking on impassively, beginning to lose respect for me. Storytime with my son has always been one of the true joys of parenting, but increasingly it’s becoming one of the only such pleasures. The hormone swings of toddlerhood have made him more, shall we say, spirited for the past few weeks (read: quite often just short of unbearable), so time spent in his special chair poring over his favourite books has taken on greater significance, both as a necessary top valve for his tantrums and a reminder that he does like us at least some of the time.
And that is something which is often now in doubt. My son has taken to viewing us less as beloved parents and more as bitter enemies. Few of the old, favour-currying treats still work. Cuddles are denied. His favourite foods rejected like poison, even when angrily demanded just minutes earlier. Getting him to leave the house is now a daily, or twice-daily, chore. Placing him in a pram is like trying to force a horse into a pizza oven. If you were to pass us on the street some sunny Saturday – him screaming, me sweating as I remind him that he’s going to his favourite playground – you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d kidnapped the poor child minutes earlier and was now taking him to a junkyard to be compacted.
But throughout this time, the promise of a book has still been enough to soothe the savage beast, transforming him back into that polite little cherub we know still exists in there somewhere. His most recent favourite is one in which a pigeon must find the misplaced glasses of the Irish president, Michael D Higgins – a perfect fit for a children’s picture book since he already looks, speaks and acts like a character from a children’s picture book.
That was until last week, when suddenly the appeal of the written word itself began to pall and my son pushed even his most beloved favourites away, demanding: ‘No read a story from you, Daddy.’ For a moment, I thought he meant one of my wonderfully diverting newspaper columns, renowned for their moral clarity and gentle humour. But before I could reach for the stack of Observer mags I leave prominently displayed around my home, it became clear he meant that I make up a story for him on the spot, a practice he still calls ‘reading’ because he’s not particularly clear on the rudiments of written language.
I’ve always made up stories for him, but he’s never preferred them to the real deal. The idea that one of my stories would take precedence over a real book, let alone our lovable cartoon president, thrills me. ‘Once upon a time…’ I say, in a clever opener I’m sure I’ve just invented myself.
Before long his eyes are lighting up as I spin a killer yarn involving knights, dinosaurs, various members of Paw Patrol and a dragon. A dragon called… ‘Daddy’. My son balks at my pathetic self-promotion. The spell is broken. I have barely closed my mouth before he’s pressing The President’s Glasses in my hands. The look on his face says I’ll have some way to come back from this.