Two years ago I was traveling with my family from Charlotte, North Carolina, to our home in Kentucky — a nine hour trip. My daughter, Ellie, was two-and-a-half years old, sitting beside me in her Fisher-Price car seat and doing pretty well for a little girl on a long trip. By Asheville, though, she had grown tired of the toys and games we had brought to keep her happy. With five and a half hours to go, she began to whine. In the rearview mirror my wife's expression was panicked and pleading, "Do something. Anything!" So I began to tell a story.

"Once upon a time," I said, "there was a fisherman who lived with his wife in a tiny shack by the sea. One day, as he was fishing, his line suddenly went down deep into the clear water, and when he brought it up again, he saw that he had caught a large flounder. The flounder said to him, 'Please let me live. I'm not a flounder really. I'm an enchanted prince.' What could the fisherman do in a case like that but let the flounder go?"

I drew the story out as long as I could. I made all the sounds. I embellished the details. For fifteen minutes I talked about a little brown dog that had nothing to do with the real story. The real story is fairly simple: When the man came home to his wife and told her about the talking flounder she scolded him for not making a wish. "Go back," she said, "and ask the flounder to give us a nice cottage instead of this miserable shack."

So the man went, and asked, and when he got back home he found a beautiful little cottage where the shack had been. "Good," he said. "Let's be happy." Yet, it wasn't long before the wife began to want more. "Go ask him for a castle," she said. When she got that, she wanted to be Queen, and then Emperor, and then Pope, and finally nothing would satisfy her but to be like God. "Go ask the flounder," she demanded, "to make me like God." Her husband, miserable by now, did as he was told.

When he got back home that time, he found his wife waiting for him in the same tiny shack they had started in. And, as the story goes, they are living there to this day.

It took about an hour to tell it to Ellie, and when I was finished speaking I asked her what the story was about. "That you shouldn't want too much," she said, "and that you should be happy with what you have." This time my wife's expression in the rear-view mirror was not panicked, but amazed. Two-and-a-half years old! Imagine that!

Looking back on that experience I am impressed by two things: one is the power of story to communicate. If I had told Ellie, "you shouldn't want too much. You should be happy with what you have," she would have given me a blank stare. But in listening to the story she easily understood: "You shouldn't want too much. You should be happy with what you have." The second thing that impressed me is that she never interrupted the story to make me aware of a simple scientific truth: flounder cannot speak.

Early in the tale of the fisherman and his wife the listener must decide: "Will I let the flounder speak, and go on with the story, or will I stop up my ears and quit listening to such foolishness? Will I, for a moment, choose to live in a world where unbelievable things happen, or will I stay in this world, where the things that happen are only too believable?" For a child, it's not much of a choice. Ellie and others like her will go with the talking flounder every time.

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