Rick Polito: A Colorado father brings storytelling to the 21st Century

There comes a time when a parent has memorized Good Night Moon and they realized they have tithed 10 percent of their annual income to the estate of Theodor Geissel. And yet, the kids still crave their nightly bedtime
tradition: storytime.

With the plight of the parent in mind, Rick Polito has set out to change storytime for good and to bring back the tradition of story-telling to the modern American family.
“What I was struck by was that story-telling has been an essential part of the human experience for eons,” Polito says. “We’ve been telling stories around the camp fire since we’ve had a fire to sit around. And now it’s basically missing from people’s lives.”
Polito, a former journalist, realizes the challenges of story-telling—after a full day of work, cooking dinner and getting the kids to bed, parents rarely have the energy and creative fuel to start and finish telling a story from their own imagination—so he created Shake N Tell, an app for a smart device that becomes a story-telling and improv tool, leading readers through plots with text prompts. Shake N Tell provides trillions of basic story lines, upon which parents can elaborate, exaggerate
and describe.
We sat down with Polito in a Boulder coffee shop to talk about the app, story-telling and the creative blank spot.

Colorado Babies: Tell me how Shake N Tell came to be.
Rick Polito: I’m a father and I have two kids. I’m a writer as well, I was a syndicated columnist, and I was a newspaper reporter for 20 years. At night, I’d hit this creative blank spot. The problem with bedtime stories is they happen at bedtime. That’s 10 hours from coffee. I’d sit there at bedtime, and my son would ask for a story that’s not a storybook. I’d be brain dead, and I’d keep looking for ways and strategies to make up stories on the spot.
I had this idea to create an improv engine for the iPhone or whatever smart device you have. It would lead you through a story, give you the plot line and really basic flash cards of text that leave a ton of room for embellishment and description. People can use it for a story starter, or they can follow it all the way to the end. Every story starts with a premise and goes out exponentially to an end. Each story has 1.5 trillion permutations. For an eight-pack of stories, you can tell one story a night for four months before you have the same ending. And the fact that it’s improv, it makes it infinite.

CB: Do you get a different reaction from your kids, whether you’re telling a story or reading a book?
RP: I’ve read tens of thousands of pages of books to my kids, and what you get with story-telling is a completely different connection. My kids get their whole dad. They don’t get dad on autopilot droning through Good Night Moon again.

CB: What do you think happened to the tradition of story-telling?
RP: What I think has happened: We’ve basically given story-telling away. We’ve given it to Hollywood and video games. As important as they are, we’ve even given books away. Children think they are consumers of creativity and imagination. And they don’t know they can be a participant and the creator themselves. So when you are telling a story and you are improv-ing using this app, you get a huge interaction with your kids. They are giving you feedback, offering sounds and responding to it. I’ve handed the phone to my daughter and she will start telling a story. At first, she would read a text prompt and she would add, “And that was weird.” That’s all she would add. A week later, she’s describing the crown that the princess wears and describing the alien that is chasing so and so through the caves. It’s really expanded the way she approaches the story experience.
I knew I had an idea, and now that I have it in my hands and I can experience it with my kids, we have this whole bonding exercise at least once a day. My daughter is refusing storybooks now.

CB: Why go with a digital format?
RP: When I first had the idea, I played with a stack of index cards. I realized you would have to have a desktop the size of a football field with little stacks of index cards all over the place. I knew there were interactive storybooks, but you have this phone or tablet with you wherever you go. So, if you are on a trip, you have this tool for stories. The other great factor, you can record the stories. The whole thing is packaged in there, so you can record it and share it and not have a stack of index cards taller than your house. There have been interactive books, the choose-your-own-adventure books, but the outcomes are limited by the physical form. Where as with digital, we can shuffle those cards for you, have it turn out different every time and it fits in this thing you carry everywhere.

CB: The aesthetics of the app are pretty plain. What’s the goal with that?
RP: An important part is that the graphics are limited. We didn’t want the kids to look at the screen. We didn’t want it to feel like a game. This is an improv tool. It’s a storytelling engine. I wanted people to try to tell stories. So many people are convinced that they can’t.

CB: Yeah, it’s no longer common for parents to tell stories. Have you come across parents who are nervous about story-telling?
RP: Every single one of them. Very few parents say they tell stories. When I was developing, I sat down with a professional storyteller and she told me that kids react so strongly to this because they are starved for it. They don’t get it. There are many parents who don’t even read to their kids, let alone tell stories.
You have to imagine that we were sitting around telling stories forever. And how many years has it been since we stopped? I don’t know, but this used to be the nightly entertainment. …When I started telling stories to my kids, I would do it when we traveled because I didn’t want to haul books around. Years later, I found my son can recall details from stories that I made up off the top of my head. You are interacting in a very special way. That’s what I wanted. Interactive technology usually means you are interacting with the technology, but this interactive technology makes you interact with your family.

Find Shake N Tell in your iPhone app store. A pack of stories is $1.99 and there’s a 99-cent recording feature you can also purchase. Polito encourages parents to record stories and upload them to YouTube.

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