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Once Upon a Short Story

Every night before my three-year-old falls asleep, my husband or I tell him a story. The picture books are shelved for the night, the lights are switched off, and we snuggle up close.

            “Mommy, can you tell a long story tonight?” Loren asks, stretching his arms open wide. “With lots of tension. And make the tension happen right away,” he adds.

            I nod, obliging his request, and dive in. “Once upon a time…”

            May is Short Story Month, a time to celebrate the beauty and brevity of this form. Most short stories are between 1,500 and 7,500 words long (5-30 pages) and can take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour to read. Other short stories, known as flash fiction or flash nonfiction, are 1,000 words or less. As parents, short stories are the tales we tell before bed, while we wait to board the airplane with antsy toddlers, or to pass the time on a particularly long car ride.

            Whether we are reading stories from a book or telling them to our children before bed, short stories are a way to process emotion, make meaning, and convey beliefs or morals. Short stories, sharpened by their constraint, cut straight to the heart of humanity. They are the boiled down and heightened experience of what it means to be alive, to live in a world brimming with tension and hope.

            If you’re interested in exploring short stories, consider one of the following collections: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami, a collection of eight stories that challenge the boundaries between our minds and the exterior world; Tenth of December by George Saunders explores questions of morality, and what makes us human; What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah explores the ties that bind parents and children, lovers, and friends to one another and to the places they call home; All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Schdeva, a multi-genre collection of stories—from science fiction to American Gothic to magical realism to horror—that are united by each character’s brutal struggle with fate; The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado, a collection that breaks down personal and political walls, shimmers with elements of magical realism and fantasy, and reflects the terrifying yet marvelous nature of humanity.

            In terms of short story classics, you might consider reading Dubliners by James Joyce, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, and Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger. Lastly, for a comprehensive glimpse into the world of short stories, check out The Best American Short Stories 2023, a collection of the year’s best short stories, selected by National Book Award finalist Min Jin Lee and series editor Heidi Pitlor, or 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor.

            Whether you’re telling a short story and praying that it lulls a child to sleep or reading a short story for your own enjoyment, this brief form offers readers a snapshot of the human experience, distilling emotion, tension, and resolution into concise yet powerful narratives, reminding us how thrilling it is to be alive.

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