We each have our own ways of telling stories: The Story Machine by Tom McLaughlin

posted in: Tom Mclaughlin | 12

storymarchinefrontcoverA transformative story about finding what works for you, The Story Machine by Tom Mclaughlin (@_TomMcLaughlin) opens with a mystery. Up in his loft, Elliott has stumbled upon some sort of ancient contraption, and he want to find out what it does. When he accidentally falls onto the machine little levers whir into action – spelling out ‘oops’ – and Elliott concludes this must be a letter-printing, word-generating, story-telling machine. (Adults will recognise it as a typewriter, but I’d love to know what percentage of child readers/listeners also do so).

Settling down to type, Elliott soon becomes frustrated. His letters are all jumbled up and he can’t tell his story the way he wants to. However, amongst the alphabet jumble, Elliot notices an image created by the chance arrangement of letters. This is his light-bulb moment; he realises he can use the machine to create pictures, pictures, which in turn can tell his story.

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Empowerment, growth in self belief, discovering a way to express yourself creatively, and simply the delight of storytelling whatever the medium are all themes in this sweet story. Based on the author’s own experience of being dyslexic (though the story is meaningful for any child trying to make sense of the world around her, not just to those who have dyslexia), The Story Machine will inspire many a kid to find their own voice through pen and paper, whether that is with words or images.

Taking our lead from the spread in the book where Elliott has hung up many of his illustrations in a tree (above), we set about making our own tiny tales on luggage labels.

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First we had lots of fun cutting out letters from old newspapers and magazines.

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We stuck these onto card luggage labels and then on the reverse we wrote brief alliterative phrases based on the letter in question, or used our alphabet stamps as the basis for doodles. M, at 9, loved looking in the dictionary for unusual words to use in her alliteration, whilst J at 5 was happier stamping and drawing.

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Once complete, we hung our labels up in the garden, imagining our mini stories and characters being set free on the wind!

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If I were to do the same project at school I would probably laminate the complete luggage labels so that they could last for sometime outside. I think it would be a great way to create a storytelling tree in a playground, one where children can share their stories and pictures with their friends.

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Whilst cutting out letters and writing alliterative adventures we listened to:

  • The Pudding Machine by Rob Hornfeck (here on Youtube)
  • The Sewing Machine sung by Betty Hutton (here on Youtube)
  • Washing Machine by DJ Europe (you can listen for free here)
  • The Time Machine by The Sippy Cups (you can listen to a sample here)
  • and the hilarious orchestral piece by Leroy Anderson, The Typewriter:

  • Other activities which you could try alongside reading The Story Machine include:

  • Challenging your kids to make their own story machine: give them some boxes and other bits and pieces retrieved from the recycling and see what they can come up with! Small rolls of paper, such as till receipt rolls or fax paper rolls (both available in many stationers) would be great to include.
  • Reading Alphabeasties: And Other Amazing Types by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss. This book is full of animal images made out of different letters. There are several other books in the same series, as well as flashcards and activity books.
  • Exploring a series of wordless picture books such as these, to reiterate what Elliott learns; that pictures alone can tell a story.
  • Simply playing around with different fonts; children of a certain age will love learning a little bit about wordprocessing and changing the font of a short text in the word processor of your choice. You can talk a bit about what different fonts “feel” like, and why different fonts might be used by different people. It would then be interesting to go back to your favourite picture books and see what different types of font you can see in use.


  • How do your children like to tell stories? Through music? Through dance? Through shows put on by their toys?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Story Machine from the publishers.

    12 Responses

    1. SIMONE FRASER

      Zoe, yet another post that exemplifies what a brilliant and delightful website Playing By The Book Is. Creativity bubbles out of you like the purist mountain spring!

    2. I love this idea, thank you Zoe. It’s a great activity to do with beginner readers to consolidate letter recognition.
      Catherine recently posted..Herman’s Letter by Tom Percival

    3. Goodness, Simone! What lovely words – thank you 🙂

      Yes Catherine, good for beginner readers, but could easily be expanded for older readers too – they could write entire mini stories rather than just a sentence. My 9 yo loved cutting out the letters from newspapers and magazines, just as much as my 5 year old.
      Zoe recently posted..We each have our own ways of telling stories: The Story Machine by Tom McLaughlin

    4. Oh my lord Zoe, I love this, I love it so much. Thank you for sharing and inspiring!!
      LH Johnson recently posted..Saving Daisy : Phil Earle

    5. Great idea, my son will love it. I’ve made story stones in the past which are fun.

    6. Wonderful ideas. I remember our friends taking their daughters to a concert where the Typewriter was played last year – they were aged 8 and 6 I think, and yes, they had to explain to the girls what one was!
      Helen recently posted..Happy New Year – Happy Cybils finalists

    7. This looks like such a lovely book – and what a great activity idea to go with it. Thanks for sharing 🙂
      Rosalind recently posted..Our reading list – December 2013

    8. I absolutely *love* this idea – it’s gorgeous.
      The Fairy and The Frog recently posted..Glitter glue fireworks

    9. I’ve not come across this book at all, but it does look very lovely, with a great concept.
      Library Mice recently posted..We’re on the move …

    10. I love your idea of the story tree!
      Rhythm recently posted..Voices in the Park

    11. This is just lovely through and through!!! Everything to love about a story tree!!!
      se7en recently posted..Book Review: Montessori Inspired Activities for Preschoolers…

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