Talking grasshoppers, frogs and squirrels; second stomachs for ice cream; magical balloons; trips to Mars; and unlikely friendships between butterflies and spiders are just a few of the products of Bernard Ditchik’s creativity.
“Imagination, that’s the key word,” he said — and for him, the most important ingredient of any story. The 93-year-old Island Park resident, who plays doubles tennis in Rockville Centre four times a week, has used his imagination for decades to tell bedtime stories to his children and grandchildren.
Now, he has put the words to paper in his first commercially published children’s book, “Grandpa Bernie’s Bedtime Stories.”
“We couldn’t go to bed without them,” Corie Mandel, 27, said of her grandfather’s stories. “It was a requirement.”
“I would always beg my parents to sleep over my grandparents’ house because we loved being able to listen to the stories,” said Corie’s sister, Emily, 24, describing how the siblings and their cousins piled into a single room to listen, usually with ice cream in hand. He had their undivided attention, she said. “He made us feel like we were the most important people in the world.”
“It was an established tradition,” agreed granddaughter Jodie Singer, 25. “There was a point [where] we stopped asking for stories,” she recalled. “But we definitely heard them longer than kids usually get told stories.”
Ditchik was faced with a dilemma: “They grew up and I had nobody to tell stories to,” he said. About 15 years ago, at his daughter Ellen Mandel's urging, he decided to write his stories down.
He started with a pen and a notepad, “my utensils,” he said. Then he curled up in his favorite chair in the Madison Avenue home he shares with his wife of 65 years, Florence. The pad ballooned into a collection of stories he had spiralbound at Staples, then a second collection, then a third. Finally, after a chance discussion with his financial planner whose clientele also included a publisher, he managed to get some of the stories commercially published, and in partnership with Red Sky Presents, “Bedtime Stories” was born.
“Anybody can write a story,” he said sitting in that white leather chair. “You just have to relax and let your mind imagine.”
While imagination is the most important component to his tales, he has other requirements. Every story must be happy, largely conflict-free and entertaining, Ditchik said. “I just try to make them interesting, so people who read them won’t be bored,” he said, adding that he aims to have both children and adults enjoy them.
His storytelling priorities are seen in the tales’ fast pace. He spends little time on lengthy descriptions and instead jumps right into the action.
Positivity is a recurring theme in his stories as well, and is a key component of Ditchik’s personal philosophy. “I see the glass half full,” he said. “That’s just my nature.”
His grandchildren agree. “I think the stories are really a reflection of who he is,” Singer said. “He’s the happiest, most optimistic person.” Her cousins echoed the sentiment, and noted that today, when children’s fiction embraces darker and more conflict-ridden themes, Ditchik’s stories provide refreshing contrast. “There are just so many serious and terrible things going on the world, it’s not so often we can just listen to a nice story,” Emily Mandel said.
“Everything always turned out well,” Corie said of the tales. “… It was always a nice thing to hear before going to bed.”
“These stories are something that’s hard to find now,” Singer added. “They’re just pure happy, very little conflict … I think that’s really special.”
After the book’s publication this winter, Ditchik read a story to a special-education class Emily taught in the Bronx. Afterward, he encouraged the kids to create their own story. They wanted it to feature a spider and an alien, and for it to take place at a festival on Mars. Ditchik took the requests seriously and turned it into a cohesive tale. “Almost like Mad Libs,” Emily joked.
In addition to short stories, Ditchik occasionally writes poetry, and has tried sculpture as well. Before his retirement, he worked as a jewelry importer for 35 years with his twin brother, traveling to Asian countries including Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines. He and Florence have lived in their Island Park home since 1954, and he spent his childhood in Long Beach.
Although Ditchik sounded excited about the prospect of other children reading his stories, nobody is more excited than his grandchildren. “They’re my biggest supporters,” he joked.
“Seeing these in published form is really exciting,” Singer said adding that she hopes children and adults will bond over them.
“I just want other people to share a little piece of how wonderful my grandpa is,” Emily said.
Corie noted how proud she is that Ditchik published his first book at 93. “We think anybody could enjoy his book,” she said. “They’re such nice stories, and in today’s society, where everything is so heavy, it’s nice to have something like that to escape to.”
She added, “You get to go to bed with a smile on your face.”