Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tilting At Windmills: Storytelling

"The storyteller can only make sounds on the air, after all. The writer only makes squiggles on a page. But the reader and listener SEES."
-Rafe Martin
"Me and Harry Potter"

Once upon a time, I had a problem.

I'd begun a storytime program of going around the world with books, and we had a stop in Spain. I knew that it wasn't possible to share stories of Spain without introducing the marvelous Don Quixote de la Mancha--it would be like making a paella without rice--but even the simplest book was dense with text. While I'm not averse to sharing books with upper level vocabulary (that is, after all, how we learn vocabulary!), the fact was, no book was short enough to maintain the interest of the preschoolers who would be watching me sit there reading, no matter how animated I kept my voice.

I knew the solution was simple: I would have to tell the story.

As a lifelong fan of storytellers, the prospect was both attractive and terrifying. I knew how great it was to just listen to a story, but after years of listening to people like Rafe Martin and the incomparable Brother Blue, the prospect seemed... daunting. After all, they'd spent their lives working on this. They knew stories by heart and just got up and said, "Oh, I think I'll tell this one today," and they told it in a way that kept listeners riveted to their words. I was just a children's librarian who, only a year earlier, had been afraid to do a storytime at all.

Still, that had worked out and I did not, as I saw it, have a choice. Spain required Don Quixote, and Don Quixote required telling. I read and re-read Eric Kimmel's re-telling of the windmill episode obsessively, tried to go through and make notes, but when storytime came, my hands were sweating and my pulse was racing. I absently picked up a wooden dowel (leftover from summer crafts) and started fiddling with it while I awaited my terrible fate.

I got through a nonfiction book, and Leah Komaiko's "Aunt Elaine does the dance from Spain," and then it was time. I said, "This is a very famous story from Spain, about a man named Señor Quexada, who read a lot of books, and one day decided to become... DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA!" As soon as this introduction came out, like Don Quixote, I was on the plains, telling stories. My wooden dowel became a sword and...

I have to share something: It is never not fun to tilt at windmills. All that time you remember as a child pretending to be an astronaut or a cowboy or the Bionic Woman or Luke Skywalker was exactly as entrancing as you remember it, and storytelling lets you get that back again. It's not scary--it's exhilarating!

But why do it? Does it contribute to a child's literacy? What earthly good does it do?

Like any language play, storytelling will improve literacy simply by fostering a love of words. More specifically, traditional storytelling, which doesn't rely on visual cues (I had my dowel, but that was abstract, and the tale could have been told without it), helps build children's attention spans, teaches them to create their own mental pictures. These are skills that matter immensely in reading comprehension.

Storytelling is also, as Kate Houston Mitchoff writes, a vibrantly interactive experience. Children aren't being talked at, but talked to. The stories can reshape themselves with the listeners, become new every time.

But the most important reason remains the simplest: it is a great way to spend time with kids. It's fun, and it's energetic, and it's all about you interacting with them.

There are three basic types of storytelling. The one I jumped into with Don Quixote is literary storytelling--using texts created by an author at a particular point in time. One of the stricter forms, it means learning specific events, and sometimes specific words or chants. You do have to stick with the authorial structure to some extent, but you don't need to memorize it word for word.

A second form of storytelling is working in the oral tradition from beginning to end. Sure, there are plenty of printed versions of "Cinderella" or "St. George and the Dragon" or "Pecos Bill," but they all come from stories that are out in the ether. Read as many as you can. You'll see that different tellers tell them differently. There isn't a right or wrong Cinderella--just a few hundred different versions. Take your pick, or mix and match, or make up your own new one. For whatever reason, these stories also tend to be printed at more complex lengths than are good for group storytelling, but there's no reason to deprive a four-year-old of St. George just because the book you found takes half an hour to read aloud.

On the flip side, many such stories are often encapsulated in very small summaries--a paragraph saying, "St. Martha tamed the Tarasque and brought it back to town, but the villagers killed it anyway, then named the town after it." These, you can take and expand. How did Martha tame the beast? And why? What made the villagers feel so guilty that they re-named their village Tarascon?

The last major category for storytelling is personal stories. Ugh--those "When I was your age..." stories? Don't underestimate! Before Mr. Martin or Brother Blue, I was entranced by my grandmother, a great personal storyteller. I asked avidly for stories of her childhood--trips to her grandfather's farm where she played with his dog Sheppie (who could count cows), her gullible and somewhat dim cousin Margaret, the boy she punched for trying to kiss her after he gave her a peanut doll (apparently a hot item among elementary schoolers in the '20s). When the new owners of her grandfather's farm let us go tromping around, I don't think I could have been more excited by a surprise trip to Narnia.

Adults tend to underestimate their children's interest in the idea that they themselves were once children, who played with friends and did silly things. Go ahead! Tell them about the time you dressed up the cat, or got in trouble for skateboarding over Aunt Jane's prize petunias. Share the secret of the backyard club you made with the neighbors... and invite your children to make their own!

So... where do you start?

Anywhere you like! If you're worried about story structure, start with a literary tale--it's done for you. If you're scared of learning all the parts, go for a personal story--you already know it, because it's yours. If you want something that's stood the test of generations, go ahead and tell a traditional tale--not for nothing are they remembered for centuries.

If you'd like, you could check out books on storytelling, or read articles available in the library databases. And you can always check the J398.2 section for the world's best folk and fairy tales. Storytelling may be oral, but it's bookish, too!

And when you're ready, as the sneaker ads say, just do it.

Five Tips for Storytelling:
5. Learn the story, not a script. It's not a play. Don't sweat the small stuff. Cinderella went to the ball and met the prince. You can make up the dialogue when she gets there, and no one will be the wiser.
4. Find places for the listeners to participate. Ask questions. Make up a rhyme. Get them up and moving around, pretending to be crowd of villagers or a band of knights.
3. Pick stories you love. If you don't love it, neither will your listeners.
2. Don't panic. Forgot something? Don't sweat it. Just go for, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." or something along that line. You want to try to keep things in the order you remember, but it's not a computer program, and it won't be thrown off by slightly wonky lines. Just get on that horse and keep going.
1. Have fun! Really. Do it.


Lorraine Hartin-Gelardi said...

Absolutely one of the best articles on storytelling I have read in a long time. I'm running to get my dowel and am sending this out to all my "Sancho Panzas"...BRAVO!

Carolyn Stearns Storyteller-Announcer said...

well said! Discovering an inner storyteller is a delight I remember from not so long ago. Here is wishing you many more to tell!

Margaret French said...

What a positive, encouraging article for new storytellers.

Simon Brooks said...

What a great article! It should be mailed to every person who works with kids. The imagery of when you took the sword, the dowel and became 'at one' with the story lit up! I was there in the room with you. I am so glad you found this inside you. And thank you for sharing your experiences!