Saturday, October 11, 2008

Telling Stories

In the past few of weeks a couple of classes have come to the library seeking stories to tell to their class, their younger reading buddies, and/or their senior citizen buddies. That is quite a range of storytelling opportunities. Whoever will be in your listening group--and often your listeners will have a wide age range--there are few rules that always apply.

1. Find a story that you love. Trust me, if you don't like the story you are telling, you audience will figure that out pretty quickly. Odds are, they won't like the story much either, no matter how well you think that you are telling it. If you love the story, your enthusiasm will show and pull others into the story. This is true even when the truth of the matter is that the story itself is not all the great. I am not a big fan of stories about sweet, obedient children doing just what the adults around them expect them to do. There are some stories about good, sweet children that are really pretty good stories. I have heard other people tell them with great success--so much success that even I liked them. However, when I try to tell them, my disdain soon shows and I am not very convincing. On the other hand, I have made up some pretty awful stories that I was able to sell because I was having so much fun making them up that I loved the stories and I loved telling them.

2. Find a story that stands by itself. Many times the stories found in picture books depend on the pictures in the book as well as the text of the story. That is what makes great picture books. From the storyteller's point of view, however, the pictures can not be a part of the story. You may add a few props to your story, but you won't be holding up those wonderful illustrations as you tell the story. The listener should be depending on your words, your expressions, your actions, your voice to give everything that the story is offering. Legends, folktales, fairy tales, and other stories that have come down through the ages are truly made for telling because they came from the oral tradition before anyone wrote them down, put them in books, and offered them up to new generations of people. Such tales are a perfect way to share the cultures of the world with your listeners. It is also interesting to compare stories from around the world and see how much they often have in common.

3. Don't memorize. Read the story multiple times until you feel as though you really know it. Some people create a story board or other notes to get the key words and flow of the story. Once you know what is really important and the order in which they appear, the rest will come pretty naturally. If you memorize the story word for word, you set yourself up to forget a word and then lose the entire story. A memorized story is also more apt to come out in a monotone as you struggle to remember the exact words. If you know the bones of your story, you can deal with unexpected events from a sneeze to a bat flying in the window and still keep the story going. This kind of storytelling also allows you to shape the story to your audience more easily. At birthday parties I often change the name of a main character to that of the birthday child. I can change a story about fairies to one about cowboys with very little thought if I already have that frame.

4. Practice, practice, practice. You need to tell that story over and over and over for it to fit comfortably in your mind and your mouth. This is especially true if you are using props of any kind. Puppets are great, but not if they don't move naturally with your telling. String stories are wonderful but if you can't get the string figure to look right, you better have some great ad libs at hand while you figure out your mistake. You get the idea.

5. Have fun. Storytelling is fun. Try not to let it become a burden. I know it may be a class assignment, but that should not keep it from being fun. Tell the story to friends and relatives until they get a little bit batty. That alone can add joy to the experience.

The library has a number of good books about storytelling. Most of them have hints as well as a selection of tested stories for you to tell.

One of my favorite storytelling books is The Storytelling Handbook by Anne Pellowski. It is written especially for young storytellers and is full of interviews with young storytellers who tell what works for them. Pellowski has written many books on storytelling and all of them are worth reading.

In Tell Me a Tale, well known storyteller Joseph Bruchac talks about the four basic components of storytelling: listening, observing, remembering, and sharing. Bruchac also has many collections of stories, often from Native American traditions, that are wonderful for telling.

Pete Seeger's Storytelling Book draws on the famous singer's long experience as a storyteller, including some examples of taking a familiar story and drawing it to new, often wild and crazy, conclusions. Seeger's Abiyoyo is a good story to tell to audiences of all ages.

Don't just take my word on the tricks of the trade for storytelling. I used the library catalog's Webpath Express feature to find the following storytelling websites.

The Kid's Storytelling Club has lots of tips for storytelling plus activities and craft ideas to help spice up your story selections.

A Storytelling Workshop with Gerald Fierst, sponsored by Scholastic, takes you through the steps to master your own story. Included are a chance to listen to professional tell his story, imagination exercises, and practice time.

Canada's Aboriginal and First People storytelling traditions, Circle of Stories from PBS, and Cherokee Stories are all websites with examples of stories being told that you can just sit back and enjoy.

Merpy may not teach you any great new stories to tell, but it has lots of animated stories plus games and activities. Now that you have worked so hard on learning to tell a great story, you deserve a break.

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