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Once upon a time, storytellers ruled Featured

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Once upon a time, storytellers ruled

Once upon a time, as they were tucked into bed at night, children would look up dreamily at their mothers or fathers and say, “Tell me a story.”

And mothers and fathers would tell their children stories. Because they had stories to tell. Stories their parents had told them when they were children. Fairy tales they’d read in library books. Bible stories they’d heard their Sunday school teachers tell.

That was once upon a time. These days, not so much.

These days many parents would have no idea what to say or where to begin if their kids asked for a story. Lucky for them, most kids these days don’t know to ask.

The art of storytelling is not a dying art, but it’s not exactly thriving — yet another cultural deficiency we may attribute to the Great Glowing Box. TV has left children with the sense that stories are for seeing, not for listening.

“Storytelling is the oldest — and still the best — way we have of communicating to one another what being human is all about,” says Kansas-based storyteller Priscilla Howe. “For tens of thousands of years, storytelling has been the way we’ve come to understand the human experience.”

Howe says she started telling stories when she was 13 years old, on baby-sitting jobs.

“I’d lie on the end of the bed as the kids were settling down to sleep, and I’d just start with some character I’d invented or some fantastical idea, and away I went,” she says. “The kids got caught up in it, and so did I.”

Howe went on to earn a master’s degree in library science and then to a job as a children’s librarian.

“In 1988 I started telling stories to children at our library and realized that this might be a calling for me. In 1993 I decided to try making a living at it.”

Howe now tells stories at schools, libraries, festivals and community events throughout the Midwest and internationally. She says storytelling:

Reflects the world to children in a safe way.

Improves listening comprehension, a vital pre-reading skill.

Instills an appreciation for the beauty of oral language.

Introduces children to literature they may not be familiar with.

Introduces children to characters with whom they can relate.

Develops the ability to imagine, another skill necessary for reading comprehension.

Encourages and stimulates use of various learning styles (visual, aural, kinesthetic).

“The most satisfying thing about storytelling, and the most important thing that can come from it, is the connection that is formed between the storyteller and the listener, and between the listener and the other listeners,” Howe says. “In the 21st century there are all kinds of electronic and digital connections. Storytelling creates an in-person connection.”


Professional tale spinner Priscilla Howe has these tips for novice storytellers:

The Big Rule, Rule Numero Uno, the Most Important Thing: Love the story. If you don’t love the story, why should your listeners care?

You don’t have to know how the story ends: “Just start with something whimsical,” Howe says. “An outlandish situation or character and just go from there. For example ‘One day a long time ago, the Princess of Everybody and Everything came to Kansas City to visit her uncle. …'”

Ask your listener(s) for suggestions: Once you’ve introduced the characters and setting, ask your listener(s) to speculate as to what happens next. If you are uncertain where to go with the story, let your listener(s) ideas help you along.

Follow the rules of improvisation: “Say ‘yes’ to ideas that pop into your head,” Howe says. “Don’t screen them out. Go with the flow.”

If improvisation isn’t your strength, go with stories you already know: “Start with familiar fairy tales or Bible stories or old folk tales or ancient myths and legends,” Howe says. “You can tell them straight, or you can add your own twists. If it’s a story kids already know, they’ll try to correct you if you stray, but that’s part of the fun. You can make each story your own.” Online:

Article source: Copyright © 2003-2006 Knight Ridder. All rights reserved.

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