‘Each one of us is a potential storyteller.’
Why bother? Eileen Colwell puts the case for Storytelling
First of all what is storytelling? For many people it is reading from a book. This is not what I mean by the term. For me storytelling is the telling of a story spontaneously in my own words directly to children. Storytelling of this kind is a shared experience between storyteller and audience and the story flows freely from the storyteller’s imagination and identification with the spirit of the story, so that it becomes a living experience. ‘And out of my mind a story shall come,/Old and lovely and wise,’ said Walter de la Mare and who should know better! Story-telling is a happy time not only for the children who are listening but for the storyteller too.
This is not to decry the reading aloud of a story from a book, a demanding exercise requiring skill and preparation. Some stories must be read as they are written because of their distinctive style. Both those who read stories and those who tell them come to recognise that some stories are for reading and some for telling and that the two kinds differ in construction and demand a different technique in their presentation. An example might be the folk tale which has been handed down by oral tradition so that it is obviously in the right form for telling. As a contrast, consider a story by Walter de la Mare with its contemplative style and leisurely pace – here is a story for reading and savouring. A story for telling has a pattern – an interesting beginning, a quick moving sequence of events, clear cut characters, a climax, followed speedily by an ending that satisfies the child.
When a story is read directly from a book the reader’s attention must be mainly on the printed page rather than on the children listening; when it is told the words come alive with the human voice and personality of the storyteller who is free to watch the children’s reaction and to make any necessary adaptations in approach and difficulty as the story flows on. Reading aloud demands much from a child in concentration; storytelling is easier to listen to because of its directness and the intimate contact between child and storyteller.
Storytelling has been my particular interest and delight throughout my life. I could not have made it so had I not believed in its value for both child and storyteller. Through the medium of told stories, so much that is valuable, beautiful and memorable can be presented to the child in a lively and positive way. With primitive peoples the story has always been a means of presenting a way of life, tribal customs, history and tradition. This is still the strength of storytelling, that it conveys to children facets of life and character, the constant battle between good and evil that is the theme of the greatest stories in the world. Here are man’s reactions to the emotions which move all human beings – love and hatred, courage and fear, loyalty and treachery, pride in the creation of beauty. The ubiquitous media have contributed greatly to the spreading of knowledge, but at the same time they have confused man’s sense of values and priorities. Well chosen stories can help to restore the balance and encourage the positive values and, because they are presented by a real living person not at second hand, they can have an immediacy and impact that is remembered although it may not be fully understood at the time.
Nowadays we lack stimulation to the imagination, the `golden thread’ that runs through all life and inspires a sense of mystery and wonder. Imagination is the spring-board for adventures of the mind and spirit and, trained by use, it continues to explore the unknown to the benefit of the future as well as the present. It can be a `magic casement’ for a child, opening on untold delights. Listening to a story, a child uses his imagination perhaps unconsciously, to create background, character, adventures, details that the visual media present to him ready-made in a predetermined pattern.
It is often claimed that modern children no longer enjoy listening to stories and cannot concentrate on them as they used to unless helped by visual aids. As far as length of concentration is concerned, there is evidence that this is true to some degree, but this is not an argument against storytelling. Storytellers have found that children do enjoy stories and indeed need them for the love of stories is still an instinctive desire of human beings, young or old. If children show boredom during a story time, it does not prove that they do not like stories, but more probably that the storyteller has made a poor choice. Has the storyteller forgotten one vital element in children’s enjoyment, a sense of humour and shared laughter? Another reason for inattention might be that we have told the story badly without sufficient thought and preparation. This is unfair to both audience and story.
So many people have said to me, ‘Oh, I could never tell a story!’ Why not? Storytelling is not the prerogative of a few chosen gifted people, for each one of us is a potential storyteller. We tell stories of our own doings every day, tell them with eagerness and conviction and with detail, for we know exactly what happened. Here are the essentials of successful storytelling. It is true, of course, that the telling of a selected story to a group of children or adults requires more than this casual approach. The storyteller needs the self-discipline of preparation and practice if he is to tell the story well. But given the desire to share stories with children for their enjoyment – and many children never have the opportunity to hear stories in their own homes – success can be achieved by most people. We can fit the story to the audience by careful selection, decide on the best way to tell it and become so familiar with its structure that it is no longer an effort to remember it. In this preparation it helps to see the story in our imagination as a series of pictures.
Storytelling is not the privilege of women only as is so often assumed. Men make excellent storytellers as I have proved many times, but too often it is taken for granted that storytelling is the women’s field. Another fallacy is that only children like to hear stories. I remember many adult audiences – assemblies of students and teachers, gatherings of parents, four hundred nuns in a London hall – who, private problems and the strains of modern life forgotten, have obviously enjoyed sharing this unusual experience.
Behind all storytelling is one basic essential, wide reading! A storyteller soon finds that he must read many books to discover the material that appeals to him and is suitable for telling. This is not a tedious duty but a journey of delight in which new byways are constantly discovered, intriguing incidents which demand further investigation, new fields of interest. Even a large collection of stories may only yield one story that is just right for the occasion and about which we can feel enthusiasm. The kind of story we choose may differ for each one of us, but once shared with children, the telling becomes a memorable and pleasant experience for both the children and ourselves. For the child it may be an introduction to a book he did not know before, an incentive to further adventuring in reading.
The sharing of a story can offer an uplift to the spirit, an escape from too great pressure – and children can feel the strain of modern life just as adults do – an escape into the magic realm of Story. Give it a try.
Christmas is a time for telling stories.
For beginners or old hands, Eileen Colwell recommends –
The Long Christmas
Ruth Sawyer, Bodley Head, 0 370 01068 X, £3.50
Thirteen stories from many countries.
A Christmas Acorn
Margaret Hainson, Bodley Head, 0 370 00979 7, £1.50
For younger children.
Stories for Christmas
Chosen from Alison Uttley’s collections by Kathleen Lines. Faber, 0 571 11074 6, £3.50
The Donkey that Helped Father Christmas
In Tell Me Another Story, Eileen Colwell, Puffin, 0 14 03.0210 7, 85p
In The Youngest Storybook, Eileen Colwell, Bodley Head, 0 370 01011 6, £3.25
The Glass Peacock
In The Little Bookroom, Eleanor Farjeon, OUP, 0 19 277099 3, £1.80
For older children.
Schnitzle, Schnotzle and Schnootzle by Ruth Sawyer
In A Christmas Acorn (see above)
Where Love is, God is by Leo Tolstoy
In A Storyteller’s Choice, Eileen Colwell, Bodley Head, 0 370 01051 5, £2.95
For older children or adults, this has the true spirit of Christmas.
Room for a Little One by Ruth Tongue
In The Magic Umbrella and Other Stories for Telling, Eileen Colwell, Bodley Head, 0 370 11020 X, £3.25
A variant on the theme of ‘No room at the inn, a moving simple story.
The Fir Tree by Hans Andersen
Brother Johannick and his Silver Bell by Elizabeth Clark
In A Second Storyteller’s Choice, Eileen Colwell, Bodley Head (now out of print but probably available in libraries)
The Good Little Christmas Tree
Ursula Moray Williams, Hamish Hamilton. 0 241 01956 7, 85p
A charming and compassionate story with a recurring repetitive phrase for participation. (Also out of print)
Practical help for would-be storytellers in How to… Start Storytelling, page 20.
Meet Eileen Colwell
Eileen Colwell MBE has spent a lifetime in the cause of children’s reading. Much of what we take for granted (and should fight to preserve and expand) in the work of libraries for children and schools stems from her pioneering work. In 1926, two years after completing a Diploma in Librarianship, she went to work in Hendon in North London. There was no library service for children, so she started one. Hendon Children’s Library became internationally, famous and Miss Colwell’s work continued. She was Chairman for five years of the International Federation of Library Associations’ committee on library work with children and was a member of the Carnegie Medal committee of the Library Association from its first award in 1936.
Storytelling has always been her special interest and joy and she is an internationally acclaimed master of the ancient art. To see her – a tiny, slender figure – hold an audience spellbound is an experience and an education. Now retired from lecturing at the Loughborough School of Librarianship, she continues to tour the country telling stories and passing on her skills. Her Storytellers’ Choice series for the Bodley Head and her collections of stories for Puffin are invaluable for anyone wanting to bring stories to children. Eileen Colwell’s latest book, Storytelling, was published in October by Bodley Head.