By David Titus

     “Once upon a time…” These magic words say so much. They say, “lean back and relax, we won’t have a test.” They say, “Let your imagination go while we enter another world or time.” Join in when you know the refrain and above all, ENJOY. When we finish we hear a comfortable sigh and someone says, “Say it again.”

     What is storytelling? It’s sharing a story that you enjoy with others in hopes that they will enjoy it also. It isn’t reading; it isn’t memorizing. Storytelling isn’t putting on a show or program. It isn’t giving away, but rather sharing. It’s talking to individuals face to face whether they are alone or in a group.

     Why do people tell stories? For the true storyteller there should be only one reason – because he wants to share something that he enjoys. He is like the robin in the spring. His enjoyment of a story is bubbling over with a song in his soul and he must sing it. This is the only reason I tell stories. Of course, if you need to have some justification for taking time out of a busy school schedule, the by-products are numerous and we will discuss them later. If you are trying to tell stories for an ulterior motive only, DON’T! Your listeners will miss the magic of the story and you might as well assign a term paper.

     Folk literature makes up a good portion of our libraries. It is in books – printed words on paper pages that are shelved by countries, checked out, and read. But contrary to popular opinion, this is not the pure form of a folk tale, or a folk song. Even on tape or record, tales and songs are static, dead, and unchangeable. Originally they were passed along for generations by word of mouth and only relatively recently have they been put on paper. They must be shared through the living tongue. To wade through a tale written in a dialect when your skills aren’t practiced is like listening to a second grade operetta on Abraham Lincoln or like trying to reach all of the notes in the “Star Spangled Banner” when your voice is changing.

     These tales have been told for years and the words were meant to roll off the tongue. They need the teller to recreate the images; not only through the words, but also through timing and voice. They need someone who feels the soul of the story and can share it.

     Storytelling is like eating. I don’t eat because I want a healthy body or to consume vitamins: I eat because I’m hungry. I tell stories because my soul needs to. But let’s look at some of those by-products – those vitamins that sneak in.

     We can increase our vocabulary the most natural of all ways – by hearing new words in context. We find new ways to use old words. We can stimulate our imaginations to see wondrous things, using the spoken words as paint brushes. This helps us become better readers. Before we can read, we must be able to say the words and before that we must hear them. What better way to share new words than through stories?

     The personal contact you have with your listeners is unbeatable. You are looking at each other face to face, no book in the way, no pictures to get between. A smile or a wink makes everyone feel like royalty. You can tell immediately if a word or phrase needs some explaining. You can capitalize on the reactions each one is having. People don’t goof off when you’re talking directly to them. As you are talking, enjoy the fun watching the various emotions your listeners show. Children need to practice fear when the ogre arrives, tears when someone dies, and the joy of hearing “they lived happily ever after.”

     Through stories we can share the beauty of language. The rhythm of “cats here, cats there, cats and kittens everywhere, hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats”; various regional and national dialects and phrases, proper British, flowery French, the directness of the Appalachian mountain people, the simplicity of American Indian tales, the soft sounds of Black dialect, and the preciseness of the Japanese. Each country’s stories contain very special touches that make them authentic messengers of a culture – Sturdy German cottages, lace and gilt in the French court, and the good food of the South.

     Through stories we find out who we are. We find out how varied people are: some are good, some are bad, others are kind or unjust, loving, spiteful, strong, weak, honest, or devious. We are not condoning such behaviors but rather recognizing that they exist. Children need to become acquainted with all types of people and vicariously experience ways of handling themselves in these situations.

     Through storytelling we can acquaint people with another past besides that which history tells us. We can see that people living long ago were not always sitting on horses having their portrait painted or rushing off to war. They weren’t all dressed in silk and lace. Most were ordinary people concerned with the matters of surviving. Sometimes they were hungry, and wanted to better themselves. They wanted diversion from the doldrums of life. They were people like you and me, living people that did ordinary things most of the time; but when the need arose could do extraordinary things. These are the people that built the folkways, customs and mores, which developed into our laws and our arts.

     How do you tell a story? And I include folk songs, and rhymes. It’s easy and yet difficult.

     First, tell a story or sing a song only if you want to. Search out the many stories around and find some that you like, some about which you can say, “This means something to me.” Look for things you have an affinity for, such as your national origins, places you always wanted to go, or stories about the kind of people you understand. If you like a story and it means something to you, you won’t have to learn it: the pictures will be in your mind. Look for phrases or refrains that you need to know by heart and then tell it. Don’t try to put a grade level on it, and who cares if your listeners have heard it before. Haven’t you heard all the television Christmas specials before: Are they graded? All ages watch them and enjoy the experience.

     Now just find a tree, a corner, a classroom or whatever, and say, “Let’s have a story. Okay? Once upon a time…”

     Whether we are third graders or seniors, children or adults, we all enjoy discovering those things that Paul Hazard says go to make up our “National Soul.” And when your story is done, someone will sigh and say, “Have you got any more?”

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Originally published in “Hoosier School Libraries” Magazine.

The Three Bears, The Three Pigs, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Teeny Tiny Woman, Stone Soup, Cinderella, Chicken Little, Pied Piper, Puss and Boots, The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Man, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and Jack and the Beanstalk are all good stories for beginners. Two old titles that find good versions of these stories and more are “Chimney Corner Stories” by Veronica S. Hutchinson and “English Fairy Tales” by Joseph Jacobs.

Also try “Millions of Cats” and “The Funny Thing” by Wanda Gag, “Peter Rabbit” by Beatrix Potter, “The Little Engine that Could” by Watty Piper, and “Baby Rattlesnake” by Te Ata. But…put the book down and tell the story.

David Titus <*{{ ><