Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Discovering a Brave Old World

by Paula Davidoff

A few days ago, my husband and I were discussing the meaning of the word “brave.” 
“It can’t simply mean courageous,” he said. And, to clarify, he quoted Miranda’s famous line from The Tempest,“O brave new world that has such people in’t.” In this context, the word means something like “magnificent,” “splendid,” or “impressive.” Used in this way, it’s a good description of a story I’ve been immersed in for the past month. 

Hunting Scene from the Shahnameh

This year I’m in the middle of a three-year project in which Gerry Fierst and I are collaborating with a group of ELA teachers at Passaic Valley Regional High School in Little Falls, NJ. It is an exciting project, the ultimate goal of which is to create a storytelling culture in the school. The six teachers with whom we’re working are learning to embed storytelling and storytelling-centered activities in their ELA curricula. Professional development for these teachers takes place both in and outside of the classroom. 
In September of 2017, Gerry and I began telling stories and implementing follow-up activities to model how we use story to enhance curriculum.  As the  first year of the project  developed, teachers began to take on responsibility for planning activities and some of them began telling stories, themselves. This year, my teachers continue to take on more responsibility for planning and teaching storytelling-based lessons and, although I’m still telling in some classes, I’ve become mostly a resource for tales. One exception to this routine was the lessons I taught in December to Kathleen Dellanno’s 10thgrade students. In these classes, I learned with the students. Here is the story.

In one of our early planning workshops this year, Kathleen told me that she had decided to add The Kite Runner, the novel by Khaled Hosseini, to all of her 10th grade reading lists. She said that it had been summer reading for her Honors students and those students were so moved and excited by the book that she wanted to give all of her classes the opportunity to read it. “We’ll be able to find connections to storytelling,” she said. “Stories are an important part of the book.” I had not yet read The Kite Runner so, as soon as I got home that day, I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began a storytelling adventure. 
Most of The Kite Runner is set in Kabul, Afghanistan and tells the story of two boys: Amir, a wealthy Pashtun, and Hassan, his Hazara servant, who come of age at the time of the fall of the Afghan monarchy and the subsequent Soviet intervention. The boys’ relationship is complicated by many things, among which are class differences and their relationships with their fathers and father-figures. One of the pleasures of their young lives is sharing stories from the Shahnameh, “The Book of Kings”, an epic written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the 10thcentury C.E. In the novel, the boys sit in the branches of a pomegranate tree where Amir reads stories  from the Shahnameh to the illiterate Hassan. Their favorite tale is that of Rostam and Sohrab, a tragedy in which a father unwittingly kills his son. 
When I finished reading The Kite Runner, my first idea for connecting it to oral story was to learn to tell “Rostam and Sohrab” so I began to read the Shahnameh. After sampling three translations, I chose to read the Penguin edition translated by Dick Davis. It is the most recent translation and Davis has rendered most of the text in prose narrative with sprinklings of verse. (The original is all rhymed couplets.) 

The story of Rostam begins about a quarter of the way through this massive tale, so I became engrossed in, what for me was, a completely new world of myth, legend, and history before I began reading the story I initially planned to tell. Almost from the beginning of my journey through the Shahnameh, I realized that, although the story of Rostam and Sohrab may be most central to Hosseini’s novel, other themes of the epic reverberate through the story of Amir and Hassan. Because the Shahnameh is about  the rise and fall of royal dynasties, there are many stories about fathers and sons, each with their own unique complications. Some of these reminded me of conflicts in The Kite Runner. For example, the hero Sam initially rejects his son, Zal, because he sees in him no similarity to himself. In the novel, Amir’s father, Baba, expresses the same thought when describing his feelings about Amir. There are also issues of class distinctions in the Shahnameh and, as in The Kite Runner, the upper-class characters often lack the nobility and moral strength displayed by their servants. 

It may be that the reason I was able to make these connections between the novel and the poem is because these themes are universal and, if I had followed my reading of The Kite Runner with a body of story from another culture, I would have found similar connections to the novel. In fact, the stories of the Persian kings and heroes share motifs with the stories of the Hebrew Bible, the epics of Homer, the Mahabharata, and other “big” stories from various cultures. 
One definite parallel between The Kite Runner and the Shahnameh, however, is the setting. Early on in our study of the novel, Kathleen said, “Hosseini has made Afghanistan a character in this book.” I think that’s true. The events in the novel make the reader feel the country’s suffering, as well as the suffering of the characters. Reading it allowed me to empathize with the people of modern-day Afghanistan in a way that news articles and, even, photographs had not. In a similar way, the Shahnameh is about the long history of struggle in the same region and reading it often gave me a feeling of déjà vu – the wars for territory, conflicts over differences of belief, struggles within families, blatant destruction of cities and monuments could be descriptions of current events. And, like the novel, the poem made all of these acts more real for me. 
But the Shahameh, like The Kite Runner, also paints a picture of an exquisitely beautiful place, - a land of gardens, fountains, and palaces – peopled with gorgeous characters, and containing wealth beyond comprehension. A truely brave world. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Those Faces

by Luray Gross

In a Station of the Metro

                                    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
                                    Petals on a wet, black bough.

-Ezra Pound

“Look me in the eye.” I suspect that this is an imperative often difficult for many of us to obey. Ask me about someone’s teeth and I can tell you.  But did I look that person in the eyes, did I take in their mood, their soul?  Did I even register their eye color?  Often the answer is no.  Perhaps I glanced at their eyes and looked away, my self-consciousness engaged.

But last Wednesday morning, launching “The Frog King” for my husband’s continuing ed class of psychotherapists, Hilary’s eyes, Julie’s, Lauren’s,  Pat’s, Alicia’s, Melanie’s­– all spoke to me, and I was hungry for those windows, those measures and indications that the story was finding each listener. It was not Itaking them in, as much as it was the tale: the golden ball lazily tossed into the air and caught, the ball again lofting and slipping through the spoiled girl’s hands.  The listeners’ eyes searched deep in the well as the ball disappeared, and accompanied the frog as it plip-plopped up the marble stairs of the castle to demand that the princess keep her promises. The listeners were engaged, not with me, but with the girl and the frog, as the princess scooped up the amphibian and slammed it against the wall.

All this to speak of one way that both storytelling and story-listening can nurture community as they provide an oasis from focus on the self.  

Most of the storytelling I am invited to do is for children and the adults nominally in charge of them: teachers, parents, camp counselors.  Even in these settings, I’m alert to the eyes of the grown-ups, for when their eyes tell me they have been released from their daily concerns, I know the story is working for all of us; it is coming alive for them and, of course then, it becomes even more alive for the children and for me.

And so to Ezra Pound: Like stories, poems can be touchstones – sensations and learnings that can be re-experienced when the poem, or often just a few lines of a poem, arise from the past.  I think I first encountered Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” when I was in high school.  I have not forgotten the feeling of recognition I sensed when I first read it. I remember taking black construction paper and writing the poem out with the white ink my mother used to label snapshots in photo albums.   I could see those faces each one transformed into blossom.  In that guise, they were approachable, reachable.

I believe that we all need small as well as great sources of insight. Sometimes the experience of a story can provide that; sometimes a poem.  Each tells us: you are not alone. You are part of the human community, as fraught and beautiful, cowardly and courageous as it is.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Rhythm and Rhyme, Part II

by Maria LoBiondo

Thinking more about ways to engage the youngest listeners, I asked my good friend, preschool teacher and storyteller MaryAnn Paterniti, for her best advice. “Make it memorable,” she said.

I remember MaryAnn chanting with a group of preschoolers at the Storytelling Festival held at the County College of Morris as different youngsters “dressed” a felt board wolf with boots, pants, jacket, and more in a tale in which the children, rather than the Three Little Pigs, called for the wolf to come out and play. And she plays tricks like stamping leprechaun “footprints” in washable ink all over her classroom as a prelude to St. Patrick’s Day stories.

MaryAnn also brings her djembe on occasion so her preschoolers can pound and dance to some of her stories. I don’t play the djembe, but I do like to use a gourd shaker to initiate story times with a call and response chant I made up:

“Story! Story!/I have a story! I have a story!/You have a story! You have a story!/Let’s have a story! Let’s have a story!/Now! Now!”

If you are musically challenged like I am, consider simulating sounds for objects to add special effects that young listeners can repeat. For the story of The Tailor, we have great fun cutting the fabric with our scissors (kkuk, kkuk, kkuk), pushing the pieces under the sewing machine needle (whirr, whirr, whirr) as we pump the pedal with our feet, and finishing off the coat, jacket, vest, cap, and button, with a needle and thread (thwip, thwip, thwip).

At the Lititz Storytelling Festival, Charlotte Blake Alston used a simple shaker, as did teller Lyn Ford, to accent their stage performances. It’s a subtle but effective way to enhance or dramatize a dramatic moment.

While not appropriate for every story, I plan doing the same for stories in my repertoire where I can, adding a shaker sound for a hissing snake, clomping along a dusty road, or to make a cooking pot sizzle.

Mary Ann Paterniti (front left), Maria LoBiondo (front right) and the Princeton Storytelling Circle

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Rhythm and Rhyme Makes a Lively Storytelling Time

by Maria Lo Biondo

For the past few years I’ve made a pilgrimage to Lititz, Pennsylvania, for an annual storytelling festival, an opportunity to hear nationally and internationally recognized tellers in a congenial setting. This year, the seventh gathering, Charlotte Blake Alston from Philadelphia was among the featured tellers.

Charlotte Blake Alston
Charlotte is a former preschool, kindergarten, and second grade teacher who tunes in to language for this age group in a lively way. She also is in her 25th season as host and storyteller of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s preschool concert series, Sound All Around. Her repertoire of African and African American stories has been heard in venues as varied as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Women of the World Festival in Cape Town, South Africa.

Her workshop on Telling Stories to Our Youngest Listeners underscored the importance of employing rhythm and rhyme with preschoolers, not only as a way of developing language but also — especially when mixed with music — engaging body and mind together. Added bonus: the repetition of words teaches children to anticipate the rhyme, and in doing so, is a first step in helping them to make predictions.

This may sound elementary, but as you might expect, it is the way Charlotte engaged story, sound, and movement that inspired. The well-worn but beloved Three Billy Goats Gruff transformed in her telling, with the “trip trap” of the goats marching over the bridge into a chant that played with the sounds: “Ba Bupup, Ba Bupup, Ba Oom, Trip, Trap.” She signaled with facial expression and motion when to come in with the chant, inviting participation. Can’t you just see preschoolers bopping along as they sing this? It was hard for those of us in her workshop not to tap and clap.

While I enjoy using song and movement when telling to young audiences, Charlotte’s workshop had me thinking about where to add more rhythm and rhyme to invigorate and refresh familiar tales. What came immediately to mind is a chant and introductory exercise Luray Gross taught me — and she learned from storyteller Ellen Musikant — that works for all ages.

We’ve opened storytelling sessions for children ranging from ages 5 to 15 at Home Front, for middle school girls at a summer arts camp, and in a Burlington County Community Action professional development workshop with preschool teachers, all to delightful effect.

The chant goes like this: “My mama told me/for me to tell you/to do my name/the way I do.”

The instruction is simple. Everyone stands in a circle, all repeat the chant, followed by each person taking a turn saying his or her name and a motion to go with it. Then everyone around the circle mirrors the name in the same way and the action in response.

What has tickles me is watching children and adults enjoy the rhythm of their name and play with an improvised action to go with it, as if discovering something new about the sound and power their name can make. They can punch up a syllable or whisper, sing their name or shout it. The motions add a kinesthetic kick.

In her workshop handout, Charlotte wrote: “Singing, rhyming, and storytelling are part of every culture. By singing and rhyming to children, parents and caregivers are not only keeping traditions alive, they are teaching children to articulate words, practice the pitch, volume, and rhythm of their native language, and develop the listening and concentration skills essential for brain development and memory.”

Let’s add that the delight in these practices doesn’t end in preschool, but continues for all ages.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


by Julie Della Torre

Hansel and Gretel by Otto Ligner (1857-1917)
Jack, Paula and I have been telling stories at a program in Paterson that helps women and children with food, shelter, education and anything else they may need. We tell stories to students on Friday afternoons, presently to fifth graders. It seems as if it would be a struggle, horrible time, end of week, end of day, but the kids are enthusiastic and engaged. They fizzle out before 6:00, but they love the stories and the activities we do.

This week Jack and I told ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in tandem. Together we discussed different images in the story and certain symbolism. At one point we focused on the body of water and the duck at the end. He had told ‘Water of Life’ previously and we noticed that the heroes often have to travel over water on the way home from an adventure. When did this body of water enter the story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’?  Looking in New Tales For Old (De Vos, 1999) we learned it was added in the second addition. 

Our activity following the telling of the tale was illustration. Many articles contemplate the idea of illustrations informing the text of the story.  Bottiehiemer notes a letter that Wilhelm Grimm wrote to his bother Ludwig who was illustrating their famous collection of stories. Ludwig had portrayed Gretel proudly pushing the old witch into the oven and releasing her brother from the cage. Wilhelm was not happy. He wanted Ludwig to instead show Gretel helplessly weeping near Hansel. Here is yet another example of Jacob and Wilhelm manipulating the tales.

 We brought in multiple copies of numerous illustrated versions of ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ After telling the story we listed the images the students hoped to see in the books.  The students worked in small groups examining the illustrations of the tale. We had to start them off, giving examples of differences to look for, but once they got the idea we didn’t need to do a thing except exclaim over the discoveries they made. They traded books, went from one table to another to share their examples.  As an aside, I was amazed that the bread/candy house was fourth or fifth down their list of images. First and foremost they wanted to see the children abandoned in the dark forest by the fire. The second image they all asked for was the mother and father fighting in the bed. Third was the witch herself... was she the mother? They spent much more time than I would have imagined poring over these pictures, examining all of the details. 

5th grade tableau of H&G lost in the forest

We passed out paper and crayons and they didn’t need any urging to start drawing.  Showing so many different types of illustrations freed the students to create their own images.
5th grade rendering of the forest in H&G

All of the reading and reflecting I’ve been immersed in this month has truly informed my telling and my look at illustrations of fairy tales. I believe it has enthused the work I am doing with colleagues and students.

Thursday, September 20, 2018


by Julie Della Torre
It is often said that the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the ‘Golden Age’ of collecting folk and fairy tales. As seen in the previous post, the Grimm brothers popularized the gathering of oral folk literature, and the immediacy of this type of collecting continued and the study of folklore and society became a part of academia.
Harold Courlander, a noted collector of folktales from the world, worked in the following era.  I happened on a biography of Courlander written by Nina Jaffe, A Voice for the People: The Life and Work of Harold Courlander,1997.  It was extremely interesting to discover the similarities and the differences between the stories, the collecting and the rational for preserving stories between Courlander and the Grimms. 
Jaffe is a prominent storyteller and compiler of folklore. Her works include, Patakin: World Tales of Drums and Drummers and The Cow of No Color. A Voice for the People was gleaned from Courlander’s writings and interviews Jaffe held with the man himself.  Because the book is written for children, the writing is not as smooth as Paradiz (see previous post). The language is sometimes stilted and the ‘lessons’ Jaffe wants us to leave us with can be blatant. 
Both Courlander and the Grimms were influenced by the country and the times in which they lived. But, where the Grimms wanted to build and preserve German nationality, language and cultural identity, Courlander had a different view. He never romanticized the past or the stories. He grew up in Detroit between WW I and WW II. He was surrounded by immigrants speaking different languages, eating different foods and telling different stories. Detroit was a destination during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South.  All the adults worked together and the children went to school together. To Courlander this diversity was America and was to be celebrated.
Harold Courlander
Right after college Courlander went to Haiti. He lived among the people there and began to gather songs, rhythms and musical instruments. With these came stories.  Folk music was his first work, just as it was for the Grimm brothers. By this time a number of developments changed the way of collecting folklore. For one, technology made it possible to audio record musical and storytelling sessions. Another was the many fields of academic study that became interested. Anthropology, ethnography, philology, musicology, all had criteria for collecting from social settings in cultures. Courlander was curios, a good listener, and patient. He learned to ask questions to better understand the setting of the story/song, the teller/singer, the occasion for the story or song.  He noted all of this and these notes can be found in his collections of stories and his collections of folk music. (He worked for Folkway Records and has many recordings on Ethnic Folkways Library.) One area of interest for Courlander was the similarity of stories and the idea that stories from the Afro-American culture might have direct roots to those stories of Africa. Like the Grimm brothers, he edited the folktales for language and ease of understanding for modern readers.
Like many of you, I rely on Courlander’s many books. I trust his scholarly research, though he never worked at a university. His Treasury of African Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Myths, Legends, Epics, Recollections, Wisdom Sayings, and Humor of Africa. (1995.) and Treasury of Afro-American Folklore: The Oral Literature, Traditions, Reflections, Legends, Tales, Songs, Religious Beliefs, Customs, Sayings and Humor of Peo0ple of African Descent in the Americas. (1995) have been fundamental in helping me put programs together and to tell these stories with a deeper understanding. His list of books is too long to include here, but other well-known titles include: The Cow Tail Switch, The Piece of Fire Terrapin’s Pot of Sense and People of the Short Blue Corn. He spent years traveling; gaining the trust of people in the society he was studying and learning the ways and culture of that community.
Uncomfortable issues can arise while reading biographies. Just as issues of German nationalism and the lack of attribution to the female sources brought up in Paradiz’s book, so too, thoughts came to mind while reading this biography. Harold Courlander was a white man collecting stories in African countries, in African American communities of the Caribbean and the Deep South and on Hopi reservations. Unlike the Grimms, he credits all of the help he received in each of these communities, in background knowledge, stories and songs. However, it was noticeable how Jaffe goes out of her way to frequently mention and quote letters from prominent black writers and scholars who were Courlander’s contemporaries, friends and admirers.  Henry Louis Gates Jr. , in his new book,  The Annotated African American Folktales, (2018) notes that The Folklore Society of America had begun in the late 1800s and had already established a branch to gather African American folklore and explore the connection of these tales to those of countries in Africa. Nora Zeale Hurston was collecting stories and she and Courlander met in Haiti. Though I do believe that Courlander was able to gain the trust of the musicians and storytellers in these diverse cultures, I wonder how different it would have been had he been an American black scholar.
Another issue that arose for me was the fact that Courlander was male. Of course, the whole time I was reading this book I was thinking of Diane Wolkstein. She also went to Haiti with a tape recorder to gather stories. She also went to the storytelling sessions on site, recorded, took notes and published her work. (The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales. 978).  Somewhere there is an interview Wolkstein did with Courlander. How interesting that would be to hear two scholars talk about their work and the stories they heard. I have no answers, and I’m sure it wasn’t discussed in their conversation, but I wonder how different it is for a white woman to be traveling, living and learning about a black culture and where, when and how stories are told.  Would a woman collector be included or excluded in different kinds of ceremonies? Would women in the culture have different obligations and tell different stories? Would a female collector ask different questions, be interested in different aspects of society, in different stories? How did such life work impact the families of the male/female collectors?
Due to new technologies, few cultures or societies have not been touched by modernity. New collections of world folktales are being published every day. Are these compilations of previously printed tales or stories newly collected? Personally, I will pay more attention to who compiled/collected the tales and how and even why these new collections came to be.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Clever Maids

by Julie Della Torre

I came across a pile of books I have always meant to read and have moved from one spot to another for years. This summer I decided to start at the top and work my way down. The first book I picked up was Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Valerie Pradiz, 2004. 

Reading the title closely, I should have known what the book was a bout, but, I opened the book expecting an analysis of Grimm’s stories featuring clever maids. Not this book! This was more of a biography of the Grimm’s brothers and their world of collecting. The clever maids referred to in the title are the clever young women from whom they collected their stories. The book also paints a historical and social picture of the Germanic world at this time.

Valerie Paradiz is a German feminist, activist and author. Her scholarly research of the historical and social culture of the time and her analysis of the tales allows for some interesting connections between the life lived by the Grimm brothers and the tales they collected.

The Grimm’s family (5 boys and one girl) lived a good, middle-class life until the father died, the children still quite young. The mother suffered from what was called melancholia, became dependent on her father and then on offerings from her own siblings. Paradiz portrays the dire straits for women of the time, both monetarily and socially.  She sites tales that feature such women setting the collecting into the social climate and women’s place in it.

The Grimm brothers lived a significant part of their lives during the Napoleonic Wars. Germany had never known a nationalistic unity like France and England due to the many nation states that made up Germany.  The brothers chaffed under the rule of the French in their city and never lost their zeal for furthering the German language, literature, cultural identity and national pride.

It was the beginning of the Romantic period.  In philosophy and literature there was longing for simplicity, of nature and natural feelings. The brothers yearned for a simpler time, a time of their young childhood in the German countryside. They built the romantic illusion that they collected these old fairy tales from peasant women throughout the German countryside. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The brothers fondly remembered their aunt telling them stories when they were young, but they began their collecting by compiling and cataloguing folk songs for their benefactor/mentor, Brentano.  This collecting grew dissatisfying, for it entailed gathering from written sources. It wasn’t long before the brothers began collecting stories in a new and different way. Their sister, Lotte befriended a family in the neighborhood, a family of six sisters. The Wild family was a middle class family and the girls well educated.  The girls knew many stories and delighted each other in the telling of them. Soon weekly gatherings occurred in which stories were told round; the brothers jotting down the stories as they were told. Soon they began soliciting these stories. The girls would write them down and send them to Jacob and Wilhelm. Some of the stories the girls had heard, some they made up and some were a combination of the two. 

The brothers collected from these girls for many years. When the girls married and moved off Wilhelm discovered a new source of stories, the girls in the Hassenphlug family. Like the first, this family consisted of well educated, middle class girls who delighted in stories, were well-read and had leisure time.  The Brothers Grimm found a number of such families, gathering and soliciting from these young women. Many of these women went on to become the first well-known German female authors. Later the two brothers happened on their ‘ideal’ source. Dorothy Viehamann, an older, illiterate German woman 

The Grimm brothers offered only one story from their childhood for their collected edition Children’s and Household Fairy Tales. All of the other stories came from these ‘clever maids’. The brothers collected the stories, selected the ones they liked, chose and consolidated the most salient parts of similar stories and edited them all.  The Brothers Grimm were surrounded by and influenced by women all their lives. The women who lived their stories and the clever maids who told them were never given any credit by the two brothers. This book strives to right that wrong.