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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pourquoi Stories of Nature

What does it mean when a New Jersey cherry tree blossoms in late November? Or, when an antlered deer wanders into a densely populated suburban neighborhood?

The newspapers will tell us that we can look to global warming and overgrazed natural habitats for explanations. But if we look beyond the surface (not to belittle that surface), we can mine our imaginations to explain these phenomena. We can develop pourquoi stories.

Pourquoi is the French word for “why.” Pourquoi stories are told all over the world to explain why an animal behaves the way it does, or why a spider weaves its web so beautifully, or why a rainbow appears after a storm. These stories go beyond rational scientific explanations. They span the absurd to the sacred. They are part of the human experience.

In September, I told the Lakota Indian legend Tonweya and the Eagles at Morris County’s Juvenile Detention Center and Youth Shelter. The teenagers at these facilities are facing problems I can only poorly imagine. For our September workshops, I wanted to explore with them a story that could act as a metaphor for their situation and possibly give them tools that could help them make sense of what was happening to them.

The protagonist in the story, a young Lakota Sioux named Tonweya, wanders away from his hunting party and becomes stranded on a rocky ledge without an anchored rope. There is nothing for him to grab onto to either climb up to the top of the cliff, or climb down to the ground below.

Also on this ledge are two fledgling eaglets. They are abandoned by their mother. Tonweya and the birds keep each other safe using their natural instincts and talents to rescue each other from certain death. The story concludes with an explanation for why only the fearless and brave wear eagle feathers tipped with red. It is a majestic and soulful story.

The residents at the youth facilities listened attentively and analyzed Tonweya’s qualities that helped him survive dire circumstances. I left hoping the kids would think about the qualities they have that will help them survive. I hoped I had given each of them a metaphoric eagle feather to wear.

Stories can serve as tools to explain why things are the way they are.

But perhaps it is more important that stories can serve as tools to imagine the way things can be.


Ellen Musikant is a performer, teaching artist, workshop facilitator and story coach. As such she has been a storyteller in residence in schools throughout New Jersey including preschools, elementary, and middle schools. When working with the very young, Ellen plays within the story landscape and narrative, giving the children new worlds and new words. For older students, she inspires self-expression by enlivening folktales with creative dramatics. As a story coach, Ellen helps children custom and adults find their storytelling voices. Each residency and workshop she offers is designed to meet the needs of the client. In addition to her work with Storytelling Arts, Inc., Ellen enjoys performing in festivals, museums, libraries and a host of other venues. She is Storyteller-in-Residence at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Storytelling in the 21st Century

A professional writer and editor, Maria LoBiondo's love of fairy, folk, and wisdom tales has been lifelong, although studies leading to her bachelor’s degree in education from Boston College and years as a preschool teacher deepened her appreciation. Maria’s life experiences have included work in low-income communities with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Utica, NY, and Providence, RI, and participation in artist Judy Chicago’s needlework effort, The Birth Project. She has told stories for the past 15 years at several venues, including Princeton’s Littlebrook School, the Princeton Montessori School, the Catholic Community of St. Charles Borromeo in Montgomery Township, and the New Jersey Storytelling Festival, in addition to her work for Storytelling Arts. Maria is a member of the Princeton Storytelling Circle.

Going through old papers recently I found this note from a storytelling visit: “Thank you for telling stories to my class. I enjoyed listening to the story ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon.’ I could picture the trolls in my head. I could see the prince saying, ‘Who can ever wash my shirt will be my wife.’ Hope you come back soon.”

Not only did the note make me smile, but it lifted my spirits after a day of feeling as if everywhere I turned there was another screen to view – my phone, my computer, a TV attached to the elliptical machine in the gym, another in the supermarket checkout line, and another in a favorite restaurant, not to mention the TV in my living room. I don’t have an e-reader or an iPad, but I do have an iPod, and even though it’s not the latest version, it has a screen, too.

All those screens vying for my attention, feeding me images, both stimulating and distracting. But how much of my imagination did they engage?

When telling a story, the images of what is happening as the plot unfolds cross my inner eye as they might a movie screen but I am creating the scenes anew with each telling, and no two tellings of the same story are the alike. I may have seen a troll with three heads and countless warts on each nose, but my student listener created her own troll, as scary or comical as she wanted it to be. Both of us used our imaginations to make the story come alive.

For some time now I have been trying to reconcile my feelings about 21st-century digital technology and the ancient art of storytelling. I know there is no turning back to fewer screens competing for our attention. I know that the future will bring more tools to use to converse, research, and entertain.

In frustration, I listened to Thomas Freidman’s “The World is Flat” in my car while driving to and fro this summer. Friedman’s storytelling – whether he gave an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new company – won me over.

He employed short narratives to make his points rather than simply a barrage of information.

Friedman makes a strong case for beefed up science, math, and engineering courses in our schools, but he also suggests that stimulating the imagination is critically important.

To my mind, storytelling does this at all age levels. It helps us have all sensorial cylinders firing as we listen, visualize what’s happening, and create for ourselves the touch, smell, and taste evoked in the tale. The give and take between teller and listener means a story is never static, never just consuming passively, because the story becomes alive as it is told as the teller and listener create the images they “see.”

Imagination is a way of seeing. Before we can “see” big things like societal change or starting a new business it’s helpful to start with something as small as imagining trolls. All the number crunching computers can do won’t mean much without the imagination of people to apply the information in new ways.

Which brings me to Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Telling and listening to stories, visualizing and reflecting on the images we create, promotes imagination. The ancient art of storytelling is as important today as it ever was.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lions and Tigers and Bears

Last week I took my baby grandson on a walk along a greenway that passes by the edge of my neighborhood. As I pushed the stroller through a woodsy stretch, noting the change and fall of the leaves, listening to the blue jay who announced my arrival, I was suddenly startled by the sight of a ghoulish face peering through the trees. The face was bright blue, as lean as a skull, with eyes full of malice. It had been painted on the round end of a log, part of a tree that had fallen victim to the wind and rain of hurricane Irene, and positioned so that it seemed to hover in the trees at the edge of the path. After recovering from the abrupt rise in my heartbeat brought on by the unexpected vision, I paused a while to admire it and then strolled on, pleased that a little art had slipped itself into my nature walk.

As I continued walking, I began to think about the subject of the painting, the nightmare-inspiring face of a creature from beyond the grave, or certainly beyond the reach of mortal power. I don’t know who the artist is or what inspired the piece, but I’d bet the painter is a teenager. I’m making this assumption, in part, because the painting took me back to a discussion I had in one of my middle school workshops a couple of weeks ago. It was the first workshop after summer break. The students were 8th graders, most of whom have been in my storytelling program for a couple of years, so the conversation was lively and comfortable. We talked about what we had done over the summer and, since we’re all story lovers, the conversation turned to what we’ve been reading.

All of the students were reading Young Adult novels about vampires, werewolves, and wizards, or about the sinister four horsemen of adolescence: humiliation, depression, disease, and death. I have to say that, at the time of the conversation, I wasn’t surprised or alarmed to find that my students are drawn to books about the dark side. I was also drawn to darkness at their age. What I though as I walked (and watched the peaceful little face of my grandson) was, how ironic that our children are drawn to the very things we, as teachers and parents and grandparents, try hardest to hide from them. We want so much to preserve their innocence, to delay for as long as possible their awareness of sadness and evil in life, that I think sometimes we risk sending them into the world unprepared for the dark reality they’re bound to confront. In fact, their fascination with evil may be a survival mechanism that protects them from our over protectiveness.

When I first began telling stories to children outside of my house, I remember a lot of discussion among parents, teachers, and, I suppose, scholars and psychologists, about whether traditional folktales were appropriate literature for little ones. When I looked at children’s books, I found that many of the traditional stories from my own childhood had been cleaned up by authors and editors. Wolves no longer ate pigs, grandmothers, or little girls; sadistic step-sisters became spiteful but comical oafs; murderous mothers were no longer punished; and no one ever died. I remember trying to navigate my way through this controversy. On the one hand, I knew that the authentic, non-Bowdlerized versions of traditional stories speak to some deep part of the human soul and assist in its development. On the other hand, I wanted to work, so I didn’t want to gain the reputation of the storyteller who scared little kids. I found my way through this mist in an elementary school in a Northern NJ city where, for four years, I told stories to a group of children, looping with them from kindergarten through third grade.

The project was part of a study to see if children who were exposed to storytelling through their primary school years would show a measurable difference in literacy skills from students who didn’t receive the services of a storyteller. The control groups were the grade levels on either side of the students with whom I worked. The study was, I believe, inconclusive. There was anecdotal evidence from teachers of improvement in individual students’ abilities to listen, speak, and maintain focus during the storytelling sessions, but because of budget restraints, these sessions were limited to two forty-five minute workshops a month. Also, due to the transient nature of the school population, less than a third of the original students were still in the school at the conclusion of the study.

However, regardless of what anyone else learned through the study, I learned a great deal about the lives of my students. For example, one day, in the spring of their the second grade year, I told them “One My Darling,” a story from Diane Wolkstein’s Haitian folktale collection, The Magic Orange Tree. In this story, which shares motifs with “Cinderella” and “The Seven Little Kids,” an ogre runs off with the Bad Mother’s three darlings, leaving only her fourth, despised, daughter behind. After this event, the story follows the fortune of the fourth daughter without ever revealing the fate of the three abducted girls.

When the story ended, the children asked the inevitable question, “What happened to the three darlings?”

I answered, as I always do after this story, “The story doesn’t say. What do you think?”

Usually students think the ogre ate the three girls and I point out that, although that’s a possibility, there may be other answers, other stories. This usually leads the class into a story making activity in which they invent endings for the ogre and the other girls.

However, on this day when the question was asked, a little boy promptly answered,

“They probably got raped.”

I looked from the solemn face of the child to the horrified face of his teacher, and then to the twenty-some other faces in the classroom. A few children looked puzzled, a couple nodded sagely, and the rest sat looking expectantly at me. I knew I couldn’t ignore the little boy’s response, but I also didn’t feel equipped to talk about rape with seven year olds.

So, after a second, I just said, “Maybe. What else?”

“The ogre probably ate them,” said another student.

And so the conversation continued along the usual lines. With a couple of important exceptions. First, the teacher learned that at least one of her second graders knew something about rape. (This may not have been significant, but if it was, the door had been opened for further investigation). And second, the kids realized that they could say things in the storytelling discussion that they couldn’t say in other places. This realization opened a door into the out-of-school lives of the students that, among other things, reinforced my belief that children need a balance of darkness and light in their literary experiences. Young as they were, these children welcomed the opportunity to talk about scary things in a safe environment. My unexpurgated folktales gave them that opportunity.

In my final months with those students I learned that many of them had first hand knowledge of the darkest content of the stories I had been discouraged from telling them. They had been subjected to physical and emotional abuse, witnessed the effects of drugs and alcohol, heard gunshots, seen neighbors or relatives arrested, lost loved ones to illness and violence, and lived in homes where there was not enough to eat. I think that we parents and teachers often forget that all of our kids live in a scary world, and even those living in the most secure homes and neighborhoods are exposed to fearful things. To pretend that these things don’t exist, to hush our children’s tears and reassure their fears by saying we’ll protect them isn’t ultimately comforting. Our children will face darkness on their life journeys. ‘Real’ literature helps prepare them for those encounters and gives them a fighting chance of surviving them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


JULIE PASQUAL is a self proclaimed “creativity junky” whose first art form was dance. After graduating from New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, she danced and sang in numerous musicals across the country and Off Broadway. She has acted in everything from Shakespeare to the work of young playwrights in NYC high schools. Along the way she learned stilt walking, clowning, American Sign Language, and how to tell stories. Her storytelling work encompasses all her skills as a performing artist, as she brings every aspect of a story to life. Her stories have been heard in such venues as the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New Jersey Storytelling Festival, and in schools, libraries, bookstores, hospitals, radio and private events across the tri-state area. As an artist for Hospital Audiences Incorporated, Julie performs in halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers and senior citizen homes. She is also the voice for several children’s and young adult audio books for the Andrew Heiskill Library for the Blind and Handicapped in NYC. When not telling tales she can be found performing as a dancer in shows across the country and as a clown doctor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, entertaining children in NYC hospitals.

“I’m soooooo sorry,” the mother of a six year old in my audience says. Her eyes begging for forgiveness, her head bowed in shame. “He just always gets like this!”

I shake the offered hand, and tell her, “Your son didn’t do anything I haven’t seen before.”

“Really?” she utters incredulously.

“Really,” I reply. And I mean it.

One of the joys/challenges of being a live performer is that I see the audience every bit as much as they see me. The dad in the back row on the cell phone – hi there, sir! The seven year old who keeps forgetting to cover her mouth, when she lets loose a juicy, mucousy cough – where’s my Purell? And the baby on the lap of a mom in the back, who’s either laughing or pooping – coochie-coo!! I kind of hate to admit it, but sometimes, the show I see from my angle, is a heck of a lot funnier, and more interesting than what the public is getting from me! And while every audience and every child is different – there are definitely patterns.

In folktales, there are specific character types know as archetypes: the Hero, the Villain, the Sage, and others. Though the details differ from story to story, the roles these people (or animals) play in the tales are remarkably similar. The Hero in one folktale might have to overcome an ogre, while in another he is charged with finding magical fruit. Different circumstances to be sure, but he always has an obstacle to overcome, and usually a young maiden to find/save/wed. And just as often, as I describe an archetypical trickster or silly for my audience, my viewing public is enacting, in very real time, some classic archetypes of their own. Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce the “Mimic”, the “Know it All”, the “I’m Over It”, the “Performer”, the “Talker”, and last, but certainly not least, the “Nose Picker”.

The “Mimic”: I have to admit that the first time I witnessed this behavior, it freaked me out! There I was, going about my business, telling some story or the other in typical “Julie physical style” when all of a sudden, I saw at least a dozen little bodies mimicking my every move. Eyes wide, and absolutely silent, they were so absorbed by the story, I don’t even think they realized they were moving! Their focus was absolute, and they looked, I thought, a bit like marionettes. I raised my arms, they raised their arms. I scratched my head, they scratched their heads. They weren’t trying to pull focus, or get attention, they were just completely inside the story! After getting over the shock, I felt a little power crazy!! What if I could control other people this way? If I told a story to a bank teller, and mimed handing out money – would they copy my actions, and give me a fist full of dollars? Alas, the people at my bank know me by name, and just shook their heads, and laughed, saying, “Oh, that Julie!”

The “Know-It-All”: This is the child who, even before the story has begun, loudly announces to everyone, “Oh, I know this one!!” During every open-ended question, their hand is raised, and their face set in the smug smile of righteousness. If someone else answers the question first, the “Know-It-All” isn’t fazed. “I was going to say that” or “That was my second guess” are their quick come backs. Some people dislike the “Know-It-All” – not me! I adore (and wish I had more of) their self confidence and love of knowledge.

And the “Know-It-All” is often that sub-species known as the “Shusher”. Because the “Know-It-All” wants to hear the story BADLY – if only to prove they do in fact know it all, they give me their full attention – and they demand everyone does as well. I’ve seen “Know-It-Alls” stare down a noisy audience member with the expertise of a teacher, librarian, and preacher all rolled into one.

The “I’m Over It”: Okay, maybe like a mother, I’m not supposed to have favorites. But I do, and this group is it. I LOVE the “I’m Over Its”!! Their surly faces, slumped postures, constantly rolling eyes. “Bring it, lady,” their expressions tell me. And I love to oblige. See, I’m like that old song that says, “I’m a rebel, and I’m just no good.” If you tell me I can’t do something, I will work with every ounce of my 5’2” frame to prove you wrong. Choose to dare, double dare, or triple dare me, and watch out!

Every time I stand before a group of “I’m Over Its”, I feel my inner obstinate three year old stomp her feet, and dig her heels in. I become like the character, Effie, in “Dreamgirls”, who sings, “I’m staying! I’m staying! And you’re gonna love me!!!!!” These “I’m Over Its” make me dig deep, and bring out my A+++++ game (forgive all the sports analogies, but sometimes that’s the only way things can be said!) They make me keep working on my repertoire so that I have material that is intense, juicy, and special enough to dazzle them. I’m always pretty focused on my audience, but with the “I’m Over Its”, I am forced to really crawl under their skin, to find what moves, provokes, or tickles them. They humble me, because they always seem to appear after I’ve had several crowds of “Mimics”, just adoring my every move. And there is no greater payoff then when an “I’m Over It” sits up a little straighter, smiles a shy smile or, raises a hand to ask a question. “I’m Over Its” are tough, no doubt about it, but they are TOTALLY worth it.

The “Performer”: This is a group I COMPLETELY understand because, well, I’m one of them. You see, I love the arts. I adore them!! For my birthday this year, I saw a dance concert, and a musical show on the same day. Seeing creativity of any kind fuels mine – and that’s the problem. Because as I sit there watching dancers, singers, clowns, storytellers, mimes, and even sword swallowers there’s always about 80% of me (sometimes more) that wants to hop up on that stage, and join whoever it is that is currently performing. Now, I have learned to control my impulse to shove the ballerina out of the way, and take her place in “Swan Lake”, but a six year old “Performer” hasn’t mastered that quite yet. And so, unlike the “Mimic” who will silently sit in their seat, and copy my moves, the “Performer” uses every opportunity to insert himself into my performance. If I make a sound effect, the “Performer” will do it louder – over, and over again. If I do a character walk or pratfall, the “Performer” will concoct something that looks like a move from Cirque De Soleil, and perform that maneuver as many times as they can, sometimes crying out, “Watch me! Watch me!” – as if we all weren’t already!

While I will admit a “Performer” (or on a rare occasion – multiple “Performers” that feed off one another) can make my job a smidge difficult, they have also taught me one of life’s great lessons – how to let go! The nature of storytelling is all about the NOW. Telling this particular tale, to this particular group, and taking in the atmosphere and circumstances of this particular venue. When a “Performer” is in the house, I must let go of my plans, and see how it all plays out. Sometimes, the “Performer” quiets down to a slightly more vocal “Mimic”, and sometimes I land up with a partner for the day. Oh well, it’s always good to share. And maybe I’m mentoring a future storyteller!

The “Talker”: “Hi! My name is Rosalie. I’m seven years old, and for my birthday I got a Wii, and had a party. Do you like my dress? I have another one just like it in orange…” Well hello there, “Talker”!

While the “Performer” and the “Know it All” may interrupt the performance any chance they get, they are, for the most part, thoroughly engaged in the tale. The “Talker” on the other hand – not so much! The “Talker” does not mean any disrespect, and in fact, it is only because they like you (and your tales) that they feel the NEED to tell you EVERY detail of their lives. But given any opportunity the “Talker” will ignore the story, the other people in the audience, and very often their own parents, to inform you about their puppy, or turtle, or favorite flavor of ice cream.

Me: (During the telling of one of my favorite stories, “How Frog Lost His Tail”) Frog stopped laughing, looked up and saw…(I pause for dramatic effect, and to allow the kids to chime in, if they want to)

Little Boy: The watering bowl is gone?

Little Girl: The Sky God?

The “Talker”: The Monkey – I saw a monkey once at the zoo, and it was picking something off the other monkeys head, and then eating it, and I said, “EEW!” I wouldn’t want somebody picking something off of my head, and I wouldn’t pick…

And on and on and on!! It’s hard to get upset with a “Talker”, because they are always so darn cute, and the looks on their faces are the very definition of “earnestness”. I try to keep their absolute NEED to speak in mind, while I’m performing for inspiration. And, I hope, as long as I NEED to tell stories, I will. And when I don’t – I won’t!

The “Nose Picker”: What can you say about the children who are so oblivious to what we adults call “socially appreciate behavior”, that when their little noses itch, they plunge those fingers in there, and scratch away? I suppose you could say, ‘STOP! That’s not what polite ladies and gentlemen do!” But while, I totally agree that nose picking is something that’s best done in the privacy of one’s own home – you won’t ever see me telling my listening public not to do it during my performances.

Because, somehow, when I look out at that little “Nose Picker”, and all the other “types” of children I’ve written about here, I am reminded of a time in my life when I didn’t have so many rules! When, if I felt deeply moved or touched by a performance, it would spur me into action, like a “Mimic” or a “Performer”. Or if I wasn’t sure about something, I’d acknowledge it like the “I’m Over It”, instead of just slapping on my “Everything’s Okay” face. A time when I wasn’t too guarded, too afraid that my opinion would meet with opposition to express it, like a “Know It All” or a “Talker”. A magical time in life, when I was so absorbed in every moment, that I wouldn’t notice if I was picking my nose in public. That special time in life known as childhood. That’s the show I see from where I stand. And, oh, what a show it is!!

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Second Oldest Profession ~ Storytelling and Relationships

Ellen Musikant is a performer, teaching artist, workshop facilitator and story coach. As such she has been a storyteller in residence in schools throughout New Jersey including preschools, elementary, and middle schools. When working with the very young, Ellen plays within the story landscape and narrative, giving the children new worlds and new words. For older students, she inspires self-expression by enlivening folktales with creative dramatics. As a story coach, Ellen helps children custom and adults find their storytelling voices. Each residency and workshop she offers is designed to meet the needs of the client. In addition to her work with Storytelling Arts, Inc., Ellen enjoys performing in festivals, museums, libraries and a host of other venues. She is Storyteller-in-Residence at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

More and more I’ve been touting storytelling as a powerful medium in which to build relationships. A good story is good. But the relationships it builds are even better. Way better. That’s it. That’s the whole elevator speech.

This year I took a semi-sabbatical from storytelling. But, several times each week, I tell stories in my role as Storyteller-in-Residence at the Zimmerli Art Museum. I tell the same two stories each time. They are terrific little stories. They are perfect for the early childhood learners who are brought to the museum to hear them. “The Gunniwolf” and “The Big Enormous Turnip.” Both are old folktales told many different ways and appear in lots of different books.

Sometimes I feel sheepish about telling the same stories again and again. The guards have heard them so often they can tell them “by heart.” Really! But these stories, as simple as they are, provide the perfect soil in which to grow and nurture relationships -- between me and the kids, the kids and the story, the kids and the art, the art and the story, the teachers and the kids, the teachers and the story, and so on.

I think of a story as built up energy. It is inert. It has the potential to be powerful. When a story is given voice, it has impact. At Storytelling Arts, Inc., we talk about an oral and very much alive “voice” for the stories we tell. We are not keeping our tales to ourselves, like dandelion wine bottled away and put in the cellar. We are uncorking them and pouring them into our listeners, who (if we do our job well) will in turn tell them to others. No doubt, when the story is released and exchanges “hands,” it will change and grow. That’s the nature of a told tale. Each teller/listener bond is different and each listener receives a story in her own way.

As professionals we craft a story each and every time we tell it so it is just right for the people who are listening. That’s been the challenge for me at the museum.

This crafting of the telling of a story is ancient. Storytelling is probably the second oldest profession! A primal need is satisfied by shaping our experiences (real and imagined) and then sharing them with someone else. Why? Isn’t the experience just as valid and exciting if kept to ourselves? Generally, I think it is safe to say, when something happens in our lives we have an itch to tell about it. We want to engage others in our experience. We want others to share the adventure. The experience itself becomes richer each time we do.

But, even more important, the relationships grow richer. We wander through a storyscape together and share a vivid and perhaps fanciful experience. Even if we never see each other again, we have formed an indivisible bond.

Luray Gross and I will be facilitating a Storytelling Arts Institute at the Moorestown Friends School in southern New Jersey June 28-30, 2011. I look forward to the many relationships that will be formed there.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Notes from the Field

March 31, 2011, Luray Gross

LURAY GROSS works extensively in schools and the community presenting workshops and performances for all ages. Luray is the author of three collections of poetry: Forenoon was published in 1990 by The Attic Press in Westfield, NJ, and Elegant Reprieve won the 1995-96 Still Waters Press Poetry Chapbook Competition. The Perfection of Zeros, was published by Word Press in 2004. She was the recipient of a Fellowship in Poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. In 2000, she was named a Distinguished Teaching Artist by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and was the recipient of the Robert Fraser Open Poetry Competition Award from Bucks County(PA) Community College. She was the 2002 Poet Laureate of Bucks County and resident faculty at the 2006 Frost Place Festival and Conference on Poetry in Franconia, New Hampshire.

“Is this going to be a true story?” Jake asks as soon as I announce that I have another story for his class of second graders.

“It’s true that it’s a story,” I answer, but of course that’s not what he means and I know it. I go on: “Have you ever heard that a story is a golden lie that hides the truth? See what you think when you hear it.”

“Once there was a boy who decided to fool his father.”

“What day is tomorrow?” I ask, interrupting myself in that way a story can tolerate.

“April 1st. April Fool’s!” I have only 50 minutes for this session which will include poetry writing and reading aloud as well as storytelling, so I don’t mention the image of my mother that suddenly surfaces - Mother first thing each April 1st she somehow managed to trick us with a silly remark. Instead, I go on with the story telling how the boy decides to hide from his father, and while he is looking for a hiding place, sees a peanut on the ground.

“Wouldn’t it be great to hide in a peanut?” he thinks.

No sooner thought, than done; he is in the peanut shell, which gets swallowed by a chicken, who gets swallowed by a bush cat, and so forth. For each animal I add a characteristic call and gesture. The more outrageous the story becomes, the more obvious it is that the question of truth has fallen away before the forces of delight and anticipation: What creature will be next? How will the boy get out of the peanut? Will his father find him?

When the story comes to an end, boy and father reunited, we immediately begin a collaborative retelling of the story.

“I bet you could tell that story to someone,” I say. How does it begin?”

Of course the class, working together, is able to retell the whole story, with everyone participating in the “Buk, buk, buk” of the chicken, the “Yowl, miaow” of bush cat, the “sszzzz” of python.

It’s time for my transition: I tell them about Dr. William Carlos Williams, a poet very good at finding poems wherever he was, who was prone to jotting lines down on prescription pads during his forty years of medical practice in West Rutherford, NJ and how sometimes between patients, he would tap out lines of poetry on his office typewriter.

I have two brief image-based Williams’ poems in mind for sharing today: “Between Walls” and “The Great Figure.” I introduce each with a story - first the story of the doctor doing his rounds at the hospital and noticing between the building’s wings something green among the cinders from the coal furnace. Not a thing can grow there; what is that bit of green shining? A piece of a broken bottle, the poem tells us, a beautiful thing for anyone who has the eyes and the temperament to notice.

Another story: I invite the children to imagine Dr. Williams walking down the street at night. It’s raining, and suddenly - all at once it seems - the sounds of sirens. Out of the darkness a firetruck comes rushing, the big golden 5 painted on it, gleaming in the city lights. I speak “The Great Figure,” once and again, the second time inviting the children to close their eyes and see the scene, hear the sounds he mentions and others they know might be there. When we speak our images, one the students lightly clenches her fists and shakes them, “I heard the wheels rumbling! and I felt it!”

It happens that Williams’ friend, Charles Demuth, made a painting in response to “The Great Figure,” and I’m lucky enough to have a poster featuring the painting. Now we look at its somewhat abstracted image of the poem, noticing all the visual elements of the scene, from the bold gold “5’s” to the poet’s name partially hidden in the geometry of the painting. The children are looking closely, excited about their discoveries. We’re ready to leap into our own poetry talk and thinking.

“So, I’ve been thinking, where do our poems hide? I allow a bit of quiet before improvising a line or two: “Sometimes mine hide in a wave that rises up and crashes down.....sometimes they’re hiding in the wrinkles on an old, old lady’s face...sometimes...”

The hands come up: "Mine hide in my brother’s smile.” “Mine hide in the sun!” “You could find them at the baseball stadium.”

We must make the move to individual writing soon, while the images are being born. “Okay, let’s go to desks and each write a poem describing some of the wonderful, exciting, beautiful, or silly places your poems could hide.” Fortunately the teacher has already placed fresh writing paper on each desk. I write the governing question on the board: Where do poems hide? and give them two possible beginnings: “I find poems in/on/under....” or “My poems hide inside...”

Inside a peanut? I ask? It’s a little joke, but Ryan goes on to write a funny informative poem about peanuts, which begins, “You could find a poem in a peanut, a very tasty legume.” It turns out that he has just finished a report on George Washington Carver. One of the glorious things about the creative imagination is that anything, virtually anything the child knows or wonders about can be material for his or her creations. After all, the story with which the class began has reminded us that anything can happen.

The class settles into writing and after a few minutes their teacher and I circulate, gently asking permission to “eaves-read,” reassuring a reluctant child, encouraging them to sound out words, inviting children to whisper read what they have so far. I am delighted and wish we had more than 8 minutes left for reading aloud. But that is what we have, so we invite the new poems or parts of them be heard! One boy has his hand up. This is the fourth day I’ve worked with these students, and I’m pretty sure that he has various special needs. Generally shy, he has volunteered to read first each day. Today he writes of delicious places for poems to hide: donuts and pies and M&M pancakes.

We hear short poems, long poems, virtuosic lyrical poems and bare bones matter of fact poems. Here are a few of their lines:

“Poems hide inside the video games I play with my dad.”

“Poems hide inside a flower taking a shower.”

“The mysterious dark follows me like a spy.”

“Poems hide under tables and chairs, under stairs and beds.”

“Poems hide inside a smile of a little child smiling at a bunny with fur as bright as snow...”

“I find poems in an apple tree, a fire gleaming bright as can be....”

As one girl wrote, “They hide inside anybody.”

Yes, poems and stories and music, dances and paintings. They are all there waiting to be found and to satisfy and delight their makers as they experience the truth that we are all capable of making something new and powerful out of our words, thoughts, and feelings.

Note: For one version of “The Boy Who Tried To Fool His Father,” see Judy Sierra and Stefano Vitale’s Nursery Tales from Around the World. The Williams’ poems can be found at Search by the poet’s name.

Monday, February 28, 2011


Hello, I am Julie Della Torre, Master Storyteller with Storytelling Arts, Inc. I have been working as a Professional Storyteller since 1985 and have 9 years of elementary school teaching experience along with the study of child development and curriculum. More information about our work in storytelling and education can be found on the Storytelling Arts website

An interesting debate on princesses has been brought to my attention on the Motherlode blog of the NYTimes. My son, father of a 2yr old son and uncle to a 3 yr. old niece, follows the blog and sent me the following. Some great reading, discussion and debate commenced.

‘The Princess Wears Plaid’ By Lisa Belkin (February 3, 2011) discusses an article by Peggy Orenstein that led to the book "Cinderella Ate my Daughter"

Ms. Orenstein in 2006 takes on the Disney corporation as a feminist and a manipulated consumer. All quotes below come from this article.

The discussion on Motherlode revolves around reading children’s books that show a more balanced view of girls, books that offer a healthy prototype of heroines. We as storytellers should feel obligated to do the same. There are hundreds of stories from around the world that offer strong, enterprising, loving, clever, and smart heroines who end up happily ever after. We should search for these stories and add them to our repertoire.

I am tired of corporations (in truth corporate owners) forcing their own views -- of beauty, of appropriate language, of appropriate behavior, of appropriate values, of appropriate skin color -- and telling us what is important in a good life. Imagination and thinking is taken from us.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

Walt Disney and his studio follow a long tradition of changing oral folktales. Each time a tale is told it is changed. The problem comes when it is written down, or immortalized in film. Ownership is then possible. Jane Yolen (storyteller, author and folklorist) says in many articles that the old tales are always changing depending in part on who tells them and why. The old nanny who is putting the children to bed may soften the tales, shorten them, or change them so nightmares don’t ensue. Parents, or preachers, or dictators, may change them to teach a moralistic or nationalistic lesson. Entertainers change the tales to please each audience and thus ensure ample reward.

Walt Disney’s Cinderella is now the ‘real’ Cinderella story, and it is American. It’s told as a rags-to-riches story where anyone can wish on a star and dreams can come true with no effort at all. In Cinderella tales from around the world this is NEVER the story. In Grimm’s it’s a riches-to-rags-to-riches story in which Cinderella has to be clever, respectful, resourceful, and hard-working to regain her rightful place in society. Cuteness and idle waiting and wishing have little to do with this story. When I ask classes to visualize the princess in a story told (no matter where the story comes from) everyone, even teachers, see Disney’s Cinderella. This film version of a princess is now ‘the Princess’ in all parts of the world.

One can easily look up and track the changes made as the Grimm’s brothers collected their tales in many editions. By the time Disney got hold of the tales they had already been changed. Like the Grimms, Disney changed the tales to fit his own moralistic view of the nation and women’s place in it. Disney had strong views on America, the nation’s dream and of women’s place in American society. To hone his message, Disney took all the strength out of our heroines. The company infantilized these princesses and gave them no redeeming values. Then Walt Disney stamped his name all over everything associated with the films. Disney took complete control and ownership of our heroines. Walt Disney and the studio became one. The studio learned its lesson well and continues to control the message and the product.

Today the merchandizing of the Princess ideal helps girls and women believe that wearing the Cinderella panties or carrying the Princess Lunchbox, will help their dreams come true, their dreams of being a princess, marrying a prince and living happily ever after. ‘Princess’ is no longer about a story, it is a product:

There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items.

“Princess,” as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet.

As a student of folklore I have issues with Disney and the old tales that differ yet overlap with the issues which concern Ms. Orenstein and the mothers on the Motherlode blog.

My strongest aversion comes with the fact that Disney has chosen one princess, his princess, for us and is now selling her to us all on everything imaginable.

Some further reading/background that I found illuminating on the topic:

Jane Yolen tackles Disney in ‘America’s Cinderella’ in Cinderella: A Casebook by Alan Dundes, and in Mirror, Mirror, ed. By Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple. Jack Zipes takes on the issue in ‘Breaking the Disney Spell’ in his book Fairy Tale as Myth: Myth as Fairy Tale.

I went to Surlalune and read the discussions that had taken place over the years. (see FAQ: Disney and Fairy Tales and FAQ Women and Fairy Tales)