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

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)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Heros!!

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.

To really understand how ironic what I’m about to write is, you have to understand this about me – when I was a kid, I HATED school. Not disliked, not “I’d rather be watching TV” – we are talking full on LOATHING!!! It wasn’t that I was incapable of doing well, it wasn’t that I was bullied, and didn’t have friends, it wasn’t even that I didn’t want to learn – no, it was just that I was the proverbial square peg being cramped into that round hole. I am, and have always been, a person that NEEDS to dance to their own drummer – schedules, too much structure, make me buck like a horse in the wild west. School, with all it’s rules, and requirements felt like a prison to me, so much so that as a child on Sunday nights, I would stay up as long as I could, hoping to extend my weekend that much longer. But always sleep would take me, and Monday, dreaded back to school Monday, always arrived.

So, in my mind, if school was a prison, than the teachers, were the guards. Like an inmate who knows who holds the power, and the keys to their cells, I eyed them with wariness. I was obedient, and dependable – always afraid of their power of me, over what my parents thought of me, over my life. It was only when I got to high school, and had a teacher, who really SAW me, encouraged me, and in a way adopted me, that I began to see that teachers were actual humans. Mr. Andros, my teacher/mentor/second dad showed me that teachers are heroes who day after day sometimes literally go into battle in their classrooms. They work for little money, and even less respect, it seems, but they have the most important jobs in the world. And now, years after many a school day spend eyeing educators with fear and suspicion, I find myself totally OVERJOYED to offer them whatever I can in my role as a storyteller.

In folktales there are often magical helpers that appear along the way as the hero or heroine makes their way on their journey. Often times they’ll give the hero something that, on the surface at least, looks to be simple, of little relevance to the task at hand. But time and time again in these stories, it is that little object that enables the hero to succeed. I like to think of the tales I tell like little presents, like Jack’s magical beans, that once planted in the minds of a teacher, might just help them in their heroic work of educating our future. I try with each visit to a classroom, not just to introduce the wonderful world of stories to the students, but also to their teachers, knowing I don’t even know a quarter of what they know, but hoping, beyond hope that I have served the story well enough so that it’s wisdom, and timelessness, can be seen by the classroom teacher, and, if they want to, use it in a lesson plan, or a discussion.

Oddly enough, given my history with teachers, it is that aspect that often gives me the most joy in my work with Storytelling Arts. I get to repay all those people, those heroes, who watched me looking at them like they were monsters, but taught me anyway. Who saw my gaze of distrust and fear, and kept offering all they had –day after day. Sr. Ann Robin, Mrs. Franklin, Mr. Manchester – I don’t know where you are today, but believe me - I GET IT NOW!!! I understand what incredible work you do, and while I still live outside, around, and on top of “the box” rather than in it, and too much scheduling still makes my stomach clench – I am trying to repay the debt I owe you, and every teacher whose classroom, my reluctant younger self ever entered! It’s the most I can do, as all you teachers – you hero and heroines go on your daily quests to open the minds of the world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Harbingers of Spring

Myth is not merely a story, but a reality lived.

Bronislav Malinowsky

The sun is shining today. Melting snow is dripping from the eaves, sparrows are chattering at the feeder and the chick-a-dees are whistling their “swee-tie” song. It’s early February, the middle of winter, but the light and the sounds today are a reminder that spring is around the corner. It really is. Last week, when the Cailleach, the hag of winter, went out to gather the firewood she needs to keep her through the rest of the season, she had a hard time finding any under all that snow and ice. That’s a good thing. If she can’t keep her fire burning, she has to relinquish her rule to Brigid, the goddess of spring and fertility. In fact, Brigid is already among us. The first day of February is St. Brigid’s day. Storytellers know that long before she was a saint, Brigid was a goddess, the daughter of the Dagda who was the foremost of the Celtic gods. Brigid is a healer as well as a muse to poets and artisans. She created the first tin whistle and it was she who gave us beer!

The myth of Brigid and the Cailleach helps me understand the feeling I get at this time of year. February is, by reputation, a dreary time. It’s the month we need a midwinter break from school because we just can’t take it any more, the month for get-a-ways to the sunny Caribbean. However, February has never seemed so bad to me. On the contrary, there is something about the mid-day light at this time of year that holds a promise of green. The animals feel it, too. The birds, like the chick-a-dee, sing less of their flocking song and more of their mating song in February. Small mammals, like the groundhog, come out of their burrows, the ewes become pregnant. Hence the spring lambs!

Once you recognize these natural phenomena, the strange February holidays begin to make sense. And they are strange. Prognosticating rodents and match making martyrs? What have they to do with this short winter month? February 1st is a cross-quarter holiday. It is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, another one of those days when the veil between this world and the next becomes more transparent. (The root of the Celtic word cailleach means veil.) February sets the stage for the burgeoning of spring. In ancient Rome, a festival of purification was held on February 15th. Some sources say that it coincided with the seasonal rains that washed and melted the earth – a kind of ancient Spring Cleaning. In later times, Romans celebrated the Lupercal on this date. Some of the rituals associated with that holiday were directly related to human love and fertility. No one seems to know how the day came to be associated with a Christian martyr, but in researching the connection, I came across this fact: there is a flower-crowned skull purported to be St. Valentine’s on display in the basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

The flower-crowned skull, an image familiar to fans of the Grateful Dead, is also a motif in one of my favorite stories, Fitcher’s Feathered Bird, collected by the Brothers Grimm. In this story, the crowned skull is a token left by the heroine for her evil ex-lover when she departs his house after designing his well-deserved fate. By this time in the story, the heroine has transcended her human existence and transformed herself into a honey-feathered goddess who proceeds to purify her corner of the world with fire. A connection to St. Valentine? Probably not, but the existence of the relic is evocative.

We go through our lives accepting these February traditions without feeling any connection to them because they are remnants of an age when the rhythm of the earth played an essential role in the lives of men and women. It was a much harder life than the lives of most people who are likely to read this blog, and the rituals that acknowledged the seasonal changes were often matters of life and death, both, literally, in their enactment and in the consequences of the phenomena they recreated. Even so, I can’t help but think that an acute awareness of the week-by-week changes in the natural world added a richness to life.

Familiarity with myth can restore some of that richness to our lives. Myth allows us to personify the natural forces and to make them part of the story of our own lives. Myth gives a human reality to the earth’s rhythms, and reminds us that they are inseparable from the rhythm of our heart, the rise and fall of our breath, and the coursing of our blood. Myth tells us that the earth begins fade in October as Demeter anticipates Persephone’s journey to the underworld and reminds us that now, in February, the goddess is beginning to make the world ready for her daughter’s return. She is awakening the animals, opening the wombs of the cattle, swelling the buds on the trees, sterilizing the ground with ice, then rinsing it clean with rain. Myth reminds us that no matter how much wood the Cailleach gathers on February 2nd, Brigid is already with us to make sure that the old woman’s fire won’t last forever. There is hope in the stories of February. Read them and rejoice!