Storytelling, or, How to hold a large group of small children spellbound for an hour

My apologies, for I’m going to talk about me me me… mostly in the context of Me Messing Up.

Last week I was faced with a sudden schedule change and a large group of small children who were both full of energy and very tired. What to do, what to do?

Tell them stories.

“Would you like me to read these stories,” I asked, holding a boxed set of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales, “or do you want me to tell you stories?”

The popular vote was overwhelmingly for the latter. I settled on a bench and began with the story of Androcles and the Lion.

A long, long time ago…

(The version I tell is differs slightly from the ones online, by the way; and differs from the tale I pieced together for a storytelling class years ago, mostly because I forgot some details. That is the beauty of storytelling: you can tune your stories to fit the audience’s age and interest, and if you forget how a particular section goes, you can always make it up.)

… and everywhere they went, people pointed and said, “That is the lion, the man’s friend,” and, “That is the man, the lion’s doctor.”

There was a pause when the story ended, as the children slowly drew themselves out of the story, and burst into applause.

The next story that sprang to mind was “Katie Crackernuts,” and I bungled that one a little, too – I mixed up whose parents was whose, so that Katie was the sister who had the head of a sheep, and Anne was the sister who outwitted the faeries and saved both her sister and the prince, for instance; it was three golden acorns, not a little bird, that were the cure; and I couldn’t remember how the sister’s head is restored, so I had Anne march back to the faerie hill and ask them for help, which they gave because she had fairly outwitted them in the matter of the prince. This is what happens when you’ve neither read nor heard told the source texts in a couple years.

This is another advantage of telling stories your audience is unfamiliar with, that you can change things and nobody will notice.

The children, after they’d been reassured that you couldn’t really have your head lopped off by an old chest and replaced with a sheep’s head, requested something that would make them laugh. I broke all the rules of storytelling on this one (SHAME):

  1. I told an authored story without permission of the author.
  2. I told an authored story, but not word for word.

Obviously, most of the stories told in oral storytelling have no known, or no living, author. It is perfectly fine to take a fairy tale and give it a twist, or to riff on Andrew Lang’s stories or Aesop’s fables. But if you use a story that is written, you need permission (preferably also written) from the author or the author’s estate. And when you use this story, you are supposed to recite it verbatim. That is part of respecting the story and the author.

I failed. I told the story of Polystrictes, from Megan Whalen Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings. I did not have permission, and (it has been three? more? years since I first memorized it, so I do not have the story verbatim anymore), uh, I … even … forgot … the protagonist’s name. I AM SORRY, MEGAN WHALEN TURNER. (And children.) I called the protagonist Polynices, because I knew he was a Poly-something, just not quite what, and the name was in my head because I’d read Antigone, or actually Antigonick, recently.

All right, that’s it! Dishonour! Dishonour on your whole family. (Make a note of that.) Dishonour on you, dishonour on your cow —

Anyway. The children were delighted with the image of goats chewing on the roof and munching up the garden, and even eating Polynicesstrictes’s clothes. And with a man cowering in a well, and with having these naughty goats named after their leaders. (Because YES I forgot all the goat names except one, which happened to be the name of the older sister of two of my audience. They were overjoyed at that detail.)

We had just time for one more story, and I was running out of ideas, so I broke storytelling law again and began a very adapted version of Patricia C. Wrede’s short story “Utensile Strength” (Book of Enchantments). Let me tell you, the Frying Pan of Doom was very popular. For some it was the idea of a magical, dangerous frying pan. (One small girl ran up to me repeatedly after, giggling at “the evil frying pan”.) For others it was the fact (made up by me, I am SO SORRY, Patricia C. Wrede) that if the wrong person tried to use the Frying Pan, they would be turned into scrambled eggs. In the actual story, the Frying Pan turns those it is wielded against into an enormous poached egg, but we don’t find that out until the end.

I never got to finish this story, as we ran out of time. I’d have liked to see how the many boys among my listeners reacted to the heroes’ bake-off. (Probably favourably. There isn’t a small boy who doesn’t like brownies and cookies, and the idea of being able to make these yourself, whenever you wanted, would have been popular with this crowd.)

So that was the end of the storytelling session. Partly because the children were a little tired, and partly because they loved being told a story, even the rowdiest were settled, with a few quiet reminders near the beginning. (They didn’t need reminders afterward.)

A few days later a group of smallish boys was beginning to lean into antsiness and mischief, so I asked if they wanted a story. They did. I gave them the story of the Great Smelly, Slobbery, Small-Tooth Dog. (Julie Paschkis’s illustrations in the picturebook, are just beautiful. If you ever have the chance to hear Mary Read Macdonald tell stories, go for it.) They were entranced. They stayed attentive and curious despite having to move locations part way through the story, despite the long interruption of safety announcements in French as well as English, and despite being thirsty.

After that, one of the boys requested Rumplestiltskin. I pointed out that the miller’s daughter didn’t have a name, and what should we name her? They liked the idea of naming a character. They also liked, although my throat didn’t, Rumplestiltskin’s high thin cackle and mannerisms (think Jim Carrey’s The Grinch) and the terrible temper tantrum he threw when he was defeated.

Add one more story, which was a personal one, and that was all the time we had just then.

I’ve packed a bag of books (including Jane’s Wild One) for the next time we have children of this age range, and for optional sessions with the older children on sleepy or rainy days, but I almost wonder if they won’t be needed, or it they will, but for odd times, as when I sat on a log with a gang of boys too tired to play soccer, and read the early chapter book one of them had brought, full of alien butts and bodily fluids, instead of as a scheduled activity. If what the children will want is not to be read a story (although this works wonders at bedtime) but to be told a story.

I’d better start practicing.