Daddy, tell me a story

Storytelling can help pass on lessons, history and lore

July 09, 2010|By CHRIS COPLEY
  • Since the earliest of times, humans have gathered around a fire to tell stories. Today, we continue to teach lessons and history through oral storytelling.
Photo illustration,

The story of the mustard seed. The lost sheep. The prodigal son. The two debtors. The good Samaritan.

When Jesus wanted to make a point and have his listeners remember it, he made his point in a story involving characters and scenes to which his listeners could relate - farmers, rich men, young girls at a party, poor widows, fathers and sons.

Aesop did the same. The ancient Greek storyteller - author of "The Town Mouse and Country Mouse," "The Ant and the Grasshopper" and other stories - used animals to teach his listeners about ethical behavior.

And parents can do the same, according to Williamsport storyteller Crystal Brown. Stories entertain, and they can also have lessons, even if the lessons are not obvious.

Brown has a large repertoire of stories, mostly original. But she likes to riff off existing stories, too.

"I write most of my stories, or write my own version. I don't change a fairy tale, but I add characters sometimes," she said. "I've written stories that begin with a familiar nursery rhyme and go off, such as who pushed Humpty Dumpty. Why did the woodcutter show up when he did (and rescue red Riding Hood)? I add butterflies who go and tell the woodcutter."


Brown tells stories professionally for schools and libraries. Working with large groups of kids, she will go beyond simply telling a story. She'll bring masks and costumes and have the kids act out the tale.

"Once kids get a costume on, they'll go for a long time," she said. "But it has to be immediate. Actions. I rewrite the fairy tales so everyone is speaking. I add characters."

Listening to a story, children find characters they relate to - the loyal friend, the naughty boy, the lazy rabbit, the hard-working daughter, the brave cowboy or cowgirl. But acting out a story in a costume adds another dimension, Brown said. Listeners become actors. They help create the story.

"I have a lot of fairy wing costumes. Fairy stories are very popular with girls. I'll often have goblins. And I have a lot of wooden swords," she said. "I tell stories from a lot of different cultures. Most are from the Northern Europeans. But I have a lot of cowboy stories."

One recent addition to her collection of props was a painted mask from Bali. Artistically, it was beautiful. But it had a frightening expression. So Brown named it Argie-Bargie - a British term meaning a disagreement - and the mask represented an ogre.

And kids love to play the ogre. In fact, Brown said, kids generally love playing the bad guys.

"It's interesting. You give children a choice - 'Do you want to be the good guys or the bank robbers?' - they always want to be the bank robber," she said. "All the bad guys get caught. Children know that, but they love to be the bad guys."

Another benefit of storytelling is passing on family tradition.

"One of the things kids love is to hear is stories about family members," she said. "They love to hear them over and over. Real-life stories -- things that happened to mother or to Uncle John."

This is a way to tell children about family history -- what the family's house was like, what parents did when they were children, the bully who hit dad in kindergarten, the farm grandpa worked on when he was 7.

Or tell stories about what children did when they were smaller and hadn't learned as much. Brown said kids love hearing about themselves when they were younger.

But lessons and history aside, one of the best parts of storytelling, according to Brown, is the time parents and children spend together.

"If children are in the home with the parent, they don't need the costume," Brown said. "When you tell a story, there's nothing between you and the children. What they're responding to is the parent's love of the child."

Tips for telling stories

o Tell stories your children can relate to, with characters or situations they understand. Does your daughter like baby animals? Make up a story about the adventures of baby animals on a farm. Does your son like to build things? Make up a story about a boy who builds railroad bridges, fixes firetrucks or designs spaceships.

o Add a new character, perhaps one similar to your child, to a familiar story. Add your child's favorite animal to the Bremen town musicians. Give Red Riding Hood a naughty friend on the walk to Grandma's house. Add another member to Robin Hood's merry band.

o Make up a story about an anti-hero or villain - a character who is lazy or greedy or mean or simply makes bad choices. Show how the villain's actions affect others. Show the villain learning how to make better choices.

o A good story needs challenges and obstacles. Send your character on a difficult quest, have them fight a dangerous dragon or send them on a journey. Make sure they encounter and solve problems that challenge them before they accomplish their goal.

o Make your characters easy to relate to. Give them easy-to-understand attributes - the beautiful but jealous girl, the slow but steady worker, the loyal friend, brothers who are always fighting, the helpful daughter.

o When you find stories that connect with your children, retell them. Children like repetition.

o Need ideas? Find stories at your local library. Borrow a copy of the Grimm's Brothers fairy tales or a collection of stories from Africa or Asia or the American Indians. Find stories you like and you can remember. You don't have to remember them word for word; retell them in your own style.

- Chris Copley

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