How to Tell Stories to Children - Intro to New Book

Thanks to everyone who supported our book project How to Tell Stories to Children. We plan to have a complete edition out by May. In the mean time, we recently submitted a full proposal last weekend to a book agent who has expressed possible interest. Wish us luck. The introduction to the book is shared below to whet your appetite. Please share your feedback.


Introduction

Storytelling is one of the oldest and most profitable businesses on the planet. Modern stories are often told through movies, books and video games, but the oral tradition has something unique to offer - a lasting bond between the storyteller and listener. This is why it’s such a vital tool for parents, educators and anyone interested in a meaningful relationship with children.

Think of it as the difference between a can of tomato sauce and homemade marinara. A practiced storyteller draws upon the events and objects within a child's immediate surroundings, like plucking tomatoes and herbs from the garden, then crafts stories that are not only entertaining (or tasty), but local and organic - crafted precisely for those children in that place.

In this book, we outline the key ingredients for intuitive storytelling so that you can begin improvising your own stories directly from within the environment in which you and your children live. We are parents and teachers with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of story-hours under our belts, but this book has nothing to do with how to tell our stories, or anyone else's. It has everything to do with how to tell yours.

There are hundreds of storybooks available today, including several that give some instruction and background on storytelling. Some of these books are excellent, but each is primarily focused on memorizing or retelling stories that someone else, or yourself, has prepared for you. This is not the intention of our book. What you hold in your hands is not a collection of stories. It is a method to help you craft your own. Our method employs a simple architecture, starting with the physical objects and activities within your child's immediate environment.

This technique is something we employ every day, with a lot of variety and flexibility. Stories can be about local animals and birds, a craft we just made with the kids, or even something as simple as a backpack. Our characters frequently encounter situations that the kids have recently seen themselves. At the end of story time, it’s common for the kids to erupt with phrases like, “that was the best story ever!”

It’s true that we’re good storytellers, but the essence behind these children’s statements has little to do with the actual events and quality of our stories. What’s more critical is the emotional bond and shared experience we have with the kids, so that our stories are crafted from events and objects everyone recognizes.

Sometimes, this can be as complicated as reframing a conflict amongst the children in the guise of a quarrel amongst squirrels, but often it’s as simple as noticing a child’s bare feet, then telling a story about what happened when her shoelaces took a walk down to the stream. Such stories make the kids giggle, or think. They feel like they are a part of it, because they recognize the characters and events in the stories from their real lives. This is the method we teach in this book, and anyone can do it.

Contrast this with the message from storyteller Marie Shedlock in the introduction to her classic The Art of the Storyteller, "It is to be hoped that someday stories will be told to school groups only by experts who have devoted special time and preparation to the art of telling them."

This is precisely the opposite of our message, which is that everyone is a good storyteller and no expert can replace the intimacy of a story crafted from within a child's own environment by an attentive and loving parent or caregiver.

But there’s more. Because intuitive stories are crafted from within a child's environment, there is a direct and physical outlet for imaginative play afterward. This is the storytelling loop we describe in chapter one. It is not hard to imagine what a barefoot child who has recently heard a story about her shoelaces will do once she finds her shoes.

As a whole, the chapters in this book describe the key ingredients of our storytelling method, but each topic is self-contained, so that most folks will have no trouble cherry picking. The chapters, each designed to be short and sweet, can be read in less than ten minutes, with a sample story at the end to help shed light on the lesson of that chapter. Many folks will find it easy to read the entire book in one sitting, but it would be perfectly suitable, and even very much to our liking, if you read a chapter and then try a story with your kids, then return another day for another topic. Good storytelling, despite what Marie Shedlock says, is not about perfection. It’s about practice. There is no rush.

We trust this method because we use it almost every day. We’ve seen it work in multiple settings over multiple years, and there is enormous flexibility. The framework is helpful, especially if you are just getting started, but no two stories and no two storytellers are ever the same. Good stories, like good people, are as diverse as the peaks of a mountain range, with all the valleys and streams between. Find your place. Your stories will be most fruitful when you stop listening to any advice, including ours, and simply follow the story that is already inside you.

If this book can be reduced to one message, it’s this — you are already a good storyteller. It’s literally what makes us human. It comes with the package, just like hair and opposable thumbs. So remember, if it’s marinara you’re after, try a few recipes the first time around. It will help, and it won’t take long to beat the canned variety. But once you’ve mastered your particular tastes, throw out the recipe book. Your intuition will take you and your kids further than you ever dreamed.

Sample cover with gray background for relief. Artwork by dear friend and children’s book author Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.

Sample cover with gray background for relief. Artwork by dear friend and children’s book author Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.