Tall Tales for Small People

By Kate Lilienthal

Spinning Yarns Provides More Than Good Entertainment
Once at risk of becoming a lost tradition in these busy, media-inundated times, storytelling has regained respect and recognition as a popular form of art, instruction and entertainment. In this article, we introduce professional storytellers from the San Francisco Bay area and discover their secrets of spinning a good yarn.

Ten preschoolers sit in a circle, entranced in a story. Some snuggle into their parents’ laps. Others wriggle as the suspense builds. When mountains of doughnuts at last explode from Homer Price’s brand-new, automatic doughnut-making gizmo, their enthusiasm breaks in a rush of noise and questions.

“Were there crumbs?” one asks.

“How did they eat them all?” another demands. 

Lynette Patton, Mountain View resident and volunteer storyteller when not working as a nurse, is telling the tale of Homer Price, doughnut king of Centerburg. No pictures, no screens, no fancy sound system, just Lynette and her trained voice. And her listeners gobble her words like, well, dozens of fresh doughnuts.

The affair is called  “An Evening of Storytelling with the Peninsula Story Guild” at the children’s library in Palo Alto, and it provides a free-flowing hour of tales for children and adults. This is just one of many such storytelling events that take place regularly in the Bay Area. 

Rediscovering the Power of Stories

Once at risk of becoming a lost tradition in these busy, media-inundated times, storytelling has regained respect and recognition as a popular form of art, instruction and entertainment. Thanks to the inspired efforts of individuals and organizations, Bay Area parents are rediscovering the power of storytelling to enrich and educate. 

“Telling stories to children is a completely different experience than reading an illustrated book aloud,” says Katy Obringer, children’s librarian and chairwoman of the Peninsula Story Guild. “Children instinctively and magnetically respond to stories.”

The cognitive and emotional benefits are undeniable. When listening to a story, children use the power of their imaginations to create mental pictures of the tale.  According to a study conducted by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Illinois, storytelling expands creativity, teaches language, listening and writing skills and increases children’s interest in reading.  

Storytelling also is a means for adults and children to interact. It provides a way for kids to share feelings and connect with their families and cultures.

“Storytelling connects children to the past and leads them to the future,” says Nancy Schimmel of Berkeley, professional storyteller and author of the book Just Enough to Make a Story, A Sourcebook for Storytelling. “Telling stories passes down a culture’s values and creates a sense of belonging to a group.”

And storytelling provides a shared, intimate experience between an adult and a child, similar to taking a trip together. It’s a dynamic activity, offering a rare moment when an adult and a child give each other undivided attention, Schimmel says. Hearing an adult tell stories also validates for children that their world of fantasy is accepted, which can be quite comforting. 

“Happily ever after is the listener, not the character.” Children are happier for having been told a story,” Schimmel says.

Listening to stories is just plain enjoyable.

“In telling or listening to a story, you enter a world that is filled with wonder, laughter, learning and pure entertainment,” Schimmel says. In other words, who doesn’t love a good story? 

A Rich Tradition
Children have asked parents to “tell me a story” for as long as people have gathered around fires. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of folk art, thought to have grown from the basic human need to entertain, explain the world, record events and share experiences.

The earliest stories were probably simple chants that honored the sun or the Earth and expressed the joy of being alive. The chants grew into myths that were created to explain natural occurrences. In the Middle Ages, storytelling evolved into popular entertainment but faded with the advent of print.

A revival of storytelling began in the United States in the 1970s. Professional storytellers again toured as they had in bygone eras. Local and national organizations were founded that still form the backbone of the storytelling art today. 

In Your Own Words
There are as many different ways to tell a story as there are types of tales – spoken or sung, learned from literature or made up, told with or without music or pictures. The best stories to present aloud focus on plot. Folk tales make for good telling as they’re short and simple. Other kinds of stories include myths, literary tales, fables and religious tales.  

The first step is to choose a good story. The nearby public library is a good place to start. Then it’s important to adjust the length and complexity of the story to the audience. “Children under age 3 gravitate to stories about household objects,” Obringer says.  “Favorite topics for children ages 3 to 5 include animals and other children.”

The next step is to learn the story. Begin by reading it over several times. Organize the order of events and characters in your mind.  Practice the story out loud. You’ll find that you’ve memorized a couple of key phrases and some sentences at the beginning and end. When you know the story well enough, begin to work on the delivery. 

Telling the story will be easy. You don’t need to mime or act. The words will do the work. Expand your tale as you see fit to win your child’s appreciation.

To prepare for her weekly storytelling sessions, Obringer integrates stories, finger plays, songs and for older kids, crafts and foods. She reads the stories aloud, then closes her eyes and visualizes the sequence of events. She often makes a storyboard to help her remember and rehearses in the car on the way to work.  

“Telling a story is a skill,” Obringer says. “The key is a good beginning and end. Cut to the chase. Don’t have too much elaborate setup, and don’t tell the story too quickly. A story takes its own time.”

The test of a well-told story is if the kids ask to hear it again. 

Fun for All

“Storytelling is an enjoyable, educational art form for young and old, listeners and tellers alike,” Obringer says. For the teller, it provides an intimate connection with a listener – a chance to share and to turn the wheels of children’s imaginations.  “There’s nothing better than engaging with a live audience through stories,” she says. “It’s a way to get your 15 minutes of fame without millions of rehearsals.”

For the listener, storytelling builds community and a shared understanding of ideas, even among children with diverse literacy and achievement levels. Hearing a story is a personal, inventive experience that promotes language, creativity and listening skills.

In the words of Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, tell them a fairy tale. If you want your children to be very, very intelligent, tell them many, many fairy tales.”

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