Telling tales: Storytelling celebrates the stuff of life, and everyone can do it
Seattle Times staff reporter
The children giggled at their close calls and listened enthralled to Sanchez's tale from Peru about a mother seagull tricking a fox after he tries to steal her three babies. Sanchez's energetic story, which had her running back and forth across the floor as the busy mama bird and the sneaky fox, was part of the first weekend of The Burke Museum's Winter Storytelling Festival.
The festival runs through this month and is one of several locations where families can hear storytellers weave tales using nothing more than their voices, hands and imaginations.
"When people hear 'storytelling,' they think it's someone reading picture books aloud to small children," said Rosemary Vohs, who teaches storytelling courses as a faculty member of Western Washington University's Woodring College of Education. "But it's not that at all. They don't understand the power and history of storytelling."
A skill for everyone
Drawing on oral traditions passed down for generations, storytellers relate cultural folk tales, fairy tales, tall tales, autobiographical stories and their own inventions.
While it's fun to watch professionals, storytelling is something all parents can — and should — do with their children, experts say. Knowing how to tell a good story is also a useful skill for grandparents, teachers, Scout leaders and other adults who work with kids.
"Stories have always been shared by families," said Margaret Read MacDonald, a storyteller, author and children's librarian at Bothell Regional Library. "It's the way we passed on information about culture and morals. Under the guise of a story, there's a little moral at the end telling children how they should act."
MacDonald, who has written 32 books on storytelling and folk tales, suggested telling stories instead of reading a book for bedtime or sharing them on long drives, while waiting in lobbies or in lines or on rainy afternoons when kids are cranky.
'Your heart to their heart'
With so many wonderful books, parents often rely on print rather than telling stories from memory, Vohs said. While reading picture books is great, it can discourage young children from creating their own images in their minds. Spending so much time in front of television, computer and game screens adds to the problem.
When Vohs starts to tell stories, young children sometimes look a bit frightened, she said. "They're so used to all images being provided to them. One child even said to me, 'If you don't show pictures, I'm not going to know what to think.' "
MacDonald believes children's exposure to so much media "creates more of a market for storytelling."
"They have plenty of media contact," she said. "They need more personal contact. When you tell a story, it's your heart to their heart, your eyes to their eyes."
Indeed, for adults and children, the Seattle Storytellers Guild is seeing a "storytelling resurgence," said Guild member Pat Peterson, who attributes the increase in storytelling requests to Sept. 11. "Now more than ever, people are wanting and needing stories," she said.
"Stories really connect us together," Vohs said. "They're the glue that binds families and communities."
Six zebras in the family
Vohs' children, for example, love hearing about their great-grandfather, who owned a tea company in England and had six zebras to pull his carriage. "They feel really connected to their history and ancestors," she noted. "It gives them a sense of belonging."
Her father's stories about being a Boy Scout help her son, also a Boy Scout, relate to him despite generational differences.
She encourages grandparents to help their grandchildren decorate a special story box. As they have time, grandparents can write or e-mail children a story from their childhood or other family stories. Children can keep all the tales in their story box.
"The kids might not appreciate the box when they're 8 or 10," Vohs said. "But when they're 35, they'll pull out that box and say to their children, 'I want to show you Grandma's stories.' One story at a time, it gives children something wonderful to collect."
Stories are an important part of life even in our high-tech times.
"It's part of the human condition; we love stories," Vohs said. "Human beings are natural storytellers."
Stephanie Dunnewind can be reached at email@example.com or 206-464-2091.