St. Paul Pioneer Press

St. Paul Pioneer Press

November 25, 2003

Maja Beckstrom

Listen, my children…

Parents can cultivate the art of storytelling

Once upon a time, Mike Mann’s daughter came home from second grade with a homework assignment: Watch no TV for a week. To fill the long winter evenings, the family started reading books aloud. One night, after his children begged him to read the same story for the hundredth time, Mann put down the book.

“Instead of reading the story to them, I told it to them,” he said. “And suddenly, we were doing something back and forth. They were forming pictures in their own minds. And at the end of the story, my youngest looked up at me and said, ‘Dad, the book isn’t in the way anymore.’”

Now a professional storyteller who spins his yarns at schools and festivals, Mann wants to help other families put aside the books, flip off the television and start telling stories of their own. He and two other Twin Cities storytellers – Tina Rohde and Colleen Shaskin – lead workshops to teach parents how to start a family storytelling tradition. At a recent series at the Minnesota Waldorf School in Maplewood, participants learned to mine their childhoods for inspiration and turn nursery rhymes into bedtime tales.

“Storytelling is a part of being human. It’s how we think and communicate with others,” Mann said. “When kids get to school on Monday, they want to tell their friends what they did on the weekend. That’s a story. When husbands and wives get home after work and ask, ‘How was your day?’ (the response) is a story. We want people to understand this isn’t a special thing. It’s for everyone.”

Once Mann caught the storytelling bug, he scoured the children’s section of the library for inspiration. When he got home in the early afternoon from his job as a baker, he would choose a picture book. His method was to read it three times – twice silently and once out loud. Then, every night at the dinner table, he would retell that story. “Some of them were really awful,” he recalled. “But they were so well received that it didn’t matter.”

This went on for two years. Then one day, he didn’t have time to prepare. “There once was a kingdom…” he started. “Where there were birds!” piped up one of his daughters. And out came his first made-up tale. Mann hasn’t looked back since.

TAP IMAGINATION

Telling stories professionally may take some gumption and theatrical flair, but telling stories to your own children is a cinch, the storytellers say. Really. “I don’t think most people make up stories to tell their kids,” said Rohde, who was a clown before starting to tell stories professionally. “I think it’s something a lot of parents are afraid to do. They’re afraid it’s going to be boring.”

“Boring is OK, said Rohde. At bedtime when her four children were young, Rohde would recount what they had done that day, except in the stories, her children were bunnies. “I tell people if you’re having a really hard time, change the people into animals, and then it can be really ridiculous,” she said. I think everybody has the potential to tell stories. I think our lives have gotten so busy and consumed by TV and video games that it just doesn’t happen.”

Mann, Rohde and Shaskin aren’t anti-book, and they urge parents to read to their children. They just think telling stories offers a more interactive experience. One British study of primary students found that children who listened to a story scored higher on comprehension and vocabulary than those who heard the story read to them.

That doesn’t surprise Joe Lacey-Gotz, a father from St. Paul who has been telling stories to his two girls, Kate, 8, and Zoe, 6, ever since they could sit still. “It requires the kids to make their own mental images,” he said. “Kids can actually learn more because they’re using more skills.” Several years ago, Lacey-Gotz told a story loosely based on a big family that lived down the street from his childhood home in Austin, MN. The family, renamed the Wesselinks, took on a life of its own and grew so big that the parents couldn’t remember all the children’s names and they had to use a school bus to get around. The girls still ask for their favorite Wesselink stories. “I get to be creative,” said Lacey-Gotz, who remembers his own grandfather telling him wonderful stories as a child. “And I get to have a really special connection with my kids. It really is different from reading a book. I’m sharing with them some version of my past or my creation that I get immediate feedback on. And when you see your kid lock in on a story, it’s the best.

RELAY HISTORY

Deirdre Murnane of Minneapolis is excited about using stories to pass on family history and said the workshop taught her the difference between simply telling about an incident and turning that incident into a story. When she was a child, she fell off a jungle gym and split her lip. What turned it into a story were the details: the foggy beach by the Santa Monica pier, the faint sounds of the merry-go-round and the smell of hot dogs mingling with the smell of the ocean. “I wouldn’t have thought to put that extra stuff in,” Murnane said. “But it makes it that much richer.” She told the story at the dinner table, which prompted Evan, 11, and Cloe, 7, to ask more about her childhood. So, for the first time, Murnane told stories about their grandmother, the daughter of a Polish Jew who had lived in Berlin during World War II. During the long, dark evenings of winter, Murnane is thinking about starting a new tradition. Once a week last winter, the family would light candles and read a story aloud. This year, she will tell some stories, too.

Tim Jenkins of St. Paul traces his interest in telling stories to his teenage years. He was the oldest of five children; the next in line was seven years younger. In the evenings, when his mom was doing housework and his step-dad was watching television, Jenkins would tell stories to his brothers and sisters. Now, he is telling them to his own 5-year-old son, Armando Jenkins-Vazquez. Armando’s favorites are adventure tales about himself and his friends, Julio and Beto. They might play on a basketball team against the Timberwolves or slip out at night to fly their spacecraft. At least half the time, he tells his dad exactly what should happen. “Wait, Papi, how about I buy a car,” Armando might interject. Jenkins also has been experimenting with true stories about his own past and trying to find ways to make them interesting. “I told him about the time I got lost at the mall and I started by saying, ‘I looked out from underneath the coat rack and I didn’t see my mom’s feet.’ That got his attention,” Jenkins said. Armando went on to ask a lot of questions. Was his dad scared? Where was the mall? Who was that cousin he was with when he got lost? The story sparked a dialogue that might never have happened otherwise, Jenkins said.

And then, there is a kind of story that the storytellers never teach but that should be in every parent’s repertoire: a story so dull that it lulls the child to sleep. Jenkins relies on one that never fails, set in a house by the ocean. “There was a lot of wind blowing and waves crashing. I make those sounds,” Jenkins said. “One time, his cousin was here, and I looked over and they were both just zonked.”

‘BUT I DON’T KNOW ANY STORIES!’

Here are tips to get you started:

  • Turn a childhood memory into a story: Close your eyes and think of a place that was special to you as a child. How did it look? What were the sounds? The Smells? What did it feel like? After setting the scene, think of something dramatic that happened there. It could be as simple as falling into a puddle.
  • Jump-start a story with questions: How did your family first come to the United States? What was your first job? Did you ever tell a lie or steal something as a child? Who were your neighbors growing up? Have you ever been lost? How did you get your name or give your child his or her name?
  • Don’t be afraid to embellish the truth: If you know only that your grandmother came over from Sweden on a steamboat when she was 16, don’t be afraid to make up the details.
  • Create a holiday storytelling ritual: Tina Rohde’s family gathered around the Christmas tree in their pajamas. Every night, they told a story about a different ornament, some true and some made up.
  • Tell a story in the round: Have one person start by setting the scene. Pass the story on to the next person.
  • Use folk tales, children’s books or nursery rhymes for inspiration.
  • Retell a story in your own words. Put the story in a modern setting. Tell the story from the point of view of a minor character. Or tell the story behind the story. Mike Mann likes one he heard about why the itsy-bitsy spider climbed the water spout.