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How to be a magical storyteller

You don’t need to be JK Rowling to create bedtime tales to charm your child, just follow your feelings

Posted: 3 January 2013
by Fiona McKim

Paper sculpture by Su Blackwell, taken from The Fairytale Princess (Thames & Hudson, £14.95)

Once upon a time, there was a little princess who wanted nothing more than to hear exciting tales of faraway lands and mythical creatures. But the ruler of the land decreed that such tales were banished in favour of tried-and-tested texts to be recited perfunctorily before lights-out, and while the princess loved her bedtime book, she couldn’t help but long wistfully for something a little bit more spontaneous…

If this faux fairytale feels faintly familiar, then perhaps, like many parents, spur-of-the-moment storytelling does not always come naturally to you. While some are born to perform, the rest of us have probably been steadfastly avoiding the spotlight since being cast as the donkey in the school Nativity. So why attempt to pull stories out of thin air for an eager young audience when there is a wealth of wonderful literature that you can simply read aloud with no performance anxiety? “There is a great difference between telling and reading a story, for both adults and children,” says Josie Felce, a professional storyteller and author of Storytelling For Life (Floris Books, £14.99). “In telling a story, the narrator looks at a child and adapts it to her level of understanding and needs. When you put feelings into a story your child loves, she will pick this up.”

The first step is to find a story that interests. Inspiration for your very own tall tale is likely to be sprinkled throughout your day, from a strange-but-true story in the newspaper to a quaint old curiosity shop on the high street. Think about people who have caught your eye, and imagine how their journey might have continued from the moment when they piqued your interest. Why was that man dressed as a clown on the bus to the airport? Where did that regal octogenarian go after being coiffed to perfection at the beauty parlour? Once you have the bare bones of your story, fleshing it out with voices, body language, repetition and rhythm is the key to engaging your audience and holding their attention. “One of the reasons repetition is important to children is that it makes them feel like they have agency in their environment,” confirms Emma Kenny, a child psychologist and Disney Winnie The Pooh Storytelling Academy panellist. “You watch a child who is being told a story when they know what is about to happen next and the excitement is palpable.” If you lack confidence, practise without an audience first. “Try telling the story in front of a mirror,” suggests former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen. “Watch what you are doing with your hands, your body, your eyes. Think about your voice and how you use your arms and your legs. Have fun with it.”

Once you have gained some momentum with your tale, a new challenge may be how to bring things neatly to a close. For young children, happy endings reign supreme, so any dastardly villains and undesirables should be thwarted, converted or banished along the way. Baddy-bashing should happen just in the nick of time, and why not add excitement by bringing your child in to save the day? Older children may enjoy an suspenseful cliffhanger to be continued the next night, giving parents time to concoct the next exciting twist in the tale.

Of course, even if you have scaled the summits of oratory excellence, the ideal storytelling session is an interactive affair where your child can try her hand at spinning the yarn too. “It’s important to try to avoid that unilateral belief that you are telling the story your way because you know how to do it,” says Kenny. “Make sure you are taking cues from your child. She will probably want you to stop several times and you should stop, because she might have questions or information that she wants to impart, from ‘Mummy, that’s happened to me’ to ‘Mummy what does that mean?’.”

There are many ways you can involve your child in her bespoke story. Use helpful props like the Magic And Fairy Tale Dice, (£9.99, Laurence King), a cute set of chunky wooden die with sweet illustrations, ranging from the archetypal valiant knights and bewitching ebony cats to more unusual exploding clouds and soaring spectres. Simply roll the dice and use each image to layer a tale. Or, try making a personalised story bag. Look through magazines and photograph albums with your child, cutting out pictures that take her fancy. Then, place your papery prompts in a cloth bag and have a lucky dip for story inspiration. Artist Su Blackwell, who created the paper fairytale sculptures for the book The Fairytale Princess (Thames & Hudson, £14.95), used this technique in her childhood, “I made books out of words and pictures that I then read out to my friends and family,” she reminisces. “Parents could incorporate some of the elements and details present in my works into their stories. My work is open to interpretation.” Using imagery is an effective way to whet your child’s creative appetite. And besides, how else would you come up with the tale about the Duchess of Cambridge eating a giant profiterole tower while trying to land a helicopter on the Egyptian pyramids?

In any family, the best storytellers are the ones who have a personal tale to tell. You may roll your eyes when Grandad goes off on a meandering monologue, but the success of Who Do You Think You Are? proves family history can be fascinating. Grandparents, older neighbours or family friends are often bursting with interesting tales about childhood of yesteryear, adventures, and loves lost. Besides, there is nothing like a personalised performance to bring the past to life. “Most of your child’s entertainment isn’t live,” says Rosen. “She probably watches TV and goes to the cinema more than she sees live shows. When you tell your child a story, she will be watching something new and exciting that’s being created specifically for her.” Felce agrees. “Modern communications are stimulating, exciting and challenging, but the human heart needs more than this,” she says. “For older people, it becomes imperative to tell their personal story; sharing these stories is a way to build community.”

Whether your stories take on a Dick Bruna-esque minimalism or you end up weaving yarns that would make Tolkien look simplistic, a happy ending is practically guaranteed, as your audience is already your number one fan. “Children don’t really care if you make mistakes or get the words wrong,” says Kenny. “What they know is that you are taking time to spend with them. I think so many parents are embarrassed to put on accents and run around the room and jump about and be silly. But I would just say, the average child laughs around 350 times a day; for the average adult, it’s 17 times. The children have got it right!

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