It was a steamy summer afternoon in D.C. I had been babysitting our friends’ children – Clare, age five, and Kate, age three – regularly that summer so that their mother could finish her doctoral dissertation. The girls and I had just returned from the park, hot and sweaty and tired, they from playing, I from the mile walk. Lunch, clean up, quiet time.
And then came the request. I, of course, looked for a book. No books. Many children’s books sat stacked high on a shelf, but I did not see them.
“Oh, oh! A story!” said the other sister, joining us.
“Once upon a time,” I began (because all stories begin this way), “there were two princesses. Princess Clare and Princess Kate.”
“Wait!” interrupted Clare. “Can I be Princess Annabelle?”
“And I’m Princess Judy,” drawled the high voice of three-year-old Kate.
“Alright,” I agreed. “Once upon a time, there were two princesses. Princess Annabelle and Princess Judy. They lived in a shining castle at the top of a mountain…”
The girls sat eager and engaged as I spun out one tale, and then another, and then another. Princess Annabelle and Princess Judy live in the Castle of Udolpho (apologies to Ann Radcliffe) in the middle of the Machanitcal Forest (a cross between magical and enchanted ). They meet and befriend a knightly dwarf and a unicorn named Nellie who help them slay the monsters and dragons they meet in the magical twists and turns of the forest, only to return home to the comforts of their castle and the love of their parents, the King and Queen.
The girls have not forgotten these stories. In fact, for three years, after their family moved back to the Seattle area, the girls and their parents have continued to tell the tales of the Castle of Udolpho. New characters have been introduced, others lost. The Princesses have voyaged to the ends of the earth and back, always keeping their knapsacks handy, filled with magic wands, clothes, food, bandages, flashlights, and the definitive edition of the Monsters Field Guide, that they themselves wrote and continue to revise. These Princesses are budding naturalists.
When I visited them, three years later, this past January, Clare and Kate were eager for more stories. “Can you tell us a Machantical Forest story? Please? Please? Please?”
So I did.
Spontaneous storytelling with children is a delight. It is also something of a lost art, I suspect. In our home, a board book is always within reach, and we read, rather than tell, stories. (My stories with Clare and Kate are the exception, not the rule.) It makes me wonder what we’re losing, if we are indeed losing it.
What does oral and spontaneous storytelling foster in the child – and in the adult – that the board or picture book cannot?
What makes for children receptive to – and participants in – oral storytelling?
And what literary devices – good, bad, and otherwise – do we naturally gravitate toward in telling a spontaneous story?
I’d like to explore these questions over the next few weeks. I encourage you to share your thoughts and special memories of storytelling, either as the child hearing or the adult spinning the tale, in the comment box. As a parent and a learning and growing storyteller, I am eager to incorporate your thoughts and experiences into my own reflections.