MEET THE MAKERS: Jenni Cargill-Strong and the Art of Storytelling

Although nothing can really replace telling your children stories or singing songs to them, lets face it; we don’t have the energy to do that all the time. Sometimes we need some space and quiet time from the little darlings. Stories and songs on CDs are a lovely way for your child to sit and relax. If they have given up their sleep in the daytime they still might need to spend some time alone and you might need time to gather yourself for the afternoon, or think about dinner. Make this time a special moment in your child’s day. Make up a comfy listening spot somewhere in your lounge room or their bedroom. Set up a corner with pillows and their favourite quilt. Give their dolls or stuffed toys a place to listen as well. Make a little picnic on the floor and press play on the CD player. Depending on the age of your child this time could be anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. Perhaps you can make yourself a cup of tea and join your child for a rest. As children get older I have found giving them their own small CD player in their room gives them this feeling of joy and control over the music they listen to. I’ve always loved Putumayo Kids and Dragonfly stocks a good range of their CDs. Also available is ‘The Magic Garden’, a sweet CD with songs sung by children. Children love hearing and singing along with the voices of other children. Dragonfly has some beautiful story CDs in stock from The StoryTree Company, an Australian company from the Byron Bay area. ‘The Mermaid’s Shoes’ is perfect for ages 3 and up with no scary stories. The title track tells the story of a mermaid who swaps her mermaid’s tail for legs when she sees funky dancers on the beach. Also available by the same storyteller, Jenni Cargill-Strong, is the fun ‘Molly Whuppie’ and ‘The Story Tree’, both suitable for ages 5-10. jennicr We interviewed Jenni to find out more about storytelling with children and her inspiration behind her beautiful tales. What lies behind the magic of the spoken, rather than read, story? Reading a book to your child is a wonderful and magical thing to do. Mem Fox’s ‘Reading Magic’ is a great book on the value of that cozy bonding experience. Storytelling is powerful in a very different way. When you read, the book is the focus and you are merely the conduit for the writer who created that story. When you tell a story, there is no book. The story is the focus. The teller is free to look into the listeners eyes and feel where the story needs to be slower, faster, shorter, longer, softer, louder or where you need a pause . In that sense, it is co-created between the storyteller and the audience in that particular retelling. Even if you are retelling a folktale, you are free to put it into your own words and alter it slightly to suit the context of that particular telling. This means storytelling can be very dynamic and intimate. What, in your opinion, is the most important thing about storytelling to children? Folktales are told by an omniscient narrator. This can give people practice at observing life from a more detached perspective and also from multiple points of view- which is a very important skill spiritually and psychologically. Cultural values are deeply embedded in stories. While stories can be used to heal, educate, inspire and entertain, tellers need to be careful that the stories they tell reflect the values they want to convey. I have often heard Red Riding Hood told to preschoolers with the moral at the end that ‘good children shouldn’t stray from the path’. This was added by Charles Perrault and reflects the Victorian notion of how good girls should behave. The original Red was a robust lass who rescued herself. (See “The Path of Needles and Pins”.) While it is important that young children respect sensible boundaries and learn to be alert to dangerous people, older children shouldn’t be overly focused on obedience. Jack Zipes is very interesting on all these ideas and you can listen to him on “The Art of Storytelling” podcast or read one of his fabulous books. Stories have been around eons before the written word. What has been lost in the decline of the spoken story? While it is true that there was a decline in the spoken stories for some centuries, we are currently in the midst of a dramatic worldwide revival in storytelling! See my blog post ‘Why storytelling in education?’ where I link to many flourishing story communities and organisations. I will instead ponder one aspect of; ‘What can we gain from storytelling?’ because I could write a book about it if I looked at every aspect. When we listen together to a story, we enter into an almost hypnotic state, which can be deeply soothing. Coming together to share stories can build community, help us make sense of what it is to be a human and how to be a good person and community member. I was watching Diane Wolkstein’s DVD and it showed images of Haitian story gatherings, where people took turns to tell in an extremely physical and exuberant way. Each teller told the folktale in their own unique way. There was a lot of interaction between teller and audience – it was not a sedate affair! Sharing stories help us feel connected. How can stories be used to heal? I feel his paragraph from The Healing Story Alliance answers this. There are storytellers across the country (and beyond) telling stories to adults and children who struggle with illness, or grief, addiction or abuse, or any of the challenges in our human journeys. There are many others who do not think of themselves primarily as storytellers, though they know the positive power of story in health care, counseling, pastoral care, and other settings. We will share our experience and our skills in using stories to inform, inspire, nurture and heal. We will work together to increase our knowledge of stories and our knowledge of the best ways to use stories in service to others. Your stories are interspersed with song? How do stories and songs compliment one another? They are from the same place of dreams and visions. They both connect to the heart and soul and help us side-step the dominance of the logical analytic brain, which we need to bring into balance. Traditionally, songs and refrains have always been a part of folktales. How did you begin your storytelling career? Was your own childhood an inspiration to you? My mother told me a lot of family stories and anecdotes. This usually happened in bed at night, cuddled up warm and cozy. My Mum had a warm voice and I felt very loved when she responded to my request for a story. She told me about my family members, my great-grandmother and life before I was born. gave me a strong sense of where I came from. Then, I went to a drama school called the Drama Action Centre, where we learned many traditional performance arts such as mime, clowning, drumming, mask and storytelling. Once I connected passionately with a story, I was hooked for life! How do you ‘refill the well’ so to speak to find ideas and inspirations for new stories? I read a lot of storytelling books and listen to storytellers online. Teaching storytelling is inspiring as I learn from my students just as they learn from me. Increasingly my inspiration is from stories about the environment (which I feel passionately about) as well as stories which build emotional resilience. I work with my daughter’s class teacher to work with stories to support young students to develop learning good social skills. This entails working with lots of new stories and seeing the effect they have. I especially love Elisa Pearmaine’s book. See title below and my Resources page for more resources. How can we as adults tap into ourselves to tell our own stories that come from our own experiences and our children’s experiences of the world? It can help to get together in groups in well structured situations where there is a very strong atmosphere of warmth and encouragement. Allowing yourself the space to stumble and experiment, you play and allow stories to be very bad so that little bits of gems may emerge to be slowly polished in time. Sometimes you don’t need a whole story: an anecdote can do the job. Find your local storytelling group and do a workshop. Meeting others who love storytelling is very important. Enrolling in a course on life writing or therapeutic storytelling may be an option for some. Susan Perrow’s book “Healing Stories” is about writing healing stories for children designed for specific issues. See Books list on my Resource page for details.

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