Thursday, May 30, 2013

On Storytelling-- Part I:My Story

Long, long ago, I was a brand new children's librarian, working in the New York Public Library. 

I don't know how it is in the Betsy Bird era <snort>, but back in the 80s when I worked there NYPL did very fine in-service training. It didn't matter that I hadn't planned on being a children's librarian and taken the appropriate classes in graduate school. The library had classes and workshops on a regular basis.
Of course, truthfully, I got far more training in library work from the job I did as a bank teller during graduate school and from day to day work on the floor than I ever would have from those graduate school classes. I spent the first month working with another librarian at another branch who HAD taken those classes, gave me Zena Sutherland's textbook to read and told me I'd get plenty from that. Between that, watching her, and by reading widely in the collections of the branches in our region, I got some great training.......

The downside of NYPL in the 80s is that it was very hidebound to tradition.
Though I am not sure that letting hipsters like the aforementioned "Fuse #8" run the joint is an improvement on that(!)
 And nowhere was it more hidebound, than when it came to storytelling.

The storytelling "season" started at Halloween and ended in early May, when all the children's librarians took the ferry out to a branch on Staten Island and we had a storytelling showcase.
I think it was because of the birthday of Marie Shedlock. She was one of the founders of storytelling at NYPL, back in the days when grimy little urchins out of a Horatio Alger novel swarmed into the library to hear the librarians recount tales of King Arthur and the like. Some of the librarians there when I came in circa 1984 seemed to think that they were STILL dealing with the same audience....

The storytelling showcase was for librarians who had just been "trained" that year in storytelling:

We were trained to stand still and not use our hands.
We were trained to tell the story word for word "Just as Mr Dickens wrote it," so to speak.
Did you know Dickens retold his stories in performances and DIDN'T do them word for word ?There was more of the same, but it was  a stiff, formal style and when I tried to do it that way, I was an utter, utter, failure. Needless to say, the borough children's coordinator did NOT pick me for the showcase.

But back at my branch something occurred to me:
I DIDN'T HAVE TO DO IT THEIR WAY WHEN NO ONE WAS OBSERVING ME!

I tried telling a story I loved my way. With gestures. With movement. With music.
One of the first stories I did this way was "Abiyoyo". I loved Pete Seeger and knew the story well. I'm not sure the book was even out yet. But I did it. And I discovered something.

I loved storytelling. I was good at storytelling. I had found my voice!

A year or two later  storyteller Carol Birch  came to one of our in-service sessions and flabbergasted most of the librarians present by what she said. Because essentially, she validated everything I'd learned on my own--that the NYPL "training" was everything storytelling SHOULDN'T be.

From a recent article by Birch:
Recitation and reading are not story-telling. Storytelling is a performance medium and a departure from the grammar of print. Live storytelling is primarily an aural event with physical components that serves a story most effectively by using all the verbal and nonverbal cues available to performers.


When I moved to the DC area I was lucky enough to work with the Guitar Lady. She was a pain in the butt to have in the office--she drove the staff nuts--but she is a gifted storyteller who introduced me to stories I still tell today, to new ways of telling a story and to working with a partner. She went freelance long ago, but most summers I hire her to come and help me with a program or two for the sheer fun of doing so.

Now, 25 years and counting after I worked in NYPL, I am a storyteller. A joyful storyteller.

Sometimes I use flannel boards. Sometimes I use props. Sometimes I get members of the audience up and participating, or have the whole group join in on a song.

Sometimes I simply stand up and tell a story.
As I have just done here for you.

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