Saturday, January 13, 2018


The tangible and intangible
My storytelling tools are both intangible and tangible. The intangible are the tools that are inseparable from me: my body, voice, memory and my imagination. And the tangible are the tools I can hold and use when telling, like puppets and musical instruments. And of course, there are the books.

The intangible ‘me tools’ are getting on in years. I get tired more easily; I think more about how far I am prepared to travel and how many sessions I will do in a day. But there are countless good things about being older. My repertoire is vast and mature, I’m calm (the self doubt has faded), I relish dipping into deep experience and I have much to share and enjoy doing so. My voice is strong and can withstand hours of use (I sing in a choir to keep it in shape), my body still serves me well (I visit a gym) and I’m comfortable in my skin and no longer stare at the wardrobe and wonder who I am when I head off to tell stories. I know the value of what I do, and feel buoyed by life lived so far. My ability to quickly establish a relationship with my listeners is finely honed.

The tangible tools can be found on the book shelves, in my study and in a sturdy cane basket neatly packed with props. It was woven by a company that also makes ballooning baskets and is strong enough for me to sit on and flat enough to be a table. The lid has discreet leather straps with buckles, a deterrent when working with children who have not learned to respect boundaries. A foldable trolley leans against the basket, ready to wheel it out to the car. Stacked on top of the basket are two kamishibai stages and the stand. (I have three but the third is nearly always out on loan.)

Let’s begin with, the books …
Increasingly I use the Internet as my research tool but I still have a bookcase of anthologies and guides. If I could only keep three books, these are the ones I would choose:
·      Twenty Tellable Tales by Margaret Read MacDonald
·      Favourite Folktales from Around the World edited by Jane Yolen
·      The Kamishibai Classroom by Tara M. McGowan

Twenty Tellable Tales
What I appreciate in Margaret Read MacDonald’s collections are the detailed notes at the back, references and sources for the stories included. For those of us who like to dig a little deeper and research other versions of tales, think about who collected Indigenous stories and when, these notes are a beginning. I like to dig around a story before I commit to including it in my repertoire. Twenty Tellable Tales is also an example of stories written in oral language – language for telling. And of course, if you are not the inquisitive kind, you can simply tell the stories.

Favourite Folktales from Around the World
Jane Yolen begins Favorite Folktales from Around the World with an acknowledgement of the people who helped with the book. It’s worth researching these names, as many are fine folklorists. And from there, read the Introduction. I go back and reread this every few years. There is much food for thought in the way Jane Yolen writes of the oral, transcribed and literary tale.

The Kamishibai Classroom
I’m hooked on kamishibai storytelling and have successfully infected others with the passion. I find The Kamishibai Classroom by Tara M. McGowan to be a generous guide including history, the mechanics of making and doing, application in the classroom and so on. So far I know of no better book to get started.

And now a peek inside the basket …
When I started telling stories I was certain that props were unnecessary and that all a storyteller needed was good a repertoire and communication skills.  But when I found myself in kindergartens with children speaking English for the first time, I began to rethink. Years later, I worked in a specialist school, in a language enrichment program, telling stories with children who were learning to cope with a range of learning and behavioral problems caused by trauma, abuse, alcohol fetal syndrome, Asperger’s … In these environments, I’ve found that puppets and felts work magic. Props can underscore meaning and give a focus away from the storyteller. I’ve observed many times that some children are sometimes more able to connect with stories via a puppet or some other object.

I think of myself as an artist; my practice enhanced by hand-crafted props. Most I have made myself, some I have commissioned or been given, and a few have been bought. I’m fortunate to have a partner, John Kean, who is a skilled painter.

I could write at length about the props I use when working with young children but I think it best if I direct you to my DIY video where you can see me working with small children and using props. 

The following are some of my favorites
·      Bollard puppets
·      Felts
·      Australian hand and finger puppets

The Bollard puppets are cylindrical figures: the ‘Old Woman who swallowed a Fly’ and the ‘Old Sailor who swallowed a Krill’. (The story for Old Sailor is by author friend Claire Saxby). I started with a shop-bought Old Woman, she was like a small rag doll. One day I was working at a kindergarten and a boy with Cerebral Palsy wanted to have a go at putting the animals into her mouth but his compromised fine motor skills frustrated his attempts. When I came home, I put her away. I decide to make my own Old Woman with a big mouth and then I sourced big animals that were easy to hold. The Old Woman and Old Sailor are made from large postal cylinders, paper mache, cardboard (hats) and tennis balls (feet). They were inspired by the Geelong bollard people. Geelong is a seaside city to the west of Melbourne (Australia). Many years ago, artist Jan Mitchell created these wonderful characters that are dotted throughout the municipality. I dedicate my bollard people to Harry who I never met again, but I learned from him. 

 Felts: I’ve made my own felts to illustrate the stories of my choosing. The board is a piece of light plywood covered in polyfleece. I use my fish felts to set the theme for fishy stories. I have several boxes of felts that I carry in my story basket. Depending on the children, I may or may not use them. Felts are so simple, but they never fail to delight; they have a permanent place in the toolkit.

Australian hand and finger puppets: these are bought of course. It never ceases to amaze me that children born in Australia are commonly unable to identify our unique animals. Newly arrived children are generally experts. I feel deeply about the importance of connecting children to nature and much of my repertoire reflects this. I have acquired these puppets opportunistically at airports, conferences and toy suppliers. I’m fussy and look for puppets that are realistic as possible. I don’t have a taste for cute.

And Kamishibai …
Kamishibai (kami – paper, shibai – theatre) is a Japanese mode of storytelling. It employs a small narrow stage with an opening on one side so viewers can see a succession of cards revealed as the story is narrated. I won’t say more about the history of kamishibai as a quick search on the Internet will lead you to detailed sites with all you need to know. Kamishibai is the only prop I use when telling stories to adults audiences.

I have three Kamishibai stages.

K1 is made by a skilled carpenter friend, Ted Smith, from recycled Eucalyptus. Beautifully crafted, it’s the one I use the most. I am indebted to my storytelling, camera operator, props maker friend Alex Kharnam, for a stand adapted from a heavy-duty camera tripod that can be raised and lowered and packed away in a suitcases for easy travel.

K2 was bought online from Germany, KreaShibai, and has an echidna painted on it. You buy them plain. This one I lend to friends. 


K3 was made by me from cardboard. This one I can strap to my bike and literally pedal/peddle stories. You will find instructions on my website so you can build your own if you wish. 

Having a stage is only part way to getting up and running with kamishibai. The acquisition of stories that you want to tell is a whole other thing. Stories can be bought on line, but I like to make my own and trade with other makers. Currently I only tell one ‘off the shelf story’; the majority I tell, have been painstakingly drawn, painted or cut from colored paper by me. I’m not an artist and it takes weeks to make a story and my illustrations are not brilliant however it’s important to me that I am the maker. 

 I could share more photos and write more about my toolkit but this would turn into a very long article. For now this is glimpse. I haven’t mentioned the ukulele, nesting dolls, shells, pad of coloured paper for folding and tearing, spindle and bells. Another time …

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