A Tale Never Loses in the Telling

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Sharing stories is something – one of the only things – that unites us. No matter where someone comes from, their language, race, religion, or class. Throughout human history, stories have been told and passed on.

Some of the earliest evidence comes from 17,000-year-old cave drawings. But given that language developed from a tongue spoken in East Africa 50,000 years ago, it seems logical to conclude storytelling goes back much further.

National Share a Story Month, then, promotes the most ancient of traditions: sharing stories orally. The first written story, the epic Gilgamesh, came later around 4000 years ago. Teachers are a huge part of this tradition. Whether they are to entertain or educate, teaching and stories go hand in hand.

But oral storytelling is different from reading from a book. There are many ways to share a story, but there is perhaps none more so personal, social or interactive than speaking directly to an audience. Making eye contact, hand gestures and facial expressions bring a story to life. They bring the story to life, not the storyteller.

There are many different ways to tell a story without a book.

Philip Pullman, in his essay Magic Carpets, explains that the storyteller should be invisible. The best way to do this “Is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just… disappears.” When Pullman taught trainee teachers, he would encourage them to occasionally tell stories in the classroom and not read them from a book. The results were that the children gazed at the story and not the person telling it – “The teller had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result.”

Stories in the classroom can promote so much, and there has been a lot written on the subject. Oral storytelling offers some added benefits:

  • It’s more personal. Giving the audience constant eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures, and telling a story that’s now “yours”, creates a deep emotional connection with those listening. In turn, enhancing emotional intelligence.
  • There’s more freedom. The storyteller can add, chop, and change parts to suit the audience and themselves. This carries on the tradition where stories evolve over time.
  • There can be greater audience participation. Because it can be more personal, and there’s more freedom, the storyteller can use the audience in creating the story. The storyteller has more choice in when to stop and involve the audience too in questions and opinions. This helps those all-important active listening skills. And we all know book talk is the bedrock of understanding.

Despite the call to ditch-the-book, there are many that offer stories short enough to memorise (though no one is suggesting you learn them word for word – storyteller freedom is one of the benefits) and short enough to stretch your wings. Collections of folktales and fables like Aesop’s Fables (Puffin Classics) and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Between Worlds have stories with a mix of different lengths. My personal favourite being King of the Cats which is about 600 words. Crossley-Holland is also one of the authors of the popular Short series of books with very short stories.

You can find heavily abridged stories in nonfiction titles too. Season of the Witch (Flying Eye Books) is a fascinating look at witchcraft and magic across different cultures and history. Throughout the book are short stories about different witches. In a similar vein, Goddess (Nosy Crow) features manageable stories and biographies of Goddesses, spirits, and saints. And Lore of the Wild is about the folklore in the nature around us. Each section starts with a short folktale from different cultures. Non-fiction is ripe with stories. True stories and biographies are useful to help contextualise science, history, and geography topics. A Quick History of Maths offers information, when told as stories, that can help explain various mathematical concepts as part of lessons.

Contextualising the world around us is one of the most important benefits of reading for young people. In a world fractured, politically, and religiously, making sense of our home and the people in it becomes more vital than ever. A World Full of Journeys & Migrations (Frances Lincoln) tells the stories of people’s journeys. Whether they chose to themselves or not. The Silk Road, African Nomads, colonialism, explorers, the slave trade, the American West… to name just a few. Even the journeys of food and music, and disease.

Nonfiction like Journeys & Migrations has some of the most powerful stories there has ever been. And the most captivating. It’s something many people already do, possibly without realising the impact. In a recent assembly, I saw a teacher passionate about history tell the story of St George. Not the mythical story of fighting a dragon, but the history of becoming a saint, his impact around the world, and why the story of the dragon might not be true. It drew the attention of the whole room.

You can find stories in books all over the school, giving life to older books. Who knows what stories might be sitting in the backs of dusty cupboards across the country, waiting for someone to bring them back to life.

Sharing a story is one of the most precious gifts, and the bond between storyteller and audience is arguably strongest without the book between them. And when we connect to a story, we’re more likely to pass it on ourselves. They can be an inheritance more precious than a piece of jewellery. Consider sharing a story without the book, you’re a link in a chain that is generations long.

All books mentioned in this blog are available from our bookshop bestbooksforschools.com

National Storytelling Month is organised by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. This year’s theme is belonging.