Thursday, January 31, 2013

Negotiating stories - a positive example

Once again I had an encounter on the field of "appropriate storytelling" - and this time I am happy to report that it was a positive experience.
I wrote about the preschool storytelling last week. It was fun, and I have been looking forward to the next one. This time, however, before the storytelling started one of the mothers pulled me aside to have a little talk about the stories I tell.
What happened was I told a porquoi tale last week. I have not even thought about it (in retrospect, I should have) that the families in the home school program are mostly devoted Christians, and as such, creation and "how day and night came to be" folktales are not the best choice to go with... anyway. So far it was not all that different from other issues about apporpritaeness that I have had to deal with before.
But, here comes the catch.
Instead of reproaching me, the lady very politely and openly explained to me her and the other mothers' concerns and the kinds of stories they find problematic. She was also very kind and told me that she really enjoyed my telling and she would like to continue bringing the kids every week. She apologized for making it difficult for me to choose stories, and she made it very clear she had nothing against my own personal world views, she just asked me to respect theirs. She inquired if I had stories that would fit their ideas, and finally told me that she was not angry in any way.
That, ladies and gentlemen, made all the difference in the world.
As a storyteller, it is my responsibility to adapt to my audiences. If you ask me nicely and politely, we can talk about mostly anything. I have hundreds of stories in my repertoire; I can choose the ones that will not offend you, but do not make me go out of my way either. We can compromise, if we can talk about it. If you respect my work, I will respect your wishes. If you do not care what my religion is, there is no reason for me to criticize yours either. If you open a conversation like civilized people, I am sure we can find stories that connect us both. And I will thank you for explaining to me what you think.
So this is exactly what happened. I went to my repertoire book (a million thanks to Elizabeth Ellis), carefully folded out the cover that says "What Would Loki Do?" (no need to upset nice people), and found some stories for the ankle biters that were appropriate. We had a great time, and we will continue to do so.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

5 things kids don't learn without stories

I have been working with children for a while, as a storyteller.
(I know, what else is new, right?!)
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the things I experience with my elementary school audiences. These are in no way official results of some research; it is just what I see during my everyday job as a storyteller. As many of the kids hear less and less live storytelling, their perception of story is changing. Here are a few things I have been experiencing over and over again that I am pretty sure are related to the loss of storytelling.
(Side note: I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not blaming TV for all of this. I watch TV all the time. I think the issue is much more complicated, and TV by itself could not possibly be responsible for all the changes.)

1. "Read us a story!"
I have encountered this one with adults too, and surprisingly often. People seem to have forgotten the concept of 'telling' vs 'reading'.  Even if there is no book in my hand, or even in the room; even if I have been telling them stories for weeks now; even if I look them in the eye during the story; even if I explain to them that I am telling and not reading... they will still use the wrong verb. They call me a "story reading lady" more often than a storyteller, and they repeatedly ask me to "read another!"

2. And the record keeps on turning
Another sign that children are not used to a live person telling them a live story is that they don't look at me. They are so used to presentations where someone (or something - TV, audiobook, etc.) is talking at them that they feel free to crawl around, pick up coloring books, skip out for a snack, or just sit down with their backs to me (I have also seen this with adults). They just assume that the storyteller is no different from any other media; that I will keep talking as an uninterrupted background noise even if they are doing something else. I have to work hard to train my audiences that this is an interactive process; I make them answer, repeat, mimic, just to hold their attention until they learn better. Parents all over the world try to teach their kids the principle of "look at me when I am talking to you!", but it does not seem to be too effective.

3. Short attention span
Or, in some cases, virtually none. There have been smarter people writing a lot about this one, so I am not going to go into details. Enough to say that storytellers of old would never get away with three princesses with the kids of today.

4. Is this story true?
On a more closely story-related note, there seem to be some deficit in telling truth and story apart. Kids don't seem to grasp the idea of a "fairy tale" (and I am talking all the way up to middle school here). After every dragon, fairy or trickster they demand to know if it is true, and where it happened, and how I can prove that I am not lying to them. They are not at all willing to suspend disbelief. The story is either true or it did not happen. And they are way too young to understand the values of stories, even if I tried to explain.
On the flip side of the coin, this proves that they can't tell truth and fantasy apart. If I tell them I did fight a dragon, they will believe me. There has to be something in there about not listening to stories enough, but once again, this is just a hunch.

5. What happened to the dwarfs?
This is fairly on the nose, but kids know less and less of the classic tales. I have had an entire American elementary school class that had never heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, and most adult audiences can still be shocked with the tale of Bluebeard. Lately, I had a room full of 6-12 year olds who did not know what dwarfs are. I repeated the word a number of times, thinking it was my accent; finally the teacher intervened, saying "you know, little people!" and the kids' eyes lit up: "oh, you mean midgets!"

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Piglets and princesses - Storytelling for preschoolers at MPCC

The idea was to start a story hour for the ankle biters while their older siblings are in Home School PE. We always have a bunch of little ones toddling around in Tuesdays and Thursdays, and as a storyteller, that seemed like a wasted opportunity for telling. So we put up a sign.
We had the first session today. At 1 pm I had one mother, one little girl, and no room to tell in (the usual place was taken up by a meeting). After some running and searching we found an empty activity room with chairs, but we decided to wait in the lobby until the other preschoolers showed up. In the meantime the little girl and I sat on a couch and she confided in me that she really liked princesses and love stories, so I told her the tale of the Queen who longed for snow. She was shy at first - kids always are when you tell to them one on one - but she smiled through her hands, and we had a nice little chat about snow, and flowers, and sweets. By the time the story ended the other families arrived, and we all marched down to the performing arts room, two mothers and five kids, for some more story time. It was four little girls, all about the same age, and one baby boy, sitting on his mother's lap very quietly, following all my gestures with great big eyes.
I concluded that five plus two is an ideal number for preschool storytelling. For one, the parents being there and listening just as intently as the kids makes an enormous difference. I wish that happened more often with storytelling sessions. The girls were very eager to copy whatever I was doing with my hands, and repeat the repetitive parts after me, so we had a nice little time telling La Noche del Tatu and the Squeaky Door together. The first time is always a calibration process: I learn the level of my little audience, and they learn my accent. For this group, it went really well. I am looking forward to next week.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

MythOff USA 2013 - Getting our myth on!

Guess what?!
The 2013 MythOff season is off to an Amazing start! With a capital A! And possibly glitter!

Now that it is all said and done, I can confess that Cathy Jo and I took a gamble on this one. Since last time the Vault at Capone's (I mean, seriously, look at the name!) was such a fabulous venue to hold a mythical event in, we decided that even though this time around we needed to pay hard cash for renting it (smiles and pretty eyes only go so far, people), we were going to take that risk for keeping MythOff epic.
Boy are we happy we did it!

We had an honestly surprising turnout. For one, we offered a prize for whoever brings the most guests - it was won by a landslide by Griffin who brought in plus eight, all enthusiastic and eager for mythology. The prize was a pretty green paper butterfly - for social butterflies. Yes, we went there.

As for the menu of the day:

Round one - New Beginnings
Yours truly opened the evening with the Russian myth of Koschei the Deathless. I have been knee deep in this story for a few weeks now, and it was a lot of fun to tell it!
In the other corner was our very own Dr. Delanna Reed, in league with the Romans, who told us about the burning of Troy. It was an amayingly strong story choice, and a powerful delivery.
The prize for the round was a pear, that symbolized an apple (hobby shop was out of apples), that symbolized life and seeds and other symbolic stuff. I ended up winning the pear, and had tu endure all the puns that ensued. I didn't mind.

Round two - Elements
Joshua's element of choice was water - he told a mermaid story from Finland. It was beautiful and Joshua-like colorful, but at the same time seasoned with a tad of humor. Okay, maybe more than a tad. Whatever a tad is. It was fun.
After water, Griffin brought the fire with a part of the Nart epic (I feel a rap rhyme somewhere in there). He is a newcomer to the MythOff but I have known him for a long time as an awesome Scion game master, so I had no doubts he could pull off some mythical art. And he did. His telling was fun and quick and snappy and all-around a good time. He took the Burning Candle of Epic as his prize.

Round three - Music
We had a small mishap in this round: Marci who was supposed to represent China tonight got terribly sick and could not make it. Good think we are saturated in storytelling around here: we turned to our mentor Dr. Joseph Sobol who seemed to be willing to pull a myth out of his hat. Bringing in the Greeks he told Orpheus and Eurydice, and it was a touching and graceful telling if I have ever heard one.
In the other corner stood Cathy Jo, who had the luck of drawing South America from the hat. She told a Bolivian myth abouth the goddess of Chaos marrying the god of Order. Because that always works out peachy doesn't it? Cathy is a really good "adult" storyteller - which means yes she talks about sex in very sexy ways. She also talks about a lot of other stuff, in very smart ways. No wonder she got the Bluejay of Musical Mythology, which promptly ended up sitting in her hair.

All in all, we had a really nice cozy theme going on, with fire, broken marriages, locked doors, and people being chained to mountains. Because we only had 6 tellers everyone got 15 minutes - but maybe because of that exact rule of temporal freedom, nobody went over 13. We filed that away for future reference.

In-between stories and rounds people drank fancy cocktails at the bar, mingled, talked, and had a good time. It was a nice group of about 30, maybe 40 people, including a journalist who just happened to wonder in because the door was open. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed the atmosphere, the myths, and the event in general.

All is well if it ends well: our generous and enthusiastic audience kept throwing money at us, so we did break even in the end, which, as our delightful host Brandon put it, is really a bargain at fifty cents a myth. Capone's was happy, the audience was happy, we were super happy, and the myths were epic.

Stay tuned for the sound recording in the next few days, I'm gonna go crash now.



Friday, January 18, 2013

Tell it for the kids

When I tell stories to children parents, teachers and other grown-ups often make a mistake: they think I am telling stories for them. Not to them, mind you, for many of them never actually listen - but for them. To entertain their children (for them), to educate them about values (for them), to give them an interesting experience of real life storytelling that is so rare nowadays. And because grown-ups think that I am doing all this for them, they make the mistake of thinking they can tell me what to do. Or what to tell.

Well, here come the news flash: I am not doing it for the grown-ups. Not for the teachers, not for the planners, not even for the parents.
I am telling for the kids.

I am telling for the kids who crawl up on my lap or sit next to me and listen with eyes wide like saucers.

I am telling for the kids who chatter at me in the middle of the story and they want to ask what the prince's name was, or where the kingdom is on the map, and most of all, they want to know if the story is true.

I am telling for the kids who come up with new solutions to the tasks in the story, and I can't help but tell it their way the next time around.

I am telling for the boy who told me the first time we met that he hated stories, and marched out of the room. I am telling for him because the next time I came in he stood in the back and nodded at the prince's decisions. I am telling for him because we sat by the bookshelf and talked about what kind of stories he would like to hear, and the next time, he stayed.

I am telling for the girl who came in wearing a tutu and told me she was a warrior princess, and she wanted stories where the princess saves herself.

I am telling for the little boy who listened for an hour with his mouth hanging open, and afterwards the teachers told me that was the first time in his entire life he had heard a story (because his father thought stories make boys weak).

I am telling for the girl who turned the Roman legend of Camilla into a story of eternal friendship, and told it back to me in a way that left me speechless.

I am telling for the girl who told me "You have inspired me to become a storyteller" and started telling stories to her classmates every break between classes. At the age of eleven.

I am telling for he kids who hear stories about children their age being shot to death at school, and they need to deal with that thought when they go to school the next morning. I am telling them stories about life and death, and I listen to their questions.

I am telling stories for the kid who told me he felt lonely just like the hero in the tale, and needed to hear the happy ending.

I am telling for kids to show them not all princesses are golden haired and blue eyed and perfect, and not all heroes are male. I tell of Antar the dark-skinned Arabian knight, of Aicha the monster-hunter, of the mother who raises the changeling child instead of tossing him into the fire. I ask the kids if they like dragons, and the Korean twins can explain the rest of the class why.

I tell for the stories. Grown-ups don't always understand. But the kids do.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stories about Death for children

Every once in a while I run into parents, teachers and other worried adults who reach out to me to have an adult conversation about death in my stories. Most of what they tell me can be summarized in a few simple words:
DO NOT MENTION IT. EVER.
Now, death shows up in stories in many ways. Sometimes it is not more than one of many possible outcomes: this is what folklorists like to call "Do or Die." These are the tales where the prince knows that if he doesn't complete his mission, he will be killed (of course it never actually happens because he does). Sometimes death shows up as a side event - the first two heroes fail and die, and are either resurrected in the end by the victorious third, or stay dead. A lot of times death is punishment: the evil queen, the wicked witch, or other villains end up dead instead of the champions they tried to kill. There is a metric ton of scientific publications on how this is very important for the children's mental development: they need, crave and often demand the resolution in the story that death brings, making super-extra-maxi sure that the bad guy never returns. I have had experiences where children expressed anxiety if the villain did not die, told me they were worried they would come back. It's primal, people. Not rocket surgery.
I remember a sunny summer afternoon in the sailing camp when the kids walked up to me on the shore and asked me if I could tell them any stories about death. It wasn't the usual "tell us something scaaaaaary!" plea either, it was kind of quiet and curious. I sat down and told them a few folktales that deal with death; we sat around and discussed them, they shared their ideas and concerns, and asked if I could tell them some more stories.
Long story short: you can't just put death in a box and bury it somewhere hoping your kids will never find it. You know why? There is a story about it.
(And for future reference, here are some more similar stories I told that afternoon).

Koschei the Deathless
Talkin' about burying death in a box... or chaining him up in the basement.  Apart from being a kickass action story that kids love, with princes and magic, and a strong female hero, the more you think about it the deeper the meaning gets. No, really. Try it.
(Recently the story has been adapted into a completely gorgeous urban fantasy book titled Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente. Worth reading! Not for kids.)

Godfather death
Grimm classic, also known in other versions with Death being male or female, depending on the culture. Talks about how everyone has their time and we can't do much to change it. Even talks about the relationship between death and doctors, and how sometimes even doctors can't perform miracles. Telling ranges from comical to very serious, dealer's choice.

Mr. Death and the Red-headed woman
My ever favorite death story, and the nicest portrayal of Death I have seen in a short story. Not a folktale (written by Helen Eustice), but the storytelling community adores this one as one of the great tales. It's a love story, people. With a happy ending.

Alkestis
Kids love this one. Greek myth about love, loss, and fear of death. When King Admetus gets to trade his death for another person's, his wife volunteers to go in his place. Admetus, realizing that his fear of death was not worse than his grief for his wife, wishes he could take it all back. Hercules shows up out of nowhere, coaxes the story out of the mourning king, and proceeds to beat the cr*p out of Death when he appears to take the queen's soul. Tanathos leaves with bruises, queen lives, king celebrates, Hercules gets drunk (this part is optional). Everyone's happy. Every once in a while, you get a "get out of death" free card. This story is great for teaching kids about love, sacrifice, family, and the fact that Death is not something grand and fearsome that you cannot face with bravery.  

The Prince who wanted to be immortal
I usually tell the Hungarian version of this one, but it exists in many other cultures. A prince who is too afraid to ever die sets out on a journey to find a kingdom where people never die. He travels through realms where people live longer and longer, but not forever, until he finds the palace of the Immortal Queen. Moving in he enjoys immortality for a while before he gets homesick and decides to go home for a visit. On his way back he finds the previous kingdoms long gone, and when he gets home, his home is nowhere to be found. He realizes that immortality took a long time, and everyone is long gone. Among the ruins he finds Death waiting for him, and death chases him all the way back to the castle of immortality, catching him right on the doorstep. There are two endings to this story: in one, the Prince dies, because that is the natural order of things. In the other, through giving away his Water of Life and reviving the previous kingdoms, he gets help to chase Death away, and manages to return to the Queen, and live happily forever. I usually tell this latter one, solely because of the comical ending of the Queen and Death playing tug-o-war with the prince.
Spelling it out: this story teaches kids that death is a natural thing that everyone shares. It also teaches them that one way of escaping oblivion is making sure that others remember you (as a good person). It also explains that living forever by itself is not rewarding - you need people you can spend eternity with.

The Master-smith
Norwegian folktale about a blacksmith that tricks death. Exists in many versions (sometimes it is the devil instead of death). Great story for explaining the role of death in the world. Once Death is trapped by the smith, chaos ensues all around the world: nothing dies, people can't eat, the sick and dying can't go to rest, and everything is swarmed with insects. Finally the smith has to admit that death has an important role to play and lets him out. I'm not even going to spell out the teachings in this one.

The Wedding veil of the Proud Princess
Also not a folktale, but I have loved this story since I was little. A princess who is too proud to marry anyone but the strongest knight in the realm is won by a mysterious black armored knight who knocks everyone out of the saddle. In the end, the black knight turns out to be Death, and he takes the princess away. This story teaches us how important it is to enjoy life and notice the little things, because death defeats everyone in the end. You can't be too proud to live happy.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told"
This one just made me wonder. If we are not allowed to talk about death to kids (let alone blood and gore, and nailing people to things), how will they understand the story of Jesus Christ? He happened to... you know... go away on a long journey for our sins. Just sayin'.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tell me about it! - Senior Story Circle at MPCC

Everyone has a story about a mother-in-law ruining the Thanksgiving dinner.

I have been looking forward to starting the Senior Story Circle with the new year. I grew up listening to stories from four grandparents, each a different flavor and repertoire, and have been missing the comfort of family stories since I came to the USA.
I gave up on the idea of "teaching" storytelling before we even started. For one, I don't feel like a teacher,and two, I selfishly wanted to listen to their stories instead of listening to myself. So we decided it was going to be a real old school storytelling experience: sitting around a table, passing the word from one person to the next.

I was genuinely surprised how naturally everyone settled into the pace of telling. After the first few shy stories, we just started passing the ball around. One story reminded someone of the next, and we went from fishing accidents to mother-in-laws to strong grandmothers to scary grandmothers to family history; then we went from old amusement parks to roller coasters to Swedish silver treasures to local Tennessee history.
I was even more surprised how naturally talented everyone was at finding good stories. Finding and crafting a good personal story is hard. You have to know what would be interesting for other people who don't know you or your family; you have to have a good starting point, a climax for the story, and a good ending point. Unlike many slam experiences, none of the stories were boring or awkward, and although some of them were very short and some of them were longer, all of them were intriguing, funny, and good to listen to. It felt like a group of people passing the word around, and there was nothing "classroom-y" about it.
All in all, so far it has been a great experience, and I learned to look forward to Monday afternoons with cheerful anticipation.



5 Things the USA should adopt from Hungary, and 3 Things just to baffle them

There are many things that come from the USA to Hungary. Movies, music, fast food, and even a few holidays like Halloween and Valentine's (I'm a Roman archaeologist, I know where it came from, don't argue, it's a figure of speech and lotsa fluffy pink bears). But, every once in while when talking to my American friends, I come across things that we have that seem to tickle the American fancy. Here is a list of things that Hungary should think about promoting across the ocean. Could be a bigger hit than goulash soup.

1. Easter sprinkling
I have thoroughly covered this one earlier here, but it bears repeating. Douse girls in water and get money/chocolate/alcohol for it? Seriously. If you are going to trade a Hungarian custom for giving us Halloween, pick this one.

2. May trees
That's another fun one. The night before May 1st guy go out and chop down a huge tree, and plant or otherwise place it in front of the house of the girl they like (they usually do it in groups, obviously, and sometimes not entirely sober). I am talking tree tree here, no mere branches (see picture). They decorate the tree with ribbons, bottles, balloons, sometimes little gifts. Because who would not want to get a tree for May Day from a secret admirer?

3. Second breakfast, second lunch
What, you thought it was the hobbits' idea?! I have not even realized until recently that my eating habits had to change when I came to the USA. In Hungary the main meal is lunch, which makes me constantly hungry over here at noon (make a pun, I dare you, I double dare you), and then I can't eat all of dinner. In addition to that, we have smaller snack meals in Hungary at 10 o'clock and then in the afternoon. People seemed to like this in Lord of the Rings, and although I don't think Americans need to be encouraged to eat more, I thought I'd put it on the list anyway. Since I am munching on my 10 o'clock snack right now.

4. Krampusz
This one is so much fun. They tried to rope me into designing the Christmas festivities at my workplace, but they quickly changed their minds when I told them that if I did Christmas Hungarian style, Santa would be dressed as a Catholic bishop and accompanied by a girl dressed as the Devil. You should have seen their faces. Priceless.
Anyhow, Krampusz is fun. You can read more of the background here. He/she (often a she since Santa is always a he) is pretty much St. Nick's sidekick, and kids absolutely love it. Side note: it's not like we worship Satan or anything. Krampusz is a Christmas spirit of the darker sort. We don't have elves with striped stockings, but we do have little devils. You can't have everything.
And while we are on the topic of Santa: we have St. Nicholas' Day on the 6th of December (Catholic calendar, people), when we put our shoes in the window and get them filled with bags of candy and oranges (and if you were a bad kid, little switches or branches to spank you with, from the good old days of corporal punishment). Then, two weeks later, we have Christmas. And more gifts.

5. Kinder eggs
This one speaks for itself. It still cracks me up that it is easier in the USA to buy a gun than to buy a piece of chocolate with a toy inside.

The next three are things that I have mentioned to Americans before and I was surprised at their surprise. These are some of those cultural things that you don't notice until you go somewhere else and people look at you like you are crazy. So here are the 3 biggest things not for adoption, just for the sake of perspective, or, What Baffles Americans about Hungary the most.

1. Names
There is the fact that we put family names first (which messes royally with any paperwork I fill out - I have been Miss Zalka, Miss Csenge, Miss Virag, Miss Zalka Virag, Miss Virag Csenge, and any other possible combination). Then there is the fact that names in Hungary have to be approved by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Linguistics Department. That's right people, no naming your kid Tape Recorder (real life example) or ABCDE (ditto), or any of those that ensure that your kid will have no lunch money till they can change it at age 16 and the damage is already done. Of course this is a two-sided coin; if you come up with a unique name, you have to get it approved. The Academy publishes a book of names every year with the newly approved additions to it, so at this point there is a couple of thousand names to choose from. Still, every time I mention this to Americans I get shocked pale faces thinking our Government dictates how to raise our children. It's fun to watch.
Side note: On the bright side, registered names come with namedays (Game of Thrones, people :). It's kinda like having two birthdays in one year (or, in my case, four). Every name that gets registered is assigned a day (or more) in the calendar. People remember it easier than birthdays, that way. I should have added this on the adoption list, now that I think of it...

2. Cars and washing machines
It similarly shocks people when I say I don't need to have a car to exist in Hungary - and their shock matches mine when I find out not every house in the USA has a washing machine. Laundromats are a very American thing, and I am still not quite okay with them (washing your underwear in public? Seriously, people?). It is interesting to observe that while getting your own car means you are fully grown and independent in Hungary, the same time in the USA having your own washer and dryer at your place means the same.

3. Dubbed movies
Americans would rather make a new movie than read subtitles, and even the mention of dubs gets a range of disapproving reactions from them. In Hungary you pretty much grow up watching American movies dubbed, and many times you don't even know what the actor's original voice sounds like. Contrary to popular belief, the fact that the lips don't move the same way doesn't really make a difference, as long as they are synced up with the voice. (I got into an argument with a friend of mine once who claimed that Hungarian dubs should still speak Hungarian with an American accent. That was the point when I realized that even the concept of dubs is completely foreign on this side of the world...) Hungarian dubs vary from absolutely great to pretty bad, but you don't notice the bad ones until you start watching the original movies (and then they are ruined forever). To this day I can only quote Star Wars in Hungarian. I'll make a note to change that.