Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Janice Del Negro: The Power Of Story Casts a Spell On Young Adolescents

Janice Del Negro

The phrase the “power of story,” is ubiquitous in the storytelling world. We talk about it all the time, no matter what kind of storytelling we do or what sorts of listeners we engage. We are not all talking about the same thing, of course; defining the power of story is a deeply individual endeavor. Reading articles and books, historical and contemporary, on storytelling in the United States one encounters power of storytelling references often, most frequently referring to the nearly indefinable power story has to hold listeners in a nearly trance-like state with narrative. 

Alice Kane

I remember having this experience in a half-empty tent, listening to Alice Kane tell Irish fairy tales. She wore a pale blue suit, and stood, one hand on a podium to steady herself, and with her voice and the power of her narrative transformed the world for her listeners, taking them out of literal time and space and transporting them to a moonlit field where an outcast watched fairies dance in a silver ring. 

Fairy Ring
Having this experience as a teller is always something of a shock; intellectually I know the power of story is a real thing, but I am often surprised when it actually works, although experience indicates I should not be. A few years ago I began working with students at two local high schools. The first year I gave a (very) brief history of the folk and fairy tale that focused on the changes made to tales to make them suitable for children- the elimination of sexual activities of any kind, the violence left, if not intact, at least strongly present. 
Little Red Riding Hood Was Not A Very Tame Tale.

Shrek's Rumpelstiltskin
I told ghost tales and folktales, including radical retellings of traditional tales such as “Rapunzel” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The following year I was asked to concentrate on “something to do with writing.” This time I talked about fairy tales and popular media, told more radically retold fairy tales, and did exercises with students on retelling and rewriting the traditional tales they knew. 
Once Upon A Time's Rumpelstiltskin

Here is what I learned about high school students: they are smart. They are aware. They know a lot more than they let on. They are exuberant (although a little wary) when given opportunities to be creative. 
When they are interested, there is no stopping them. They are as comfortable with sheets of paper and markers as they are with other forms of more elaborate technology. They are capable of committing to narrative storytelling in a way that is almost uncanny. The stories to which they commit must match the emotional intensity of adolescents juiced on their own energies. The controlled emotions of supernatural or gory tales have immediate impact; the lush, romantic fairy tale is surprisingly effective. Retellings of the familiar Disney Default folk and fairy tales - either earlier, more adult versions or radical re-imaginings- hold these listeners with a combination of familiarity and altered perspectives. Given the opportunity to reconstruct a familiar tale, young adults engage with a will that reveals an understanding of the complex spectrum of human emotion. Their demand for transparency keeps the storytelling honest, and helps create the circle in which narrative energy is personified in the dynamic connection between teller and listeners.  

Janice M. Del Negro, 7/2014
Janice Del Negro is a published author of children's books. Published credits of Janice Del Negro include Passion and Poison: Tales of Shape-shifters, Ghosts, and Spirited Women, Willa And The Wind (Ala Notable Children's Books. Younger Readers (Awards)), and Lucy Dove.
She is also a professor at Dominican University.
BA, Hunter College
MLS, State University of New York at Geneseo
PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Academic Areas of Interest: 
Youth services & programs in public libraries; literature and other young adult & children's materials; storytelling; evolution & evaluation of folk & fairy tales; reviewing & criticism; programming for youth; images of the feminine in folktales

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