Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Sixth Day!

The sixth day of Kwanzaa is Kuumba! (Kuh-oom-bah)

Today is all about creativity!!!!

Leave the world a more beautiful place than when you found it with art, music, dance and stories!!!!

Tonight is the feast of Karamu!

It is the evening we eat foods that are traditional to the African American experience. Make some black eyed peas or benne cakes!

It is also my anniversary! Thank you, honey for 20 years of wedded weddedness!

It is also my parent's anniversary. They have been married for 51 years!

go and make the world more beautiful!

Happy Kwanzaa!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


I have been remiss in my Kwanzaa posts here! So, let this one stand for the rest of the season!!!

December 26th Umoja (oo-Mow-juh) Unity

We must work together

December 27th Kujichagulia  (coo-gee-cha-goo-lee-a) Self Determination

We must stand up for ourselves and not let others tell us who we are

December 28th Ujima (oo-Gee-muh) Collective Work and Responsibility

We must work with those in the community to make it a better place

December 29th Ujamaa (oo-Jah-Muh) Cooperative Economics

African Americans should strive to open and maintain businesses
(Shop at your local independent stores to support a healthy community!)

December 30th Nia (Nee-uh) Purpose

We must live our lives with purpose. This gives us hope and our community a way forward

Tomorrow is my favorite day of Kwanzaa!

I'll Post something fun for that!

Happy Kwanzaa!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Second Day of Kwanzaa

Today is the second day of Kwanzaa!
Traditionally, we greet people with the phrase, 'Habari Ghani!'
In Swahili it means, 'What's the news?'
You respond with the Nguzo Saba or Kwanzaa principle of the day.
Today's Nguzo Saba is Kujichagulia (coo-gee-cha-goo-lee-a)
It means Self Determination!

We define ourselves, love ourselves, take care of ourselves, decide who we are for ourselves, accept ourselves, believe in ourselves, trust ourselves, and we don't let anyone else decide who we are, or limit us because of the color of our skin, our abilities or background.

You are an original, don't ever forget it!
Happy Kwanzaa!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Let Somebody Know You Care In The Season Of Love and Light.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stories, Ethics, and Students: Happy Holidays Everyone!

Jessica Clark Makes Pine Art 

Last week I was invited to a school to perform. They'd requested Native American stories. I explained to the PTA rep that I was 1/32 Cherokee from my dad's side, but that hardly qualified me to tell stories from Native American traditions. I tell a handful of stories from these traditions, but only because I have been given permission. The PTA rep was cool with that, and said it didn't matter. That was back in September.

When I got to the school, it occurred to me that the teachers might not have been given this information. 

I asked the person helping me set up the space if she had gotten the message about Native stories, and, surprise, she hadn't. I asked why they asked me to come and tell these stories. She said that they study the Lumbee people in fourth grade. I really don't have permission to tell any of the Lumbee stories. 

The parent told me that they just wanted someone to tell the stories well. 

Flattering, but not useful when it comes to content.

When the fourth graders got into the room, I informed them of the problem of just telling any stories you like when the tales are part of a living tradition. Both the students and the teachers were fascinated by this idea.

The teachers had no idea that the stories were still alive and living in the traditions. They also did not know that it was not okay for storytellers to appropriate any material they liked.

I got some interesting questions.

Student: Will the police come and arrest you if you tell one of the Native American stories you aren't supposed to?

Me: No. There are no storytelling police, but that doesn't make any difference. It is unethical for me to tell you these stories without permission. It is wrong for me to take these stories out of the cultural context and share them with you.  Even if nobody knows I did it except you, that doesn't make it right. I think our character is based not on what we do when everybody is watching, but how we behave when nobody knows what we are up to.

This occasioned a discussion about the things the kids were doing in their lives because they knew it was important. They were very proud to show that they understood the importance of doing the right thing even when nobody was looking. It was fascinating. 

One kid, however, wasn't buying any of this.

Student: I don't understand. Why can't you tell these stories? Why is it wrong?

Me: Imagine that you had a story about your grandmother. It was a story that you told amongst your family members, and you all knew and loved that story. Then, pretend someone overheard that story, and they started telling it. They told it as if it happened to their own grandmother, or they made fun of your grandmother because they didn't understand your family or how it worked. How would you feel about that? 

Student: (She looked wounded, as if I'd actually just done what I described) I would feel bad about that. I wouldn't like it.

We spoke more about cultural appropriation, and how in the past people had taken the stories of native peoples from all over the world and used them against the people who'd created them. Then, I offered up the few stories I do have permission to tell with the context of why I tell them. The students had a great time.

I ended with The Strawberry Story. I use the Cherokee tale. I told the kids it was a wedding story. In other words, I tell it at weddings.

When I was finished, one boy was very confused. He raised his hand.

Me: Yes?

Student: You said it was a wedding story.

Me: It is.

Student: But there was no cake! How could it be a wedding story if there was no cake?
A Western-Centric article about wedding cake

Me: When we started, you all told me things you remembered about studying the Lumbee people. You told me about their marriage practices. Was there cake there?

Different students: No (Others reflected on that, and some actually retold the process of getting married in a jumble)

Me: Customs and traditions have to start somewhere. They all have a beginning. Weddings haven't always been celebrated with cake. In fact, here is some homework...find out when cake started being used in wedding ceremonies.

Student: Homework? (He was outraged) But its Friday!  (Everyone started laughing)

Me: Christmas is coming up soon. There are lots of traditions we do at Christmas. They had to start somewhere as well.
A Possible History of the Christmas Tree

Student: There is no such thing as Santa Claus

Me: (Ignoring the student) If you want to find out why people do a thing, you can do the research, and usually, you can get a good idea where it originated.

Some Santa history

Student: I said there is no such thing...

Teacher: That's enough. 

I changed the subject.

It is always amazing to me how many subjects we can discuss, probe, and understand when we put them in the context of the stories we tell, love and honor.

My first thought when I approached that fourth grade class was to explain to them that Native stories are sacred, but I'm glad I didn't do that. Not because they are not sacred, but because that doesn't mean anything to a fourth grader.  They don't understand the word sacred, but they totally get what sacred is.

They get that the things they hold dear are important. They get that you don't make fun of some things. They get that you hold some things special in your heart. They get that if you cross certain lines, it can really make another person upset. At times, they get this better than grown up people.

This is the Season of Light, when we are supposed to shine our best selves in the world to combat the darkness. This is the season of miracles. The season when the sun, which has been drifting further and further away from us in the night sky, returns to warm us anew.

Days like last Friday, when I get a chance to share the joy and the responsibility of caring for our past and our present so that we can go into a better future, make me glad that I've chosen to be one of the keepers of story.

So, to everyone who stops by this space I wish you a happy holidays. Shine the light as brightly as you can.

I'll be back in this space again at the turn of the year.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Happy Hanukah
Merry Christmas
Happy Kwanzaa
Joyous Solstice

Happy Merry Joyous to one and all!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

S.T.E.A.M - Butterflies and Chocolate

Grandma Esther
One summer when I was eleven or twelve years old, my family traveled to Beaumont, TX to visit my maternal grandmother. As a point of reference here I'd like to point out that this is the same grandmother who told me that if I slept with my mouth open a witch would come into my room, put a bridle in my mouth, and ride me around in the air like a horse. Keep that in mind as you read through this little tale I'm about to share.

And before you ask, yes, many of the people in my family would qualify as 'characters'.

That summer my sister was five or six, and one afternoon, to entertain her, I spent about an hour telling her Greek Myths.


Grandma Esther was busily preparing dinner. She listened to the whole thing. My sister left the kitchen after the telling was done, and my grandmother turned from the gumbo pot and faced me with a look of heavy disapproval.

Grandma: You know what you told her isn't the truth, right?

12 year old me: What do you mean?

Grandma: Those are just stories.

12 year old me (confused): It is Greek Mythology, grandma.

Grandma: She (meaning my sister Duyen) knows that those aren't real stories, right?

Gratuitous Picture of My Gorgeous Sister

12 year old me (feeling cheeky and pre-teeny): They are real stories, grandma, that doesn't mean they actually happened, though.

Grandma (loves me, but not having it): They aren't true!

12 year old me (still confused): Of course not. They are just stories. All stories like that are just myths.

That was the day I learned that there were grown-up people in the world who believed in the literal truth of the story from Genesis about the talking snake and the woman who ate an apple and discovered she was naked.

Up until that moment I just assumed that people learned that story wasn't true about the time they threw out the Easter Bunny, Santa and leprechauns. I assumed you just got to a certain point in life, discovered that the magic of your childhood was for your childhood, and you grew up and got over it.

These are not real

I didn't even think the priests actually believed in Noah's flood. I thought the whole thing was happening on some kind of symbolic level.

Mostly, however, as I spoke to my fiery grandmother who started preaching at me after about five minutes of discussion, I was appalled at her utter lack of anything that resembled an understanding of basic science or logic as she went through the books of the Bible and informed me they were all one hundred percent accurate. Anything else I'd ever been told was flat wrong.

This is one of my favorite stories!
When I attempted to point out that snakes are physically unable to actually speak, she called me a blasphemer. I had no idea what that was, but it didn't sound good.

My grandmother is no longer with me, and I still think about that afternoon, but instead of my very shocked pre-teen sensibilities, I always remember it with fondness.

Why, you might ask, am I brining this up in this post?

Well, this week I am telling in some Mesa schools in Arizona. I am doing sets that are not typical for me. I have k - 3 and 4 - 6.

Since the age groupings aren't really composed well for age appropriate material, I tend to do lots of naturalistic beast fables. These tales have lots of things to offer for such diverse groups. The information can skew older while the characters can skew younger. The introductions and framing are for the older kids, the structure and characters can keep the younger kids.

One of my favorites to tell to either of these groups is La Mariposa, which I learned from Carrie Sue Ayvar. There are a number of variants of this tale in South and Central America. Carmen Deedy has a book called Martina The Beautiful Cockroach which is another play on this theme from Cuba.

The version I tell explains why the Monarch Butterfly is orange and black; why it is poisonous; and why it has the longest migratory pattern of any butterfly in the world.

The whole tale deals with a butterfly being courted by a dog, a cat, and ultimately by a mouse.

It is not reasonable to think that this is a true story, and yet, there are always a few children who ask if it is. An image of my grandmother always flashes through my head when I get this question. I can't help it.

I always tell children that it is definitely a story, but there is no chance it actually happened.

These entertaining stories can teach children basic behaviors of animals. Possum is able to survive being bitten by snakes, frogs start out as tadpoles and gradually lose their tails, spiders liquify their meals before drinking them, giraffes eat the leaves of the Acacia, and other such tidbits about the natural world.

I think that is one reason I like them. What I discovered was that my assumption that the audience already knew these basic facts was mistaken. Just because I know something is an actual behavior of an animal that the story is exploiting doesn't mean the entire audience realizes this.

I wish I had been old enough that day at my grandmother's table to tell her that just because I don't think a story is 'true' doesn't mean they don't hold some 'truth' for me. Alas, that line will go unsaid between us. The children who ask me if stories are true, make me think about this fact. There are elements of the beast fable that are actually true. Why not celebrate that?

Two years ago I began making a point of commenting on the bits in these fanciful tales that are actually scientifically accurate.

So far this week I've told La Mariposa almost every day. At one point in the story, the butterfly is annoyed with her suitors, and demands that they spice up their proposals with some romance. She suggests flowers and chocolate.

Neither the dog nor the cat have flowers or chocolate. Today, for no reason than it occurred to me, the dog tells the butterfly that he doesn't tend to carry chocolate around because it is poisonous to dogs.


 To my great joy, some of the adults in the audience nodded with a smile on their faces because they already knew this, and a large number of the kids looked surprised.

When the butterfly demands the cat give her chocolate, I repeated the same phrase because chocolate is poisonous to cats as well.


This time, most of the adults opened their eyes wide in surprise. It was interesting. I think the line stays in the tale.

The longer I tell, the more I learn about what I do, and what stories can do.

I often think back to that afternoon in my grandmother's kitchen when I learned a thing or two about the world. I got a fully illustrated definition of the words 'fire and brimstone' that day. The world got bigger as I sat at that table, and every day I encounter new stories, ideas, and thoughts it continues to grow.

I don't think I will ever cease to be amazed.

Stories have been teaching me things for a long time.

Oh, and just in case you aren't sure...



Happy Learning!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Homo Narratus: Thinking About The World Through Story

Every now and then I run across something that makes me stop, think, and digest.  I have been doing that for some time now over a couple of books I read.

Story Proof


Story Smart

They were written by a man named Kendall Haven.

Kendall Haven

I've been chewing on these books since I bought them. They chronicle the process by which human beings create their reality through stories.

These books also talk about the best way to create effective stories.

He coins the term 'Homo Narratus', meaning the ape who narrates, or the storytelling ape. Our entire lives are based on the stories we internalize.

Here is a poem called The Storytelling Ape by someone calling him/herself Professor Ian

I've had a book in the back of my mind about storytelling process and craft. I've decided it is time to write it. I got these two books with the intent of adding some context to my thoughts before beginning that book, but those books so altered the way I think about story and brain function, that I still haven't written a word.

Sometimes synthesizing new material is a much slower process than I would like.

This morning, I really didn't think I had anything to say about stories or storytelling, but I saw an interesting article in which someone read something and when they responded to it, their take away was, in fact, the opposite of what the article actually said. Kendall Haven's books came to mind.

We often can only see the story that we expect to see and not the one that actually exists.

Today, our world is still reeling from the events in Paris.

We look at the horror and ask, "How could anyone do this?"

We do not often look at the perpetrators and try to understand what sort of story they must have ingrained inside of them to believe that murder on such a scale is a good idea.

Oh, we come up with a simplistic vision of what it must be, but the truth is we are a very complicated animal. The stories we build up inside are multilayered, and they are entwined with our own experiences, loves, hatreds, fears, hopes and dreams.

There is no easy way to explain why two people suffer the same indignities, depravations, and injustices and one becomes a lawyer and the other a mass murderer.

Despite all of that, there is no justification for the evil we do to each other. None. The people who attacked Paris did not simply wake up and decide to do this thing. Their life stories were twisted long before that moment.

I have always believed that the stories we tell show that we are the same in many ways.

I still believe that.

Now, however, I understand that the stories we believe are the very things that make us so different that sometimes we don't even know how to find language to bridge those gaps.

That doesn't mean we close our eyes, condemn what scares us, and put up walls.

It is past time to face the fact that if we do not try to bridge those gaps, nothing will ever get better.

Yours In Story

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How Do I Become A Storyteller? A Common Question

When I started this blog, I made several assumptions. I assumed people who found their way here would already be somewhat involved in the world of storytelling. What did not occur to me was that there would be people who were trying to figure out how to get into storytelling. 

Recently I was on a thread, and a person made the comment, "This is all well and good, but how do you get into storytelling?"

I get this question fairly often when I'm out traveling. People want to know how to become a professional storyteller. They aren't asking how to get to the next level, no, they want to know where to begin.

This is such a common question, it even has a Wikihow page.

Most people who decide to become a professional storyteller have encountered the art and been taken with it. They see a professional up there doing their thing and say to themselves, 'I could do that'. 

Here is one of the best rocking the stage. Go on with your bad self, Donald!

If you get a professional doing their thing, it looks easy. That is their power. Good storytellers seem to just bring the story to life. 

What you don't see is all the work that goes into making it roll off of the tongue. So, if you are just beginning, you don't start at the art point. You have to start at the beginning.

Wikihow offers five steps. I thought I would do the same!

1. Get some stories under your belt. 

You can either tell traditional stories or you can write your own, but you need to know some tales.  Where do you find them? Well, you can google folktales or folklore and take your pick. You'll have to write your own personal material if that is how you wish to go.

Under no circumstances should you tell anyone else's personal stories!!!

As you learn stories, you need to make sure that you are shaping them with your own personal tastes.
Try not to completely copy an existing storyteller. Find you own style.

2.  Next, you must engage in the craft of storytelling

Craft is how you put stories together, and how you present them. This is important, because it shapes what type of storyteller you are, and what types of stories you tell. You will spend a great deal of time in this stage before you ever get to the last step.

There are many ways to work on your craft.

a. Go to university and study storytelling.

I went to Northwestern University and studied under Rives Collins. Call your local community college and find out if they have a storytelling program. Go to festivals and conferences given by storytelling organizations and take workshops and classes. 

You most likely live in a state where there is a storytelling guild. You might live near one and not know. Go to a guild meeting and get to know your local storytellers. Listen, get feedback, and consider what people have to say. The link above is for the National Storytelling Network organization that has catalogued guilds for every state. Click on your state, find out where your guild is, and enquire if there is a group near you.

David Novak is a wonderful performer and teacher. Catch him if you can!

c. Read. 

I cannot stress enough that you should read about storytelling. Parkhurst Brothers, and August House publishers have a great number of books about storytelling.

d. Tell! 

You must find opportunities to tell your stories to the audiences you wish to serve. Whether adults or children, you must find willing guinea pigs. Find out if you can volunteer to tell in your local public library. Find open mic nights. Do what you have to do.

3. After you are confident that you've got some stories ready, you feel comfortable telling them, and you are ready to roll out your carpet and invite the paying public into your world. You have to tell them you are alive and offering a service.  That brings us to the most annoying part of this whole thing. You have to start the onerous part of the whole process.

There are lots of books about marketing. I did mention you should read, right?

4. The Business of Storytelling.  I haven't written much about this on this blog, but the thing that goes here is the business of storytelling. This is the part where you schedule, produce contracts, set prices, cold call, put together email lists, contact people, and make connections with others. I don't do this part of the business, but it is an essential part of making this job work.

While all of that is happening, you get to the last step in the process.

5. Working the Art

Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather rinse repeat! This cycle of gathering material, crafting it, working the material, engaging with new audiences, marketing to new places, and working the art is not a fait is a cycle.

So, there you have it. Some really basic steps to becoming a professional storyteller.
Is this a really simplified list? Yes. Will it be quick and easy? No, probably not, but it is a roadmap to becoming a professional.

I leave you with some of my favorite tellers.

Peter Cook! I do love this man!

Good Luck! We'll look for you out there! 

Monday, November 9, 2015

When Time Stops: Stories Are Forever

This fall marked my 28th year as a professional storyteller.

Every now and then I question whether or not I'm living up to the expectations I had for myself when I was 21.

The first time this happened was over a decade ago. I was in a library somewhere in the south, and this young woman came up to me with a toddler. She was beaming.

"I saw you when I was a little girl! When I saw your name I thought, 'no way, it can't be the same person! She can't still be doing this!' but here you are!" She sat down with her two year old and just grinned at me for forty-five minutes.

It was the first time I questioned whether or not I'd made a reasonable choice with my life.

When I was younger, I was a competitor. I played competitive sports. I was competitive with my GPA. I auditioned for theatre, competed in the National Forensics League, fought for scholarships, and worked hard to achieve the things I felt were important.

Then, I became a storyteller.

The only person I compete with now is myself. I spend lots of time trying to make sure that I am challenging myself. I work to learn new material, attend workshops, write, and explore the art form I've chosen to practice. Every now and then, however, I hear that well meaning, excited young woman's voice...'She can't still be doing this!'

I have no corporate ladder to climb. I have no outside person giving me a raise. How am I supposed to keep score? Is there something else I should be doing?

When I read the corporate ladder line to my husband he was amused.
"You are the CEO of your own company. What more do you want?"
I tried to tell him that wasn't the point, but he wouldn't stop laughing at me.

This last week was particularly 'Everything Old Is New Again' because I was in Evanston, Il where my adult life started.


I revisited schools I'd performed in on many occasions in the past. I was greeted by excited administrators and teachers at every venue. I encountered children who'd never seen me before, kids who'd seen me a couple of years earlier, and some who'd seen me as long as five or six years earlier and still remembered me.

The shows were easy as the audience had already been won over by the staff's enthusiasm long before I ever put a foot in the building. It is the kind of storytelling I love. You get to play with an audience who wants nothing more than to go wherever you want to take them.

Fun. Lovely. Exciting. Perfect.

I have a great list on my wall called 'My Adopted 10 Rules Of Thumb'. The tenth one is: 'If you hit the bull's eye every single time, the target is too near'

Doesn't this mean that it is time to do something else? Something meaningful? I tend to struggle with this idea until something happens to remind me why I'm a storyteller and why storytelling matters.

I had gigs in Greenwood, SC a couple of weeks ago. I actually ended up on a radio program called Meet Me At The Diner With Anne Eller.  If you are interested, the link is below.

Listen to the interview here!

Anyway, I was in a high school my last day in SC. I had three shows, and I was told there would be between 90 and 100 high schoolers in each set. The first show was just after eight am. After it was over, I had a twenty minute break. When the next group started coming in, I discovered that about twenty of them had just been in my first set. I pointed this out to them, and they said they had so much fun they decided to come again. I asked how they'd managed that, and they said the teachers just let them.

The second set was fun. We had a good time.  They filed out repeating phrases and laughing. Twenty minutes later, the third group came in. Over half of them had returned. I pointed out that this meant that some kids didn't get any stories that day. The repeat listeners were not the least bit guilty that they'd prevented others from hearing stories. I discovered that about twenty of them had spent all morning with me.

My sponsor said that she'd been bringing storytellers to that school for years, and she'd never seen that happen before. I was the recipient of kids getting fed up with only getting an hour of stories. Cool. I suspect that this will become a tradition here. Senior Story Day or some such thing.

When I was in Evanston at Field Middle school, I told a personal narrative. After it was over, the kids filed out laughing and waving at me. Several came over to talk to me as they often do, and we joked around a bit before I sent them off to class. Then, the Advanced Math teacher walked up to me and shook my hand.

"I have to tell you something." He said to me.
"All right." I smiled at him.
"You told me that story when I was in fifth grade. I didn't remember it until I heard Milton's name. Then I was like, Oh my...I remember this! It was really cool. I loved it the second time, and I got so much more out of it as an adult. Thank you."

We chatted for a bit more, and then he left.

The principal was geeking out about the whole incident. She couldn't stop grinning, and she told every single teacher we passed about it.

When you are a competitive weenie, you can forget that the storytelling isn't really about you. It is about the stories. Your job is to offer them, live in them, love them, and share them. Do that well, and time doesn't matter. Do that well, and you can do it forever.

Rule number 2 of my Adopted Rules Of Thumb is: 'It is impossible to see the entire picture when you are inside of the frame'.

Last night my daughter and I were talking about imagination, and I told her about something that happens when I tell Sody Saluradus. The little girl character closes her eyes and sways side to side when she's on her way to the store.

When I close my eyes at that point, I can see the road she is traveling, the trees, the morning sun shining through the branches, and the birds.

When I open my eyes I'm standing in front of three hundred children. No matter how many times it happens I'm always a bit startled, and disoriented.

When I start thinking about all of the amazing things I've experienced and seen in the last 28 years of my career, I turn to rule number 9 on my chart. 'Don't Get Too Serious'

The truth is, I'm only just beginning to scratch the surface of what it means to be a storyteller. It would be a shame for me to give it up before I get any good at it!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

They'll Never Sit That Long: Stories Can Capture Anyone

Last week I performed in one of the High Schools in the area. The school originally booked me in for the ninth grade, but discovered some extra cash. They asked if they could use it for a special show with a small group of students. They gave my husband the acronym they use to describe this group, but nothing else.

When I arrived, I asked about this small group. I was told that they are a group of kids with behavioral issues. They have trouble sitting in class, they are easily upset, they tend to get into hassles with the teachers, they are all having academic challenges.

One of the administrators who was showing me around informed me that she had one of these students last year and he was getting a 98 in her class, but 32s in all of the other classes. She knows these kids are smart, but nobody knows how to reach them. Most teachers don't want to deal with them and they end up in ISS (Inner School Suspension), the main office, or out in the hall. They never stay in class long enough to learn anything. They also tend to get in trouble with other students who goad them into losing their temper, something many of them are prone to do.

So, they begin to file in. Almost all of them are either African American or Hispanic. These kids slumped into the room, took a seat and immediately busied themselves with something other than looking at me despite the fact that their chairs were all turned towards me.

This was a mixed group of kids from ninth to eleventh grade. Once most of them were assembled, I began asking them questions about what they liked to do. They mostly enjoyed sports and art. Nobody offered up an academic subject. I pointed this out, and one of the kids told me that he didn't do school well.

The teacher came in late, and brought a kid who slumped in, tried to sit in the seat next to mine instead of in front of me. I made him sit in the front, he slumped in his seat, and tried very hard to hide. He slouched all the way down, tried covering his face with his hands or pretending to sleep. All of the behavior which usually earns him a trip to ISS or at least makes someone send him out of the room. I ignored him.

This is the posture in question.

I told The Sugar Incident . The kids had a great time, laughing, engaging with me and each other during the tale, and responding appropriately and with enthusiasm. The student in the front was upset, not because he didn't like the story, but because every now and then he would catch himself in a very vulnerable moment with his hands in his lap, staring at me with eyes as wide as plates. He'd realize I'd caught him, slump down, fold his arms, and try to pretend he wasn't listening. The most amusing point was where he put his hood up and covered his face with his hands only to peek through his fingers at me. If I caught him, he'd close his fingers. It was kind of funny.

When the story was over, he raised his hand and said he had to go and get his books. I let him go. He had a moment of surprise, as if he expected a fight. I have no dog in this game, so I didn't care. He slumped out of the room. The administrators didn't stop him, so I figured it was all right.

"Where is he going?" One of the kids asked.

"Not sure." I told them. "Not my problem." They all started laughing.

Another kid said, "Would you tell us another story?"

I said, "Sure." I told The West Indies. They loved it. I ended that story with, "My father, who has been trained to kill you in fifty different ways, could have made any choice that day, but he chose to make us all laugh, and because of it, we are all still alive, and everyone in that situation was okay.  He did this in many instances in our lives. He showed us that violence and fighting rarely solve anything."

The kids looked thoughtful, they nodded, and applauded at the end. Maybe I reached someone, maybe they will remember that story in the future. Don't know, but it was obvious that tale had an impact on them.

After my small audience filed out of the room, their teacher leaned in and whispered "You kept their attention. They were engaged, and they asked for another story. That was phenomenal."

I said, "Thank you."

"Hey," he said, "that's not an easy thing to do with this group, I just wanted you to know that it was spectacular." Then he left.

After they were gone, the administrator who had just heard him say this to me started laughing. She said, "When he found out that I'd booked a forty five minute storytelling session with his class, he was really upset. He told me they'd never sit that long. They were incapable. He told me that thirty minutes would be pushing it because they didn't have the attention span to focus on anything that long."

Andrew Biemiller, an educator says that we know the things that work with reaching students, but we don't have the kinds of schools we need to implement the processes that help students learn.

All of the kids in that small group could probably be taught in such a way that they would be successful. They were engaged. They asked great questions. They learned about people who lived differently and have different challenges, while also watching the world unfold in a way that was familiar.

Stories are a way to address students who have a learning style that is not conducive to main stream teaching. The teacher in my small group expected to have to intervene and ride herd on his students, instead, he saw a side of them he didn't even know existed.

I've done this long enough to expect nothing less. I've seen how stories can impact students no matter where they reside on the learning or behavior spectrum. We all have.

How many times have we heard the phrase, "They'll never sit that long?"

And how many times have we seen this instead.

If you find out where they are, meet them there, and create common ground, not only will they sit, you can take them anywhere!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't Fear The Ugly Baby: Facing Criticism For Your Work

In 2000, my book, The Big Spooky House, was released. I was excited. I always am when a book hits the market. I was especially pleased because in 1996 I'd gone into baby making mode and wasn't working all that much. In 2000 I had a soon to be four year old and a toddler. I was in need of something to remind me that there really had been a time in my life when my most important function had nothing to do with preventing diaper rash.

Unfortunately, there were some reviewers who did not like the book. I remember reading one review that depressed me for almost two weeks. It was the first time I'd had a book come out that wasn't well received by the critics.

It felt like some stranger had walked up to me on the street and said, "Oh my, you have a very ugly baby."

These days, when I encounter an uncomfortable public situation with my work whether it be my writing or performing, I call it an 'Ugly Baby Event'.

It hurts your feelings. It might make you upset. It might make you go into defense mode. It might make you angry. It might frustrate you. It might make you sad.

For a period of time after my first bad review, I was afraid of future ugly babies. I wanted to go cautiously so that I didn't expose myself to that sort of rejection again. Stick to what you are good at, I told myself, don't tread where you are likely to be unwanted.

In 2002, my husband quit his job, and I went back to storytelling full time. I was worried. What if I fail at this? What if I can't afford to feed my family? What if we lose the house? What if I can't do this?

I was no longer considering the ugly baby that I was walking around with, but all of the potential ugly babies in my future. Well, there was only one thing for it. I started calling my mentors and friends. I called Jim May, Syd Lieberman, Milbre Burch, and Beth Horner.  I asked what sort of advice they might give me if I were going to get back into the storytelling game full time. I also asked if they thought I could do it.

The advice and support I got from them made a huge impression on me. I learned what it meant to be a guiding light in this business. I learned what it meant to plow forward. I learned what it meant to be completely honest with someone who is struggling with choices in our very public job. I am forever grateful to them for their support, and the time they spent listening to me.

This is my twenty eighth year as a professional storyteller and author. Sometimes I'm in the middle of a show and I can't believe somebody is letting me do this for a living. I love this work.

Sometimes I am writing furiously on a piece and wonder if it will ever see the light of the published world, or if it will become another project that I write at forever, but never share with anyone else.

Li'l Rabbit's Kwanzaa and other books by Donna Washington

There will be ugly babies in my future, it is inevitable. There will also be gorgeous babies, curious ones, misunderstood creatures, awesome creations, marginal attempts, and huge ungainly pratfalls.  That's what it means to be a public performer. That's what it means to put yourself out there.

So, if you are on the cusp of trying something new, breaking into the next level, worried about sending out that manuscript, facing your first festival, writing your first grant, or whatever adventure you are about to face, push on through.

The world is full of opportunities, but only if you take the first steps.

The word 'no' isn't going to kill you.
The words 'I didn't like this' don't mean nobody likes it.
The first attempt at something might not go well, so you learn and do better the next time.

Fear is the thing that holds most of us back when we would go forward. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of the unknown.

About six months after the first couple of reviews came out about The Big Spooky House, a slew of them were posted by teachers, librarians and parents. Turns out, the book was a hit with kids and the grown ups who read to them. People still contact me and ask how they can get copies of it since it has been out of print for the last five years.

Here is a page where a kid who reviews books gave A Big Spooky House five out of five bookworms'.

'A Big Spooky House
By Donna Washington
Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers
32 Pages – Ages 6+
Published by HarperCollins
He was a BIG man. He was a STRONG man. He wasn’t afraid of NOTHING….or was he?
This is one of my favorite Halloween books and I blogged about it in my Halloween post last year, but since it’s my favorite I am including it in my post this year! This book has been out for a few years but it was the first “scary” book that I really liked so I am recommending it! The story is great and the reading level is a little harder. It is also a little more spooky of a tale. I really like this book! I give this book five out of five bookworms!

My ugly baby isn't so ugly. In retrospect I realized that I never thought I had an ugly baby, someone else thought that.

We create art and we send it out there. Stand by what you create. Learn from the feedback. Keep going.

As for the ugly baby is the price of doing business in our business!

Happy Telling!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Scary Stories Anyone?: Hauntingly Good Stuff

Well, it is that time again.  Time to break out the spooky tales!

 Therefore it must be time for me to break out the annual spooky story post.

Last year I wrote about what you might want to consider telling to kids.

Just In Time For Halloween: Telling Spooky Tales 2.0

I love a good scary story.  In fact, it is my favorite kind of tale.  Edgar Allen Poe was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid.  I find scary stories delicious when told well.  I like a good jump, and I like to have a good shiver.

Now, let's be clear about this...I don't like scary movies all that much.  Most of the movies that are supposed to be scary are disgusting, and about sensationalism and less about story.

Road Train movie

I also love tales that I don't see coming.  I love sitting in an audience and watching something uncomfortable and creepy unfold through language.  

Carry Sue Ayvar told the chilling tale of Fellipa to a car full of rapt tellers on our way back to our lodgings from the Haunting in the Hills Festival.  The way she had the Bruja Madre  (bruja is witch, and you pronounce it brew-ha) say 'Fellipa' made my spine tingle.  It was very cool.

It was even cooler to realize that the base of this story she knew from Mexico had a core from a Baba Yaga tale from Russia.

Tried to put a source in for this one, but the
site where this picture is cached has a huge
alert on it!  Just had my computer diagnosed!
Enjoy the picture, but don't head to the site.


Baba Yaga lives in a house which walks around on chicken legs, her gate is decorated with skulls, and she is sometimes depicted with iron teeth.  I absolutely love witch stories.  If you have a chance to hear Carrie Sue tell Fellipa....take it!

One of my new favorite stories to tell is the Boo Hag.


I've known this story for some time, but only began telling it last year.  I tell it to sixth grade and older.  At the very end of the tale, the Boo Hag is caught without her skin, and she flies out over the swamp in a vain effort to find some place to hide.  Unfortunately, the early morning light strikes her true form and she explodes in mid-air.  The sixth graders often break into spontaneous applause when the Boo Hag is destroyed.

I love witches.  They are my favorite type of scary thing.  When I was a kid I always wanted to be one because they are so powerful.  I wanted magic at my fingertips, and the will to use that power.  I was always a little annoyed that they used their power for evil since I could see so much potential to do amazing things.  Still, every performer knows that it is always way more fun to play the evil character than the good one

Every Halloween

It goes without saying that I have gotten into trouble on numerous occasions with ghosty type stories.  Yes, I've had unhappy phone calls, and parents who demanded to know why I told this or that story.  Luckily, all of this is in my young, impetuous far.  It is October, so there is still time for me to get some of these grumpy calls.

I told Mr. Fox to a group of students almost a decade ago, and the staff and kids loved it, but one of the parents who got the kid version of the tale lost her mind.  Sigh, what are you going to do?

That has not deterred me.  Kids love these tales.  These stories are part of our fascination with the darkness, the unknown, and the things that go bump in the night.  We tell them in a place where kids can go into the darkness, and then come out safe on the other side.  Scary stories are a rite of passage at sleep overs and campfires.  What I find is that there are ways to present them so that they are the fun, spine tingling events they are supposed to be.   In the face of being one phone call away from a ticked off adult, I persevere!

So, I tell spooky tales, witch stories, and a zombie story or two.  Here are the rules of thumb I follow for telling spooky stories to school aged audiences.

1.  Always ask if it is all right.   I'm talking about the administration, not the students.   Just because the students are in eighth grade, does not mean that the community into which you've come is going to think that their precious children can handle something scary.

2.  I always tell the students that the story is kind of scary, medium scary, or very scary.  I have this same rule for hot sauce.  It allows the listener to decide how much they want to participate in the telling, or if they just want to sit there with their fingers in their ears and their eyes shut.

3.  I make sure there is some levity in the tale to cut the fear factor.  I do this so that the kids can release the pressure.  If you give them a place where they can laugh, it lets them decide just how much tension they want to hold in their bodies.  If they are really intense, and they murmur, then you just keep going, if they pierce the bubble and laugh uproariously, then, you know they needed a break.

4.  I try to always make sure that the story is only as scary as the most terrified person in the audience.  I haven't always done this, and it makes for a terrible experience for some kids.  If I see that there are lots of group clusters clutching ,or someone who looks like they need a break, I ease off the scary.  Luckily, lots of scary stuff is just technique, and you can decide how you turn the phrase, how much drippy, squishy, growly bits you want to add, or adjust the tone of your voice, or the rapidity at which you are speaking.

5.  I often let kids vote about what kind of story they want.  Some kids do not want scary tales.  If they tell you they don't want one...listen!  For a group of kids who don't want a scary tale, then even the least scary thing is uncomfortable to them.

Here is the rub for all of it....

6.  Just because the kids and administrators have a good time with the stories, doesn't mean some parent isn't going to call and freak out about the version the kid tells when they get home!

"But, Donna," you might ask, "Why would you continue with this when it could potentially get you in trouble?"

Last week I was at a school in Apex, NC.  I told the 6th grade Morgan and the Pot of Brains, and the Boo Hag.  Between my second and third set of the day, I had a break, so I went into the library.  One of the women passing through the room stopped and stared at me, and then she walked over to where I was sitting.

"Are you the storyteller?"  She had a clipboard and a broad smile.
"I just want to tell you, I am the speech therapist.  I had a kid right after your set for the sixth grade.  He stutters, and he was so excited when he came to me, he couldn't talk.  He was stuttering like crazy.  Then, I got him to calm down and use his techniques.  Do you know, he told me both of your stories with so much detail and so much passion, and he didn't stutter hardly at all.  Normally he just gives me bare bones descriptions because he doesn't like to talk.  I want to thank you for making him love language so much today that he didn't want to stop talking."

So, get out there and have fun with the spine tinglers, the jump tales, the suspenseful stories, and most especially, those lovely, powerful witches!

Happy Spooking!