What is storytelling?

Storytelling was invented by my ancestor Og Shield after he (although sometimes it is ‘she’ depending on who is telling the story) was chased by a sabre toothed tiger and escaped. When Og returned to the cave, s/he couldn’t wait to tell the rest of the gang of the adventure. I suspect that with each retelling the story and Og’s bravery grew.

When Og died the story did not. Other members of the family who had heard the story kept telling it. Some put themselves into the story. All of them embellished it in some way. Eventually there were so many versions of the story that some of them hardly resembled the original that Og told. In one version the sabre toothed tiger was a wolf and Og wore a red cape.

Each family member who told the story had their own way of telling it. There were those who used their voice in very clever ways. Some would act out the story and wrestle with an invisible tiger in front of their audience. Some would rely on timing to hold the audience in suspense. The silence before the tiger appeared always had the audience on the edge of their rocks. And the sudden roar of the tiger would cause them to leap into the air even though they had heard the story a hundred times before.

The one thing that all the best storytellers used was imagination. No – not their own – but that of their audience. They would give just enough information to start the pictures in the listeners’ heads and the listeners did the rest. That way each person would have their own version of the story. Some times there were arguments about the length of the tiger’s claws or whether the tiger was perhaps a lion but none of this mattered. The important thing is that the story lived in the minds of each of the listeners.

Over the years some of my ancestors tried different ways of telling the story. Some cut out pieces of animal skin in the shape of animals or figures. One wore a sabre tooth tiger skin as a costume. Some would get together with others and act out the story as a little play. One of the most successful of these was my ancestor William Shieldspeare.

As the years passed and technology advanced the stories were recorded in print and the telling of the stories became more and more sophisticated. Two of the most successful of these storytellers were my distant cousins George Lucashield and Steven Shieldsberg.

Now I would never question the success of my storytelling cousins in getting their stories to the masses. Nor would I question the extent to which they have used their imaginations to present their stories. What I do question, however, is the extent to which they use the imagination of the their audience.

Without taking anything away from these storytellers and the many others involved in the huge and sophisticated storytelling industry, I would like to do something different.

My goal is to take storytelling back, not quite to the beginning, but to the time when storytelling was simple with very few props, no costumes but relying on the skills of the storyteller: the way he uses his voice, his body, his timing. With these skills I hope to stimulate my audience to use their own imaginations and create their own wonderful stories in their heads.

I believe that the ability to visualise is an important factor in meaning making that contributes to literacy. Children who are immersed in the sophisticated storytelling of my cousins George and Steven need some basic storytelling to stimulate their imaginations.

To experience storytelling in your school you could hire a video of a movie made by one of my storytelling cousins. Your students will be impressed by the imagination of George or Steven. Or you could have a traditional storyteller visit your school and your students can be impressed by the stories created using their own imagination.

Photos on this page show students of Mackay Central State School enjoying one of my performances at the Mackay City Library, August 2001.

This article first appeared on the John Shield storytelling website, © copyright John Shield 2000 and 2003.


Book review: The Storytellers

Another wonderful book from my local library. This picture book is written and illustrated with beautiful water-colours by Ted Lewin.

Abdul and his grandfather are on their way to work. As we follow them, they take us on a tour of the busy streets of Morocco. They pass different workers and the work of each is compared to their work. The wool dyers work is hard. ‘Not like ours.’

The falconer comments on the beautiful sky for his falcon, ‘and for your work as well.’

The coppersmiths’ work is noisy. ‘Not like ours.’

Each page gives us a glimpse of the workers of the Moroccan community. And each is illustrated with another of Lewin’s exquisite water-colours. Lewin is not only a master of water-colour but each page is carefully designed to allow an appropriate space for the text.

Were it not for the title of the book the text would have us guessing just what it is that Abdul and his grandfather do for a living. But of course we know. Eventually, after they pass the leather tanners, the date sellers and the carpet weavers they set up in a sunny spot, a crowd gathers and the stories begin.

A school that is expecting a visit from a storyteller might introduce this book to their students and have them compare the style of storytelling of Abdul and his grandfather with that of the school’s visitor.

The Storytellers by Ted Lewin published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books

This review first appeared in the John Storytelling website, © copyright John Shield 2003

Book review: Tell me another

About a year after I first began performance storytelling I discovered this book. I had been wondering in what direction to take this craft and this book showed me the way.

Some years later, when I started to teach storytelling, I referred to this book as a basis for the course I created.

Beginning storytellers often ask what sort of stories they should be telling. I refer them to the section in Tell Me Another on patterns in stories. Understanding patterns is important for anyone who wants to build a repertoire. Patterns in stories are great for the listener. It’s easy for little ones to follow the story and everyone has great fun guessing how the pattern is going to change. But patterns also make the story so much easier for the teller to learn.

Other important chapters include Making the Story Your Own; Reading Stories to Children and Storytelling in the Classroom – with many great follow up activities for teachers.

Very highly recommended.

Tell Me Another by Bob Barton, Australian edition published by Rigby Heinemann, Canadian edition published by Pembroke Publishers.

This review first appeared on the John Shield storytelling website, © copyright John Shield 2003

Book review: Reading magic

This is essentially a book to encourage parents to read to their children. It is a wonderful book for this purpose, giving much well grounded literacy theory in a light, enthusiastic and entertaining way.

The author is a storyteller, an academic with a background in education and literacy and Australia’s most popular writer of picture books for children.

The value of this book for storytellers is mainly in the chapter titled ‘And Do It Like This’. It gives information on techniques for using your voice to get the maximum communication into your storytelling performance.

I highly recommend this book to parents, teachers and storytellers as well as those who read books to children.

I also recommend you take a look at the Mem Fox website.

Reading Magic by Mem Fox, Pan Macmillan

This review first appeared in the John Shield storytelling site, © copyright John Shield 2003

Reading between the lines

John Shield travels Australia and the world telling stories to children and telling parents the secrets of raising good readers and writers. The results of his approach can be seen on the faces of his audience. Story by Colin Pearce.

Storyteller John Shield has a rubber face. He has eyes that grow like mushrooms and a mouth that stretches so much it could swallow anything – even his eyes.

When you watch children watching him tell his stories you could believe a rubber face is catching.

Their faces stretch as his stretches, there eyes widen with his, their mouths drop open, reinventing every ripple and every twist of John’s extraordinarily mobile face.

He has parents on the edge of their seats too. Not only with his stories but also with his advice.

He might have a big mouth but there are a lot of good things coming out of it.

John is slotting parents back into the picture when it comes to teaching children to read and write.

His message is: you’ve already done a brilliant job of teaching them to talk and you didn’t even know you were doing it.

Teaching them to read and write is no different and, given that teaching a child to speak is the toughest teaching job in the world because ‘there is nothing else they will ever have to learn in which they are not building on prior knowledge’, it is certainly no more difficult.

John travels Australia and the world telling stories to children and telling parents the secrets of raising good readers and writers.

Most of this work is done through schools – places where, traditionally, teachers bemoan the lack of help most children receive at home.

But at the same time many carefully guard their roles, making it clear that although parents can help, teachers are the professionals.

John Shield’s methods suggest a different point of view.

One in which the child is the car, the parents are the fuel and the teachers are the road along which they must travel.

In many cases it is fuel problems that are leaving cars backfiring on the start line.

Most of these cars, says John, are boys.

And their problem is fuel starvation.

They don’t get enough reading or writing from the one person who, in most cases, is the most powerful role model in their lives – their fathers.

His lecture at Thuringowa library this week confirmed his point of view. Ninety percent of his audience was women, most of whom confirmed that most reading and writing in the home was performed by them, not their partners.

And as these mothers said: a heavy majority of teachers in primary schools are women, leading to further role starvation.

‘By the time a child is five it has worked out there are two kinds of people in the world – and they know which group they belong to.

‘They’re thinking is: “I’m going to be like my dad. Reading – that’s girls’ stuff.”

‘The greater proportion of students requiring learning support in school is boys,’ said John.

‘Some of these boys come from homes where it has been the mother’s role to read to them.

‘Consequently the boys grow up believing reading is women’s business. Fathers need to share the reading role in the home.’

Reading, he points out, is not only books.

It’s the mail, instructions, bills, newspapers.

And writing is not merely exercises in a school book. It’s letters, lists, cheques, notes, even email.

‘And yet there are kids who come to school who have never experienced a book before. They don’t know how it works. They don’t know what it is or what to do with it. They don’t know that you start at one end and turn the pages one after another until you get to the end.’

However there are dangers in teaching your children to read.

Parents are often more concerned wit learning prowess than the learning process.

They forget, if you like, they are fuelling a four-wheel drive on a tour of the world, but imagine they are thrusting a Formula One car to a finish line.

The pressure to succeed (and success is usually measured against a community yardstick: ‘my child is succeeding because it is better than most of the others’) turns reading and writing into a treadmill from which many children want to escape.

The danger exists in schools too, perhaps with more excuse, where teachers are under pressure for students to meet standard performance levels.

But for parents there is one over-riding tip in the business of helping children – make it fun.

Parents often fall into the trap of believing their role is merely to test children on what they have learned at school.

Testing is terminal when it comes to reading in the home.

It leads to impatience on the parent’s part – ‘You knew it last week. What’s the matter with you! Try it again’ – and suspicion on the child’s.

‘It doesn’t take them long to learn reading hurts,’ said John.

That doesn’t mean you need John Shield’s elastic face and remarkable story telling skills to entertain your kids when you read to them or with them.

Indeed, research has shown the best readers are not those whose parents perform every book but those whose parents get involved, who interact with the child and the book, said John.

They explore the illustrations, explore the words, discuss what’s happening, anticipate what is next, always alert for the point at which the child has had enough.

This technique is similar to the ‘scaffolding’ method to be introduced soon to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at Shalom Christian College in Townsville.

The method has impressed researchers who say it has raised literacy levels significantly in pilot tests.

But both children and parents need to enjoy it. If you feel your patience levels dropping – stop. Even if your children want to continue. They will be even more willing to continue next time.

John Shield was in Townsville for two weeks as part of the Runny Jelly children’s festival.

How to help your child enjoy reading

John Shield’s 10 point plan for teaching children to read and write:

Have fun

Have lots of print around the house: books, newspapers, magazines, shopping catalogues – even comics.

Buy books if you can afford to.

Visit the library with your children. Visit it often.

Read to your children as long as they’ll let you, whatever their age. In a two parent family that means both of you – dad, are you listening?

Read kids books yourself. Out loud when you get to the good bits. Discuss them openly and with your kids.

Read – and write – frequently yourself (both of you in a two parent family and, again, especially dads) and for lots of purposes.

Turn the TV off occasionally.

Let kids choose their own reading material.

Give them only loving, positive feedback and listen to what they have to say.

This article appeared in the Townsville Bulletin, 5 August 2000.

Book review: A piece of the wind

It was the last night of the course. Before we got started someone presented me with this book. I took a glance. It looked good. I wasn’t going to give it a full endorsement without reading it, so I said to the group, ‘If this book lives up to the headings on the contents page it is everything a beginning storyteller needs.’ Headings are: Stories for Easy Telling, Stories That Involve the Audience, Stories to Act Out and Stories for All Occasions. I passed the book around the group and suggested they glance at it while their fellow students were telling their stories. One of the students had not done his homework. He had not learned a story. He said nothing and when it was his turn to tell he told a wonderful story – the best he had done. I complemented him on the story and asked where he had found it.

‘Oh, in that book you passed around.’ He had read the first story in the easy stories section only once and retold it to the class! That proved to me that the book really did do what the section headings said.

I read the book as soon as I could and added two of the stories to my repertoire. That was years ago and I am still telling those stories.

Do I need to say more?

A Piece of the Wind and other stories to tell by Ruthilde Kronberg & Patricia C McKissack, Harper & Row San Francisco

This review first appeared in the John Shield storytelling site, © copyright John Shield 2002

Storytelling’s Peter Pan

This interview appeared in Swag of Yarns, Australia’s National Storytelling Magazine, Vol 2, No 1, Autumn 1999.

We walked along the Brisbane River and lunched at one of the delightful outdoor cafes along the riverbank. The relaxed atmosphere and balmy air made me want to jump into the water and splash around and throw water at the passers by. Perhaps it is Brisbane’s seductive power that draws out our childlike qualities because the storyteller I was interviewing, John Shield, certainly seems to have retained the fresh enthusiasm of childhood.

I love stories and I wanted my kids to love stories as much as I did. Whenever I read to them I made it a fun time so that they would always come back for more.

I have a fantastic time with kids. I like working with kids of all ages. There is not one age group I dislike.

Sometimes when I talk to kids they ask me if I have a job. Other times, observing me having such a good time with my performance, they ask if I enjoy storytelling.

’No its really boring,’ I say, just for fun. And then I say, ’What do you think? Do you think I’m enjoying myself?’ They say ’Yeah!’ and I say to them, ’You know how your mum and dad have to work for a living? I don’t! I get paid for having fun. Aren’t I lucky!’

How is it that you achieve absolute delight as well as success from working with children?

Perhaps I’ve never grown up.

How do you not grow up?

How do you grow up?

Despite the Peter Pan qualities that make John Shield such a hit with children of all ages there is a maturity in the way he handles the business of storytelling which possibly stems from a previous life as a bookseller for Ashton Scholastic.

I guess one of the things I learned through Ashton is that if you want to do what you really believe in, you’ve got to make it pay, otherwise you can’t continue.

Someone once said to me, ’For every hour you spend storytelling, you’ll spend 8 hours doing other stuff.’

That’s pretty close to the truth. I do around twelve 45 minute performances per week, yet a 60 hour week is not unusual.

In the early 1980s I started working for Ashton Scholastic and I think that was one of the best things that happened to me. I have always had a belief that we should earn our living by doing something we love.To me it’s almost immoral to do something you dislike just to earn money. And yet most people spend what is half their waking hours earning money. If you hate it and you spend your whole life doing that, then you’re wasting your life. When I was young I tended to change jobs a lot and I also owned a bookshop. I was trying to do work that I loved and also where I could operate on principles that I believed in. When I started at Ashton they had principles which were much the same as mine. They believed in what they were doing. Back in those days I was employed on their Sydney high school rounds. I went to schools selling books and promoting Ashton services and the main service was the book club.

I loved the work because a lot of my customers over the years prior to working for Ashton had become friends and so basically what I was doing was travelling around visiting friends, talking to them about books I had read and loved and so I wasn’t having to sell. I loved reading, loved talking about books and they paid me to do it.

At one school, they asked me if Ashton had anyone who talks to the kids about the books. I said, ‘No, not unless I do it.’ They said ‘Alright you’ll do.’

So for that year I was their Book Week guest and I sort of fumbled through it. Afterwards I asked if it was okay and they said ‘Well, you were better than the author we had last year.’ And I still don’t know if that’s a compliment or not!

Then when I was chatting in other schools they also suggested I come to their schools and do the same. I did more and more of this. There was so much demand, I had to make it more professional. In time, I became very good at enthusing teenagers about books. I would find THE passage in each novel I was reading that would grab them. And kids would be clamoring to get those books. Perhaps they borrowed them from the library. Perhaps they bought them from the book club. The important thing, as far as I was concerned, was that they wanted to read them. At this point I was reading (not telling), but I was learning a lot about how to hold an audience. In many Sydney high schools the kids will probably give you about five minutes and if they think you’re boring, you’re dead! In four years of doing that I had one riot, one almost riot and the rest of them I won!

When I moved up to Brisbane I tried to set up the same sort of thing in the high schools. Generally they weren’t all that interested (mid 1980s). Basically the philosophy was ‘If its too much fun, they don’t learn’. But I believe the opposite. It may have changed but that seemed to be the prevailing attitude at the time. I was the State Manager of Ashton in Queensland, so I organised for myself to go to primary schools. My personal motivation was not to boost book sales but to get those kids reading. The good thing was that it was also boosting book club sales. The primary schools in Queensland took to it.

And at about the same time the Storytelling Guild had just started in Brisbane. So I went along and was encouraged and started telling stories. I started incorporating storytelling in my school visits and over the years I became well known around Brisbane schools as a storyteller. More and more schools were saying to me. ‘John, forget about the book promotion we just want you to come and tell stories’, and it got to the point where I couldn’t do justice to that and to Ashton and I had to make a decision. It’s almost five years ago that I made that choice and I haven’t looked back.

How do you communicate with the schools and set up your bookings?

You must stipulate what you are prepared to do. I always stipulate what I do for the fee. If they want me to do more that’s another fee. I make that very clear and it’s all set out on paper and the principal signs it. Most of my bookings are done early in the year for the whole year so two weeks before my visit I send another letter and give them all my requirements down to the smallest detail such as having a glass of water available for me.

On the back of that piece of paper it lists the time I will arrive, the time of the sessions and contact details. There’s a sentence at the bottom asking them to let me know if there are any errors.

I get a lot of follow up bookings and my clients become my friends. For me, its a case of love what you do, do it well and the rest will follow. Doing it well is important!

Preparation and communication is important too. It takes a long time to build all that up.You can’t just say, ‘Okay I am going to be a professional storyteller’, and overnight that’s what you are.

All that time I had with Ashton, that was an apprenticeship for me. I had ten years in the schools in Brisbane before I went full time, so my clients were built up over a long period of time during which I established client loyalty and my credibility. These things are important for establishing a good business. But most of all, love what you do.

How do you research your stories?

Most of the reading I do is stories. When I read a story and I think ‘Wow! I wish I’d written that one’, that’s the story for me to learn. If I don’t get that reaction I am never going to tell that story well. In my reading I am looking for that reaction and when I find it, I add that story to my repertoire. If a school asks me for something specific, the broader my repertoire the more chance I have of being able to meet the request. I did a school recently. They came up with the topic ‘The Sea’. I didn’t have a story that fitted for the age level. I thought about the Grimm story of The Magic Fish. I like what it is saying but I am also wary of the portrayal of the stereotypical nagging wife. That’s one of the reasons I’d never told it. But I thought Id give it a go. I discussed it with the teachers and they thought it would be a good story. Well, the kids fidgeted all through that story. There was something about the story, it wasn’t working. What I’m getting at is that when you choose a story because it fits in with the theme rather than because you really love the story, it doesn’t work as well. I wont use that story again.

When I am choosing a story that might be suitable for say eight year olds, I am eight when I read it. The part of me that thinks ‘Wow what a great story’, is my inner eight year old. I can be eight. I give teachers an evaluation form for each performance. They usually put in quotes from the kids. A quote on one form recently, from grade twos and threes, was ‘He was the same age as us.’ I just couldn’t ask for more than that.

What interests do you have apart from storytelling?

I own a small catamaran which I love to sail and I love to go bushwalking. I don’t need so many interests because I am already doing the thing I love.”

John lives in Brisbane, Queensland with two computers and several other machines. He has three adult children, Melanie who lives in England, Linda who lives with her mother in Sydney and David who lives in Brisbane and who has recently presented John with his first grandchild, Ben.

Some would say that becoming a grandfather is sure to enhance one’s maturity but for John Shield, the boy who never grew up, I suspect it will have the opposite effect!

John Shield was interviewed for Swag of Yarns by June Barnes on 1 November, 1998.

Text © copyright June Barnes and John Shield 1999
Photos by David Shield © copyright John Shield 2003