Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Telling Tall Tales

I love stories.  I think it is one of the very best parts about having children of my own (and being a primary school teacher), handling stories, sharing stories and being part of stories.  They are so essential for feeding our imaginations and giving us the tools for expression.
Sadly there has been a marked decrease in reading for pleasure amongst children, particularly ironic considering we are in the midst of a golden period in children's book publishing.  Why this is can be put down to many things and sadly I believe school reading strategies have a lot to do with it.  We squash the story out of the words, push it aside; we excise limbs from whole books and expect children to be satisfied with extracts.  Extraction is for pulling teeth!  One of the saddest quotes I ever read came from AS Byatt, in her introduction to Dodger by Terry Pratchett:
'Also, people who don't read, read Pratchett.  Boys of twelve who hate books. I hope he is never taught in schools.'
What does that say about how we squash the life out of the living story, leaving it dead on the page; spread-eagled like a dissection specimen that nothing could bring back to life.

Yet, children love stories.  Think about the joy that they take in video games, where they are right in the heart of the story, making it happen around them each waking second.  Think about films, where the screenwriters are delving into the rich history of books and oral stories that permeate our world.  Come and watch a foundation class that is being read a favourite book.  So the question is: how do we reignite the joy of reading?
Carol Ann Duffy brings Rapunzel to life; taking the dance of the story onwards to a new generation
Part of this has to come in the form of storytelling and, thanks to a project our school is part of, I have been learning how to do this successfully.  It is not easy.

Attempt one:  using a story learnt from Nicky Rafferty, who has been shaping us and teaching us how to engage an audience in a story.  Judging by the children's reactions to the story it went well.  It was also one of the most satisfying story sessions I have had with the class; we were fully engaged in the story, both class and I reacting and responding to each other.

Attempt two: this time we are all to take a story we love, break it into it's sparest form and then rebuild it in a way that makes sense to us.  I have chosen a little story called The Skeleton Wife, which I found in the Story Museum.  The process follows that shown on the site, where they offer the story map to go with the story along with the transcript and aural versions.  However, we are expected to go through the process ourselves, which is essential to learn the story well. Knowing the story is essential to building confidence in the retelling.

Anyway here is stage one, the bare bones of the story as I understand it.

  • Angry father pushes daughter into the sea over the cliff.
  • Waves pull her body in and fish eat her flesh.
  • Her ghost haunts the bay, fisherman stay clear.
  • A stranger fishes her bones out of the water.
  • Terrified, he rows home dragging the bones behind him.
  • Slamming the door shut, he hid in the dark cabin.
  • By candlelight he saw the bones in the chair.
  • Fisherman puts the bones back together in order.
  • He goes to sleep and dreams the skeleton weeps.
  • She sings the flesh onto her bones and dances.
  • The fisherman marries the new-made woman.

Stage two is to flesh out the bones (appropriate to this story to the nth degree) with ideas and images to help shape the retelling.  Not surprisingly that is being done in pencil form as I think in pictures and have several strong visual images to fill the gaps between the Skeleton Wife's white bones.

I will continue to post the drawings alongside the development of the story as it grows in the telling.  This story is a living thing and is already twisting and writhing with new life;  The Wife herself is asking for changes and new versions to speak her story and move it on.


  1. Hey Charlotte, an interesting post and all the best with the project.
    My son wasn't keen on reading at school, wasn't keen on much really but there you go. Now at the age of 21 he is immersing himself in a series of books and is going to bed early to read....unheard of before.....
    Reading was one of my chief delights as a kid, i hope your project can ignite this love in your pupils, but don't be disheartened they may find the joy of a good story when they are older.

    Claire :}

    1. My main aim is to make sure we enjoy stories at school and not to knock out any enjoyment there is to be had in books. Sadly we don't teach love of reading well in the UK.