When I teach what I call “Olive’s recipe for a fairy tale”, I hand out a page that lists five elements. They are: character, setting, problem, magic, and a helper, with the end-line promise of “happily ever after”.
I was standing in the play yard at Sunset Cooperative Nursery School watching my two grandsons and musing over the 38 years of my belonging to this beloved community, first as a parent of three, next as a storyteller and adult educator, and now as a 67-year-old grandmother of two little boys playing at my feet.
I realized that as a new mother in my thirties I was the protagonist of my own fairy tale, with Sunset as the setting for the journey. And, yes, all the ingredients of the fairy tale recipe were present and are biographically true:
Character: 32-year-old pregnant mother of two. Setting: rainy nursery school yard. Problem: threat of violence. Magic: An African folktale called Abi Yo Yo, as heard from Pete Seeger.
As for the Helper, that would be Joanna McClure who ran the school for 35 years, and is an accomplished poet. She was the wise woman that gifted me in three ways:
She informed me storytelling was a profession. I didn’t know that.
She gave me tickets to hear Gioia Timpanelli at The Jung Institute. I was transformed by a great teller of Greek Myths and Sicilian folk tales.
She gave me the confidence to make storytelling my profession. She taught me that little ones do not listen out of politeness. They are sensitive to the heart of the story and the authenticity of voice. Their silence is affirmation. After five years of telling stories at Sunset — a place that replicates the old-fashioned storytelling circle with everyone from infants to grandparents present — Joanna assured me that my initiation was over.
True to the fairy tale recipe, my Happily-Ever-After moments continue at Sunset. Yesterday at circle time, with the traditional opening of “Once upon a time in Russia…”, the wiggles and giggles stilled. As soon as Masha entered deep dark woods, a hush descended just like magic. Attentive silence filled the room for the Russian Folk Tale “Masha and the Bear”.
Below is a biographical essay I composed in 2006 as an answer to a question I am often asked. How did you become a storyteller?
My parent co-op task on a rainy Thursday in 1982 was simple. Watch the four-year-olds in the play yard while they waited for their parents to pick them up. It was, however, raining, so all the children were crammed under a plexiglas roof that made the coastal rain sound like bird shot. I was only weeks away from giving birth to my third child, sitting on a huge tractor tire, resting my big belly on my knees, when two boys yelled, "My Truck!”
A big plastic dump truck rose up in the pudgy hand of a boy taking aim at the head of his cowering adversary. My intention was to stand up and grab the weapon, but I could not move. I tried negotiating. “Let's share?" Words like gnats. Horrified, I watched a warrior aiming at his victim while the rest of the wide-eyed group waited for the blow. Rain was now deafening with wind in harmony.
Then, to my surprise, I took a deep breath and began in a big voice "Once upon a time before your grandmother was born, and before her grandmother was born there was a boy…"
Pouring out of my memory came Pete Seeger's story of Abi Yo Yo. Oh what a giant he was that day! Far bigger than a territorial four-year-old who couldn't resist turning toward my deep calm voice as his arm lowered inch by inch to his side, weapon forgotten as all of us went into the story. We faced the giant together. We sighed with relief when music and magic made Abi Yo Yo disappear. Peace at last!
I heard Pete Seeger tell Abi Yo Yo to a crowd of thousands in 1978. How I remembered the whole story from start to finish is inexplicable, and how it arrived just then, was pure grace. The effect of the story was both mystifying and profound.
"Tell it again,” the little ones pleaded. I did. The next time was for circle time to the whole school. I was soon trying other remembered stories, until it was my weekly experience. All the while I was trying to understand what stories are, why children are so hungry for them, and how it is that audience and teller can co-create a safe place with words?
By 1986 the storyteller in me was having temper tantrums. “More time! More Space! Now!" So, risking being a fool, I quit the teaching job I loved to imagine my way into a career as a professional storyteller. Here are the words from my first brochure:
"My goal as a professional storyteller is to bring the riches of this art form into the places children gather together and to act as a resource in curriculum development for parents and teachers.
My skills with language, comprehension of the academic value of storytelling, and understanding of child development have evolved from my work as a writer, a parent, and a teacher of English as a Second Language to adults.
But at the core of my work is the magic. Love, courage, honesty, fidelity and hope are what I try to bring forward from the heart. Through beauties, beasts, fairies, peddlers and creatures of the earth, the child listener finds her deepest longings and most enormous questions touched in an intimate moment between adult and child.”
Twenty years and thousands of classroom hours later these words are still true. Now a performing and teaching artist, I tell stories to students from pre-school to college. I have been an artist-in-residence in an urban middle school of a thousand students since 1990, and in a K-8 private school since 1989. I speak at conferences, teach writing workshops, and mentor adults in my class "Find Your Own Storytelling Voice". My understanding of the power of story has grown branches, flowered, and released seeds to the wind.
Children are the best teachers. You simply cannot trick them into deep listening, nor coax them to voluntarily retell a story with dramatic flare. I am proud to be known as Miss Olive the Storyteller Lady. It is the children who have really taught me the powerful connection between storytelling and creative writing.
My roots remain deeply planted and nourished at Sunset Cooperative Nursery School where I still tell stories twice a week to an audience of two-to-five-year-olds, their older and younger siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, teachers and now, lucky me, my grandchildren. From this little village I travel as Olive the Storyteller.