‘We are all storytellers’

Nothing captivates children better than a good story. And the love for stories can spark the love for reading. With this in mind, the National Library brought in professional storytellers to celebrate this reading month, report S. INDRAMALAR and JAMIE KHOO. 

EVERYONE loves a good story. Whether about a magic tree or an annoying neighbour, an exciting holiday or a miserable dinner party, stories are fun to tell and listen to.  

Cashing in on the universal appeal of storytelling, the National Library this year incorporated the activity into its schedule of events held in conjunction with the National Reading Month in July. 

ZAWIYAH: 'We must show children that books can be a source of lively entertainment as well.'

For the first time, a storytelling congress was organised last week with presenters comprising professional storytellers from Britain, India, the United States and Thailand. 

Said National Library director-general Datuk Zawiyah Baba: “We have been organising the National Reading Month since 1995 and although our survey on the reading profile of Malaysians shows that we have a literacy rate of 95%, the average Malaysian reads only two books a year! 

“We need to seriously find ways to inculcate a love for reading among Malaysians, especially the young. One very effective way would be to show them how stories and books can be a source of lively entertainment. I think that storytelling will show them this and set them off to read on their own.” 

Books, said Zawiyah, should replace the TV as family entertain-ment and one way of working towards this is to equip parents with storytelling skills. 

“It is good for parents to have these skills as they have the most influence on their children,” she said.  

Attesting to this was storyteller Jeeva Raghunath who shared how her mother and grandmother, both great storytellers in their own right, inspired her. 

“I remember how my grand-mother used to tell me and my cousins stories while feeding us rice. We’d sit in a circle, eagerly waiting for her to emerge from the kitchen with a huge pot of sambar rice (rice soaked in dhal curry).  

“She would then sit with us, and tell us a story while feeding each one of us. After every course, she would sing a song ? a kind of an intermission, before the story continues. And, she would never end the story with, ‘...and the moral of the story is ...’.  

“The stories would have a moral lesson but they would be cleverly blended into the tale without our realising it,” shared Jeeva, a South Indian who is currently based in Singapore. 

At her workshop session at the congress, Jeeva told participants that storytelling is not a “talent” but rather something instinctive for most people. 

“We are all storytellers. We all have emotions and when we narrate an incident to our family or friends, we are free with our emotions and expressions. We laugh, we shout, whisper and even cry when narrating stories to our close friends.  

“When we were kids, we all told tall tales to our parents about how we had a stomach ache and could not go for our piano lessons and such. 

READING PROPS: Cathy Spagnolli used props and showed her audience illustrations from books and story cards to enhance her storytelling session.

“These are natural situations and display our innate abilities as storytellers. 

“However, when it comes to telling stories, everyone becomes stiff and puts on a serious face and starts the story with, “Once upon a time...”  

“Why do we do this? This is not the way we normally speak! For most of us, when we become storytellers we forget to put our natural emotions into our narration,” said Jeeva. 

She added the main thing stopping people from narrating stories, whether in public or private, is the fear of looking foolish. 

“Why should you be embarrassed? We are not going for an Oscar or Golden Globe! Be comfortable. Even the slightest movement excites a kid,” she assured. 

A teacher by training, Jeeva stumbled upon storytelling as a career when she met American storyteller Cathy Spagnoli. 

“At the time, I did not know there was such a thing as a professional storyteller. But Cathy heard me speak at a workshop and told me I would make a good storyteller and that I should pursue it,” she said.  

It is easy to see what Spagnoli saw in Jeeva; the Indian storyteller was animated when conducting her workshop. 

And when narrating a story, her voice, tone and modulation kept her audience enraptured. With her body language and passion, she has no need for elaborate props or costumes. 

“Our body is the best prop as we are in control from head to toe. Using other props like picture cards can be limiting, as some kids in the group may not be able to see them and their attention may be diverted elsewhere.  

Puppets may be nice and colourful but they have a fixed expression.  

“You can use everyday material like newspaper and string. These are easily accessible; they may not be elaborate props but they can be effective,” she said. 

At both Suria KLCC and 1Utama, Jeeva drew her audience into the storytelling session by getting them fully involved in the storytelling process.  

By encouraging them to imitate her, make sound effects and sing songs, children were urged to speak up and interact with her stories.  

Jeeva and fellow storytellers Spagnoli, Cassandra Wye (from Britain), Dr Wajuppa Tossa (Thailand), Hasniah Hussain and Suraya Ariffin (Malaysia) participated in the Storytelling Carnival Programme held in bookstores throughout the Klang Valley on July 3.  

The six enraptured young audiences and parents with their animated telling of stories.  

Spagnoli told traditional Asian folk tales as well as stories she had created herself at the Trisha and Sasha Children Bookstore at Desa Sri Hartamas and Suria KLCC.  

Using props – illustrated story cards, pieces of paper that she folded into origami shapes and “storytelling gifts” she had collected over the years – Spagnoli weaved stories from her own experiences with fictional ones.  

She said the use of props enhances the storytelling experience with its cultural and historical references.  

“It is an art with a wonderful range. It could be an anecdote, an eight-hour storytelling of an epic, even news stories,” added Spagnoli, whose father was a journalist who provided with her a wealth of stories as she was growing up.  

ANIMATED READS: Jeeva Ragunath gets her young audience involved in the storytelling process by incorporating dancing, acting and singing in her stories.

“When you meet people and when you share stories, you are sharing something from the heart. It is wonderful to know that you are leading children to another world with storytelling.”  

Parents who accompanied their children agreed that exposure to both storytelling as well as mixing with others help children gain confidence and interest in reading.  

Said Nor Azli, a parent of a two-year old child: “Storytelling is a very exciting thing and will stimulate children. Children can also imitate and learn from each other.” 

Added Trisha and Sasha bookstore owner and father of two, Jerry Ang: “It is the best and cheapest way to get a child to learn a language and get into books.  

“Kids like to fantasise, connect with the storyteller – you cannot force children to read and storytelling is a very natural way for them to kick-start reading.”  

Related stories:Make reading a family activity Tips for story telling Telling Asian tales 

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