I grew up in a household devoid of books, but not of stories. My parents had little time for reading, with the exception of the weekly newspapers. In a time when organized recycling was unheard of, these venerated providers of information and entertainment, ended their lives as either fire lighting material or conveniently torn strips of paper, threaded on to a length of wire in the outhouse. But some newspapers refused to die.
I remember helping my mother replace the newspapers that lined the cupboards and drawers. It would take ages to finish the job because we would reread the old papers. At the kitchen table we retold the stories we’d read.
Storytelling was how we communicated with each other. It was how we shared our day-to-day activities and how we learnt about the lives of our parents and our grandparents. It was how we remembered people and events and how we forged new friendships. Our stories became our identity.
My father was the chief storyteller and regaled everyone with his tales of the bush. Whether it was in the shearing shed at smoko with the men, or around the kitchen table, his stories were invariably loud, entertaining and humorous.
On the other hand my mother was the keeper of the family stories; the oral equivalent of births, deaths and marriages, but with additional details. She was the one who knew the ‘real’ story. But these stories were definitely not for children to listen too; they were women’s stories. ‘Little pigs have big ears,’ was a phrase that she invoked whenever she believed her curious children were listening in to the women’s stories. A rite of passage for a girl was being party to the telling of these stories.
She was also the rhymer. From birth she sang songs, told riddles and performed finger and action rhymes with her children. She did this because her mother had done it. That was what mother’s did to amuse their children. Today, scientific and educational studies have shown that these simple early literacy activities are essential in preparing children to read and write. They are more than entertainment; they stimulate children’s brains and motivation to read.
Where I grew up there was no preschool. If children were to receive any literacy experiences it was in the home. We now know that from birth, children can benefit from their parents and carers reading, rhyming and singing with them. As children don’t start preschool until 4 or 5 years of age then they need to have literacy experiences beforehand, not only so they can be school ready but to enjoy the excitement and wonder of learning.
Twenty five years ago I left my job at a Melbourne library, to become a storyteller. I knew the power of storytelling to create a spark in children’s eyes and inspire their imaginations. I also believed that oral storytelling was a medium to educate, entertain and improve the lives of people of all ages.
To this end I have worked with a number of health, education, environment and community groups on the multiple applications of storytelling. Because I adhere to Virginia Woolfe’s philosophy, ‘As a woman I have no country; my country is the whole world,’ I work anywhere and everywhere; wherever people are receptive to oral literature.
Teaching young parents the rhymes my mother taught me, so they can share them with their children, is as important as presenting an academic paper to an International conference. Seeing a previously reticent child confidently participate in storytelling and oral language sessions affirms the power of the humble rhyme and the importance of generating a storytelling continuum from birth to death.
When I present papers on why we need tellers of traditional tales in our contemporary cultures, they are derived from my first hand experience of seeing their relevance as a teaching tool, cultural medium and community builder. I believe that everyone is a storyteller, however, many people are disconnected from their family and cultural stories. As repositories of traditional tales, storytellers can build resilience in communities through introducing each new generation to the old stories. After all, these tales are the global cultural inheritance of all children.
With this philosophy in mind I look forward to sharing raps, rhymes songs and stories with future generations, in communities both local and global. Here is a tale to finish with. Told by my mother-in-law to my husband as a child, who then told it to our children and may it continue on …
There was once a man who had a hole in his tooth and in that hole there was a note, and on that note was written the words; there was once a man who had a hole in his tooth and in that hole there was a note and on the note was written the words; there was once a man who had a hole in his tooth and in that hole there was a note and on the note was written the words …
Photo by Roman W. Schatz