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The art of storytelling

In Singapore, storytelling for children is predominantly viewed as a means for the kids to learn more about the language and expand their vocabulary. As a full-time storytelling artist with more than a decade’s worth of experience (and two sons), I have tried to find a balance in dealing with this perception.

The art of storytelling

Props are great tools that can liven up your storytelling, says Kamini Ramachandran. Photo: MoonShadow Stories

In Singapore, storytelling for children is predominantly viewed as a means for the children to learn more about language and expand their vocabulary. As a full-time storytelling artist with more than a decade’s worth of experience (and two sons), I have tried to find a balance in dealing with this perception.

I grew up listening to stories told by my grandfather, who was a master storyteller. My storytelling environment was not a library or a classroom; it was in the safety and comfort of my family home.

My earliest memories of storytelling are filled with imagination, wonder and a sense of anticipation of what would happen next. Along the way, over the years, I learnt three languages, inherited a repertoire that spanned The Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jataka, Panchatantra and also a canon of family tales ranging from Kerala to Malaya.

I also learnt how to listen, which, in turn, enabled me to recall, recap and re-tell stories.

I was encouraged to explore and discover my own style as a storyteller, and not to imitate my grandfather. Storytelling was never a subject or topic, let alone a lesson I had to attend or learn to master. Stories and storytelling were part of my daily life growing up at home.

My approach to storytelling with children has always been about creating a sense of wonder and magic, of transporting my little listeners on a journey and of allowing them to suspend disbelief for a while. I know that along the way, they too will acquire new words, explore whatever meaning the tale held for them and receive a story that they can go home and tell to others.

I select stories that I enjoy telling. This enhances my storytelling and makes my performance authentic. My advice to parents or educators who wish to explore storytelling with children is to select material that they believe in, like and are confident of sharing. Children are astute. They will sense your discomfort and they will know if you are not convinced by your own story. When you are clearly having fun telling a story, your audience will see and feel it.

Children have a shorter attention span than adults. Tailor your stories to suit their ages. Young children cannot be expected to sit still for long durations. Include movement and participation in your storytelling to allow for a more interactive session.

Children are also incredibly visual. Pepper your storytelling with descriptive words and paint pictures as you speak. Use language that is culturally appropriate and age-appropriate so your audience does not become lost.

Sometimes, you can include props and puppets to support your storytelling with visual connectors. This works very well with second-language learners who will identify props with the vocabulary used.

Remember to create a collaborative story space by involving your young listeners, not by separating them from you. Songs, rhymes or stock phrases permit the listeners to become co-storytellers as they repeat or sing along with you. Call-and-response and hand-action storytelling are also wonderfully engaging ways of telling a tale together.

Should you mention the moral of the story? Must storytelling always be about lessons learnt? I’m sure that over the two decades of listening to my grandfather’s stories, I was exposed to lessons, values and morals. Cautionary tales, riddle stories and pourquoi tales (tales that explain the ways of the world and are largely based on creation myths) made me ponder beyond the listening experience and become aware of the world and its ways. But I do not ever recall him stating the obvious. A good story does not require the storyteller to deconstruct or analyse it to the audience. A good storyteller does not have to justify why she told the story.

Always remember that you do not need an inherited or learnt repository of folk tales, fables and legends to tell to your children. Your childhood experiences and family tales will be equally riveting for any child to listen to. When my sons asked me how my brother, their uncle, got a scar on his eyebrow, I began with “Once upon a time, when all of us slept on double-decker beds ...”

The writer is co-founder of MoonShadow Stories, artistic director of the Singapore International Storytelling Festival, and founding member and vice-president of the Storytelling Association (Singapore).

Catch Kamini in action at Animal Tales, a storytelling performance held on Nov 22, 1230pm to 1pm, at Jurong Regional Library. This programme is suitable for children aged four to eight. Admission is free and no registration is required.

Produced by the TODAY Special Projects Team

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