Why Teens Need Stories

A few weeks ago I arrived at church early since my husband was playing in the worship band that morning. Just as I’d settled into one of the pews to listen, three little girls came up to me and asked me if I would go into the multipurpose room with them so they could get some breakfast. My church puts out cereal each Sunday morning for those who don’t have the means or the time to eat beforehand. Ours is a very diverse congregation, both racially and socioeconomically. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week, but that couldn’t be further from the truth at my church, and that’s the way I like it.

When I entered the multipurpose room, I immediately became the minority, but it didn’t bother me because here we are like family. I saw my friend, David, a man so humble and soft-spoken that you’d never imagine that he was once a hardened drug lord. He faithfully brings his children, Marcus and Elicia, to church each week, and they often bring friends along as well. Such was the case today as I saw three unfamiliar faces around the table and took the time to greet each one before joining the girls with their cereal at a nearby table.

A little while later one of the boys I’d just met, Jayon, a 13 year old 7th grader looked at me and said, “You look really young. You look like you could be a kid.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Most days I feel like a kid!”

At that point, Marcus began telling Jayon that I was a storyteller.

“Oh yeah?” said Jayon, eyebrows raised. “Tell me a story.”

His words surprised me. I wasn’t expecting the 13 year old in the old black t-shirt with his arms pulled inside of it, arm-holes empty, to want to hear a story. Was his request genuine or was he just testing me?

“Okay,” I said, “but why don’t you come over here?”

To my surprise, without hesitation, he left his chair and exchanged it for the one next to me.

“Where would you like to hear a story from?” I asked, explaining that I tell stories from all over the world.

He thought for a moment and then said, “China.”

“Great,” I said. “China it is!” And I launched into a Chinese folktale – the same one that is part of my new “Treasure Trove of Asian Tales” program.

I was just getting started when he turned to his friends at the other table and said, “Why don’t you come over here? I’m listening to a story from China.”

His friends didn’t move, but I noticed how they sat with their heads turned in our direction the entire time, their eyes wide. They may have been unwilling to take that step toward us, but they were hanging on every word I said.

Later Marcus and Elicia who’d been helping their father to clean up after breakfast came in from the kitchen, and Jayon invited them to hear the story as well. They accepted the invitation. No chairs needed, they stood with their whole bodies leaning forward on the table as I told. When the story concluded, we talked about our favorite characters, and I asked them what they treasured most in the world since that is one of the story’s main themes. We had a great conversation, and I got to know more about each of them. Much more than I’d have gotten to know without the story, that’s for sure.

This experience caused me to reflect on how important it is to be “ready” with a story whenever the opportunity presents itself. Of course, I spend a lot of time preparing for presentations at libraries, schools, etc; but if I want to call myself a storyteller, it’s every bit as important to have a story at the ready in those everyday moments of life. Because you never know when you’re going to be asked to take some kids to get some cereal in the next room and when it’s going to lead to an opportunity to share a tale.

I was also amazed at the way in which a 13 year old boy was not too proud to ask for a story. Too often, storytelling in our society is considered an activity for small children, not an activity for all humanity. So I believe that for a 13 year old black male to ask for a story takes a certain degree of courage. It also suggests to me a deep hunger. A hunger to listen, to dream, to imagine and maybe to be in touch with that part of ourselves that is the most childlike, that doesn’t care about our image or what everyone else thinks, that is free to be.

Adolescents are a tough group to work with. I say that from experience. They are no longer children, not yet adults. They are still trying to figure out so many things (then again, aren’t we all, no matter our age?) Sometimes they come across as hard, uncaring, too cool. These attitudes can lead me look at them and say, “They won’t want to hear a story,” or “I’m sure they’ll think they’re much too cool for this, so why bother asking them to join in?”

But these assumptions are unfair, because all too often those hard, too cool attitudes are nothing more than defense mechanisms that our young people build up to protect themselves from getting hurt, from looking like a fool, from failing in the eyes of those that matter to them the most. And if that is the case, maybe what they need more than anything else is a story. Why? Because stories show people who live lives that are open to love, adventure, and mystery, and therefore, hurt as well. They show us how to deal with the pain of hurts and heart-ache and how to let it make us better, not bitter. Stories don’t present us with perfect characters, but with imperfect heroes and wise fools, full of foibles and failures, who somehow manage to accomplish great things, not only despite their short-comings but often as a result of them.

I believe that our children are hungry for stories. Some are brave enough to ask for them. Some are willing to sit on the sidelines and listen. Some may need to be drawn in. But all of them need the invitation.

The only question is: Who will invite them? Will you?



“Treasure Trove” comes to Cuyahoga Falls Library

My program “A Treasure Trove of Asian Tales” made a stop at the Cuyahoga Falls Library this summer. This was at least my fourth visit there (I’ve lost count!), and I am thankful for their continued support. My good friend Jeff came out to the show and took some great photos. You can check them out below!

One of my favorite parts about this particular show was the fact that there were some older adults in the crowd, and they were acting, singing and chanting right along with the children. Actually, some of them were louder than the children! A few of them appeared to be sitting alone, without any young children nearby — so either the children they’d accompanied had moved to be closer to the action or else they’d just come to the performance on their own. If the latter is the case, that would just make my day, because I believe that storytelling is meant to be enjoyed by people of ALL ages! Why let kids have all the fun? 🙂

Something else that made my day was the note that the Children’s Librarian had tucked in with my check, which said:

We love having your performances here, you are so committed to the art of storytelling and your joy shines through each program.

Kind words go a long way, and I am so grateful for all of the “encouragers” that I have in my life. I don’t think I could do what I do without them!

“Are you ready to Dig Into Reading?”

“Fu” at her counting table! This young lady has helped me in more than one performance! How I love seeing kids come back to my shows year after year! As for my goofy face, based on the pictures I’ve seen of myself over the years, I’ve come to believe that I’m never making a normal face while performing!

Talking to “Li” about his options for spending his newly acquired gold coins.



The Danger of Assumptions: How We Underestimate Our Adolescents

On my last day of workshops with Stark County District Library, I arrived at my first library of the day and began to wait for the children to arrive. The librarian expressed a concern to me. I usually did my performances in the afternoons. This time her library had been scheduled for a morning slot, the same time of day when the children in the neighborhood attended a summer camp. She hoped we would still get a crowd, but she didn’t know. 11am rolled around, the workshop start time, and no one had arrived. We waited.

The woman responsible for children’s programming for the whole library system arrived. She’d already attended three or four of my previous workshops, but finding it to be a great workout decided to join us for another. She waited with us. Pretty soon it was 11:15am, and there wasn’t one child in the library. We all wondered how long we should wait.

A few moments later two adolescent girls entered the library, making a beeline for the computers. We saw them come and looked at each other. Should we invite them to the workshop, even though it was promoted for K-5th graders? The general consensus was no. They were probably more interested in surfing the net and would consider themselves too cool for this.

Learning a dance move from Senegal, West Africa.

Around 11:20am, a young girl came into the library with her father. The librarian approached to see if she was interested in dancing. She shyly declined. I decided to try another tactic, showing her my shekere from Africa, and allowing her to try it out while telling her about how it was made. From there she came over to play a rhythm instrument I’d recently brought back from a trip to Guatemala. I asked if she’d like me to tap out a beat on it so she could dance. She declined but agreed to tap out a beat for us to dance to. So together the librarian, children’s programmer and I danced around the room, making her smile with our wild moves.

From there I turned on some music, the sounds of Ecuadorian pan flutes. I turned it on quietly at first. We were a small group using an open space in the library, not a closed meeting room, so I didn’t want to disturb the other patrons. But the children’s librarian admonished me, saying, “Turn it up! This is my program, and I want to hear that music!” So with the music coursing through the library, we imagined that our hands and feet were dipped in paint, and we walked around the room covering the space above us, below us and at our sides.

As we moved with abandon, allowing different parts of our body to guide our movement, we began to draw a crowd. Soon the two adolescent girls we’d spotted initially had ditched the computers and were asking if they could join in, followed by a teen boy. Then one of the librarians sitting at the desk came over, and what had started out as a disappointing no-show workshop turned into one of my most memorable days yet.

Looking back, I feel bad for underestimating these adolescents. I made an assumption that they would not be interested, and based on my assumption, I didn’t even extend them an invitation to participate. That was my mistake, and I hope I won’t make the same mistake in the future.

How quick we as humans are to make assumptions! We often make them based on our past experiences; and yet, what’s to say that the circumstances in this particular moment won’t contribute to a new experience? Unfortunately, sometimes we get so locked into our assumptions that we fail to see beyond them and act according to them rather than according to the reality of the present moment. We have to be careful about this as it can keep us from being open to others and offering the best of ourselves to everyone that we meet.

I assumed that the teens would think they were too cool for me. I assumed they’d rather spend their summer day fiddling around on their facebook pages. Not only did I underestimate them, I underestimated the power of the creative arts to break down barriers and bring people of all ages together. I underestimated the irresistibly of music and movement, and how sometimes all it takes is one person on the dance floor to get the party started.

So what are you waiting for? Turn up the music, and invite someone to dance! Or else just start dancing yourself! You may be surprised who hears the music and wants to join in! I know I was!

Who are you underestimating or making a false assumption about today?

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If you’re interested in booking a Creative Movement and Dance Workshop or would like more information about this and/or other workshops, please contact me at info@lindsaybonilla.com 

Children love learning about the shekere, a West African musical instrument made from a calabash!

Why Adult Participation Matters

This was my fourth summer in a row working with the Stark County District Library and its ten locations. This year, since they were using an exercise theme, they decided to depart from doing a typical performance and asked me to do a creative movement and dance workshop that would have participants moving around and working up a sweat. The workshop was promoted to students in grades K-5, but older siblings, parents, and even grandparents got in on the fun at many of the locations.

I must say that it makes a HUGE difference when adults get involved instead of watching from the sidelines. When children see adults letting loose, being creative and showing their “goofy” side, their eyes light up, and they find a certain fearless freedom to participate with unashamed gusto. The energy in the room becomes electric, and there is something almost magical about it.

Two young girls hold nothing back as they dance to the beat!

Unfortunately, not all adults are willing to put themselves out there in this way. Some prefer to maintain their polished adult image rather than tapping into their creative spirit alongside their child. In one workshop I gave, no matter how I tried to encourage participation, the adults politely refused. At one point, I asked if there were any adult volunteers willing to tap out a beat for us to dance to on a simple rhythm instrument. Not one adult volunteered. Instead, many children raced over to their parents and began to raise their hands or attempt to pull them to their feet.

“Ooh! My mom wants to! Please! Give her a chance!” Despite the children’s promptings and pleadings, there was only one mom in the room who took a turn.

Was it fear? Shyness? The fact that they believed they had come to watch and not to participate that held them back? I’m not sure. But the look of pride on each child’s face as they rushed over to nominate their parent followed by the look of disappointment as their parent flatly refused stuck with me.

As I left that program, I found myself wondering, “What kind of parents will these children grow up to be? Will they be the ones to sit on the sidelines and watch because “that’s what adults do”? Or will they find the courage to break the mold they’ve been shown and set a different example for their children?”

Now just to be clear, I’m not trying to say that the parents who refused to participate are bad parents. There could be a number of reasons for their failure to participate, everything from health concerns to having a lousy day to a bad past experience in a similar program. What I am saying is that adult participation does make a difference, maybe more of a difference than we always realize, and it does set a precedent as well.

A young boy copies a dance move during a workshop.

So I ask myself: What kind of example we are setting for our children? Is it one of fear? Unwillingness to step out of our comfort zones? Try new things? Do something creative? Silly? Goofy? Just plain fun? Or have we taken the meaning of ‘acting like adults’ so far to the extreme that we exclude ourselves from doing anything even remotely childlike?

Now for every adult that sat on the sidelines, there were just as many, who were willing to get in on the action. I wish I could tell each of their stories, but instead, I’ll just try to share a few examples.

At one library branch we had reached one of the last activities of the workshop, something I like to call the Dance Circle. For the Dance Circle, everyone stands in a circle and one person steps into the center of the circle and begins to do a dance move. It can be one they have just learned or one of their own creation. As they dance, everyone copies their movement until the whole circle is doing it together. They are given a round of applause and the next person steps into the circle.

Well, on this particular day we had a rather large group. One young mom stepped into the circle with her baby. She was thinking about how she could move while holding the baby, when all of a sudden the baby began to move her hands up and down, excited by the music and attention. We all copied her motion which left everyone laughing in delight.

Not long after that, a grandmother who was flanked by her two granddaughters stepped into the circle and did her own exuberant move. As she stepped out of the circle to complete her turn, her granddaughters engulfed her in hugs and smiled up at her, their faces awash with pride. This beautiful moment reminded me of how appreciative children are when we step into their worlds, when we do something that’s on their level. I bet that moment is something they will never forget, a memory of their grandmother that they will always treasure.

At another library, I saw a grandmother and granddaughter who did the whole workshop together, coming up with tandem moves for each activity. They were practically connected at the hip. As I was leaving, the little girl came up to me and said, “That was fun. You’re fun.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m glad you had fun!” Then I asked her: “And who was that really cool lady you were dancing with today?”

“That’s my grandma,” she said.

“She looks pretty fun too,” I said.

“Yeah,” said the girl smiling proudly, “she is.”

So in closing, I’ll leave you with this quote by Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet, in the hopes that your childlike flame and your playful spirit will always burn bright.

A child who does not play is not a child,but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.

For more great quotes about keeping your inner child alive, click here.

Doing a warm up where we see how small we can make our bodies and faces before we start the dancing!

The Puppets of Milton-Union Public Library

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been visiting the Milton-Union Public Library for five years in a row now — ever since World of Difference Ltd. got off the ground! Back then, Sharon was the Children’s Librarian, today it’s Wendy! I have built up so many great relationships with people at this library that I am always warmly received and coming to perform here is just a pure delight!

Before the show I usually hang out in the “puppet room,” where I couldn’t be happier. I could spend hours in that room checking out every carefully labeled box, each of which contains some unique puppet or stuffed animal. In case you weren’t aware, puppets are my weakness. (The photo above in front of the sign is actually me and Mr. Bamboo, my newest panda puppet purchased for this summer’s program!)

I always loved stuffed animals growing up. In fact, I had a different stuffed animal to represent each member of my family at one point in my life, so when I had to go out of town and leave the human family members behind, their stuffed version went along with me. My mom was represented by a sweet-looking dog that looked more like a teddy bear, my dad was a walrus, my brother and sister were trolls (fitting, right?), and my two dogs were represented by a scraggly-looking mutt.

Today I like to call puppets “the grown person’s stuffed animal,” and my husband knows that if we enter a shop with a puppet rack, it’s all over. I will want to stay for hours trying them all on, giving them voices, etc. A few years ago I got a giraffe puppet while on a trip with my mother. I think later she was wishing I hadn’t. That giraffe kept popping up when she least expected it. As soon as she got into the passenger seat of the car, what did I do but crouch down, knock at the window and make that giraffe look right at her. My husband got greeted by the same puppet when he was in the shower once. Yes, I love puppets! Which brings me back to the puppet room.

The people at the library are kind enough to indulge my wishes to peek in some of the boxes before the show. They have a puppet stage in their community room so I think it’s safe to say that they are pretty excited about puppets as well, and they enjoy showing me any new acquisitions that they have purchased since my last visit.

Well, on this visit I happened to notice a snake-on-a-stick puppet, made from an old necktie. I was so excited to come across this because I’d been thinking about buying or making a snake puppet for an upcoming story. I saw this idea online and thought it was super-cute, but I wondered how it might turn out. I liked the idea of making my own as a way of showing audience members a creative craft that they might do at home, but I am not that crafty. However, seeing this snake might have bolstered my desire to give it a try (or at least enlist someone else to do it for me!)  If you’d like to have your own snake puppet, here’s some online directions I found for making them. If I do make my own, I’ll be sure to share it on here at a later date!

On another note, the program that day was a lot of fun. We had a great and animated crowd with lots of willing participants, one of which really kept me on my toes! One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed while performing this program is how as I’m telling the story with the greedy evil brother, I will see a lot of children in the audience who tend to get that evil gleam in their eyes and whose faces begin to take on the sort of sneering expressions one would imagine him to have. It’s really neat to see it happening, and I don’t know if anyone else can see it, since I have the best vantage point from which to see the audience members’ faces. The great thing about it is that it shows me their level of engagement with the story. As I use my face and voice to bring the characters to life, they are doing it right along with me from their seats and experiencing the character’s feelings as they go. I wish I had a photo of that to show you, but since I don’t have time to snap pictures while I tell, you’ll have to enjoy the photos below, taken from the opposite vantage point!

A captive audience as I tell some Asian tales!

Rich man “Fu” counts his coins.