Adventures in Greene County: Part 3 (Jamestown & Cedarville)

My second day in Greene County started out in Jamestown. The shows here take place in the court house/town hall so it’s a very unique atmosphere. We had a great crowd with 111 people. And since there was no room that I could “hide” in before the start of the show in order to make my entrance, I did a little bit of improvising. I ended up doing some “weight-lifting” with my plastic shovel as I told the audience that I was getting ready to “dig into reading.” It was fun getting some of the kids to join in with me as we did curls, dead-lifts, and chest presses. A girl in the front row shook her head at my plastic shovel and said, “That’s not very heavy.” I told her that she was right, but that it didn’t have to be to get a work-out. But her suggestion led me to get the audience to imagine that they were holding a very heavy weight and to pantomime how they would do it. Some kids got really into it.

A look at the unique performance space in Jamestown.

From Jamestown it was on to Cedarville where things really got interesting! There was one little boy who was playing the character of Li in my story. Li is a poor man who is given a fortune by his rich neighbor in the hopes that he will no longer sing his happy songs which the neighbor finds distracting. Once Li receives the money, he tries to decide how he will spend, coming up with various ideas.  By the end of the story, Li realizes that the wealth has changed him and the way he treats others, including his family, and he decides to give it back without spending any of it.

However, before we get to that part of the story, I list some of the ideas that Li comes up with for spending the money. One of those is new furniture for the house. Then I ask the child playing Li, “Don’t you think your wife will like that?” On almost every occasion, they say yes. But on this particular day the boy playing Li shook his head, no. I followed that up with the next question. “Okay, what about a new house altogether?”

Again he shook his head and said, “No, I don’t think my wife would like that. She likes our house the way that it is.” Of course, his response left the audience and I quite impressed. Then before I could even begin to list off some of the other ideas Li had for the money or get to the part of the story where it begins to consume his thoughts and change his behavior for the worst, the boy said, “I know what I’m going to do with these coins. I’m going to take them back to my neighbor.” Again, the audience and I were amazed at his perceptiveness. He didn’t need to hear what happened next in the story. As the character, he just knew. And he was ready to take the coins back before they could change him for the worst. This story is about contentment, and the child participating in it displayed that he understood that on a deep level. Such moments when the children in role teach all of us adults a lesson are always precious to me.

Another character in my storytelling is “Rich.” Rich is my mini-Story Treasure Chest, and I tell the audience members that whenever I’m not sure which story to tell, I just ask Rich and he tells me which one. All I have to do is put my ear up to the chest and listen. At a couple of other points during my show, Rich shares other interesting anecdotes, and the children seem to enjoy him. After the program, some like to come up and listen to him for themselves.

Listening to “Rich,” my Talking Story Treasure Chest

It’s interesting because some children will say, “He didn’t say anything,” while others will carry on whole conversations with him, telling you exactly what he said. Such was the case with my friend Dalton as seen in the picture at the top of the page. Rich told him all sorts of things, including the fact that he should try on one of the costumes from the show. Then as we went to have our picture taken together, he said that Rich said that I was supposed to put on one of the costumes as well. Later Rich wanted to play Hide and Seek, so Dalton hid him while I went searching. As the game went on, Rich began making some requests that could not be heeded, so it turned out that Rich “was sleepy and needed to take a nap since he starts to say funny things when he gets tired.” All in all, it was fun to see a child’s imagination engaged so deeply in creative play.

I can’t bring up the Cedarville show without mentioning the young boy who came up to help me and then proceeded to do a standing free fall, only putting his arms out to break his fall at the last moment before impact. This free fall came out of nowhere. It was completely unprovoked by me or anything related to the show. It took me and the entire audience completely by surprise! When I knelt down to see if he was okay, thankfully I was greeted by laughter and no tears. He was fine. Still it was a scary moment, the first of its kind for me, and not one I would like to repeat.

I guess it was a good reminder that children (especially young boys!) are unpredictable. After his free fall, the boy seemed content to sit down. Having had his moment of fame, he no longer felt the need to play a character in the story. Honestly, this worked out better for me since I had no clue what he might try next and didn’t want to find out! To the young girl that came up to fill his role, I said, “You’re not planning on doing anything dangerous are you?” She shook her head, and thankfully, she remained true to her word.

As you can see, storytelling as a profession is not as safe as it may sound. And certainly not for the faint of heart! 🙂

Adventures in Greene County: Part 2 (Bellbrook & Yellow Springs)

After my performance in Xenia, I headed over to Bellbrook Library where I’ve performed for the last 4 years and become good friends with Joanne Mushala, the head children’s librarian there (see photo above). Last year Joanne introduced me to a local fixture, the Dairy Shed, where she treated me to a cone after my performance. I remember wishing that I’d gotten a photo of us that day. This year Joanne had to head back to the library, but I did remember to get a photo of us first. Then I headed over to the Dairy Shed and enjoyed a Cake Batter Frozen Yogurt Cone! Yum! If you’re even in Bellbrook, be sure to give the Dairy Shed a try.

My performances in Bellbrook take place at the Bellbrook Presbyterian Church since the library does not have the space. I am thankful to them for opening up their meeting space to us. It’s a cozy room to present in. Last year the pastor happened to drop in on my Australian folktale performance and stayed to watch. This year when I arrived to set up, he remembered just who I was and popped in again!

From Bellbrook, I headed over to Yellow Springs, another library I’ve visited for the past four years and where I’ve developed a relationship with children’s librarian, Ann Cooper. She is actually the one responsible for bringing me to Greene County in the first place. I honestly don’t remember how we got connected, but I’m glad we did.

One of the neat things about performing at Yellow Springs Library is having the gorgeous Virginia Hamilton Quilt as a backdrop. Virginia Hamilton was a famous children’s author from Yellow Springs who left a lasting mark on children’s literature. She passed away in 2002, but her legacy lives on. The Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University honors her memory as the longest-running event focused exclusively on multicultural literature for children and young adults. The Yellow Springs Community Foundation also maintains the Virginia Hamilton Adoff Endowment which is for specific support of programs at the Yellow Springs Library.

Well, a little while after my performance ended, Ann came up to me and said that she had wanted to introduce me to someone. It was Virginia Hamilton’s son who had been in the audience. His daughter had actually come up to participate in the performance on a couple of occasions too. She then reminded me that it was the fund in his mother’s honor which has paid for my performances over the last few years.

While she didn’t get to specifically introduce us, as Ann described who he was, I realized that he had come up after the program to shake my hand and to tell me what a great job I had done. I was pretty excited to have received a compliment from someone who I can only imagine grew up hearing amazing stories — and from a legend in multicultural literature to boot! Ann also gave me a compliment, saying, “There was one child that participated in the show, and that is the best I have ever seen them behave at a library program.” Yay!

I have always believed that some of the children that have a reputation for “acting out” have just not found what they are good at yet. They want attention, but don’t know the best way to get it. Sometimes, learning that they can channel their energies into something creative like acting where they can be big and loud at times and get positive attention for it is a revelation. So often I find it’s the children who are labeled “problem students” who amaze their teachers when they come up and literally steal the show while performing in one of my stories. That’s why I never like to ask ahead of time who I should pick and who I shouldn’t. While at times this can lead to a greater challenge for me since I honestly never know what I’m going to get (and believe me, sometimes I really get surprised!), it keeps me from developing pre-conceived notions about audience members and excluding them based on their past behaviors. It also keeps open that possibility of allowing a child to shine who perhaps has never had the chance to do so.

Lastly, Ann shared with me that she too enjoys my visits and always tries to learn more of my techniques as I tell. She has already incorporated some of these into her storytelling programs at the library, particularly some of the audience participation stuff. I had meant to get a photo with her too, but I forgot. Maybe next year?!

Adventures in Greene County: Part 1

I had a great few days on the road! While visiting some libraries in Greene County, I was able to stay with two of my college friends who are now married. I even got to meet their adorable baby girl who you see in the photo! (Notice we both have monkeys on our shirts!) Catching up with old friends is one of the perks I try to build into traveling for work!


Another perk for me is the relationships that I have built with librarians and families in some of these far-from-home communities. I have a four year relationship with some libraries in Greene County, and it’s fun for me to see some of the same faces and to see how the children have grown from one year to the next.

“Li” and I in the middle of the story


My first stop on this trip was to the Xenia Community Library. This was my third year there. And for all three of those years, one family has arrived early to get front row seats. This year was no exception. The oldest of their bunch, a boy of about eight years, ended up taking on a role in the story. When it was over, he told me, “That was fun. I want to be Li again.”


I smiled and said, “You can! You can be Li anywhere you want to be because you can act out his story all on your own.” To which he smiled and nodded back.


Then he and his younger sister went over to my merchandise table along with their father. It didn’t take long for them to hone in on my latest DVD “Voyage to Russia,” and as the father reached for his wallet to purchase it, he told me how much his children love the first DVD “Flight to India,” and how they watch it all the time. A moment or so later, the young boy approached me with his new DVD and said, “Will you have another one of these next year?”


I wanted to be able to tell him yes. That is actually one of my dreams — being able to make a whole DVD series. Unfortunately, I doubt that another film is in the cards for next year unless I can get a grant. (If you have any ideas on how to go about this, please let me know!)


However, I love the faith of children and how they draw conclusions. “I got one DVD last year, a second this year, so that should mean that next year I’ll be able to get a third!” When I told the boy that I doubted I would have another DVD next year, he still ran over to his father and said, “Dad, I want to come back next year.”


Again, there’s that child-like faith. He doesn’t ask if I will be back next year; he just assumes I will. After all, I’ve been there three years in a row. I’ve become part of his summer routine by now. And he and his family have become part of mine.

I Should Have Known Better: The Deep Engagement of Children with Story

I should have known better. I have been doing interactive storytelling for a few years now. I even teach workshops about it and am always quick to point out how involved children become in the stories. And yet, what happened last week caught me off guard.

I was telling an Asian folktale about two siblings. Variations of the story are told in China, Japan and Korea, and my version draws on some elements from each of these traditions. In the tale, a kind sister finds an injured bird and lovingly nurses it to health. In return for her kindness, the bird gives her a seed from which grows a vine full of pumpkins filled with jewels.

Upon hearing about his sister’s fortune, her greedy brother pays her a visit to discover the source of her wealth. The sister tells her brother the whole story, and he decides that he must find an injured bird so that he can obtain his own reward. However, unable to find an injured bird, he uses his slingshot to make one.

He takes the bird home, treats it poorly and yet demands a reward. The bird gives him a seed which produces a stalk that stretches up to the moon. The man climbs the stalk and finds a huge pumpkin which he is sure contains his great reward. But when it cuts it open, it explodes, covering him with bird poop.

I have told the story before, and the children always enjoy the ending when the evil man gets what he deserves. However, on Saturday I was telling the story to a very small group of children, and I was allowing them to walk through the story, taking on the roles of the different characters as I often do. A young boy, probably not more than five years old, was playing the role of the brother with great relish.

He repeated each of the brother’s lines with the perfect mix of anger and entitlement as befitted the character. However, when we got to the part of the story where he cuts open the pumpkin and it explodes, he completely broke character and shouted in protest, “No! I won’t be the brother anymore!”

In all my years of telling, I have never had an experience quite like this one. And it caught me a bit off guard. I had assumed that after how his character had treated the bird, the boy would understand that his reward could not be great, let alone good.

However, I now realize that I underestimated the boy’s involvement with the story. He was not only hearing the story. He was living it. He believed himself to be the brother, and despite his evil actions, he was still hoping for the great reward. He wasn’t just “acting out” the story. He had really climbed up the stalk. He was really standing before the giant pumpkin. And he really believed that his reward was going to be greater than his sister’s. In fact, he had probably already begun to imagine what great fortune the pumpkin contained for him!

And despite the fact that I try to prepare the brother for his fate by asking the audience to share what they think is inside (which always elicits the most imaginative of terrible “rewards”), this boy was so engaged with the moment, that he held onto his faith. So just imagine his disappointment, even anger, when he heard about the brother’s terrible fate! He probably felt that I had completely set him up, getting his hopes up for a great reward and then turning the tables on him — and in front of a small crowd no less. He believed himself to be the victor, but in a flash realized that the opposite was the case — and it was just too much to take. As you can imagine, I felt horrible about it this, as I never intended to crush this poor child’s hope. However, I had made the error of underestimating the power of the creative mind of young children, where the line between play and reality is extremely, extremely thin.

I had also not anticipated how my young participants were going to turn the story into a competition of sorts. For when the young girl taking on the role of the sister heard about her brother’s fate, she began to jump up and down with her arms in the air. This reaction is completely unbefitting to the character in the story who is so kind-hearted that she would never rejoice in the misfortune of her brother, no matter how great his evil. And yet, just as the young boy playing the brother had his own hopes for how the story would end in his favor, so too the young girl playing the sister was hoping all along that her reward would stand as the greatest.

Certainly I learned some very interesting and valuable lessons that day — about storytelling, the power of imagination and even human nature. Some of these lessons are things that I have always known in theory, but somehow failed to apply in practice on this occasion. However, you can be sure that I will take these experiences and use them to adapt this current performance as well as to inform my work on other projects.

I have learned that if I am to tell this story using young people to act out the characters, it will probably be necessary to opt for an older child in the role of the brother. Furthermore, I will definitely build in more moments of “scaffolding” so that the brother is prepared for his fate ahead of time and can better understand how it is connected to his own evil actions. I am also going to adapt the ending to be sure that it does not turn into a moment for the sister to rejoice over her brother’s misfortune.

It’s amazing how much you can learn from your audience, and I humbly admit that I have much to learn when it comes to the wonderful art of storytelling. I guess just like in any facet of life, at times we learn by making mistakes. I only hope that the young boy from Saturday’s show will forgive me for my mistake and know that the lesson he taught me will be duly applied — and hopefully prevent other young performers from experiencing the sense of disappointment that he did.

Lastly, while this is certainly not how I prefer to learn my lessons, this experience deepened my belief in the power of storytelling. The power of imagination. And the amazing possibilities inherent in the creative minds of children. And for that, I am very grateful.


Drama Is Fun! (Irrespective of Ability)

Yesterday was my last Poetry through Theater workshop with the third graders of Cleveland Metropolitan School District. And as I finished up the class, I closed it as I do each one by asking the students to share something that they’d learned during our time together. One boy at the back of the room raised his hand, and when I called on him, he stood up.

“Well, I never considered myself an actor before,” he said, with an almost philosophical edge in his voice, “but today I learned that drama can be fun!”

“Yes!” I wanted to scream. “That’s exactly it! Drama is fun. And you don’t have to be the best actor or actress in the world to have fun doing it!”

His words may seem simple on the surface, but I believe that they are actually quite profound. Consider this: How often do we let our perceived lack of talent in a certain area keep us from having an enjoyable experience? From trying something new? How many times have you sat on the sidelines watching something that looked like great fun only to be invited to join in and responded, “No thanks. I’m just not good at (fill in the blank.)”  It seems that at some point in our life a corollary is drawn between our ability and our enjoyment of things. But I don’t think it has to be this way.

The curious thing is that on my hour-long commute to the school that morning, I’d been pondering a similar question. Out of the blue, I’d found myself reflecting on the activities that I enjoy and asking myself some interesting questions. For example, do I enjoy performing and telling stories for the sheer love of it or because I’m good at it? And how much of a role does talent play when it comes to our ability to enjoy something?

Put in other terms: Why do we enjoy the things we do? Is it purely for the enjoyment that they bring us? Or do we tend to enjoy the things that we are good at — the things that earn us the praise of others?

I’m not sure that I have a definitive answer to these questions (and I welcome your comments on the topic!); however, I do believe that when we are very young we are able to do things for the pure enjoyment of them, caring little about our “talent” so to speak. But as we get slightly older, we are quickly ushered toward the things we are “good at” and away from the things we are “not good at.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it does help us to hone in on our natural abilities; however, at times I fear that it sends the message that we shouldn’t do things for the pure enjoyment of them, but rather only if we have the “talent” or “ability.”

Consider the parent that tells their child after a poor performance in a game, “Well, maybe baseball isn’t your thing.” What they are really communicating is, “Maybe baseball isn’t your thing because you aren’t good at baseball. Perhaps we should find something else for you to do, something that you’ll be good at.”

Certainly this type of statement is thoughtfully intended to protect the child from the heart-break that comes from failure and peer pressures and the like and to lead them toward something in which they will be able to feel the thrill of success and to thrive, because if the child chooses to continue with baseball it may not be an easy road. But what if the parent in the scenario rephrased their question and asked the child, “Do you enjoy baseball? Do you have fun playing? Will it still be fun for you if you continue to make mistakes and if sometimes your team gets frustrated by those mistakes? Would it still be fun if you never hit the game-winning homer?” If the answer is yes, then maybe baseball is their thing, a thing they love for the pure enjoyment of it — even if the natural ability is not there. And if the child’s expectations are reasonable, maybe it will be a character-building activity for them as well.

When we are ushered toward only what we are good at, it can create a culture of fear — fear to try new things, fear of anything that we’re not good at. I’ve seen this time and again from elementary students all the way to adults. We are afraid to step out of the box and do anything that we’re not certain we’re already good at. Whether it’s painting or playing a musical instrument, my fear of not being good may keep me from doing something that I might really enjoy.

As a child, I took dance lessons, and I knew that I was terrible! All I had to do was watch  my “good” classmates, and I could tell that I didn’t measure up. My fear of standing out as the “bad dancer” in the class robbed me of any of the enjoyment I may have gotten from actually dancing.

Many years later, while living in Spain, I heard about an African dance class being offered at a local camp. Because of my interest in all things African, I decided to put my fear aside and give it a try. And I’m glad I did! It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. The teacher created an environment where there were no “good dancers” and “bad dancers,” and my classmates, a bunch of twenty-something Spainards who felt as inept at dancing as me, weren’t there to compare themselves but to enjoy a new cultural experience.

I’m not a professional African dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have managed to incorporate some of the dance moves I learned into my storytelling work, have taught workshops to little ones and even choreographed a performance at my church to an African song. How was this possible? Because in one critical moment I put aside fear and did something for the sheer enjoyment of it.

And so as my third grade student concluded, you don’t have to be a professional to enjoy something. I don’t think you really even have to be good at it (although that doesn’t hurt!). You just have to be willing to give it a try and put aside your fear. I hope you will. I hope I will too — every chance I get!

In what areas of your life are you allowing fear to hold you back from experiencing enjoyment?