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.


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