Sharing all that words can tell

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Creative Storytelling: Building Community, Changing Lives By Jack Zipes, Routledge Pounds 11.99. 0 415 91272 5 James Riordan looks at the dynamic role of story-telling and recommends collections of myths and legends from around the world. Anyone who tells stories should listen carefully to Jack Zipes's tale. His new book examines the methods and role of storytelling: its potential power, subversion and liberating force. It provides numerous versions of myths, legends and folktales from all over the world, with analysis and suggestions on how to relate them to the present.

The book is a timely response to dilemmas facing education today. On the one hand is the trend towards rigid standardisation of curricula (even children's literature), increased national testing determined by officials outside the schools. On the other is the renaissance of storytelling as performance-for-profit gigs or as its transformation into a cult with mystical and religious overtones (a la Freud or Jung). In both children are treated as potential consumers of products that have the stamp of approval from self-appointed legislators of culture and truth.

Zipes believes teachers and children must set their own standards in response to community needs, and storytelling can be one way to create and strengthen a sense of community lacking today in Europe and the US. His model for the storyteller is the child in Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes", who exposes the ridiculous nature of power and the shame of the community. Once this little storyteller speaks, there is no longer a need for repression. People laugh, share the story and pass it on as popular wisdom.

For Zipes, the role of the storyteller is to animate children so that they feel a desire to read, write, act and draw, and want to express themselves critically and imaginatively with techniques they can learn from the teacher and storyteller. Here lies the key. For the teacher and children will ultimately become their own storytellers - the true goal of the wise storyteller, who wants the story to touch children and be passed on. Otherwise, why tell stories?

As to Zipes's methods, he provides some useful tips: "Once a space has been cleared, I sit on the ground with the children in a circle so I can see all of their faces. Since they are smaller than I am, I want to come down to their physical level as much as possible." He usually begins by telling a classical tale (for example, Perrault's "Little Red Riding Hood") which shocks children. (It is, after all, a tale of rape and murder.) The classical version is then followed by others that are not sexist or abusive of children; and then children make up their own versions by word or picture. Many children have difficulty expressing themselves in words, but they can be perfectly at home with visual expression. Zipes places no emphasis on spelling and grammar; and since children work at different speeds, he is not interested in a finished product.

This is a thought-provoking, subversive (in the best sense), practical book that gives voice to one's own half-feared, half-sensed feelings that are awoken and articulated by a man who clearly cares about community and kids. No one can read this book without adjusting their future storytelling, reflecting who they are and where they are, and realising what liberating forces stories can become.

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