Bobby Norfolk is one of the most sought-after African-American storytellers in the country. He and his wife, Sherry, have authored five classic Anansi tales that are included in the Story Cove picture book series. When they aren’t traveling or performing at schools and festivals, they live in St. Louis, Missouri.
Nikki: What are the origins of your passion for storytelling?
Bobby: My son was about seven years old, and I decided to go get a bunch of picture books from Barnes and Noble to read to him before he went to bed. I started adding sound effects, facial expressions, and gestures. Basically, I kept him from sleeping instead of making him ready for bed, but I didn’t want to tone down the stories, so I started telling them a bit earlier before bed.
I was also a park ranger in St. Louis at the Gateway Arch, and the storytelling festival started there in 1981. It was a model of the Jonesborough storytelling festival in Tennessee. I had already been working in live theater, doing stand-up comedy since 1975, so I knew about performance art, but I didn’t think about storytelling as an art form until the St. Louis festival started.
I tell people that I didn’t even seek storytelling, it sought me out, right to my work site. I asked the chief manager if I could take off Mondays and Tuesdays to work at the schools in order to hone and craft my storytelling skills. He said, “Go ahead! Go for it!” I did and a few years later, in 1987, I resigned from the park service to be a full-time storyteller.
N: You also collaborate with your wife, Sherry, on children’s books. How did you two begin to work together?
Bobby: She was a librarian in the Miami-Dade County library system, performing storytelling for the library. Then, just before I knew her, she moved to Atlanta to become a Youth Services Coordinator. She hired me a couple of times to come to Atlanta and perform storytelling for the library system in Decatur, and I became pen pals with her. Eventually, she left the library system to come work with me full-time, teaching the art of storytelling.
N: What are some of the challenges and benefits of writing with a partner?
Bobby: Very few challenges at all! We performed in different parts of Atlanta and St. Louis then, and we made a pact that if there was any work overseas, then we would go together. We tried to make sure that the other person was hired on the roster to perform overseas.
N: Where have you been overseas?
Bobby: Several trips to Hawaii and Alaska. Then we went to Bangkok, Thailand; Northern Ireland; Vienna, Austria; Jakarta, Indonesia; Hong Kong; Taiwan...just to name a few places.
N: Where did you get the inspiration to do the Anansi stories for August House?
Bobby: I took that trip before I knew Sherry. I went to West Africa and Cairo, Egypt in the summer of ‘93. I went to Cairo with a tour group and toured the great pyramids, then we flew to Ghana, West Africa and took a tour of Kumasi.
Some city officials wanted to meet with our tour group, and I wanted to ask them one specific question. I knew from my research that Anansi the spider, the trickster archetype, was created in West Africa in Ghana. So, I asked a woman, who was a facilitator, how important the Anansi stories were to the culture, and she burst out laughing. She said, “Ah, Anansi the spider. Every day at about 4:30 we stop what we’re doing and have Anansi time.” So, that became the title of my audio, “Anansi Time.”
N: Do you have a favorite Anansi story?
Bobby: There are so many! If you had to make me choose one, it would be “Anansi and his Six Sons.” It’s all about teamwork, cooperation, and how everyone has their own gifts and talents.
N: Where did you find the story for Billy Brown and the Belly Button Beastie?
Bobby: That’s one of Sherry’s stories. She was doing some research on some stories from Japan and unearthed that one. She modified and adapted it to her own telling style, and eventually we got together to make the picture book for it. She always modeled Billy Brown’s character after me when I was a little boy.
N: What inspired you and Sherry to write Moral of the Story?
Bobby: In the mid-1980s, it was a new cycle of the Me Generation. Hippies were becoming part of the mainstream; hippies became yuppies, and black militants became middle class.
A bunch of things were happening on Wall Street, stocks were falling, and people were stealing money on Wall Street. This cycle has repeated itself many times in our generation. Most major news sources, like The Times and Newsweek, were talking about a deficit in ethical values in America. In St. Louis, the Chief Executive Officer of the McDonnell-Douglas Air Corporation got together with a bunch of other CEOs to create character education programming for schools.
Character education became very popular in the mid to late 80s. It prompted Sherry and I to write a book about the subject, because for our entire careers we were doing storytelling on character traits. All of our stories were based on teamwork, cooperation, respect, responsibility, and other traits.
I also had a TV show that I had a guest host spot on in ‘88 called Gator Tales. Grouchy Gator was invented by my puppeteer friend, Doug Kincade. The CBS affiliate in St. Louis wanted to partner with the character education group, at the time they were called PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program). They wanted to pick up this movement about character education in schools by having a TV show. Grouchy Gator would always have a problem based on character traits, and I would answer his problem through storytelling. It ended up winning 3 regional Emmy awards. The book, Moral of the Story, followed right after that around 1999.
N: What is your research and writing process like with two people?
Bobby: I look at things from an introspective and intuitive aspect, and Sherry comes at it with research and logic.
N: Are you doing more performing and touring on the road?
Bobby: Very much so! I do several one-man shows that I perform, one being “York.” He was the personal servant of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Nobody had been talking about York’s extreme responsibility in the expedition’s success. The Plains Indians thought he was a supernatural creature because of his dark skin. The Plains people would paint themselves with dark paint to show their bravery, so when they saw that York’s “paint” was permanent, they thought he was a shapeshifter.
I decided to make a one-man show about York the shapeshifter, combined with the Plains and their spiritual, mystical world. I do other programs about the Harlem Renaissance, George Washington Carver and how he revolutionized organic farming, Duke Ellington, and Scott Joplin.
N: How do theatrical performances and writing stories differ in terms of storytelling?
Bobby: I had a lot of people in the publishing industry that taught me the process of writing for the page instead of the stage, and it is a totally different animal. I had been on the stage half my life; when the writing process got added, I had to be coached. People were telling me to go with my five senses and then use intuition as my sixth sense to bring texture to the story, and it worked.
N: Why do you think folktales and stories from the oral tradition are so important?
Bobby: Einstein once said that if you want your children to be smart, tell them fairy tales; if you want them to be even smarter, tell them more fairy tales. I started looking at the process of what makes storytelling so powerful and what I found is that the human brain is hardwired for storytelling. Everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell all comes in the form of story. We create these synapses in our brain that provoke images.
N: What advice would you give children who would like to become writers or performers someday?
Bobby: The process of creating a story, for me, has to be done in complete solitude and quiet. You have to put the phone down, turn off the music, take the earbuds out of your ears, and just sit in the silence and create.
N: Do you have any sort of ritual or strategy to get your creative juices flowing?
Bobby: When I was in grade school, I stuttered, so I retreated into books. Books became my best friends from the time I learned to read, around 2nd grade. It wasn’t until 10th grade that I got into theater, and my drama teacher said I should study transcendental meditation before I go on stage, and it worked. The stuttering stopped, and the career began shortly after that. The process of meditating during different times of day and night basically became a sort of magical elixir that heightened my creativity and gave me better health.
N: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Bobby: I have seen so many children who suffer from ADD, ADHD, Aspergers, Autism, and all sorts of emotional and psychological problems. They go into a state, a place in their mind, where they become subjected to what I call “storytelling hypnosis.” They sit still, all the fidgeting stops, the eyes widen, the jaw drops, they lean forward, and I’ve had caregivers say, “I’ve never seen these children be as still; you have them in the palm of your hand. You have them under a spell.” I’ve heard this too many times over 32 years for it to be coincidence. To me, storytelling not only changes children's minds, it changes their hearts.