Meet Rob Cleveland. Rob has written seven Story Cove books, including top selling titles The Drum, How Tiger Got His Stripes, and Clever Monkey. In addition to his work as an award-winning author, Rob is a professional storyteller, workshop leader, accomplished film and stage actor, and popular comedian. Rob also gives keynote speeches for reading conferences, where he shares his perspective on the unique role that folktales play in children’s lives.
We had a chat with Rob this past weekend to pick his brain about how he got started telling stories, the role of storytelling in children's lives, and his experience working with Story Cove.
Q: How did you get started as a professional storyteller?
Rob: I started my professional career in theater. Basically I believe that all forms of artists, in one way or another are storytellers. Theater is storytelling through acting. Ballet is storytelling through dance. For me it wasn’t a big jump from telling my own stories to finding traditional folktales to share with an audience. I really started as a storyteller, when I was asked by a church to work with their Sunday school teachers to help them make parables more interesting. From there, I started developing other types of stories. And somewhere along the line, it clicked and I’ve been the Storyteller in Residence at Fernbank Science Center for 12 years. My work as a storyteller just sort of migrated from taking parables and making them come alive and then the floodgate opened.
Q: How did your work doing stand up comedy influence you as a storyteller?
Rob: I started off in regular theater and then branched over to work in film and television. I’m not really interested in stand-up and telling jokes, they’re labor intensive and I prefer telling a story. Then it’s not so dependent on you landing some killer punch line. I started off listening to Bill Cosby (before his recent troubles surfaced), and then I migrated to Bob Newhart, before moving to Woody Allen. The one characteristic their comedy routines share is the ability to tell engaging stories. Bill Cosby has long 20-minute bits, Bob Newhart spins even longer stories and Rodney King just does like a thousand key line jokes or laughter through saturation. When I do storytelling in schools, I incorporate my training as an actor to make the story come alive, sometimes I add little standup asides to the audience or I go off on tangents where I can interact with the audience. It’s a lot of fun. No matter how I tell a story, no matter the audience, it’s very similar to what I would do as a standup comedian.
"Basically all forms of artists in one way or another are storytellers. Theater is storytelling through
acting. Ballet is storytelling through dance. For me it wasn’t a jump from telling my own stories to basically finding traditional folktales to tell."
Q: You spent some time in dental school, a career path quite different from that of a professional storyteller. What happened?
Rob: Dentistry was a glitch. We all have our long dark times of the soul. I was a pre-dental major in college at Emory, mostly because of my dad telling me to be a doctor or dentist. I didn’t think there’d be a chance I’d actually be accepted to dental school. But then I was and la-de-da—I don’t know what they were thinking. I was at Medical College of Georgia, stayed for a semester, got some great stories, and left.
Q: From where do your interests in storytelling, comedy, and acting stem? Is it excitement about people, your interest in language or something else?
Rob: Yeah, it's definitely partly both of those. I like performing. I think storiesa very, very special place in our society. A storyteller has a real obligation to both the story and to the audience. There’s so much media now that we’re not necessarily exposed to shows that have a traditional storytelling archetype, which is a really timeless art form. When you get in front of kids, you have an opportunity to show them how these old stories that have been handed down for generations are still relevant today. They’ve stayed around with us for years, for decades and even in some cases centuries. As funny as they are, in 100 years, no one is going to remember Captain Underpants or Walter the Farting Dog, or at least I hope not. Years from now, people will still tell Anansi stories or fables from Aesop, they’ve been around forever. People are still telling “The Tortoise and the Hair” - these timeless stories just don’t go away.
"You get in front of kids and show them these old stories that still are relevant today... As funny as they are, in 100 years, nobody’s going to remember Captain Underpants or Walter the Farting Dog, or at least I hope not. Years later, people will still tell Anansi stories..."
Q: Do you have advice for parents looking to try storytelling with their kids?
Rob: There's so much media now that I think there’s a tendency to just let kids raised by Netflix or cable TV. Some parents think that their children are watching a story so that must be good. I still think it’s really important for parents to have one-on-one time with their kids and to read stories together, aloud. It’s more than just the story. It’s the closeness with the child and the child knowing that a parent is interested and wants to sit down to focus on you. There’s just a difference when you’re listening to these stories and sharing them out loud. By telling your child a story, you’re already him or her that this story was important to you for some reason. And because it’s important to you, it will also become important to them too.
"By telling your kid a story, you’re already telling them that this story was important to you for some reason. And because it’s important to you, it will also become important to them too."
Q: You worked with the Story Cove series when it was just kicking off. Part of your job was selecting Story Cove books. Can you talk a bit about your selection criteria for what would make a good Story Cove story?
Rob: Part of my job was to figure out which folktales could be easily adapted to Story Cove as books, animations and for audio. I had a variety of great options, different cultures, and different character traits so we wouldn’t be doing 20 books with the same young protagonist, facing the same challenges. We were also very intentional about the countries we were adapting stories from and the types of stories. The reading level was another critical consideration. It was very well thought out. I looked for stories that I enjoyed telling, and then I would tell them live. We needed to see if the stories really grabbed kids attention and interested teachers. Then we thought “how can we tell this story in this reading level?”
We also wanted stories that had dramatic action and could be illustrated for a book so that the picture book would become the storyboards for the animated version of the story. Then there were some stories that were great but we just could not adapt them to a 32-page format. For example, almost any Norse tale was too difficult to adapt because they’re really epics. When you try to cut them down, it destroys the story. Then there are some stories that are just way too dark and too scary for young children. We also didn’t want to do the Disney thing since we wanted to remain authentic to the culture of origin. So as you can see, we had a lot of requirements that we used as selection criteria.
Q: One last question—do you have a favorite folktale?
Rob: Clever Monkey. It’s a story I can perform for adults, I can tell it to groups of seniors, and I’ve shared it with audiences of 5-year-olds. I always have fun telling it. There’s even a law firm that specializes in divorces and they give copies of the book to new clients to help them see that both sides need to find common ground. If they don’t and get too greedy, then the lawyers get all the cheese. See there really is something there for everyone and it really works.