Having traveled across the world, telling stories and publishing books on every culture from Panama to Thailand and everywhere in between, Dr. Margaret Read MacDonald is recognized as a leading expert on folktales, with the PhD to prove it. We asked her to sit down with us to discuss exactly where storytelling has taken her, how she began on that journey, and what she hopes to encourage educators to continue doing in their classrooms. In this episode, learn about Margaret’s early career as a children’s librarian and storyteller on a bookmobile in Hawaii, how she helped to preserve a language, and her secrets for becoming a storyteller. (Hint: Just do it!)
Raven: Let’s begin at the beginning! How did you start telling stories?
Margaret: The way my grandfather used language and the way he shaped his stories really influenced the way I sensed stories and thought about stories. When I went to college, I was really fascinated by Anthropology and earned a Bachelor’s in it. Then I became a children’s librarian, and, of course, we told stories. I was taught to tell stories when I was in library school, and that was the part that I loved absolutely the most. So, the first job that I had, I told stories in twenty-four libraries during the summertime.
R: And it just kept on going from there?
Margaret: I had to tell those stories twenty-four times, which really helps make you pretty good. Then the next job I had was on a bookmobile in Oahu, and I told every story I learned thirty-six times in thirty-six bookmobile stops all over Oahu. And every place was different. I was in Waianae where the kids were Hawaiian and Samoan. I was up Palolo Valley where the kids were all Chinese. Out at Kunio Plantation, the kids were Filipino. In Hawaii Kai, the kids were mainly Japanese. I was down at Ewa Beach where the families were in the Army from all around the US. Everywhere I went there was a different audience who responded a little bit differently, and that really helps you shape your story, telling the story over and over. Every new audience teaches you something a little bit different about your story.
R: As a world traveler, would you recommend that people learn some of the stories from the culture they’re visiting before they travel?
Margaret: Yes, because you learn about the culture through their stories. In the story I tell of the Borneo snake, there’s a scene where the snake comes up to the girl’s house, and the snake calls the mother, “Mother, can I come up into the house?” And the mother says, “There’s no sadness or sickness in our house. You can come up.” And I love that because that’s a refrain that people in their culture would say. It was a tradition when you go into a house to check, and if no one had died or was sick you could come up. You have to make that exchange before you can come up. You learn things about people, their values and their culture by hearing their stories.
R: Telling stories has taken you all over the world. Would you share some things you’ve learned during your travels as a storyteller?
Margaret: In Thailand, I was invited to teach storytelling to students in order to enliven pride in the local culture, which was Lao. The Lao language was being overtaken by Bangkok Thai. The children were losing their own language and their own culture.
R: That’s almost frightening.
Margaret: Yes, so the person who invited me, Dr. Wajuppa Tossa, was really distressed that her culture was being lost, and she thought she could renew pride by storytelling. What she wanted to do was train her university students to become storytellers, and then they went out to nineteen school districts all around Isan and told stories in Lao to the students. At that time, they were only speaking Thai in the schools so her students told the stories in the local Lao dialect.
R: Was she worried that if the stories weren’t shared they would be lost?
Margaret: Yes, she was worried that both the stories and the language were being lost. Storytelling was a way to preserve those.
R: What about the transportation of storytelling into new media in the digital age? Do you think that we lose a little bit of the intimacy and minutia with traditional oral telling once the stories have been placed into a different context?
Margaret: Well, the oral tradition has gone in and out of being recorded, being written, and being retold for thousands of years. Some of the earliest stories we know are four thousand years old, and they were written down on cuneiform clay tablets in Babylonian and Sumerian. Yet they are still being shared orally. Many of the stories throughout time have been recorded, and then learned from books, and then retold orally. They get recorded in print, then picked up and life is blown into them again. I think the same thing can happen when the stories are recorded into other media. Someone sees it, learns it, and from there it will go back to the oral tradition in its own life. I don’t worry about stories going in and out of media or in and out of books.
R: So stories have their own life cycle?
Margaret: Yes, and it doesn’t die. There’s actually a folklore theory called “The Law of Self-Correction.” It means that a story can’t be killed. Someone will tell it and leave out a little bit, someone else will tell it and leave out a little bit more, and pretty soon it’s just a fragment of a story. Then someone who has a real instinct for storytelling will listen to it and go, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s not how it goes!” and boom! They’ll blow life into it, and it’ll be a great story again. The law of self-correction: stories correct themselves over time.
R: You host a lot of different workshops that help teachers, educators, librarians – even festival-goers – learn how to become storytellers. I was wondering if you teach children to tell their own stories.
Margaret: I do a lot of workshops with kids, teaching them stories, very simple ones, because it’s very rewarding for kids to tell a story. It’s easy to tell a story effectively. If you have a simple story that has repetition, then they can easily remember it. It doesn’t require a lot of work to animate a good story. Make it sound really fun, so they can learn the story, even little Kindergartners can learn a story fairly easily. Then, when they stand up and tell it to someone else, the response is so wonderful that they get a lot of elation, and they just feel really good because they’ve told a story. It really improves their self-esteem. Storytelling is a great technique to use with kids to get them to feel more confident with speaking and being in front of people.
R: When you’re leading workshops for teachers or librarians, what are the most fundamental skills for storytelling?
Margaret: Oh, I think the most important thing to do with educators is just to get them to do it. You don’t need any certain skill to tell stories, you just need to do it. Storytelling just requires practice and a desire to do it. When I do workshops, mainly I try to teach them some really simple stories they can tell easily and I stress the importance of getting out there and doing it. You’re never going to be really good at storytelling until you start telling stories. It’s like playing the piano; it just takes practice. It’s so rewarding for the teacher who begins telling stories, too. When they feel the children’s response, they want to do it again! So, the only technique I emphasize is just to get them to do it.
R: So as long as they are telling, they can perform in any way that makes them comfortable?
Margaret: There’s no other technique. They can speak quietly or loudly. They can stand still, or jump around. They can do anything they want to do. It doesn’t really matter how they tell it, just as long as they tell it, they’re doing the right thing. Remember, these are folktales, so everyone tells them a little differently. There is no one technique that they can learn. They just need to tell the story.
R: You also do musical performances with Richard Scholtz, and I listened to the recording that you made of Fat Cat. As you’ve said, the repetition really helps in providing a steady rhythm that’s easy to follow. Do you think the music helps attract kids?
Margaret: Well, it really helps. It’s really soothing actually. It’s fun for me to work with Richard. I don’t get to very often because he lives in a different town, but when we do, it’s kind of wonderful. It’s a duet, actually. I’m telling, he’s playing, and it all flows together. We’ve recorded 3 CDs for August House: Fat Cat and Friends, Cockroach Party, and Tuck-Me-In Tales.
R: And you’ve also very recently recorded a few videos for the stories as well?
Margaret: Yes! A friend of mine, Jeff Gere, just made a series of videos about me telling stories. He invited me to stay with him and his wife in Hawaii to perform some stories. Then he said, “Ok, we’re going to tape them.” So he booked a studio at the public television station, and we did nineteen stories. He brought me back the next week for two afternoons of editing, and then he edited them a little more before posting the videos on YouTube. He just did it as an amazing gift for me. In the book Teaching with Story, “Grandfather Bear” is used for every single chapter to make a connection to the curriculum. We have a video version of the story where he and I tell it in tandem, and it’s very entertaining. Having that video on YouTube should be very useful for educators.
R: Let’s talk about what it’s like to have a storytelling partner. In some of your workshops you teach how to tell stories in tandem. Does having a partner make the task a little more challenging, or does it make the work flow a little easier?
Margaret: Yes, you usually have to practice a little to make it flow well, but it’s really fun to have another teller. Some stories lend themselves to tandem telling with two characters and that works really well. My daughter, Jen, and her husband, Nat, tell tandem stories all the time and they work really hard to work them out and see who’s going to say what, when and how they’re going to do it. It’s really fun to watch them perform.
R: Tell us a little bit about how the three of you worked together to write Teaching with Story. It’s an award-winning book, a valuable reference, and you stress how you’re a family of storytellers.
Margaret: They’re all stories that I’ve worked on and have been part of my repertoire, and Jen and Nat tell these tales, too. In my career as a children’s librarian, I had the opportunity to tell the stories over and over again to polish them up and make them really work for the audience. Then I organized the book and pulled it together. The text about how to teach and the activities came from Jennifer’s experience n the classroom. Then Nat would go through and add his insights as a school librarian. The book outline was created by Jennifer based on her needs as a classroom teacher.
R: It certainly does sound like a lot of work. Do you ever get tired of telling stories?
Margaret: No, no, it’s just fun. Every audience is different, and the kids just make me more excited. On the bookmobile in Hawaii, the story stops were really brief, only about thirty minutes. I’ll roll out my mats for the kids to sit down, tell my stories, then roll up the mats, fold up my stool, hop on the bus, and head to the next stop. Over and over... and so much fun every time. Because the audience is always fresh and new! The story is being shared with them for the first time.