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Interview with Mitch Weiss & Martha Hamilton

Mitch Weiss & Martha Hamilton Portrait

Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss are a husband-and-wife writing and storytelling team known as "Beauty and the Beast Storytellers." They have traveled the world sharing their passion for the oral tradition and the art of telling great stories. Mitch and Martha's story collections include world tales that they tell in a conversational manner so that children can easily comprehend and then share the stories by telling them to other students.

Nikki: How did you originally begin working together as Beauty and the Beast?

Martha: I was a reference librarian, and a friend first exposed me to storytelling when she came home excited about her storytelling class. I went to a conference and saw three different storytellers, and I was really intrigued, but I wasn’t a performer. It took me a year from the time I first saw someone tell a story before I really told a story. I was going to a meeting of storytellers, and I thought, “No, I’m not ready to tell my story,” but once I got the courage to tell a short story, I discovered that I loved it and started storytelling whenever I could for friends’ kids. About a year later, I met Mitch. The friend who introduced us said, “He may not know it, but Mitch is a natural storyteller. I think he’d be great at this.”

Mitch: Like Martha, I didn’t know anything about storytelling as an art form, but it was certainly prevalent in my house growing up, and I found it very natural. So I took to telling stories very quickly, mainly because I really wanted to impress Martha. I learned a bunch of stories and then we went to the National Storytelling Festival, and that totally opened my eyes. I was just amazed at how entertaining and exciting it was to be there celebrating the oral tradition with other storytellers. Martha: At first, we thought that it was just going to be something fun we could do on the side. Then we went to Syracuse University for a storytelling festival the first year that we were telling stories together.

Mitch: We were featured storytellers and were seen by a lot of school librarians who invited us to their schools. Our timing was right since this was when people were just discovering the power of sharing stories and storytelling started having a kind of renaissance.

N: What is the creative process like with two people? What are some of the advantages/disadvantages?

Mitch: Oh, I think it’s definitely an advantage for us to work together.

Martha: I think it’s mostly an advantage. When we’re choosing stories, we both have to really love it. If I really like a story but Mitch doesn’t, we probably would end up not pursuing it and vice versa.

Mitch: The first book we wrote was for teachers, and that required an incredible amount of research. Martha had been a librarian, and her professional experience was very helpful, because she knew exactly where to find the resources we needed. I tend to write a lot, very quickly, but Martha is an incredible editor so she tends to get rid of most of what I write. Same with rewriting stories, it really became sort of our life work. We started teaching storytelling in the schools, and we realized we needed really good, short, concise folktales for the kids to retell.

Martha: We also needed more colloquial language so the kids would enjoy the stories and feel comfortable telling them.

Mitch: Again, we used Martha’s research skills and went to Cornell to find versions of old stories, and then we would rewrite our own version. We’d work separately and bring our work together to see what worked and what didn’t work. Plus, through the years, kids have actually been the editors for us, unknowingly, and they have been a big help before we even submit a story for consideration.

Martha: As we tell the stories; they change and they actually get much better over time. We’re kind of editing as we tell a story before we’ve written anything down, then we polish the stories for publishing. Mitch: The kids tell stories and that gives us the opportunity to see what elements really work, where something needs to be clarified, where it needs to be shorter or sometimes even eliminated from a story. Martha: Sometimes, we’ll have several kids in various schools telling the same stories. Depending on the grade, we might have some kids who can handle the story very well, but if you see enough kids struggle with a certain word or some aspect of the story, that’s when we start reworking it. One of the things I think we’ve learned over the years is how much simpler we can make the stories to make them more entertaining and more meaningful for kids.

Mitch: In our most recent book with August House, 40 Fun Fables: Tales that Trick, Tickle and Teach, we really wanted to make the collection of stories as simple as we could because the traditional versions of fables tend to be long and flowery. We try to keep our stories bare-boned so that kids can get immersed in the action or relate to the characters and then tell the stories themselves. Martha: Sometimes kids just can’t "get" the moral at the end. That’s one of the trickiest challenges: coming up with a moral they’ll understand and can apply in their lives. This iterative process of working with these stories shows how flexible and adaptable folktales really are.

N: Your book, Noodlehead Stories uses a range of tales from around the world to emphasize one theme, foolishness. How do you adapt stories from different regions in terms of plot and setting so that children can easily understand and enjoy the humor? Martha: It can be tricky, because some people may say, “This isn’t authentic.” Fortunately, when people see what we’re doing, they see the value of sharing these stories from all over the world and adapting them so that children can understand and tell them. We work hard to foster an appreciation and respect for the traditions of other cultures.

We can’t always tell a story exactly like someone from that culture would. But we love these stories and want to honor them by adapting the stories to share with children. I think there are so many more similarities, hopes, fears, and dreams that people share around the world. These values and desires come out in the stories.

Mitch: We certainly didn’t have to work hard to find the common theme for Noodlehead Stories. Some of those stories have been passed along for thousands of years so in rewriting them, we’re typically trying to simplify or add dialogue.

Martha: In the beginning of Noodlehead Stories, there’s a quote that I love by Joseph Jacobs who was an imminent British collector of stories. He said, “It is indeed curious how little originality mankind has shown when it comes to stupidity.” And it’s true! We try not to ever say “stupid,” but the thing I really love about these stories is you really can’t call someone a “noodlehead” and make them mad. When we tell Noodlehead Stories, kids just laugh.

Mitch: They relate to being foolish and forgetful. Today, we’ve been taking these old stories and crafting modern day versions based on these timeless tales.

Martha: I think it’s a great way to teach the value of knowing these old stories. Like a story in, Noodlehead Stories, called “I’d Laugh Too, If I Were Dead” is from Iceland, although there are a number of other versions from other cultures. The characters have an argument over which husband does more foolish things so they decide they’ll have a contest to see who can make their husband look sillier than the others.

One of the themes is from “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. That story was very common in Europe hundreds of years ago. Hans Christian Anderson took that story and rather than doing it as a woman trying to make her husband look foolish, he adapted it to poke fun at the royalty. That’s really what we encourage kids to do: take ideas from these stories and, like any famous author, create their own version of the story.

N: In your picture books, how did you find ideas for little known stories like The Ghost Catcher, from India, A Tale of Two Frogs from Russia or Stolen Smell from Peru?

Martha: Well, we’ve been doing this for 36 years and, from the very beginning, we just went to the library, and we went to book sales. We try to find stories that kids don’t already know so we focus on traditional stories that haven’t already been shared widely in our culture.

Mitch: We are always reading and searching for good stories to tell. We have gotten more particular as we have grown older about the stories we choose to adapt. One of our favorite resources is an index of folktale motifs by Margaret Read MacDonald called The Storyteller's Sourcebook. When writing a story such as A Tale of Two Frogs, we search to find as many versions of the story as possible, and then write our own version.

Martha: When it comes to the Noodlehead Stories, we might find the same story in many different cultures, so we tried to use a mix of stories from around the world. For instance, we might focus on a story from South America, but we might take some ideas from other stories, and we point out how we adapted them into the version that’s in the book. There are some academic folklorists who believe you shouldn’t do that. When we explain that we're trying to make the stories fun and tellable for children, most folks understand and appreciate the value of what we are doing.

N: Why do you think folktales and the oral tradition are so important for children?

Martha: What amazes everyone is how naturally kids take to folktales. I think they naturally love stories from other cultures. Whether it’s a book or a live performance, we reference what culture a story comes from, then once we get into the story, a hush comes over the audience. The stories are definitely what touches them. We’ve found in working with kids that there’s something about the universal love of stories that makes kids so supportive of one another when they’re choosing a story to tell.

Mitch: Communication skills have eroded drastically with the invention of mobile media devices, texting, video games, etc. The impetus for the original State Learning Standards developed in the 1990's came from business. Business executives were finding that young adults weren’t prepared to communicate effectively. Fortunately for us, storytelling, speaking and listening skills became the bedrock foundation for many of the learning standards.

Martha: I think anything you learn at an earlier age is just so much easier to learn and the student is better off too. There’s a college about an hour or so from here, and we’ve gone there several times to work with a storytelling class that a professor initiated several years ago. He started the class after he was on a committee to select students for Fulbright Scholarships. Unfortunately, the committee found that some of the best and brightest students weren’t able to tell their personal story in front of a group. So he gives his students the option of interviewing elders and collecting stories or working with a local school where they teach kids storytelling techniques.

Mitch: Getting affiliated with August House relatively early in our career helped us immensely. Publishing so many books gave us more authority and credibility that led to people wanting to hire us. Plus, it put us in touch with the whole stable of storytellers at August House. All of that was really, really helpful to us. Also, there are tons of other story collections like ours, so we’re always looking through those books trying to find good stories for kids to tell.

Martha: It’s really an incredibly fun job. We get such joy from what we do all the time, whether it’s telling stories, listening to the kids or working on a new book. Working directly with kids has brought an incredible amount of variety to our work and it’s improved our writing and performing.

N: Tell us about some techniques you use in your workshops? How are children involved?

Mitch: In the Ithaca schools, where we live, and in a lot of school districts, we begin by telling a story. When people see us perform our stories, they get it. Of course, when we’ve been at a school for years, and we’re working with 3rd graders, hopefully they’ve seen us in Kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade so telling these stories isn’t necessarily a new experience for them.

Martha: When children listen to a story, there’s a hush that comes over the audience. What’s really happening is that the storyteller kind of disappears, and people visualize the pictures in their minds.

Our workshop simply demonstrates what we’re doing. People don’t necessarily know exactly what’s creating the magic. It’s not any special magic that we have; anyone can do it as well. We focus a lot on the power of body language. For example, I might say, “I’m married to Mitch” four different ways. One way would be just stating a fact. The next way might be a little “lovey-dovey” with silly eyebrows, and the kids all giggle. Then as if it's horrible, or as if I'm frustrated. Mitch pretends to be offended, and they all laugh because they can tell we are just having fun. Then I would show them the four ways again, but without speaking, so they see how much I am saying with only body language. Then we’ll have the participants do various exercises. A lot of them say, “I don’t have any motion.” I tell them, “Okay, watch the difference if you don’t use some motion.” I’ll put a lot of expression on my face, but not do any motion. I ask them what they like better and they all say they prefer adding motion.

Mitch: Our biggest technique is demonstrating a story for the kids and then ask them to do it. They tell part of it, and they own it. We really do two types of workshops for a school, maybe for a week or longer, where every kid in the grade level chooses from stories that we send to them. Then we coach them all week on techniques, and they perform for their families at the end of the week. The parents see that it’s not just a cute performance, but it was also an incredibly valuable learning experience for the child.

Martha: The parents are actually blown away. We have parents who come up and say, “Thank you for letting everyone see what I’m seeing in my child at home,” or the opposite: “I had no idea that my child could do that.” It’s a very powerful experience, using basic communication skills, looking at people, using your voice, learning how to use your body, but it’s also immensely valuable in learning to overcome the fear of public speaking.

Mitch: At first, some kids are scared. When they see us coaching a child, and the kid does a funny voice for a monster, they say, “Come on, come on, do that voice!” They really root for one another. I think the kids love the stories, and they want the stories to be done as well as possible, so the kids really are pulling for everyone to do their best. Everyone kind of owns his or her own telling of a story, and they’re very supportive.

Martha: When time is limited, or when working with kindergarteners or first graders, we do a lot of retelling short folktales. They love it! We tell a story and show them a story map. Then the children stand and retell the story, repeating one line at a time after us. We encourage them to use expression on their faces and in their voices.

Mitch: Afterward, we’ll often use a technique called “Telling to the Wall,” which we learned from Margaret MacDonald. Children spread out around the classroom, all of them facing the wall. Then, on the count of three, they tell the story at the same time, as if they are telling to an audience. They gain a great deal of confidence from doing this, and we then ask for volunteers to come up in front of the class and tell the story, with each sharing a bit of it. Each time students hear it, the events of the story are reinforced, and they hear it told in different words, which makes all of them realize that they can take ownership of the story and tell it in their own words.

Martha: With the little kids, this takes an adult walking around. If they see a kid not doing it, they help them get going. When we’re doing it with a class of 3rd graders, they pretty much get it and can work independently. It’s always different with every group of kids so it helps keep our work fresh and original.

N: Thank you so much for taking time to share your love of stories and your ideas about using these stories in the classroom.

from The Ghost Catcher


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