Helen EvansSo You Want to be a Storyteller?

Helen Evans interviewed by Marg McAlister 

Writers are storytellers. But not all storytellers are writers.

Some storytellers find pleasure in following the oral tradition. A short time ago, Helen Evans - an accomplished storyteller - wrote an article for Writing4Success about what she does. Now, for the benefit of those who are interested in following in Helen's footsteps, we have an interesting Q&A to find out more about how Helen prepares and delivers her storytelling sessions. 

Q: All writers love to tell stories, but not many of them follow the oral tradition, rather than putting those stories down on paper. What led your career path as a storyteller in schools and pre-schools? 

A: When I began teaching at a pre-school, the children had no book background. They didn't have books at home and few of their parents could read. I found that the language in books had to be altered in order for them to know what the story was about. However the children were very creative and imaginative in their play and were always doing interesting things with their families so I began to make stories up about the children and their games, and to tell them at story time. This led on to traditional stories both from the Aboriginal culture and from the European culture.

Helen Evans 2Q: Did you have any training in acting, drama, or presentation skills/public speaking? 

A: No. I had no training in drama or even in public speaking. But this was of no consequence with little children as one can do the most outrageous things and be accepted by them. When parents would be coming in for a special occasion, I'd feel terribly nervous but I'd remind myself they were coming to see and hear the children, not me. Sometimes I'd have a role in a conference for early childhood people and I'd be nervous again, but I never got negative responses. If I had made notes to remind me of the main points, I'd be okay. I should have some voice training as I'm not a loud person but there never seems to be time.

Q: Let's walk through a typical storytelling session! 

(a) How do you choose the story? [Do you write your own stories, use popular classic children's tales, or a mixture of the two?]

Many of the stories I tell are ones I have made up myself. I never learn a story by heart but I  always write it down to keep in a folder so that I can find it and tell it again. I also tell traditional stories like the Three Billy Goats Gruff. I use different methods such as felt board, toy stories, dressing up, and I sometimes use puppets. This week I'll be telling a snow story as the really cold weather has struck, and although we haven't had any snow this winter, children have seen it on the TV and know what it is like.

Helen Evans 3(b) What preparation do you do? 

I plan storytelling sessions in quite a bit of detail. 

  • I choose a story 
  • decide what method of presentation I will use 
  • make or find any aids I will require, and  
  • think about how I will conclude or follow up the story.  

When I first started out as a storyteller after retiring from a job teaching students at TAFE, I used to practise my stories several times at home before going off to a centre, but now I'm confident without practise, unless it is a new one. Practise helps to show up weaknesses, whether the story needs to be longer, or other problems that may arise. 

I pack all the things I will need into a story bag or bags as it can be very frustrating to discover one vital piece of equipment is missing. For my snow story I have Humpty Dumpty, warm clothes for him to wear, a white sheet to spread out as snow, a snow man made from white nylon material and filled with pillow stuffing, cotton wool snowflakes, felt pieces that stick on the snowman to make a face, and a bag of snowballs made from white plastic bags. I will conclude the story by encouraging the children to stand like snowmen and melt away as I say a rhyme. 

(c) How long does it take you to tell a story? 

For two to three year olds, my stories take about five minutes but with games and activities that follow, the time is about 20 minutes. For four year olds, the story session lasts 30 minutes.

(d) How do you get your young audience involved? 

The children are involved in finding items, or placing them on the feltboard, in making sounds, doing actions (such as tapping for the rain), sleeping while the snow falls, pretending to warm their hands by the fire, taking turns to throw snowballs at the snowman, etc. Every child has a turn at something even if it is just passing around the dolls or toys at the end, or selecting something hidden in the bag at the end of the story.

(e) Do you know what sort of preparation and/or follow-up the teachers or child minders do? 

Teachers prepare the children by seeing that they have been to toilet first and they put the chairs in place and if necessary put name tags on the children. Sometimes teachers follow up with games or more stories and at a primary school I visit, the children follow up with art work, story writing and discussion.

(f) What is the reaction of the kids listening to your story?

Children listening and taking part in the stories are generally very keen to be involved. The children always greet me with great enthusiasm. The parents of a little Chinese girl told her teacher that when her little one knows it is Thursday, she skips up the hall and can't get to the centre fast enough. When she gets home she tells the story to her parents. 

Some children are shy and want to watch rather than do something. They like to watch me get ready and ask questions such as 'What is the story about today, Helen?' After the story they tell me things related to it. For example, last week I told a fire story and one child told me about the fire at his house last year, while another told me about the fire drill he does at home with his family. 

Occasionally a child is frightened. This happened when puppets had an accident. They had become so real to one child, that he cried and had to be told it was only a story and shown that the puppet was not hurt. 

Q: Do you have any funny/touching anecdotes about a storytelling session in which you were involved? 

A: After telling the story of the Muscians of Bremen to a group of four year olds we talked about how the owners of the animals didn't want them because they had grown old. One little boy told me very earnestly, 'My Nanna is very, very old and we still love her.' 

Last week there were greedy animals in the story and my granddaughter was in the group at one of the centres. She said, 'I'll tell that story when I have kids and I'll ask them the numbers to ring up.' [I'd asked children to tell me the phone numbers of Old McDonald and the zoo people as I needed to phone someone to come and collect the animals.] 

Helen Evans 4

Q: You have written books to tell others about the artof storytelling. Can you tell us more about them? 

I have written two books about storytelling. The first, Simply Storytelling, was written with students in mind. There are so many beautiful books produced for children these days that teachers tend to read to children instead of telling stories and I think both are important. My stories are a language experience in which children listen, follow instructions, talk and use memory. By setting out goals and showing students how to present story ideas in different ways, I hoped to inspire them to be more creative in story time. The book is illustrated with photos of actual storytimes. The book is available from Pearson Education. Here is a link www.pearsoned.com.au/VetDirect
This year Early Childhood Australia has published one of my books - Everyday Learning About Storytelling. It is simply written and the target audience is young parents and Family Day Carers. The link for it is

Q: Would your books be handy for parents who would like to start storytelling sessions with their own children?

A: Both books are suitable for parents who would like to start storytelling to their own children. They contain ideas on where to find stories.

Q: In your opinion, could writers either build a career or create a nice second income stream from oral storytelling?  Helen Evans 5

A: I'm sure this is a way writers can earn additional income. I charge a fee for my sessions but only a small one as early childhood centres never have much money. This year one of my regular groups dropped out because they lost some funding. Preparing stories takes up quite a lot of my time; it is really my main activity and I squeeze writing into my schedule.

Q: How do you use your website to promote your storytelling, connect with parents etc?

A: I am not very successful at promoting my services or skills via website as I cannot find the time to be constantly updating. I know some people do blogs to keep in touch but I haven't felt the need to do this yet. I built up my storytelling business in the first place by going to centres in a voluntary capacity for a year. None of the centres wanted me to stop so were all happy to pay my fee from then on.

Q: Do you think there might be potential for writers who are handy with craft (creating toys, puppets, etc) to combine sales of the products they create with storytelling income? 

A: There would definitely be a market for writers' toys, puppets etc. I know that if I had time to produce them my centres would buy kits for my stories. 

Q: What are your 'Ten Top Tips' for aspiring storytellers? 

  1. Be enthusiastic 
  2. Choose stories that are age/stage appropriate 
  3. Involve the kids in some way 
  4. Use aids so that the kid's attention is grabbed right away 
  5. Make sessions the right length of time for the particular group 
  6. Vary your storytelling methods e.g. feltboard, role play, puppets 
  7. Have all your aids ready to start - kids don't want to sit waiting 
  8. Use a storybag in which you have something hidden to bring out at the end of the story. This enourages everyone to sit to the end to find out what is in the bag. 
  9. Remember that kids learn through their senses so use things that they can touch, smell, listen to or even on occasions taste. Pretend tasting is fun too. 
  10. Have kids sit so they can all see and get up easily if they are chosen to come to the front to do something during the story. I find the semi-circle is the best arrangement.  

There is instant feedback from my young audience and this makes story telling very rewarding for me. I hope others will be tempted to try it too.

(c) Helen Evans and Writing4Success 2009


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