This week’s meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offered a presentation by storytelling experts, Mitch Weiss and Martha Hamilton. Mitch and Martha have dedicated their lives to storytelling. Starting to collaborate in storytelling in Ithaca, New York, Mitch and Martha have been writing children’s stories together for over 36 years (just as long as they’ve been married!). Check out their website here, and the clip below to see a sample of their performance from the meeting.
Mitch and Martha specialize in telling stories based off of other stories, like fables and folktales. Retelling these short and simple fundamental stories help children tell stories of their own. Many famous authors have taken old stories and their ideas and recreated them. For example, The Rough Faced Girl by Rafe Martin, Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson, and Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story by Tomie dePaola are all retellings of the classic fairytale Cinderella.
In retelling stories, Mitch and Martha emphasize that you must change the title and tell the story in your own words while still respecting the general outline/plot of the original story. You also have to give credit where credit is due.
Mitch and Martha’s first collection of stories was called Stories in my Pocket. It was published by a small publishing house called August House that specializes in storytelling, and they continued to publish books there, along with their collaborative work with Ted Arnold at other houses.
Ted Arnold is a famous children’s book illustrator, of Fly Guy and Parts fame. Mitch and Martha pitched an idea to Ted Arnold about illustrating stories with noodlehead characters (pictured below), and he loved it. They ended up sending their idea to Scholastic and then to Holiday House, a smaller book publishing company in New York City.
On their website, Mitch and Martha talk about the importance of teaching students the craft of storytelling:
It’s difficult to be successful if you’re not a good communicator and communication is, at its most basic level, the ability to tell a story well, whether to one person or to a group. Most of us will use reading and writing in our chosen professions, but all of us will use speaking and listening. Yet in the past, these two literacy skills have received little attention compared to reading and writing. There is growing recognition among educators that literacy is more effectively taught when reading, writing, speaking, and listening are seen as connected and equally important.
In my Multimodal Literacy class, I’ve learned that this is definitely true. Learning to actively listen as well as speak are two skills that have been undervalued in most education systems. Learning how to tell stories increases self-esteem, it’s inclusive, improves kid’s listening skills…Storytelling is how we pass down values and beliefs. Rather than memorize facts, we remember the essential information and how it makes us feel. It helps kids be more articulate when speaking. Learning a story rather than memorizing a story essentially ensures a better understanding of its meaning and craft. It also encourages critical thinking and creative writing, as well as a love and appreciation for other cultures and places.
This also brings me back to what working at Writopia has taught me and preaches– writing stories and giving students the space they need to write and think critically and creatively is so important in their personal development. Writing and storytelling helps kids communicate and understand themselves and the world a little better, and that is incredibly valuable. I think that Mitch and Martha understand that value, and it was really heartwarming to see them work together, talk about their books and stories, and perform for us.