Fairy tales, not necessarily in their scholarly definition, but allowing for a few other folktales and the occasional legend or myth, are the life's blood of childhood. Fairy tales give us a map for the journey of life, and if parents can see through the time-bound elements of societal values and lessons, they can help children to navigate the treacherous waters of learning to live as a human being with wisdom and courage.
That's a bit of a weighty introduction. Still with me? Of course you are. Here, then, are five of my favorite fairy tales to share with children who are stepping through the doorway from early childhood dreaminess into the open-eyed world of learning to know things for oneself. These stories are perfect for older five-year-olds right up to middle school, but six and seven might be the ultimate age for enjoyment.
So, there you have it. Five of my favorites. The websites these links take you to are worth exploring -- so many great stories to share with the kids in your life! Read aloud, or learn to tell them yourself in my upcoming Be a Storyteller ecourse! (details coming soon!)
And remember, when you come to something that makes you unsure about telling a particular story, whether it's a turn of phrase that rings false in your ear, or a character who meets an end that seems too harsh, take your time. If it's not the right story for you or for your listener, then just let it go, and find the story that's your Goldilocks moment -- Just Right!
Do you ever say to yourself, "I'm starting something new! A new chapter starts today in the book of me! I'm going to be a new person, starting now! Everything is changing!" and then, three days later, you're in your jammies, zoned out on facebook, eating entire bags of Lundberg's brown rice cakes, wondering where all that momentum went? No? Just me?
It happens to me a lot. I get this whoosh of power and energy, and I get really excited about a new project or exercise regimen or foodway, or I feel super compassionate and I just love everyone, and I want to do amazing things in the world. Then the laundry piles up, and I wake up late, and I yell at the dog... and it all fizzles out. Stephen Pressfield calls this resistance. I call it blind, back-pedaling terror.
To Start a New Chapter, do this:
The voices sound like this : "It isn't safe. No one will love you if you grow and change. You're failing. You'll fail again. You have bills to pay and Responsibilities. YOU"RE DOING IT WRONG!!!"
I think I've mentioned those voices before. And I've talked about starting over, and a fresh start. It's a recurring theme here. Life is a constant dance of renewal; we start over, and over, and over, and over. Every day, every hour. But this time, this time I really mean it. I'm laughing at myself now. Because I say that every time. What's different now?
What's different is that I am taking action. Real, concrete action. I am not sitting around, wishing I could make something happen. I am feeling such fear, and moving forward anyway. I have help this time around, too. I have a group of wonderful women who have agreed to be guinea pigs for one thing, a business mentor who is smart and funny and has cute dogs (dogs help any venture!), the support of my awesome wife, and a new sense of determination.
The stakes are a little higher. I'm eager and scared and joyful and a little nostalgic for when I could just get up and go to work, but this is so important. This time, I hear the call, and I have to rise to meet it. I've been holding back so long, out of fear and a need for security, but Life doesn't need that. My gifts are needed in the world. That's why I'm here. How dare I hold anything back?
And it goes for you, too. Your gifts are needed in the world. That's why you're here. How dare we hold anything back?
Learning to tell stories can be daunting. I get that. Even seasoned Waldorf teachers or homeschooling parents can feel that fear, and the Waldorf grades curriculum is built on storytelling. Letting go of always reading to your child, or turning on an audio book or Sparkle Stories story, or a movie, can be really, really scary.
So start small. Here are three easy ways to start telling stories to your children.
1. Puppets. Don't panic. Puppets can be really easy; everyday objects can be magical. Ask Dan Hurlin, whose puppet theater full of forks and spoons enchanted my college classmates. Pick something up -- a toy, a cup, a mitten -- and let it speak and move. This type of story can charm three and four year olds to stillness. Puppet wakes up, has a tiny adventure, and goes to sleep. Fin. Your lap, maybe draped with a playsilk or scarf, makes a perfect stage; so does the kitchen table, or the dashboard on the freeway-turned-parking lot. There can be an epic adventure, or there can be next to nothing. Just try.
2. When I was a kid. Can you remember anything from your childhood? Stories from your family or longtime friends? Children love real, true stories of your own experiences, especially when the story opens up a new perspective on you. Stories where you got into trouble, where you made a bad decision, where things didn't work out so great, these are a real gift to your child, who will find in them permission to fail, to learn, to try again. You become human and whole through these stories. Tell stories of your triumphs, too -- spelling bee victories, hard-won first fruits of your own garden, the Big Game. Humor and compassion for your young self and for the other characters in your story will feed their need for goodness. Tell these stories. They become part of your legacy.
3. Movies, Books, TV shows. My mother told me the entire plot of Anne McCaffrey's The White Dragon on a road trip to Nebraska to visit my grandparents. She later told me she'd done this to keep herself awake on the long, straight highway through the cornfields, but at the time, I only knew that here was a fantastic, beautiful story. So tell your favorite plots; re-enact favorite scenes with voices and gesture. Of course, there are limits, and you know what your child will enjoy and what will be unpleasant or scary for them. The best part is this: if you forget, make it up. This is your chance to fix the ending you hated, to fill in the details your mind has let go. Your imagination and intuition may create just the pieces your child needs most.
I believe deeply in the power of stories to heal, help, and guide. Pick any one of these, put down the book, turn off the radio, and let your own voice and the magic of the story sweeten your time with your child.
See those gorgeous cards? The ones with the luminous watercolor artwork? On the back of each one are four words or phrases. They come from Waldorfish, and you can have some for your very own.
This week, I told stories at the Linden Hills Farmers Market. I was in a very small space, which was not totally ideal, but I was right next to Heartfelt's crafting area, so that was cozy and sweet (Heartfelt is one of my awesome day jobs, and I get to tell stories there next week!). I had my secret weapon, the above-pictured cards, tucked in my purple purse, and my fat, water-stained Grimms' tales to lend me ballast. At 5 minutes to show time, I stood in each bay of the greenhouse where our market is happening, and bellowed "STORYYYYYYTIIIIIIIMME!!!"
I opened with Mother Holle.
Mother Holle is a story related to many other tales -- Diamonds and Toads is one that comes to mind -- in which a good child is rewarded and a bad child punished. I had eight or so listeners, and they were all deeply engaged with the story. That is the power of fairy tales: in the midst of a busy, noisy marketplace, people gathered to hear a story, and were instantly transported to another world. I stood as the medium of the story, and tried to help it into the world.
When Mother Holle was finished, and the bad child who hadn't shaken the featherbeds well enough to bring snow to the earth had been doused in pine pitch, many of the listeners stood and smiled and disappeared into the crowd. Those who stayed saw me bring out the Storystarter cards, shuffle them, and fan them in my hands. "Choose one!" I urged them. They did, and I held the chosen cards in my hands for a moment before the story began to spin itself into being. First one element, than another, sent out its bright thread, and I caught them and twisted them into my words. The story was fairly simple, with a journey and a fairy ball and a mask, a letter and a market, a return to the everyday world, with a memento of the revels. When it was done, we all sighed contentedly. There. The shining plaited threads of story dispersed like smoke when a candle is put out.
I've used these cards to tell stories to my son, and that was lovely, but there was a magic in bringing something from each of the listeners -- their own contributions to the tale -- into a woven whole.
Want to try it? Join me Sunday, or get your own cards and let others draw the stories out. I'll be telling every Sunday at noon throughout November, and at 1 o'clock in December.
It's colder in Scotland than in England, or at least, it was when we took the train north together. I was spending my junior year of college at Oxford, and my mother flew out to visit me after Christmas. It was a visit I look back on and wonder at -- it was that year that literally changed my life, the best year of college, the year of self-discovery and adventure, and my mom took the long plane trip over the ocean to visit me during the ten months I was away. My grandmother had left her some money, and she was determined to enjoy that trip to the fullest. I met her at Paddington Station, full of confidence in my understanding of the UK after three months of living in the terrace house in Marlborough Road.
The first night, we stayed in a student-rate hotel in Belgravia or something like that, and I don't think either of us slept a wink. We saw Cirque du Soleil in the Albert Hall. She got to hear me sing in the chorus for Mozart's Requiem at St. Martin in the Fields. We toured the Tower.
A dear friend was in England, visiting family, and had extra days left on her BritRail pass. When she headed home, she gave us the pass. What does one do with free time, some inherited cash, and free rail travel? One goes to Scotland, to Glasgow.
It was my mother's second trip to Scotland, my first. We arrived at night, but it could have been late afternoon. It's dark in January in Scotland. We found a hotel, settled in for the night, and planned our adventure. We had a few days before I had to be back for the start of term, when she'd meet my friends and choir mates and drink with us in the college bar and endear herself to everyone.
I can see our visit in flashes -- the extravagant meal in a beautiful restaurant, rose pouchong tea surrounded by Charles Rennie Mackintosh design, the dark stone of the cathedral -- but what came back to me full force this weekend as I listened to the Battlefield Band on Prairie Home Companion, was that we attended a concert with bagpipes and fiddles and a full orchestra. I think it was Phil Cunningham's Highlands and Islands Suite, maybe? I don't know for sure. All I know is that the moment when the band fell away and the pipes took over, that characteristic change of rhythm from skipping to skirling, sounding through my car's stereo on Saturday made me break down in sobs, as January, 1997, slammed back into my mind. Funny, though, that it was that memory, and not the dozens of other times we listened to the pipes together. Mom loved bagpipes; we shared that love. I was glad to find a piper for her funeral last spring. How could we send her onto the Low Road, without the sound of mourning and battle and victory and longing that the pipes have?
My mother's birthday is this Saturday. My stepdad is hosting a dinner in her honor, and some of us who loved her will gather and eat and drink and laugh and cry. She was loved by, and loved, so many -- there were not enough chairs in the funeral chapel for everyone who came to her funeral -- and I wish I could call her and ask about that concert. Instead, I guess I'll buy a recording of the Highlands and Islands Suite, and let the music carry me back again to the darkness of midwinter Glasgow, and to the brilliant light and warmth of my mother's love.
don't eat the story!!
Yep. Today was supposed to be the day I open the gates for all of you chomping at the bit to get your hands on Magical Bedtime. And I have opened the oven door, poked it with a toothpick, and it just isn't ready.
I have a lot of excuses. You aren't interested in those. They're likely just like yours: end of the school year, so busy busy busy, one thing after another, yadda yadda yadda.
What do I have for you, then? A little smidgen. A taste of things to come. Here's how it works:
You fill in the little contact box below with your email address. I will send you a link to a FREE STORY. Yes. Free. For you and your children. It's simple and lovely, this story. It's not too long.
So, just fill in the box, and get your own audio copy of "Masha and the Bear," as told by me. In return, I ask that you send others my way. Over the next few weeks, I'll make other stories available to you, and I will also be doing a series of Magical Bedtime posts. By summer's end, look for a beautiful ebook and set of all-new stories to purchase and have as your own.
Last night, as I was putting the Boy to bed, I once again started telling a Boy and Cat story without any idea where it would lead. None. This is how many of the stories start -- sometimes I have a plan, a particular shift I want to help with, or a theme, or even a little inkling from something he's said -- and I just have to roll with it. Story will walk into the room and take over, I find, if I can just be present and allow things to flow.
So, I started it the usual way, with the boy waking up, getting dressed, having breakfast with his mom, and then the cat asked him if he was ready to go. Off they went, through the Pathway of Growing Small, and across the clearing to the Apple Tree Palace where the Queen of the Tinies lives. This is where Story stepped in; I had laid the foundations, and I got the characters to where they needed to be for the magic to happen.
Here where we live, Spring has been playing some funny jokes on us. She arrives for a few hours, or even for a day, smiling in sunshine, coaxing daffodil shoots out of the earth, and then, her rough-breathed brother, King Winter, roars back into town with his hounds and his pals on their motorbikes. Winter likes to throw his weight around. He can be fun, sure, slapping your back and handing you a hot mug of cider. He can be quiet, too, and bring a hush to the white-robed night. I think he came back for one more party last night. The trees outside are hanging heavy with wet snow and ice, and it looks like a fairyland. Very pretty, lush and austere at once.
So, Story sent the Boy and the Cat with their friends, Lily, Black-Cap Chickadee, and Baby Dragon, to find out the reason Lady Spring wasn't here yet. They found her in a blossom-scented orchard, embroidering flowers for the ground. She laughed and told them of misunderstandings and mistakes, and assured them she'd be along soon.
My own Boy fell asleep pretty soon after that. He nodded with satisfaction at the story, and I could see the truth of it in his eyes as he snuggled in his bed after the candle was out, just the nightlight glowing.
Today, I will let Winter have his little fun. And tomorrow, I will breathe a gentle breath, and welcome Spring. I hear we will hardly remember Winter by this weekend. That's the way it is with Spring -- the joy and wonder come in, the sweetness and ease, and somehow, the grinding dailiness of Winter lets go of our memories. I can't wait.
On Sunday evening, I was driving home from a student's house, and I turned on the radio. Krista Tippett was intervening Maria Tatar. I read Dr. Tatar's work on fairy tales in college when I was working on a semester-long project on Baba Yaga in Russian folklore. When I heard her talking as I steered the car down the cold freeway towards home, I heard a voice that was speaking to all I hold to be true about our need for stories.
Not so long ago in our human evolution, the day's work had to end at the end of day. True, there were tasks that could, and would, be done in the flickering dimness of firelight, but there was an acceptance that night was the time to gather closely around the fire, to share warmth and food, and, if you weren't entirely exhausted, conversation. In winter, when that twilit dimness extended for hours into the daytime, evening brought time for longer, more emotional tales-- "A sad tale's best for winter; I have one of sprites and goblins," says the doomed child of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Young and old alike took in these stories.
When I read and tell fairy tales, both traditional tales and well-crafted modern ones, I feel the thread connecting me to the women and men and children who heard these stories years and years ago. I feel the tug in my heart and my mind, to open to the journey of the story, which is the journey of humanity, the journey of life. In each moment, I find myself within the tale. Sometimes, I am not the heroine. Sometimes, I am the wise woman, or the weary king, or the magic horse. At a storytelling performance last September, the wild poet Martin Shaw stopped in the telling of "Tatterhood" and asked us who we were in the story, where were we? Everyone nodded. We knew we were there, we were in that moment. The story was living n the room with us, and we were living there, in the forest, in the castle, at the edge of the wood.
In my second year of college, I was going through the kind of soul-searching, identity-seeking journey of most young people. As I envisioned my conference project-- a year-long independent study on an aspect of my coursework-- for Russian language and literature, I felt my love for folklore and stories rising to the forefront of my mind. Together with my professor, Melissa Frazer, I envisioned a two-part project: a paper on the role of Baba
Yaga as both villain and fairy godmother, and a storytelling performance. The paper was adequate; reading it now, I see how much deeper I might have taken my research. The storytelling performance was more than adequate.
It was a chilly spring evening when my friends and classmates, and their friends and classmates, packed into the campus Teahaus, a tiny building in the center of the lawn. It had once been Joseph Campbell's office. Perhaps his spirit's echo was with us that night. I don't remember which tales I told. Probably, the evening included Vasilisa the Beautiful and Marya
Morevna. What I do remember, is the rapt attention of the students in the room, the quiet breath, the startled laughter and gasps of dismay. These were not children, really, these college students in their sweatshirts and jeans, living on coffee and cigarettes and Postmodernism. But they were desperately hungry for these stories. They talked to me about that evening through my senior year. Some recalled it to me at our reunion years later. It was not me they remembered, though. It was the stories, or more, it was the talisman within the stories, the gift of a moment out of time, and the satiation of a hunger carried from childhood.
Eugene Schwartz has written about how college students who are starved for childhood stories and play as children, seek it out in college, buying themselves stuffed animals and Lego sets, but those who had their wells of experiences filled with real, living stories and true heroes when they were little, decorated their rooms with modern art. Can it be, that by allowing children the kind of stories they need when they are small, we are equipping them to be real heroes as adults? Not the kind with capes and crowns, but the kind that sees the need and suffering in the world, and seeks to assuage it, and the kind that quests after the grails of justice and truth?
I don't know the answer to that question. All I know, is that I need stories, and I suspect you do, too. And if I need them now, as an adult, then I am sure in every fiber of my being, that my child needs them. I don't always have the strength or energy to find them within me, or even to retell "Sweet Porridge" or "The Little Red Hen", for the hundred thousandth time, but I seek out books with real stories in them, and I can read those aloud in the moments when I need to be fed on stories, too.
Spring is supposedly here, though Minnesota is laughing at that idea. Getting Boyo to bed early becomes more and more difficult as the days get longer. Stories help lure him towards sleep. Dreams are a kind of storytelling, too, and perhaps the dreamlike imagery of fairytales helps us to make the transition from the waking world to the world of symbol and memory we visit in our dreams.
Dr. Tatar talked about bedtime stories, and about the importance of that time of day for creating connections with children. I am at work on a resource for you, on creating a magical, comforting bedtime for your child, built around the gifts of ritual and story. There will be snack and story ideas, recordings of stories for you to learn and retell, tips for creating a cozy environment for sleep, and more! Not every evening will be sparking with twinkly stars and sweet, sleepy smiles, but the more often they happen, the more possible they feel.
All I can really tell you, over and over, is this: stories matter, and they are food for human development and growth. Like food, the kind of stories matters, too. Let's feed our children the best we can, without becoming so orthorexic that we cannot allow a little fluff now and then, too. Even the most awful drivel can contain a pearl.
Today, I feel like this is storytelling itself. When I start a story, sometimes I have an idea of where we're going, and I can take the listener by the hand and lead them down the shadowed paths. But other days, I just start. I don't have any idea where we are heading. I just go, and the listeners go with me. None of us know where we'll end up, but they trust me to open the doors. Sometimes there's a dragon behind the door, sometimes it's nothing. I prefer when there's a dragon; otherwise, it's boring. I fear boring you.
I'm tap dancing around something here. Being a parent is hard. Trying to start a business is hard. Every word of this blog, I am second-guessing myself. I don't think I can write anything anyone else would want to read. It all sounds so self indulgent and silly. And this fear, this deep fear of being boring, of letting you down, dear reader, keeps me from saying anything.
A friend named this for me once: imposter syndrome. It's the fear that someone will figure out that I don't belong in the group, that my credentials are false. My mask will slip, and there will be a scream, "who do you think you are? You don't have any right to be here, let alone to speak!" It's a fear that shakes me to my core. A belief that I am an arrogant fool creeps into my mind when I start to write, whispering, "there is nothing you have to say. You have no views, no ideas, nothing worth sharing."
This is a lie. Somewhere in this post, there is something that will speak to someone. You will feel permission flowing around you to be yourself, because I am daring to be myself. And that makes it worthwhile.
I have this idea, that everything I publish here needs to be about storytelling and about only that side of my life, but when I read others' blogs, it's the ones that include something of the writer's daily life that keep me coming back. "Tell me how to live," I breathe, and perhaps by reading that,I can learn to order my life in such a way that it becomes beautiful.
I crave a beautiful life, one with light and shadow and adventure. People have those things in their lives, but they get stuck in the mundane, in all the stuff that isn't in the stories. I like to read the blogs that tell about the adventures, too, but also about the small details, giving them loving attention so that they can take on meaning and become holy.
Right now, I'm writing in a coffee shop. There's a young man in here who uses crutches and is wearing a Twins jacket. He is short and shuffles as he walks; he hasn't actually used the crutches since he came in. And he is making the counter staff uncomfortable as well as some patrons. He is not following the rules of interaction, and there is something in his manner that makes others want to tell him the rules. I just called him out for taking the sharpie from the pen caddy by the register.
I'll put it back, he said.
Yeah but you have to ask first. It's not yours.
I always put back what I take,he says, talking over me.
It belongs to her,I say, indicating the woman behind the counter. You have to ask.
I'm going to, he says, as if it was his plan all along. I was going to when you said something.
He wasn't, but I say nothing as he goes up to the counter. The woman says no.
This morning, my son woke me at 5:30 after he had a nightmare. It was about dinosaurs, he said, but he didn't offer any details. Sometimes, you just want to make sure someone knows who you are,and loves you. No one got any more sleep after that. I made bacon and coffee and toast. The pets were fed, and we all got dressed. As we rode to school this morning, I pointed out the crystalline hoarfrost on the trees and bushes. Spring is coming, when the air can hold enough moisture to allow those sparkling sugar-white tracings to line the leaves and bare twigs. I am hungry for the spring.
I am trying to uncover the plan for the next phase of my life. Classroom teaching needs to rest for a while. There is something in what I am starting now-- stories and parent work and writing, plus one-on-one tutoring and teaching-- that wants to grow into sustaining work, but it is still tender and new. I am trying to quiet the voice in my head that says, AAAAAGH! FIND A JOB NOW!!! Steady predictable work!!!
It's a voice that really wants to help me, to take care of me, so I try to be kind and gentle with it. But really, I am not sure that is the way to go. I think I can offer something of substance to the world, something needed and longed-for. I just have to figure out what it is, and the only way to do that is to walk forward into the shadowed forest, trusting that I will lead myself to the right doors, and that behind them will be, not a dragon, but my secret dreams.
Sara is a storyteller, writer, artist, teacher, wife, mother, and singer living in Minnesota. I write about storytelling, and about living a life with stories.