How to Tell Stories to Children
Category: Children
Level 4.55 6:23 h
How to Tell Stories to Children is a fascinating work by American writer Sara Cone Bryant. Bryant was a teacher, proponent of women's rights, and author of many children's books. Bryant mixes nonfiction and fiction in the book as she tells stories and provides commentary on them. Read these beautiful children's stories and gain insight from the author on her experiences writing children's stories.

How to Tell Stories to Children

And Some Stories to Tell

Sara Cone Bryant

How to Tell Stories to Children


The stories which are given in the following pages are for the most part those which I have found to be best liked by the children to whom I have told these and others. I have tried to reproduce the form in which I actually tell them, — although that inevitably varies with every repetition, — feeling that it would be of greater value to another story-teller than a more closely literary form.

For the same reason, I have confined my statements of theory as to method, to those which reflect my own experience; my “rules” were drawn from introspection and retrospection, at the urging of others, long after the instinctive method they exemplify had become habitual.

These facts are the basis of my hope that the book may be of use to those who have much to do with children.

It would be impossible, in the space of any pardonable preface, to name the teachers, mothers, and librarians who have given me hints and helps during the past few years of story-telling. But I cannot let these pages go to press without recording my especial indebtedness to the few persons without whose interested aid the little book would scarcely have come to be. They are: Mrs Elizabeth Young Rutan, at whose generous instance I first enlarged my own field of entertaining story-telling to include hers, of educational narrative, and from whom I had many valuable suggestions at that time; Miss Ella L. Sweeney, assistant superintendent of schools, Providence, R.I., to whom I owe exceptional opportunities for investigation and experiment; Mrs Root, children’s librarian of Providence Public Library, and Miss Alice M. Jordan, Boston Public Library, children’s room, to whom I am indebted for much gracious and efficient aid.

My thanks are due also to Mr David Nutt for permission to make use of three stories from English Fairy Tales, by Mr Joseph Jacobs, and Raggylug, from Wild Animals I have Known, by Mr Ernest Thompson Seton; to Messrs Frederick A. Stokes Company for Five Little White Heads, by Walter Learned, and for Bird Thoughts; to Messrs Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. for The Burning of the Ricefields, from Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, by Mr Lafcadio Hearn; to Messrs H.R. Allenson Ltd. for three stories from The Golden Windows, by Miss Laura E. Richards; and to Mr Seumas McManus for Billy Beg and his Bull, from In Chimney Corners.




Not long ago, I chanced to open a magazine at a story of Italian life which dealt with a curious popular custom. It told of the love of the people for the performances of a strangely clad, periodically appearing old man who was a professional story-teller. This old man repeated whole cycles of myth and serials of popular history, holding his audience-chamber in whatever corner of the open court or square he happened upon, and always surrounded by an eager crowd of listeners. So great was the respect in which the story-teller was held, that any interruption was likely to be resented with violence.

As I read of the absorbed silence and the changing expressions of the crowd about the old man, I was suddenly reminded of a company of people I had recently seen. They were gathered in one of the parlours of a women’s college, and their serious young faces had, habitually, none of the childlike responsiveness of the Italian populace; they were suggestive, rather, of a daily experience which precluded over-much surprise or curiosity about anything. In the midst of the group stood a frail-looking woman with bright eyes. She was telling a story, a children’s story, about a good and a bad little mouse.

She had been asked to do that thing, for a purpose, and she did it, therefore. But it was easy to see from the expressions of the listeners how trivial a thing it seemed to them.

That was at first. But presently the room grew quieter; and yet quieter. The faces relaxed into amused smiles, sobered in unconscious sympathy, finally broke in ripples of mirth. The story-teller had come to her own.

The memory of the college girls listening to the mouse-story brought other memories with it. Many a swift composite view of faces passed before my mental vision, faces with the child’s look on them, yet not the faces of children. And of the occasions to which the faces belonged, those were most vivid which were earliest in my experience. For it was those early experiences which first made me realise the modern possibilities of the old, old art of telling stories.

It had become a part of my work, some years ago, to give English lectures on German literature. Many of the members of my class were unable to read in the original the works with which I dealt, and as these were modern works it was rarely possible to obtain translations. For this reason, I gradually formed the habit of telling the story of the drama or novel in question before passing to a detailed consideration of it. I enjoyed this part of the lesson exceedingly, but it was some time before I realised how much the larger part of the lesson it had become to the class. They used — and they were mature women — to wait for the story as if it were a sugarplum and they, children; and to grieve openly if it were omitted. Substitution of reading from a translation was greeted with precisely the same abatement of eagerness that a child shows when he has asked you to tell a story, and you offer, instead, to “read one from the pretty book.” And so general and constant were the tokens of enjoyment that there could ultimately be no doubt of the power which the mere story-telling exerted.

The attitude of the grown-up listeners did but illustrate the general difference between the effect of telling a story and of reading one. Everyone who knows children well has felt the difference. With few exceptions, children listen twice as eagerly to a story told as to one read, and even a “recitation” or a so-called “reading” has not the charm for them that the person wields who can “tell a story.” And there are sound reasons for their preference.

The great difference, including lesser ones, between telling and reading is that the teller is free; the reader is bound. The book in hand, or the wording of it in mind, binds the reader. The story-teller is bound by nothing; he stands or sits, free to watch his audience, free to follow or lead every changing mood, free to use body, eyes, voice, as aids in expression. Even his mind is unbound, because he lets the story come in the words of the moment, being so full of what he has to say. For this reason, a story told is more spontaneous than one read, however well read. And, consequently, the connection with the audience is closer, more electric, than is possible when the book or its wording intervenes.

Beyond this advantage, is the added charm of the personal element in story-telling. When you make a story your own and tell it, the listener gets the story, plus your appreciation of it. It comes to him filtered through your own enjoyment. That is what makes the funny story thrice funnier on the lips of a jolly raconteur than in the pages of a memoir. It is the filter of personality. Everybody has something of the curiosity of the primitive man concerning his neighbour; what another has in his own person felt and done has an especial hold on each one of us. The most cultured of audiences will listen to the personal reminiscences of an explorer with a different tingle of interest from that which it feels for a scientific lecture on the results of the exploration. The longing for the personal in experience is a very human longing. And this instinct or longing is especially strong in children. It finds expression in their delight in tales of what father or mother did when they were little, of what happened to grandmother when she went on a journey, and so on, but it also extends to stories which are not in themselves personal: which take their personal savour merely from the fact that they flow from the lips in spontaneous, homely phrases, with an appreciative gusto which suggests participation.

The greater ease in holding the attention of children is, for teachers, a sufficient practical reason for telling stories rather than reading them. It is incomparably easier to make the necessary exertion of “magnetism,” or whatever it may be called, when nothing else distracts the attention. One’s eyes meet the children’s gaze naturally and constantly; one’s expression responds to and initiates theirs without effort; the connection is immediate. For the ease of the teacher, then, no less than for the joy of the children, may the art of story-telling be urged as pre-eminent over the art of reading.

It is a very old, a very beautiful art. Merely to think of it carries one’s imaginary vision to scenes of glorious and touching antiquity. The tellers of the stories of which Homer’s Iliad was compounded; the transmitters of the legend and history which make up the Gesta Romanorum; the travelling raconteurs whose brief heroic tales are woven into our own national epic; the grannies of age-old tradition whose stories are parts of Celtic folk-lore, of Germanic myth, of Asiatic wonder-tales, — these are but younger brothers and sisters to the generations of story-tellers whose inventions are but vaguely outlined in resultant forms of ancient literatures, and the names of whose tribes are no longer even guessed. There was a time when story-telling was the chiefest of the arts of entertainment; kings and warriors could ask for nothing better; serfs and children were satisfied with nothing less. In all times there have been occasional revivals of this pastime, and in no time has the art died out in the simple human realms of which mothers are queens. But perhaps never, since the really old days, has story-telling so nearly reached a recognised level of dignity as a legitimate and general art of entertainment as now.

Its present popularity seems in a way to be an outgrowth of the recognition of its educational value which was given impetus by the German pedagogues of Froebel’s school. That recognition has, at all events, been a noticeable factor in educational conferences of late. The function of the story is no longer considered solely in the light of its place in the kindergarten; it is being sought in the first, the second, and indeed in every standard where the children are still children. Sometimes the demand for stories is made solely in the interests of literary culture, sometimes in far ampler and vaguer relations, ranging from inculcation of scientific fact to admonition of moral theory; but whatever the reason given, the conclusion is the same: tell the children stories.

The average teacher has yielded to the pressure, at least in theory. Cheerfully, as she has already accepted so many modifications of old methods by “new thought,” she accepts the idea of instilling mental and moral desiderata into the receptive pupil, viâ the charming tale. But, confronted with the concrete problem of what desideratum by which tale, and how, the average teacher sometimes finds her cheerfulness displaced by a sense of inadequacy to the situation.

People who have always told stories to children, who do not know when they began or how they do it; whose heads are stocked with the accretions of years of fairyland-dwelling and nonsense-sharing, — these cannot understand the perplexity of one to whom the gift and the opportunity have not “come natural.” But there are many who can understand it, personally and all too well. To these, the teachers who have not a knack for story-telling, who feel as shy as their own youngest scholar at the thought of it, who do not know where the good stories are, or which ones are easy to tell, it is my earnest hope that the following pages will bring something definite and practical in the way of suggestion and reference.

Chapter I
The Purpose of Story-Telling in School

Let us first consider together the primary matter of the aim in educational story-telling. On our conception of this must depend very largely all decisions as to choice and method; and nothing in the whole field of discussion is more vital than a just and sensible notion of this first point. What shall we attempt to accomplish by stories in the schoolroom? What can we reasonably expect to accomplish? And what, of this, is best accomplished by this means and no other?

These are questions which become the more interesting and practical because the recent access of enthusiasm for stories in education has led many people to claim very wide and very vaguely outlined territory for their possession, and often to lay heaviest stress on their least essential functions. The most important instance of this is the fervour with which many compilers of stories for school use have directed their efforts solely toward illustration of natural phenomena. Geology, zoology, botany, and even physics are taught by means of more or less happily constructed narratives based on the simpler facts of these sciences. Kindergarten teachers are familiar with such narratives: the little stories of chrysalis-breaking, flower-growth, and the like. Now this is a perfectly proper and practicable aim, but it is not a primary one. Others, to which at best this is but secondary, should have first place and receive greatest attention.

What is a story, essentially? Is it a text-book of science, an appendix to the geography, an introduction to the primer of history? Of course it is not. A story is essentially and primarily a work of art, and its chief function must be sought in the line of the uses of art. Just as the drama is capable of secondary uses, yet fails abjectly to realise its purpose when those are substituted for its real significance as a work of art, so does the story lend itself to subsidiary purposes, but claims first and most strongly to be recognised in its real significance as a work of art. Since the drama deals with life in all its parts, it can exemplify sociological theory, it can illustrate economic principle, it can even picture politics; but the drama which does these things only, has no breath of its real life in its being, and dies when the wind of popular tendency veers from its direction. So, you can teach a child interesting facts about bees and butterflies by telling him certain stories, and you can open his eyes to colours and processes in nature by telling certain others; but unless you do something more than that and before that, you are as one who should use the Venus of Milo for a demonstration in anatomy.

The message of the story is the message of beauty, as effective as that message in marble or paint. Its part in the economy of life is to give joy. And the purpose and working of the joy is found in that quickening of the spirit which answers every perception of the truly beautiful in the arts of man. To give joy; in and through the joy to stir and feed the life of the spirit: is not this the legitimate function of the story in education?

Because I believe it to be such, not because I ignore the value of other uses, I venture to push aside all aims which seem secondary to this for later mention under specific heads. Here in the beginning of our consideration I wish to emphasise this element alone. A story is a work of art. Its greatest use to the child is in the everlasting appeal of beauty by which the soul of man is constantly pricked to new hungers, quickened to new perceptions, and so given desire to grow.

The obvious practical bearing of this is that story-telling is first of all an art of entertainment; like the stage, its immediate purpose is the pleasure of the hearer, — his pleasure, not his instruction, first.

Now the story-teller who has given the listening children such pleasure as I mean may or may not have added a fact to the content of their minds; she has inevitably added something to the vital powers of their souls. She has given a wholesome exercise to the emotional muscles of the spirit, has opened up new windows to the imagination, and added some line or colour to the ideal of life and art which is always taking form in the heart of a child. She has, in short, accomplished the one greatest aim of story-telling, — to enlarge and enrich the child’s spiritual experience, and stimulate healthy reaction upon it.

Of course this result cannot be seen and proved as easily and early as can the apprehension of a fact. The most one can hope to recognise is its promise, and this is found in the tokens of that genuine pleasure which is itself the means of accomplishment. It is, then, the signs of right pleasure which the story-teller must look to for her guide, and which it must be her immediate aim to evoke. As for the recognition of the signs, — no one who has ever seen the delight of a real child over a real story can fail to know the signals when given, or flatter himself into belief in them when absent.

Intimately connected with the enjoyment given are two very practically beneficial results which the story-teller may hope to obtain, and at least one of which will be a kind of reward to herself. The first is a relaxation of the tense schoolroom atmosphere, valuable for its refreshing recreative power. The second result, or aim, is not so obvious, but is even more desirable; it is this: story-telling is at once one of the simplest and quickest ways of establishing a happy relation between teacher and children, and one of the most effective methods of forming the habit of fixed attention in the latter.

If you have never seen an indifferent child aroused or a hostile one conquered to affection by a beguiling tale, you can hardly appreciate the truth of the first statement; but nothing is more familiar in the story-teller’s experience. An amusing, but — to me — touching experience recently reaffirmed in my mind this power of the story to establish friendly relations.

My three-year-old niece, who had not seen me since her babyhood, being told that Aunt Sara was coming to visit her, somehow confused the expected guest with a more familiar aunt, my sister. At sight of me, her rush of welcome relapsed into a puzzled and hurt withdrawal, which yielded to no explanations or proffers of affection. All the first day she followed me about at a wistful distance, watching me as if I might at any moment turn into the well-known and beloved relative I ought to have been. Even by undressing time I had not progressed far enough to be allowed intimate approach to small sacred nightgowns and diminutive shirts. The next morning, when I opened the door of the nursery where her maid was brushing her hair, the same dignity radiated from the little round figure perched on its high chair, the same almost hostile shyness gazed at me from the great expressive eyes. Obviously, it was time for something to be done.

Disregarding my lack of invitation, I drew up a stool, and seating myself opposite the small unbending person, began in a conversational murmur: “M — m, I guess those are tingly-tanglies up there in that curl Lottie’s combing; did you ever hear about the tingly-tanglies? They live in little girls’ hair, and they aren’t any bigger than that, and when anybody tries to comb the hair they curl both weeny legs round, so, and hold on tight with both weeny hands, so, and won’t let go!” As I paused, my niece made a queer little sound indicative of query battling with reserve. I pursued the subject: “They like best to live right over a little girl’s ear, or down in her neck, because it is easier to hang on, there; tingly-tanglies are very smart, indeed.”

“What’s ti-ly-ta-lies?” asked a curious, guttural little voice.

I explained the nature and genesis of tingly-tanglies, as revealed to me some decades before by my inventive mother, and proceeded to develop their simple adventures. When next I paused the small guttural voice demanded, “Say more,” and I joyously obeyed.

When the curls were all curled and the last little button buttoned, my baby niece climbed hastily down from her chair, and deliberately up into my lap. With a caress rare to her habit she spoke my name, slowly and tentatively, “An-ty Sai-ry?” Then, in an assured tone, “Anty Sairy, I love you so much I don’t know what to do!” And, presently, tucking a confiding hand in mine to lead me to breakfast, she explained sweetly, “I didn’ know you when you comed las’ night, but now I know you all th’ time!”

“Oh, blessed tale,” thought I, “so easy a passport to a confidence so desired, so complete!” Never had the witchery of the story to the ear of a child come more closely home to me. But the fact of the witchery was no new experience. The surrender of the natural child to the story-teller is as absolute and invariable as that of a devotee to the priest of his own sect.

This power is especially valuable in the case of children whose natural shyness has been augmented by rough environment or by the strangeness of foreign habit. And with such children even more than with others it is also true that the story is a simple and effective means of forming the habit of concentration, of fixed attention; any teacher who deals with this class of children knows the difficulty of doing this fundamental and indispensable thing, and the value of any practical aid in doing it.

More than one instance of the power of story-telling to develop attentiveness comes to my mind, but the most prominent in memory is a rather recent incident, in which the actors were boys and girls far past the child-stage of docility.

I had been asked to tell stories to about sixty boys and girls of a club; the president warned me in her invitation that the children were exceptionally undisciplined, but my previous experiences with similar gatherings led me to interpret her words with a moderation which left me totally unready for the reality. When I faced my audience, I saw a squirming jumble of faces, backs of heads, and the various members of many small bodies, — not a person in the room was paying the slightest attention to me; the president’s introduction could scarcely be said to succeed in interrupting the interchange of social amenities which was in progress, and which looked delusively like a free fight. I came as near stage fright in the first minutes of that occasion as it is comfortable to be, and if it had not been impossible to run away I think I should not have remained. But I began, with as funny a tale as I knew, following the safe plan of not speaking very loudly, and aiming my effort at the nearest children. As I went on, a very few faces held intelligently to mine; the majority answered only fitfully; and not a few of my hearers conversed with their neighbours as if I were non-existent. The sense of bafflement, the futile effort, forced the perspiration to my hands and face — yet something in the faces before me told me that it was no ill-will that fought against me; it was the apathy of minds without the power or habit of concentration, unable to follow a sequence of ideas any distance, and rendered more restless by bodies which were probably uncomfortable, certainly undisciplined.

The first story took ten minutes. When I began a second, a very short one, the initial work had to be done all over again, for the slight comparative quiet I had won had been totally lost in the resulting manifestation of approval.

At the end of the second story, the room was really orderly to the superficial view, but where I stood I could see the small boy who deliberately made a hideous face at me each time my eyes met his, the two girls who talked with their backs turned, the squirms of a figure here and there. It seemed so disheartening a record of failure that I hesitated much to yield to the uproarious request for a third story, but finally I did begin again, on a very long story which for its own sake I wanted them to hear.

This time the little audience settled to attention almost at the opening words. After about five minutes I was suddenly conscious of a sense of ease and relief, a familiar restful feeling in the atmosphere; and then, at last, I knew that my audience was “with me,” that they and I were interacting without obstruction. Absolutely quiet, entirely unconscious of themselves, the boys and girls were responding to every turn of the narrative as easily and readily as any group of story-bred kindergarten children. From then on we had a good time together.

The process which took place in that small audience was a condensed example of what one may expect in habitual story-telling to a group of children. Once having had the attention chained by crude force of interest, the children begin to expect something interesting from the teacher, and to wait for it. And having been led step by step from one grade of a logical sequence to another, their minds — at first beguiled by the fascination of the steps — glide into the habit of following any logical sequence. My club formed its habit, as far as I was concerned, all in one session; the ordinary demands of school procedure lengthen the process, but the result is equally sure. By the end of a week in which the children have listened happily to a story every day, the habit of listening and deducing has been formed, and the expectation of pleasantness is connected with the opening of the teacher’s lips.

These two benefits are well worth the trouble they cost, and for these two, at least, any teacher who tells a story well may confidently look — the quick gaining of a confidential relation with the children, and the gradual development of concentration and interested attention in them.

These are direct and somewhat clearly discernible results, comfortably placed in a near future. There are other aims, reaching on into the far, slow modes of psychological growth, which must equally determine the choice of the story-teller’s material and inform the spirit of her work. These other, less immediately attainable ends, I wish now to consider in relation to the different types of story by which they are severally best served.

First, unbidden claimant of attention, comes

The Fairy Story

No one can think of a child and a story, without thinking of the fairy tale. Is this, as some would have us believe, a bad habit of an ignorant old world? Or can the Fairy Tale justify her popularity with truly edifying and educational results? Is she a proper person to introduce here, and what are her titles to merit?

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