The National Storytelling Network defines storytelling as “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination” (“What is Storytelling?”). In other words, storytelling is not merely the relation of a story by one person to another person. It is an experience shared by the teller and the listener and the definition varies from person to person. Storytelling contains certain essential components, including interactivity and the use of words, gestures, and other nonverbal behaviors to enhance the story. Storytelling must also present a narrative and encourage the imagination of the listener. It can be seen as a traditional telling of a story or any form of communication, using words, images, or digital creations.

Storytelling can be simple entertainment or relationship-building between two people. Different cultures have different definitions of what constitutes a story, so storytelling varies from place to place and culture to culture. Some stories have more social or moral meanings and implications than others. Stories can change and grow with each telling, reflecting parts of each teller, as well as the audience. It means that storytelling is not meant to be a snapshot in time, preserving facts for the future, but is supposed to be fluid, adapting to and being adapted by the teller and the audience. It is not a crime to create your own version of a traditional tale, and if your story conveys the meaning that either you intended or your audience needed to hear, then it was a successful telling. While it is important to preserve the traditional stories for anthropological and historical reasons, the story itself is not sacred.

The Ten Commandments of Storytelling, by Janice Harrington

1) Thou shalt not forget the child is the most important story programming element
2) Thou shalt not forget that after the child, the story is the most important element
3) Thou shalt be literature-based (show the books!)
4) Thou shalt not allow props to hide the story
5) Thou shalt not use props that are old and ugly
6) Thou shalt play
7) Thou shalt include at least one oral story each storytime
8) Thou shalt engage and involve the children
9) Thou shalt engage and involve the parents and/or teachers
10) Thou shalt praise a lot

Teller and Listener

In storytelling, the teller has the freedom to craft an experience based upon the effect he or she wishes to have. As such, storytelling provides a rich opportunity to engage people of all ages. “Storytellers… claim great benefits for children who listen to stories, from the practical expansion of vocabulary to life-altering encounters with the beauty of language and the structure of narrative” (Del Negro). It is common that a teller never tells the same story twice, and that they constantly change the story due to what their audience needs.

The listener’s role during storytelling is to engage his or her imagination within the world that the storyteller is creating. Because storytelling often does not involve visual elements which extend beyond what the teller can do with her own body, the listener must use his imagination to “actively create… the reality… of the story in his or her mind” (“What is Storytelling?”). The listener draws upon his own perceptions, past experiences and understandings to create the story, making the listener a “co-creator of the story as experienced” (“What is Storytelling?”)

Early History of Storytelling in Libraries

(based on article by Bishop and Kimball)
Story telling is an ancient art that has existed in all cultures across the world. The earliest tales were told orally. With printed word and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, large collections of stories were written down to be preserved. The best known of these is the Grimm Brothers' Household Stories. The first systematic use of storytelling with children came in German Kindergartens, which came over to America through immigrants. Part of the German curriculum was storytelling instruction. In the late 19th and 20th century, service to children in public libraries developed. Public librarians used storytelling as a means to get children to become more interested in reading. Also in the early 20th century, librarians and teachers were influenced by professional English storyteller, Marie Shedlock. Over the course of 10 years, she gave lectures and storytelling recitals to teachers and librarians as part of the Carnegie Library Training Class for children’s librarians in Pittsburgh.

Recent Years

In the last couple of decades, storytelling has been recognized as not only a source of entertainment and history, but as a professional tool and art form. People are now performing stories in theaters, on radio, and television. They are even performing in such places as business luncheons, schools, libraries, and religious organizations. It can be seen as entertainment for children during a story time but also as entertainment for adults, or as a way to sell a certain message. "Others are using storytelling as a tool in their various kinds of work--as therapists, teachers, community organizers, lawyers, health-care workers, sales personnel, public speakers, business managers" (Lipman).

Events based on storytelling are becoming more popular as time goes on. The National Storytelling Network has been hosting a National Storytelling Festival every year since 1973. Which brings many professional and amateur storytellers together to perform, share ideas and have fun through storytelling. Many smaller storytelling festivals also exist and are usually hosted by local Storytelling groups. Many states have state wide storytelling groups and there are also local groups depending on the city you live in. There also is a National Storytelling Week where storytelling in schools and libraries is promoted. The National Storytelling Network also hosts the Tellabration which is the Saturday before Thanksgiving and world wide storytelling is celebrated all night. As storytelling is become more popular again there is a growing trend on having conferences and lectures on the art of telling stories. (Vohs, 19).

Benefits of Storytelling in the Classroom

Storytelling has so much to offer. Children have an inborn love of stories. For them stories create magic and a sense of wonder at the world. Stories can teach us about life, about others, and about ourselves. Storytelling is a distinctive way for students to develop an understanding, respect, and appreciation for other cultures. It can also promote a positive attitude to people from different lands, races, and religions. These are important things to teach our children. In the changing national environment, tolerance isn’t just a good trait to possess; it is a necessity.

Storytelling can be the ideal way to boost intercultural understanding. It allows children to explore their own cultural roots, experience diverse cultures, and it enables them to empathize with unfamiliar people, places, and situations. Storytelling also helps children consider new ideas, understand how wisdom is common to all people and cultures, and it reveals differences and commonalities of cultures around the world. Stories can also offer insights into different traditions, values, and universal life experiences.

By using storytelling in the classroom you can encourage a feeling of security and relaxation, improve children’s willingness to communicate thoughts and feelings, and increase verbal proficiency. In addition, using stories promotes active participation, use of imagination and creativity, cooperation between students, and listening skills.

Storytelling and Learning

Studies done by cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists show that humans use the architecture of storytelling to understand, make sense of, and remember the world around us. (Haven) This makes storytelling a powerful vehicle in the classroom. Stories can be used in any subject and all age levels (including adults), and they can be especially helpful for reading skills and vocabulary. (Pallocino) Understanding the structure of a story can enhance reading comprehension. Storytelling can also be done by the teacher or by the students themselves. Motivation is also increased through the use of storytelling in the classroom, partially because storytelling adds context and relevance to materials being taught in a curriculum.

Performance Techniques

  • There are several things to remember when preparing to tell a story.
  • It is good to change up the volume, tempo, and pitch of your voice.
  • Make sure to let your body speak by using your face, body, and gestures. Also, make sure your body and face respond to the tale.
  • It is important to have a clear focus and maintain concentration so that you minimize chance for error.
  • Keeping eye contact with the audience and individual listeners is a great way to keep them involved and make them feel like a part of your story.
  • If there are different characters or talking animals in your story, you should consider using different character voices. This can really liven up a story and make it that much more compelling.
  • You want to make sure the audience believes in you as a storyteller. Make sure you build trust.
  • Before you tell a story inspect your space. That way you can use the space to your advantage and be dynamic.
  • Remember to pace yourself. You don’t want to go too fast or too slow in the wrong parts. Timing and pace can make all the difference when you are telling a story. For example, if you are telling a creepy part of the story you may want to slow down to build suspense.
  • Make sure your audience is comfortable in the storytelling area, depending on weather and number of people the thermostat might need to be adjusted or more chairs added to the area.
  • Keep an eye on the audience when telling the story as you might need to adjust parts while telling.
  • Make sure that there are no strange pauses or breaks while telling the story as this can be a distraction.
  • Sometimes a pause in telling a story is very useful and can be a great dramatic build.
  • Keep breathing at a normal pace unless the story requires something different this will help you and your audience feel more relaxed.
  • Don't memorize word for word, put your personal touch on the story.
  • Have fun and enjoy telling your stories

Storytelling Etiquette

  • If a story is copyrighted, you must have written permission from the author to retell it. The story also enters public domain after the author has been dead for 75 years. It is also unethical to tell another person's personal or family stories without their specific permission.
  • Every teller deserves respect, specifically when the story is being told.
  • Folklore and folktales are owned by the people. You have the right to retell the stories, but it must be in your own words and be your personal interpretation of the story.
  • Storytelling is a community project and it is important to pass along stories, tips and respect throughout a storytelling community.
(adapted from Griffin, Loya, MacLees, Schimmel, Geisler, and Zundell).

Storytelling Etiquette: Citing the Source

When re-telling a story, one way to help respect copyright, cultural tradition, personal tradition, and the origins of the story is to include source notes. A source note is a brief statement stating to the best of the teller’s knowledge where a particular story was created. Source notes help the oral tradition of stories retain its consistency through multiple tellings of the story. To include written source notes when retelling, it is important to include the following:
  • Formal citation of the story
  • Any versions of the tale shaped your telling
  • Origins of the story
  • Cultural background of the story
  • How the story was changed in an individual telling.
If the story is only told verbally, mentioning where the source of the story came from can be told before or after a story’s telling. The practice of using source notes “sets the story into a framework that is part of the story, giving listeners a context for the story world.” (Hearne, Cite the Source.)

Many times, stories that can be used for retelling can be found in books. If the story in the book is not the author’s original creation, the book may contain source notes. A good source note in text cites specific sources, adds a description for cultural context, and describes what the author has done to change the story. (Hearne) If the book does not contain a source note and is based on a folktale, then research should be done to find the earliest printed source. The good news is that there are references which contain research of the classification and origin of many folktales such as shown below:

  • The Storyteller’s Sourcebook, Margaret Read MacDonald.
  • Index to Fairy Tales, Mary Eastman/Norma Ireland. An index to collections.
  • Annotated Bibliography and Index to Single Editions, Elsie Ziegler. An index to picture books.
  • The Types of the Folktale, Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson.
  • The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Stith Thompson.
(list from article by Shepard)

Storytelling and Copyright

Stories can be protected by copyright. Copyright is rights protected by U.S. law for the creator of any intellectual material. The five rights given to the creator of the work are as follows.
  • the right to reproduce the copyrighted work;
  • the right to display the copyrighted work publicly
  • the right to distribute copies of the work to the public
  • the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  • the right to prepare derivative works based upon the work

The last two rights of the copyright law can affect storytellers when telling tales in public with the exception of when they are being done for educational purposes. (Haven and Ducey 101). When done in an educational setting, the storytelling can fall under the Fair Use clause of the copyright law. Fair Use “allows that copyright can be infringed because strict application of the law impedes the production and dissemination of works to the public.” (ALA Fair Use) In most cases, librarians both in public libraries and schools can tell stories that are under copyright, because this falls under the Fair Use portion of the law. It should never be assumed that all use of a copyrighted work is Fair Use. If the creator feels that their rights are infringed, a court of law would dictate Fair Use on a case by case basis. (Haven and Ducey)

One rule of thumb for story tellers is that if you can find three versions of the same story, you are clear to use the story for storytelling. (Haven and Ducey 101) If you tell folktales, fairy tales, traditional tales, mythos, or legends, copyright law does not affect you. To tell of a copyrighted story in public beyond a library or classroom setting, performance rights are needed from the copyright holder. Often times when these rights are granted, publishers and agents will instruct the storyteller that they cannot change any words when telling the story from the original source. (Birch) To better understand if the story you are telling falls under Fair Use, the ALA provides worksheets from Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis’s Copyright Management Center with additional information: However, best practice in this case would dictate to tell stories from the public domain and request permission when telling stories outside of this realm.

Storytelling Etiquette: Respecting Cultural Origin of Folktales

When storytellers are telling tales outside of their own culture, it is especially important that tellers research the cultural context of the story and traditions of that culture. Understanding the cultural context of folktales and stories can be crucial to maintaining credibility as a storyteller and prevent misunderstandings by the audience. This does not mean that a storyteller cannot tell a story of another culture, but they should do so with research and respect. Some things to consider when choosing a story from a different culture are “character development, cultural sensitivity to place, attitudes, perceptions, prejudice reduction, authority, authorship, and language. “ (Lenox 99) These guidelines can also be used when selecting a book from another culture to use for retelling a story. Storytellers should also make sure when research the story that they know if the story can be told year round or only during certain times and also if there are certain custom that must be followed when telling the story. As some cultures believe that these cultural stories are true and not following these traditions can lead to trouble for their people.

Storytelling Extras:

The following are elements that can be added to storytelling with tips for their usage: (adapted from Haven and Ducey)

Flannel Boards: Most often used for children under six, this flannel covered board can hold felt characters and be a visual aid in storytelling. Characters can be bought as a set or handmade.
  • Pros:
    • Good way for listeners to connect words with images
    • Can make an old story new again
    • Young listeners may follow the story more closely.
  • Cons
    • Pieces fall off
    • Kids watch the flannel board and not you

Props: Objects used in the telling of the story. This can include drawings, folk objects, paper folding.
  • Pros:
    • Can provide cultural exposure
    • Provides a visual cue for something not easily explained
    • Can be more interactive with the audience
  • Cons
    • May detract from the story
    • Props can stop listeners and pull listeners out of the story.

Costumes: Clothing that sets a character, period of time, or mood for a story.
  • Pros:
    • Can teach about a period of time
    • Set the mood for presentation
  • Cons:
    • You are stuck and can’t change in character, mood, or time.

Puppets: Puppets can include hand puppets, marionettes, dolls, and finger puppets. Puppets are used as actors in the story or interaction for the storyteller.
  • Pros:
    • Puppets can be real for young listeners
    • You can reveal another side of yourself
  • Cons:
    • Puppets always upstage the teller
    • You lose one of your hands
    • Puppets can scare some children because they can be real for young listeners.

Audience Participation: The audience contributes to the story. These responses include “chants, repeated phrases, songs, gestures, movements, guesses, and opinions.
  • Pros:
    • Engages audience
    • Vocal participation may help retention of the story.
  • Cons:
    • Traffic management-how will you signal the participation
    • You lose the silence sometimes needed to compel the listener into the story.
    • Certain audiences might get very excited and control over the audience is lost.

Cast of Thousands Stories: Stories in which members of the audience are used to help tell the story.
  • Pros:
    • Creates the opportunity for spontaneous story making
    • Works well in a large crowd
  • Cons:
    • Children’s feelings can be hurt if they are not chosen.
    • Traffic management can be difficult.
    • It is sometimes difficult to control the environment.

Music: Background music can be used for specific characters, over all background music, in call and response, or as a form of storytelling.
  • Pros:
    • Music can set a tone, provide audience participation, and add structure to a story.
  • Cons
    • Music can take listeners out of a story and into the present.

How to make a Story Tellable by Ellin Greene:

(adapted from Sturm, who included it in his article)
  • Have a clear defined theme.
  • Make sure the plot is well developed and can be understood
  • When telling the story make sure you uses vocabulary that makes vivid word pictures, understandable sounds and rhythms.
  • Characters need to be at least somewhat believable.
  • Stay true to the original source material
  • Use dramatic touches but do not over do it.
  • Make sure the story fits the audience.

Digital Storytelling

Please see the digital storytelling page for information on Digital Storytelling.

Resources for Storytellers
  • The American Folklore Society aims to provide a means of connection between folklorists and the world. The website contains a folklore wiki and a list of publications related to the art of folklore. The website also contains information about membership in the AFS.
  • Open Folklore is the product of a collaboration between the American Folklore Society and Indiana University Bloomington. Open Folklore aims to increase access to folklore, something which is troubling because of the ephemeral nature of oral storytelling.
  • The website of Karen Chace, professional storyteller, is full of resources for aspiring storytellers, educators and children.
  • The website of the National Storytelling Network contains calendars of storytelling events, regional spotlights, resources for storytellers, grant programs and a link to a storytelling listserv. The goal of the NSN is to promote the art of storytelling by facilitating communication between storytellers. They also have a "Find a Storyteller" feature that gives information on Professional Storytellers in the United States.
  • The website of storyteller Mary Grace Kefner which contains insight and quotes about the art of storytelling. It also includes ideas for workshops and programs.
  • Personal website of Storyteller Aaron Shepard who offers tips, resources, and a huge collection of stories that are ideal for storytelling. He also gives step by step instructions on his favorite way to pick, learn, and tell stories.

Resources for Finding Stories
  • The website of American Folklore, which contains a listing of American folktales indexed by title, state, region, characters, historical or ethnic nature, weather-lore or tall tale.
  • A site that features stories to be told to scout troops and around the campfire. It includes guides on how to tell a story.
  • A folklore- extensive online dictionary providing short definitions or descriptions of creatures and places of myth or folklore legend from all cultures. In addition to stories there are detailed images to go with everything.
  • Project Gutenberg is advertised as“the Internet's oldest producer of free electronic books,” and allows searching for texts and is a resource for finding and then downloading folk/fairy tales online.
  • Folklinks is a comprehensive listing of folk and fairy tale sites, along with other resources for storytelling.
  • Myth*ing Links features links to hundreds of mythologies, fairytales and folklore along with explanations of sacred arts and traditions with storytelling.
  • Rick Walton's Online Library contains about 1,000 classic tales and fables, compiled by a successful author of children's books.
  • A collection of classics, formatted one page per file, which allows for fast loading, but limits utility in other ways. An anthology of unattributed fairy tales is included under the author identified as "Unknown."
  • ClassicReader contains books and short stories by more than 200 authors. The children's section includes numerous collections of traditional fairy tales, and the short-story section contains many literary fairy tales.
  • The Rosetta Project has a large collection of illustrated children's books, mostly from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The books are reproduced as single-page, full-color image files, resulting in accurate and appealing replicas of the originals. An added attraction are the text-file translations of many of the stories into various languages.
  • The Baldwin Online Children's Literature Project is collection that features yesterdays classics for today's children. It currently lists nearly 2,000 stories, many of them folk and fairy tales.


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