a year I put on my storyteller's hat and fly to Columbus, Ohio, for the
State University Children's Literature Conference where I organize
a storytelling festival that has been part of the conference for about
fifteen years. Often, especially when not too many folks volunteer to tell,
I get to tell (and sing) stories myself.
I don't do much storytelling any more. I used to be a frequent teller at schools and libraries all over the country. I have given workshops and performed at conferences for teachers and librarians for over twenty years. But not lately. It's not that I don't enjoy it. Standing or sitting in front of an audience of kids or adults with some good stories to tell is still a treat for me. It's just that since we moved to Colorado, I've spent my time doing other things.
However, once a year I go to Columbus where I'm a storyteller.
This year, I decided I'd go a few days early and see some old friends in Toledo. Judy and I lived there for 23 years before moving west. I began teaching at the University of Toledo in 1969, the same year Jack Ahern began his academic career at UT. I stayed with Jack and his wife, Anne (on the right), while I was in Toledo. They hosted a lovely dinner party while I was there and invited several friends to share an evening of stories and reminiscing. Several former students of mine came, all of whom are teaching or are school administrators. The three women in the photo on the left are former graduate assistants who worked with me for several years: Melissa Cain now teaches at Findlay University; Libby Hostetler is an elementary school principal in Lima after many years at Bluffton College and establishing The Lion and the Lamb Peace Arts Center; and Kathy Brassell continues to teach 6th grade in Rossford (all Ohio towns). Another former student, Dick Sanders, who teaches 4th grade in Northwood (see below), was also able to come that evening. It was a lovely evening and I thank Jack and Anne for going to the effort, especially Jack who prepared the dinner and set up their "Great Room" overlooking the Maumee River. Since Anne's still working as an elementary school principal and Jack's retired from UT, he says he now does "all the cooking and housework!"
Dick Sanders invited me to his class at Olney Elementary School in Northwood to tell stories. (That's Dick way in the back down low with the glasses on). They were a terrific group: polite, outgoing, and very interested in the stories, especially the one about the time Dick and I were poking through the Highland Mary Mine up on the side of Cunningham Gulch outside Silverton, Colorado, back in the early 70s when Dick came out to help me build our mountain cabin. We were walking carefully into the mine tunnel when we heard a very strange noise, smelled something really rotten, and discovered the wall at the end of the mine was on fire!! Of course, I brought to Dick's class a sample of what was--and still may be--on fire. Dick now has what's left of the rock that burns so he can tell the story to other groups. I got some nice thank you notes from the class, including some that included new verses to the song "The Cat Came Back." Like most kids, they liked scary stories, the scarier the better, so I told them about our neighbor, the Brady kid, who found something surprising in the ground (and ate it for dinner!); and I told them an urban legend that my wife had brought home from the emergency room at Riverside Hospital in Toledo when she worked there years ago.
The next day I spent some time with Kathy Brassell's 6th graders at Glenwood School in Rossford. (You've probably already picked out Kathy on the right.) They were studying pre-Columbian cultures, especially the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas. Judy and I have done some traveling to the Yucatan and visited several Mayan sites (especially Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza), and we're planning a trip to Belize this spring where we'll explore Caracol and maybe Tikal in Guatemala. I talked with the kids about what they would be likely to find when they visit those areas themselves, and I shared what little I know about the Mayas both then and now. If I come back next year, I hope to be able to share with her class what Judy and I hope to learn about the Incas from our trip next year to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I'll remember to bring pictures (or post them on our web site). Kathy's class was also a terrific group: polite and curious and very responsive. Whoever says kids this age are difficult has never met teachers like Kathy and Dick who are smart, creative, caring, fair, have a great sense of humor, and--as a couple of the kids told me--tough. It's the formula for good learning.
"Children's Literature 2000" was held at the Greater Columbus Convention Center from February 10-12. As usual, it featured over a dozen outstanding writers, illustrators, and editors of books for young people. You can get an idea of what the conference this year was like by looking online at the 1999 conference program. This year there was also another storyteller presenting: Rick Sowash from Cincinnati was thoroughly enjoyable! He shared a lot of "tricks of the trade" and told some great stories set in Ohio. He's written "Ripsnorting Whoppers: Humor from America's Heartland" and "23 True Tales of Courage and Character," both collections set in Ohio. In addition, he's an accomplished composer of over 80 choral pieces and has written scores of classical compositions for ensembles and solo instruments. And if that weren't enough, he's been a "politician, theatre manager, radio broadcaster, and innkeeper."
Rick (seated in the far right in white shirt and dark vest) was also among the audience who listened to the storytellers who performed at the Storytelling Festival Friday afternoon. It was a good sized group who enjoyed the efforts of all who participated. For some of the tellers (all seated in the front row on the left), it was the first time they had ever performed in front of a group; others were old hands and volunteered to tell for the sheer pleasure of telling to an appreciative audience. I got such terrific responses to telling/singing "The Frozen Logger" (and in the process explaining how folks in the Arctic make their polar bear skin mackinaws with the fur on the inside) and telling the story of Gimple and Pope Gregory III that I'm hoping to return again next year. I'll go, if invited.
If you're interested in more information about storytelling--festivals, workshops, performers, and local organizations--check out Storynet, produced by the National Storytelling Association. The best place online to learn more about books for young people--awards, writers, illustrators, and much, much more--is from Ernie Bond.
Thank you, Eva, Gary, Laurie, Bill, Herb, Marj, Amy, Jazen, and everyone with whom I visited. You made my trip to Ohio a real joy.