Share this Post
Evan Turk’s stunning picture book, The Storyteller, tells the story of a young boy who uses the power of oral storytelling to inspire his neighbors and save his city from an impending sand storm. It takes place in Morocco and imparts that miracles can happen through the power of oral storytelling alone. How can we bring such miracles even closer to home? Make oral storytelling a part of your child’s bed time routine. Here’s why.
My grandparents met when they were only kids, living in the Chicago suburbs in the early 1930s. My grandmother was solicited by my great uncle to teach his younger brother, my grandfather, how to dance. They met at their first dance lesson, they fell in love, and the rest (as they say) is history. Shortly thereafter my grandfather broke barriers when he went to college—he was the first ever Jewish boy to receive a basketball scholarship to DePaul University. Bulldog, they called him, for his stellar moves on the court. His iconic basketball photograph, knees bent, ball gripped between two clenched hands, still hangs in my nephew’s room today. He was a brave, moral man who always stood up for the underdog and championed those values he held dear. When my grandfather eventually went off to fight in the war, he was put in charge of a camp for prisoners of war. What did he do? He fashioned a basketball court for the men at the camp so they would have a way to entertain themselves. Humanity, he said. Even when the world was seeing its darkest days, even when we disagreed on the very fundamentals of our rights as human beings, he thought it critical to treat each other with kindness and respect.
My husband’s family stories bore a remarkably different tone. They were survivors. Holocaust survivors. His paternal grandfather was a Czechoslovakian Jew. He was one of four brothers, all of whom were sent to concentration camps. His paternal grandmother and her sister were also sent to the camps. Auschwitz. Birkenau. Bergen Belsen. By some miracle, they all survived, yet the rest of their families did not. His grandparents, only teenagers after the war, ended up at an orphanage in London, and they eventually married and came to America. Several of them settled in Cleveland but were otherwise alone, searching, hoping, and persevering. Their’s was a story of endurance. Determination. Ingenuity.
The values conveyed by these stories are ones we all hope to instill in our children, and we do our best to impart these messages by modeling particular behaviors and reading books to our kids that communicate these principles. We all know that reading aloud to children is not just beneficial but critically important to their emotional and intellectual development. But oral storytelling—sharing our family stories from generation to generation—is just as significant. These stories are taken straight from the pages of our very own ancestry. They are chapters of our collective history that, when shared with our children, become woven into the intricate fabric of their lives.
There’s something to cherish about this history.
Though our stories may not be as whimsically illustrated as modern picture books or as beautifully told as literature’s greatest classics, they are no less important and certainly no less timeless. Because these stories—these stories that are the very essence of who we are and where we came from—wrap us in their folds and whisper wisdom in our ears when we don’t even realize we are listening. We may not be able to pull them off the shelf of a local bookstore, but these stories tell us where we have been and help us determine where we may go down the road. As kids, we gleaned the messages from our family history to navigate our childhood and young adulthood. As adults, we return to these stories not just for guidance, but for comfort and solace too.
So why oral story telling when the same values can be taught through great books? It connects us to our past and helps shape our futures—there is nothing like a personal connection to inspire our children and teach them that the impossible truly is possible. And there is nothing more incredible than having your kids realize that the heroes from their beloved stories are none other their very own ancestors. So the next time you snuggle your kids into bed, try it. Forgo a picture book for one night, hug your little one close, and tell her that story of when her great-great-grandmother single-handedly saved Shabbat in her shtetl by scraping together enough ingredients when food was scarce to make a challah for dinner. You never know what ideas—or what miracles—it may spark in your child.
Check out our ALL THE WONDERS of The Storyteller post for more on this beautiful tale, including an exploration of how author-illustrator Evan Turk began his storytelling journey, a survey of programs around the world working to preserve the traditions of storytelling, and a craft that will help you tell your own stories for years to come.