Baz Macdonald has been a children’s storyteller at Vic Books in Wellington for the past three years. He shares some of the reasons why he loves the job, as well as some tips and tricks he has picked up along the way.
I started the Vic Books Story Time in Wellington almost three years ago and every Saturday since have spent an hour reading to kids from around the city. In that time, I have read thousands of stories, meet hundreds of kids and their families and shared countless wonderful experiences.
I’m told that the thought most people have when arriving at my story time is that I don’t fit the traditional mould of a children’s storyteller. I am not an educator, I’m a man, and I am under 60. In fact, the last thing many parents expect is for a storyteller to be a dorky 6 foot 4” tall, bald man, with a big beard. Yet that is what I am.
I think these skewed expectations are one of the reasons that parents like my story time. Personally, I love the thought that I am breaking gender stereotypes for many of these kids. Of course, it is only in one very small part of their lives – but, every little bit helps, right?
Because of my unusual position as a storyteller, I often get asked why I do it. The conversation normally goes something like this:
Them: So, how old are your kids?
Me: Oh, I don’t have kids…
Them: So, you’re a teacher?
Me: Nope, I’m a journalist.
Them: … then, why are you doing this?
The short answer? Because I love it.
More importantly, the kids and their families seem to love it as well. Though it can be hard work, there are few things I find as life-affirming as the reactions of kids as we read stories and look at beautiful illustrations. Why would I not want to have my life affirmed once a week?
The story time sessions started small, with each session only consisting of a few very patient kids – if any families attended at all. But, over time, word spread and now each week the store is close to overflowing.
I think being a storyteller is undeniably a form of performance, and as a performer, there is no better audience than kids. I know that sounds strange, because many would argue that in fact there is no audience worse than kids – but I’d rather perform for children than anyone else
It is actually for many of the reasons that kids are bad audience members that I enjoy performing for them so much. At a moment’s notice they can stand up and walk away, or interject with an insightful comment or off-topic nonsense.
Most kids are not yet ingrained with the cultural expectation of being still and quiet during a performance. This can make reading for them difficult – but it also means that if you have their attention, you have earned it.
If a kid is sitting there, eyes affixed to a story, you know they are enjoying it, otherwise they would be looking for something else to do. There’s no such assurance with adults who might look equally engaged but be thinking about just how bored they are.
Kids are straightforward, and that’s just one of the many reasons why reading stories to them can be such a joy. They’re honest about their reactions too, which makes getting laughs from them or having them whole-heartedely engage with a story so much fun. There’s nothing more joyous than reading them Poo Bum and having the kids chorus along, or hearing them cackle at the hijinks of a Jon Klassen story.
Ultimately, it is the families that make me want to be a storyteller. Over the years I have accrued quite a few regulars, and have got to know the kids and their parents really well. It has been an incredible pleasure and privilege to get to see many of these kids grow up, and watch as they transform from speechless toddlers into shining little personalities.
There is one girl in particular who has come with her older sister every weekend for the past two years. When she started coming, she was just a baby. Over the years, as she began to walk and talk, she would wander into the story time – but she was never a participant. Then one Saturday, without any fanfare, she just sat down beside her sister and now she watches every week.
For me, being a story teller is far from a selfless act – I often get as much enjoyment out of it as the kids do. There are few experiences I have had in my life which have made me laugh as deeply or genuinely as reading to kids, and their reactions and observations of those stories.
In my sessions, I like to find ways of making the books fun and interactive for the kids. The kids never cease to amaze me with the startling and fresh insight they have about the world, or with the breadth and depth of their knowledge – especially around te reo and Māori culture.
There are lots of tips and tricks I have picked up over the years for making stories compelling for kids, but it’s this interactivity is the most powerful. There is a reason kids are often so desperate to tell you things in a situation like story time, and it is because they want to feel involved.
There are great books which are designed to prompt interactivity – books which ask you to look for something on the page, or encourage the kids to chorus along. But with a little effort almost any book can be made into an collaborative experience. The easiest way to do this is to ask factual questions such as ‘what is this animal called?’ or inviting an opinion: ‘Would you want to have that animal as a pet?’
There are even books which use this interactivity to subtly develop aspects of kids’ cognitive abilities. One such book is Who’s Hiding, published locally by Gecko Press in Wellington. In this book, the kids have to find the animals who are hiding on each page, with the colours changing to camouflage different coloured animals. On other pages, it asks you to identify who is crying or who is angry.
From my position inside the book trade, it has been hard to watch the number of people buying books dwindle with every passing year. Yet in the midst of this, there is one group of people who consistently maintain an insatiable enjoyment of books – kids. Even in the age of iPads and Youtube, most young children are still drawn like a moth to a flame to picture books.
So, as someone who loves books, loves performing, and loves how much kids enjoy these two things, storytelling was a perfect fit. I can’t see myself stopping even when I am a doddering old man – at least then, I’ll fit the profile of a story teller a little better.
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