Category Archives: Storytelling

Why the Cow Jumped over the Moon?

Poet, copywriter and eater of cake, Dom Conlon has written a story for me to tell to children and families in libraries as part of the Summer Reading Challenge Space Chase. You can read it here…

If you believe (they put a man on the Moon) is a storytelling of a trio of tales including Jonathan Emmett’s Bringing Down the Moon, Simon James’ Boy from Mars and this story by Dom and is touring libraries in the North West, East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East, London and the South East this July and August. For dates see my event calendar.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller working in schools and libraries as well as at festivals and events. For more information or to make a booking please complete the contact form.

Writing stories for an English Country Garden

At the beginning of June I was invited to tell stories at The Dorothy Clive Garden in Staffordshire.  I work regularly all over the country as a storyteller and whilst I have done outdoor storytelling in parks, playgrounds, gardens and woodland for festivals, fetes, birthday parties and events the majority of my storytelling work is in school halls, classrooms and libraries.   A lot of my contemporaries run very exciting storytelling sessions in outdoor spaces across the country and whilst there are challenges to telling stories outside when I receive invitations to work in the great outdoors I get romantic notions about audiences eating their picnics under shady trees as I tell tales surrounded by butterflies dancing on borders of summer time flowers and I find it hard to say no.  The other thing that appealed to me about the booking was that for this storytelling I would have to write my own set.

In the ten years that I have been working professionally as a storyteller my work has been a mix of adaptations of well-known tales or published works (Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong et al), folk and traditional tales.  It can be very difficult to get the necessary interest in less popular or less familiar stories to work them up into sessions so to get an opportunity to expand my repertoire and challenge myself to create bespoke materials is a big deal.  In the past friends have suggested that I write stories but I am really a storyteller and not an author; in my view we live in a golden age of writing for children and my clients prefer my marquee projects to be written by more established names.  It’s far from easy to write for a young audience; it takes time and patience, which with a hectic work schedule and a toddler are things I really don’t have.  Saying this a deadline is a wonderful incentive and once I got started I found that there was no shortage of material; there are simply thousands of invertebrates to choose from and as I wasn’t necessarily restricted by scientific accuracy my imagination could wander within a world of creepy crawlies bugs and beetles.

Below is the set that I have come up with; in each instance my beginning point was to think about the characteristics of an insect and then think of a story that insect might suit.

The Bee who wouldn’t share – as I searched the internet for inspiration I discovered a Brazilian folktale which when told in combination with one of Aesop’s tales helped me create a story about a hardworking Bee who when robbed complains to the great Magician for assistance. 

The Brave Little Butterfly – this story was inspired by Beauty and the Beast and Hans Cristian Andersen.  As a splendid butterfly sets out across the meadow to find love he soon learns that beauty is about more than appearance.

How the Worm lost his clothes – in a recent addition of Storytime Magazine I came across a Serbian version of a Greek tale similar to The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Here I use it as the basis for explaining the relationship between the Worm and the Song Thrush.

The Toad and the Centipede – I love Devil Tales in which Beelzebub is proved to be foolish.  Here I draw inspiration from a Welsh Devil Tale as a clever Ladybird outwits a Toad who has caught a Centipede.

When supplemented with a classic Anansi story this set lasts 30-45 minutes.

My visit to The Dorothy Clive Garden was very well received.  Rather than being the idyllic weather day this storyteller had day dreamed about it was quite blustery but as I was working in a covered area of the garden the rain didn’t bother me at all and the vivid colour of the Rhododendron blooms were all the more striking.  As well as my stories I took along a bag full of fabrics and instruments which we were able to use to create the various birds, animals and insects in the stories and the children were very positive about the session.  All in all it was a very encouraging day.

I will be reprising this storytelling set on a couple more occasions this summer at outdoor venues a little closer to my base in Sussex.  They are as follows:

Saturday 22nd June 2019 – Cromer’s Wood, Sittingbourne, Kent (with Kent Wildlife Trust)

Monday 19th August 2019 – Borde Hill Garden, Haywards Heath, West Sussex

So if you spot a storyteller telling tales in an English Country Garden this summer why not stop, share your picnic and listen to a tale?  I can’t think of a more blissful way to pass the time.

To find out where you can see John telling stories this summer you can view his calendar or to make an enquiry or booking use the contact form.

“You are brilliant at what you do”

“I just wanted to say a huge thank you for yesterday! The children thoroughly enjoyed it and have already asked me to read the Twits to them! It was great to see how passionate and engaging you were with the children. You are brilliant at what you do”.

[Teacher, Derby, May 2019]

You can imagine how I felt when I read this; storytellers will tell you that it’s exactly this sort of comment which helps you get out of bed in the morning.  It also got me thinking (not for the first time) about what John Kirk the storyteller does.  I often say with absolute confidence that I am one of the best in the country at what I do but then that’s because storyteller can be a catch-all term; we may be tagged the same way but we all have our different ways of doing things.  Here’s a little more about mine…

I introduce children to new stories.

My storytelling work has taken me the length and breadth of the country.  Sometimes I tell stories the children have an awareness of already; Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile are always popular and when I tell The Gingerbread Man and The Three Little Pigs it can be hard to tell who is the storyteller as some children will say the words before I do!  I am also a storyteller of less well known tales; traditional tales from other parts of the world which I have adapted for school audiences which not only demonstrate the best and worst of people but shine a light on a way of life.

I get children excited about stories.

I have a theatrical background and therefore my style as a storyteller is to use my body and voices to make my stories more dynamic.  I use small props, hats and wigs to enhance the storytelling experience and my use of water pistols and audience participation combined with a high energy delivery can leave young audiences positively buzzing.

I encourage listening and participation.

I am a versatile storyteller and some of the stories can be quite dark or serious.  I have told Nigel Auchterlounie’s Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief but I have also told Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful.  Some of my stories are very short but my longest sessions can go on for 75 minutes particularly if the children are into what we are doing.  The storyteller’s skill is choosing great published material (Roald Dahl, Jeremy Strong) which will hold a child’s attention or curating a session of stories with an audience in mind (a very young child will tolerate a serious story if it is in a trio of tales with something very physical or very silly).

I boost confidence and attainment.

I rarely tell stories on my own and often invite the children to become storytellers and volunteer in my sessions.  Whilst this could be holding up a piece of paper, wearing a silly wig or getting sprayed with a water pistol it is an opportunity for them to be in front of an audience in a safe, fun environment where I can support them to participate positively in the storytelling experience.  In schools I rarely choose my own volunteers.  Teachers often pick children to participate who will take something from being involved – maybe they’re the quiet ones or the hard to engage ones or maybe they are the ones who struggle in conventional lessons – whatever the reasoning I try to make it positive, memorable and fun. 

I inspire children to read and to create their own stories.

At the end of a session or when I read through feedback on a day of storytelling, it is not unusual for a teacher to say or write something like “that child wouldn’t normally do that” or “they have done some brilliant writing since meeting you” or for a child to say “can you come again tomorrow?”.  I enjoy storytelling but this sort of comment is very satisfying.

School children regularly ask me what inspires me to be a storyteller.  My answer is quite simple; as a storyteller there is nothing more inspiring than seeing the faces of the audience, watching them participate and hearing the chatter after a successful session.  It’s flattering to think that I can be brilliant at what I do but if I am consistently achieving excellence it’s because my audiences are brilliant too.

John Kirk is a storyteller who works in primary schools, libraries and museums and at literature festivals and events.  To make a booking complete the contact form.

Getting resourceful…

When I did my round up of my mad March I said that I’d write in more detail about my experience working in St Albans and about using open resources in telling stories.

A few years ago I worked at a Primary School in Hemel Hempstead.  I’ll be honest and say that I could only vaguely remember the school but I did remember the teacher who booked me and fortunately they remembered me when they changed jobs.  So it was that I was invited to work with an EYFS/foundation group not far from St Albans but this wouldn’t be a routine booking.  I was given the brief that I could only use open resources to tell the stories.

My immediate question was what is an open resource?  Well, an open resource is something that could be used for anything.  There is a popular drama game in which an object is passed around the circle and the participants explain its function.  The only thing it can’t be is what it actually is.  There are some objects that this is pretty difficult to do this with but there are others that allow the participant to use their imaginations; an empty plastic bottle can easily be imagined to be a telephone, a magnifying glass or a pneumatic drill, its far trickier to do this with a branded toy like a remote control car (although the remote control would probably be a lot of fun!).  Before arriving I was given a list of stories and a photograph of piles of coloured fabric, egg boxes, colanders, pine cones and lollipop sticks.

As a storyteller I am used to using my imagination to turn an object into something else for the benefit of the audience.  When I tell folk tales I often use gloves to represent birds and fabric to represent mountains, the sea or even blood.  In Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Enormous Crocodile a walking stick becomes a rifle and oven gloves become crocodiles and coconut trees.  When I told Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog I used a dog lead as a tongue, a steering wheel, a rope and well, a dog lead.  Sometimes these ideas come about because I am on a budget, sometimes its because I’m looking for ways to encourage participation and sometimes because I want to encourage repetition – teachers often tell me that their children have demonstrated the ideas they have seen in a story at their playtimes.  In every case the simplest idea is often the best.

So it was that I visited a nursery without any props or costumes.  I introduced myself and my work before immediately apologising to the children for “forgetting” my work bag.  I asked if they could help me tell the stories using the resources provided by the setting.  Then working in a side room with a small group at a time the children were given a few moments to explore the resources before we told The Billy Goats Gruff and The Three Little Pigs.  I started each story the same way, by using some of the resources to build a map.  Just to make my task slightly more risky I invited the children to decide on the use of certain resources – Can you choose something to show a river?  Can you make a rickety rackety bridge? – we used pine cones and lollipop sticks and some rudimentary puppetry ideas to create the billy goats and yoghurt pots to create the pigs.  Working on the fly was very liberating and it was wonderful to incorporate the children’s ideas about things like the appearance of the troll into the storytelling.  The whole experience may have been low budget but it was a huge amount of fun.  Here is the feedback from the nursery:

Having seen your work before, I knew that you were a great storyteller, however, it is always a little worrying when you recommend someone to a new school. I need not have worried because you blew both children and staff away with your stories and wonderful energy and enthusiasm. You were able to engage all the children and included them all, even those that were hesitant at first. 

You were not at all phased when I asked you to tell the stories in a different way, using open ended resources (junk) and in fact, embraced the new challenge enthusiastically. You delivered a session, specifically tailored to the needs of our children and they responded beautifully. I loved the way that you gave them the freedom to choose their own resources and add their own ideas, this built their confidence and this was reflected in their own storytelling play after the session. 

Many parents have also approached me and told me that the children could not stop talking about you at home, so, I am sure, that the children would love to work with you again too.

Over the years I have received feedback suggesting I use more hats, more props and more costumes despite the fact I have packed an entire wardrobe into my session (I used to use a rubber glove tied to an alice band in Jack and the Beanstalk; recently used 35 hats to tell The Enormous Turnip!).  Some settings have cupboards full of story bags, dressing up rails and hand puppet sets for their children to tell stories.  Whilst this is brilliant and I appreciate that younger audiences require more resources I also wonder if in enhancing a child’s play with accessories we are sometimes overly prescriptive about how to play and may inadvertently be stifling some children’s imaginations and ability to create.  As I led these sessions I could see that the children got a lot from the experience of stripping things back and I hope to be able to offer similar sessions in the future.

Making secret plans and clever tricks a reality – my week with the Roald Dahl Company

Back in September 2018 I was invited to the central London offices of The Roald Dahl Company to discuss my work with “The Twits”.  Then, after seeing me in action, the company agreed that they would permit me to tell Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile”.

“The Enormous Crocodile” is a brilliantly brutal story which is perhaps pitched toward a slightly younger age group than “The Twits”.  It’s all about a greedy crocodile who decides to leave the big, brown, muddy river hoping to find fat, juicy little children to eat.  As he heads to town he meets other jungle creatures who are appalled by his secret plans and clever tricks and set out to stop him.  Once he reaches the town the crocodile takes on all manner of disguises as he tries to fool the children he meets into becoming his lunch but in the end Trunky the Elephant delivers the crocodile’s just desserts as he throws him into the hot, hot sun where the crocodile sizzles up like a sausage.    

I got started on the project in the autumn knowing that I wanted to launch the story around World Book Day and that we were trying to moving house.  Roald Dahl is a master storyteller and my first draft of “The Enormous Crocodile” wrote itself with very little manipulation on my part.  The story’s quite short with quite a simple structure.  Like “The Twits” I feel there are two distinct halves to it; the walk through the jungle and the four clever tricks.  This and the fact the crocodile meets so many different animals would become the biggest challenges to the eventual presentation of the story.

By January I had a draft of the story and a completion date – two days before the start of rehearsals!  So it fell out like this; the Tuesday before we were due to start rehearsing I was in Derby to visit a school and go over the music with Joey, returning to London on Wednesday.  The Thursday was Verity’s birthday (aptly spent at London Zoo) and on the Friday before the Tuesday we moved house.  My first day of rehearsals was my first commute from Sussex and a journey that the previous week had taken 30 minutes took 3 hours because of rail problems.  After a chaotic week I made it to Roald Dahl HQ and entered the wonderful world of Roald Dahl.

Since meeting The Roald Dahl Company, they have been tremendously supportive of my work and offered not just their rehearsal room but paired me with professional director and dramaturg Amy Hodge (literally just back from opening a play at the Manchester Exchange Theatre and scheduled to work with The National Theatre later in the year).  I’m happy to admit that after 10 years of working more or less alone I was a bit nervous about how things might go but I needn’t have worried; in our time together Amy showed herself to be one of the singly most incredible theatre practitioners I have ever met; her input would be as an outside eye, sounding boarding, co-conspirator and confidant and it was such a privilege to breathe air with her for a few days.

So rehearsals started on the Tuesday morning and we had two days (about 12 hours) to create a presentation of the story using the contents of my suitcase.  It was a blissfully creative process, sharing ideas, problem solving and picking apart this much loved tale to produce something highly visual and interactive.  I have already highlighted the major challenges of the piece; it’s a story of two halves with multiple conversing characters.  It was agreed that the two halves of the story would look different.  The first half would be me on my own and the second half would include the audience more.  Amy helped me to re-evaluate my method of storytelling and out of it came a very simple puppetry which means I can bring several characters alive simultaneously without the need for constantly throwing hats on and off.  The end result is clear, playful storytelling.

After two very exciting days we reconvened in Wembley to do a pilot presentation to a public audience.  Unlike the pilot I did for Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief last year, this one was very successful.  The audience were attentive, they laughed in the right places and at the end there were no negative comments.

It was a fantastic week and whilst I am very excited to have had this opportunity I can’t help but feel a little daunted at the task of trying to get the story seen by as many children as possible.  Great storytelling demands to be seen and this really is great storytelling.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be able to quietly consolidate the story before a series of public events and festivals later in the year and by then I am sure I will feel much more confident about the story’s future.

So there you have it, how in a very short space of time secret plans and clever tricks have become a reality of real quality.  I’m eternally grateful to The Roald Dahl Company, Amy Hodge, Joseph Attenborough and Dan White for this wonderful image.  “I love it when a plan comes together” and I look forward to seeing how this plan develops in the coming weeks and months.

The Enormous Crocodile is available to schools, libraries and literature festivals nationwide.  For more information contact me.

My life on the radio

So after my appearance on BBC Radio Kent I was asked by the show to create a short feature on my working day, storytelling and national storytelling week. So on Friday 1st February 2019 I took my stories and a mobile phone voice recording app to Park Way Primary School in Maidstone where I was given the opportunity by the school to talk to some of the children and their teacher about stories, storytelling and their importance. The piece was broadcast the same evening after the host had interviewed no less than Michael Rosen(!).

I’m very pleased with the piece we’ve made for several reasons..

  • I was able to articulate why I believe National Storytelling Week is not only important to storytellers but why it should be important to all of us.
  • The teacher and children I interviewed cut to the absolute heart of why stories are wonderful and why storytelling has a place in all schools.
  • From the piece you get a real sense of how I work and why I love it.

It may be short but to create this piece of audio took a lot of work as I became storyteller/journalist for the day and I am indebted to the children and staff who participated and to Dominic King at BBC Radio Kent who edited it.

I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed making it.

John Kirk is a storyteller working in schools, museums, libraries and at events across the UK. For more information explore this website or get in contact.

Interview with Andy West on BBC Radio Kent (29/1/19)

On Monday 29th January 2019 I appeared on Dominic King’s Arts Show on BBC Radio Kent where I chatted live in the studio with Andy West about my career, stories, storytelling and working with young people as BBC Radio Kent marked the beginning of National Storytelling Week.

As with so many things I do it was all over very quickly but I absolutely loved taking part in the show, meeting the production team and seeing how a live radio programme is made. Having never appeared on the radio before I’ll admit to having been nervous beforehand but Andy West was a lovely host and generous interviewer who made me feel very welcome which helped me relax into the situation. At home I have listened to thousands of radio interviews but the experience is very different when its you giving the answers. I tried very hard to think about the questions and not how I was sounding. The whole thing was so utterly fascinating and exciting and has really got me thinking about the creative possibilities of radio and podcasting for storytellers (nobody can see you waving your hands on radio!) but whilst I’d be thrilled to do something like this again in the future I can tell you without hesitation that on Monday night one microphone was definitely more daunting than an audience of 500 children!

This was also an opportunity to promote the art of storytelling. Storytelling maybe one of the most ancient art forms but its also one of the most underrepresented in mass popular culture with most people associating storytelling with reading and books. The show gave storytelling a platform and me a chance to try to get across to the listeners why I love my job and hopefully enthuse a few people with stories along the way.

My friend Ben Jones, a partner in Preference Studio and responsible for my website intro video, has kindly edited the interview so you can hear it in full without interruptions for the weather and travel.

So here it is, my conversation with Andy West on BBC Radio Kent. If you listen to the whole thing, get in touch and let me know what you think.

John Kirk is a storyteller working in schools, museums, libraries and at events across the UK. For more information explore this website or get in contact.

Storytelling resources for schools and families – Storytime Magazine

I have been lucky enough to tell published stories by the likes of Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong and Terry Deary but traditional stories, fairy and folk tales remain the backbone of my work and the sessions I offer are always incredibly popular with children, schools and families. It’s not surprising as these stories are timeless, inter-generational and appear on most academic curricula. They are also a fabulous way of introducing reading. Over the years through my work with schools, libraries and literature events I have seen wonderful versions of stories like The Gingerbread Man, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs but last summer I was reccommended a magazine devoted to folk stories for children and when I received my first copy I was completely enchanted.

Storytime Magazine is a fantastic resource for schools and families and can be enjoyed by any child (or story enthusiast) of any age. Rather than adverts, issues are crammed with beautiful illustrations and stories from around the world, so as well as rediscovering old European folklore favourites readers are introduced to new tales from other cultures and continents. The magazine promotes reading for pleasure and grows with a child as they make great self readers or can be used as guided or shared reading material. Since the magazine was recommended to me I have seen it in school libraries and people’s homes. I think a subscription would make a lovely gift and that this publication would work as an alternative to a regular comic.  To find out more about Storytime Magazine follow this link to their website.

To find out more about my traditional tale, fairy and folk tale offer to schools, libraries and festivals contact me.

Celebrating National Storytelling Week with BBC Radio Kent

Tune into Dominic King’s arts show on BBC Radio Kent on Monday 28th January 2019 at 8pm to hear me in conversation with Dominic about stories, storytelling and all things National Storytelling Week or find the interview for 30 days afterwards on the BBC website.

It’s very exciting to have been invited to take part in the programme but it’s even more exciting to think that I’ll be able to share a story with you.

Have a great National Storytelling Week!

My work with the children of service families overseas

I have just been updating my calendar for March and as ever my schedule is bonkers. March begins in Warrington in the first 15 days I’ll go to Glasgow, Plymouth and Slough. I’m also heading back to Paderborn for what maybe the last time.

I have been visiting Bishops Park School in Paderborn, Germany for the past three years to work with the children of service families. It has always been a real highlight and privilege to spend time with the military community and I have always been made to feel very welcome by the staff and children.

In a lot of ways it’s just another day at the office but it’s the little differences that make my time in Germany special. For instance, the school day starts and ends earlier than a British school day so having reached my hotel bed at midnight I am in front of the children at what feels like 7.30am! Then there’s the fact that you are quite clearly working in a German building in a German town but as soon as you walk through the door you know you are in a British school whose population reflect the many nationalities who serve in our armed forces. For the children it’s there normal but when you think that whilst I prance about in the school hall the parents of the children I’m entertaining may be in some far flung dangerous corner of the world in the name of our national safety I find it very humbling.

The school has been really supportive and I have been able to do some crazy and ambitious stuff with the children. Some of the sessions were from my regular repertoire (eg The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!) but we’ve also done other stuff including a huge narrative poetry workshop and tiny sessions for children with additional needs and through the staff I’ve been introduced to some really high tech ideas. A lot of what I do is about access and exposure to high quality performance and storytelling. It always pleasing to be able to share a story or run a project with a small school but to work with a group of children so far from home who might not otherwise have such an experience is wonderful and I feel that I am a better storyteller and person for having had the opportunity.

The MoD previously announced that Germany is to close in 2019 and that service families were to return home or be redeployed around the world. I recently read that Paderborn may remain open until 2023 but I don’t know if I’ll be a part of the school’s future plans. Would I like to carry on going back? Of course but then, you know, there are schools in other parts of the world too… how does The Enormous Crocodile in The Falkland Islands, Shakespeare in Cyprus or Greek Mythology in Brunei sound to you, because to me it sounds amazing!!

I work in schools, museums and libraries in England, Scotland and Wales and have led storytelling sessions at the Guernsey Literary Festival and Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. If you looking to book a storyteller for an overseas school or festival or for work with international students in here the UK, contact me.