What the little boy said next blew me away…

So I was approaching the end of a traditional tales session and about to tell The Billy Goats Gruff a group of Nursery and Reception children.  Now I have many props and hats that I use in my storytelling sessions but even though I’ve been telling it for years I don’t have any goat horns.  Instead I have a set of black devil horns (don’t ask).  I therefore like to play a guessing game as to the title of the story.  It’s not easy particularly when my horns are definitely more vamp than goat.

Me (to the children):  What group of three have horns that we could tell a story about?  Three Bears?  Three Pigs?  Three Blind Mice?

The children have a go even if they have no idea, making all kinds of suggestions but then a little boy puts his hand up and his answer blew me away.

Little boy: Cars.

I almost gave him a standing ovation.  It was another brilliant example of why I love telling stories to young people.  He’s clearly had the same experiences of buses as me!

 

You wait for ages and three come at once!

Read this and I’ll buy you some chocolate…

Recently a mother brought her child to one of my storytelling sessions.  When her boy got up and volunteered she jeered at him.  When he was embarrassed and didn’t want to do it anymore she said “I’ll buy you some sweets if you do it”.  I stopped her saying that volunteering should always be the individual’s choice but what she had done (other than mortifying him and putting everybody else off helping me) was to say to her child and the rest of the audience “sweets are better than this”.  Thanks.

This particular lady thought she was doing the right thing; she had attended the library to listen to a story – big tick.  Unfortunately though, it doesn’t follow that a love of books, reading and stories will rub off by simply turning up in a library.  When I deliver stories it’s very common for children to look around at how other people are receiving the story and judge their own response accordingly; are Mum and Dad watching? are Mum and Dad enjoying this?  You can’t hand a book to a child and say “read this and I’ll buy you some chocolate” because a carrot and stick approach is simply not appropriate when trying to nurture a child’s interest.  Libraries are undoubtedly the right place to encourage a love of reading and books but more often than not a child’s library experiences need to be positively reinforced by an adult.

It’s the same in schools.  We live in an age when many children see reading, writing and arithmetic as purely for tests and exams so, thankfully for me, schools are always looking for ways of inspiring their children.  A good author visit or storytelling day should have quite obvious and immediate short term benefits but authors and storytellers may not have the long term solutions a school is searching for.  The long term legacy of such experiences depend upon them being properly valued at the time and adequately followed up by teachers in the classroom.

I am keen for schools and the public to get the most out of what I do.  I try to encourage discussion of my visits and I try to build opportunities for further writing exercises into my session structures.  In public sessions I try to work with libraries to ensure stories are available to be borrowed and also encourage adults to engage with me on social media so that they are aware of my events in the future.  More often than not my work is about enjoyment and entertainment but by trying to inspire the adult as well as the child I hope that for some children a story becomes more than 30 minutes of fun.  A well-executed storytelling can become a doorway to a whole world of stories or a topic or who knows, a career.

We all have bad habits we can easily shake off.  It can be as simple as singing the songs at toddler rhyme time rather than using the time to check text messages or being seen to borrow and read books or just putting the book marking off and engaging with the class’s storytelling visit.  If we don’t do these things what messages are being shared?  Your learning is somebody else’s problem.  Reading is something you have to do.  I’m too busy for stories.  If we want to encourage and inspire our children we all have to raise our game.

A Jekyll and Hyde storyteller

Something is happening to me.  It’s not happened overnight but over a period of years.  I’m having a professional identity crisis; I am a Jekyll and Hyde storyteller.

Let me introduce my aliases to you.  Jekyll is subdued.  He sits on a chair and tells stories using simple props, hats and the odd sound effect.  Jekyll is the one who presents trios of stories to reception classes and spooky stories at public events.  Jekyll looks and behaves like a stereotypical storyteller (if such a thing even exists).  Hyde on the other hand is manic.  He loves a crowd and is instinctively theatrical.  Hyde likes knockabout fun with volunteers and chucks buckets of water for any given reason.  Don’t get me wrong my Jekyll and Hyde’s are both great but the conundrum increasingly is that if people turn up to see one and get the other will they be disappointed by the presentation they get?

I feel that I’m at my best when I get material which allows me to use all of my abilities.  For me it’s about striking a balance between knockabout routines and visual humour and using words to paint pictures for an audience so that they can close their eyes and just imagine it.  I’m the Toyota Yaris of storytelling; neither wholly one thing nor the other.  I sit on a stylistic fence and that can be a real drag.  For years I have struggled to describe my own work when pushed by friends and family.  These days I often need people to sell my work in order to generate audiences and defying categorisation is tricky.

In the end though, being a bit different is mostly brilliant.  You see children enjoy my different.  My different exposes them to stories and encourages listening and positive participation.  My different is fun and creates lasting memories (I meet children who remind me who they were in a story or that I squirted them with water two years ago).  Storytellers might call me an actor, actors might call me a children’s entertainer and teachers might call me Mr Kirk but I hope the children I meet remember that in the end I’m just John.

To everybody else out there who finds that they are a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde, have a happy Halloween!

I’m pretty busy this October half term..

I’m pretty busy this half term.  Come and see me in action.
Friday

My #librariesweek

Its National Libraries Week in the United Kingdom, a celebration of everything that’s great and glorious about public libraries and what they offer.  There have been countless events, talks and activities being hosted the length and breadth of the country and library authorities seem to have gone all out to demonstrate their value within the communities they serve.

I have got involved too as the #100mphdog has become the 100 mile dog with visits to Stoke on Trent, Bolton and Nottinghamshire as well as spending some time as a visitor to Telford Libraries ahead of my appearance at the Wellington Arts Festival 2017 (one of the largest free literary festivals in Britain).

As I type this its just gone 7am on Saturday morning and I’m en route to Bolton.  Tomorrow my day will be taken up with getting to and from Mansfield.  This morning the train is pretty busy and I’ve got a carton of orange juice, my lap top and a load of football fans for company.  I may be working all weekend away from Lauren and Verity but it’ll be worth it; Bolton are one of my favourite authorities to work with and the library team in Nottinghamshire are a lot of fun.  This weekend we’re not only celebrating #librariesweek but the Summer Reading Challenge as children and their families collect their certificates at ceremonies laid on by the library and I provide the entertainment.  I did a celebration event a few weeks back in Bromley and was struck by how much meeting the mayor meant to the children and their families.

I have probably said it in this blog before but its a real privilege to share stories in wonderful library spaces.  In recent weeks we have begun taking Verity along to rhyme time sessions and borrowing books with her.  She enjoys being in the library and literally eats books.  This year I celebrated 5 years of work with libraries.  What started with a handful of London’s libraries has expanded beyond my wildest expectations but I still love visiting new libraries and communities.  Whenever I work with a library they give me a platform to tell a story; it might entertain, inspire or challenge a young person and that’s brilliant on so many levels.  There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that the library believe in you and these days its affirming to see familiar faces in library audiences.  In Stoke on Trent we did two presentations; at Hanley and Stoke libraries.  I have been telling Jeremy Strong’s “The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog” since June; sometimes its the 5mph dog but so far this week its been the 110mph Dog.  One teacher even remarked that it had been worth filling in the risk assessment to see it!

Next week it won’t be libraries week and all the verve and vibrancy that has crammed my social media timelines will subside but library life will continue and it won’t be long before there’s another big event and libraries will pull out all the stops again.  As for myself I will be working hard to ensure that I can work with libraries in the very near future and that the events I offer continue to be of a standard and quality that these fine institutions deserve.

 

Which stories shaped you?

I live in London.  I went to drama college there have a family there and love its bright lights and history.  I wasn’t raised in London though.  I am from Lancashire and it’s there that my cultural vocabulary was shaped.  It was in the north west that I was inspired to set out on a creative journey which means that when I head north these days I have a small rucksack for my clothes and two suitcases of props, wigs and hats (this week I have been working in libraries and schools in Chorley, Blackburn and Huddersfield).

It was recently pointed out that I have been living outside the north west for longer than it was ever my home.  Still my affection for north grows with every visit.  I am always struck by the friendliness of the people, the beauty of the landscape, the changes and developments in places like Manchester and Liverpool and, as a working storyteller, the wonderful folklore.

In this blog I wanted to reflect not on my favourite stories but on the stories and the moments that have shaped my creative journey from Chorley to London and back again.  Some of the moments I’ll describe weren’t witnessed by many or indeed any people but they are nonetheless significant to me.  Saying this the more I think the more I think I’ve done a lot of stuff and if I were to repeat this exercise next week my list might be entirely different.  I set out to shortlist 5 moments but have settled with six (its my blog and I’ll cry if I want to).  I am going to bypass the various stories I told as an actor and the various books I have read which helped form my views and character and focus on the stories that saw me to where I am today (although To Kill a Mockingbird, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Cooking with Elvis and We need to talk about Kevin all might have been mentioned)

1. The Hobbit – my Dad, my bedroom.  Some of my fondest memories are sitting on my bed with my Dad reading us stories.  Hearing stories like the Hobbit really enlivened my imagination and left me with a lifelong love of fantasy worlds.

2. The Suicide – Bolton Octagon.  I must have been in my mid teens when we went to The Bolton Octagon to see Nicolai Erdman’s The Suicide.  The entire experience blew me away.  The Octagon is an incredible space and the play was like nothing I had ever seen before (although having seen it again recently at the National perhaps it was the stage design rather than the story that truly grabbed me).  By this stage I wasn’t reading a lot on my own so it was at the theatre that I was exposed to stories.

3. History GCSE school.  The way I have always viewed history, rightly or wrongly, is as an enormous story.  Like any good story if you like it you remember it and I loved hearing about the Great War.  Like any story though a good storyteller makes all the difference and our history teacher was very good at telling the story of the war.  When I first started writing history workshops it was these lessons which I thought about.  To date it’s this inspiration that has seen me write history workshops for several of London’s local heritage museums.

4. Of Mice and Men – Chorley Little Theatre.  Whilst at sixth form college I got to know Hywel Evans.  Hywel is phenomenon.  He has had a massive bearing on my life – I probably wouldn’t have gone to Drama College if it hadn’t been for him.  He was and still is a creative dynamo and has gone on to be successful in everything he has chosen to do.  Together with Ben Hilton we established Low Fat Productions and put on shows for money including Of Mice and Men.  We got the local theatre and people paid to come and see us.  I remember that I was supposed to be the producer but I was completely hopeless at it.  The experience of working with Hywel and Ben taught me that sometimes to be creative you had to be proactive and if you are proactive enough you could make money.  When I think back about what we did as 16 and 17 year olds I find it incredible.

5. Solo story – Rose Bruford College.  During the Brecht term at college we were divided into groups and prepared plays by Bertolt Brecht for in-house presentation.  Our group were doing St Joan of the Stockyards (which looking back was probably the high point of my entire acting career) but at the same time we had other classes; voice, movement and a thing called solo story.  The idea of solo story was to tell a story to an audience.  It was a massive challenge because to this point we had always worked on ensemble pieces of theatre.  We were essentially left to our own devices as we developed a script and made up a short presentation of a story.  I told a story about watching my beloved Wimbledon Football Club play an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford.  It was probably the first time I had ever told a story solo in front of an audience.  It was nerve wracking but some of the techniques I used in that project I still use to this day.

6. The Unlucky Mummy – all over the place.  In 2012 I was approached about delivering a story in a museum setting about Egypt and when I found the legend of the Unlucky Mummy the project turned out to be a gift.  I created an interactive slapstick piece which could be enjoyed by family audiences.  After the initial delivery I offered it for free to the libraries in north east London.  Impressed by what they saw I was invited back to do Dracula and recommended to the CityRead 2014 for Private Peaceful.  One thing lead to another and The Twits, #Shakespeare400 and The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog have followed it all started though with a newspaper mummy wrapped in toilet roll in a spray painted show box.

So you see you can take the boy out of Lancashire but the north runs in his blood.  I hope that as Verity grows up I’ll be able to share some of the best bits of the north of england with her so whilst she maybe a Londoner her father’s roots will be part of her identity too.

2017:the summer that zipped by at 100mph

So the six week holidays are coming to an end and another Summer Reading Challenge is drawing to its conclusion.  Once again thousands of young people have participated as readers and volunteers in libraries across Britain and once again I have played my small part in launching, enhancing and celebrating the challenge through storytelling.

This year my major project was Jeremy Strong’s “The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog”, a silly story about one boy’s efforts to train his chaotic pet.  I first presented the story in libraries in June and by the end of the summer between myself and Dan McGarry will have presented it over 80 times to just over 2500 people.  I have also been presenting Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

I have had a very good summer and a lot of people have said a lot of very nice things about my work (I’ve met lots of lovely people, worked in a couple of new areas and for the first time I have been receiving reviews on Facebook).  This has been very flattering but I feel it’s really me that needs to thank people for their contributions to what must be classed as a successful project.

Lauren and Verity – I love you both and I’m looking forward to a family holiday; you deserve it.

Jeremy Strong and David Higham Associates – the author of this fantastically silly story and his agents has been a very active supporters of the project and their encouragement and flexibility has been important.

Dan McGarry – I can’t take credit for all the presentations.  In Northamptonshire sessions were delivered at all but two libraries and Dan brought his unique twist to the presentation of the story.

Joseph Attenborough – this is the fourth project where Joey supplied an original soundtrack for me to work with.  Whilst some would say music is unnecessary I say the music is a vital contribution, setting the tone of the story and the atmosphere at key moments.

Dan White – another valued contributor, Dan’s image of Streaker at full speed has appeared in libraries across the country (at one stage it dominated my twitter timeline almostly entirely!) and has really helped to attract an audience to the project.

The Libraries – we can have the best project ever but without library staff support nobody would come.  This year more than any other it has become clear just how crucial good library staff and their relationship with service users is in building a suitable audience for events.  I have discussed advertising in this blog before and once again word of mouth proved the best way of drawing a crowd.

The service users – my style of storytelling relies upon interaction and participation (if you come to my event I’m going to spray you with water and stick a silly wig on your head).  It has been brilliant to see young people at my events up and down the country willing to get involved in my madness with good humour.  It has also been great to see so many people who I met in 2016 whilst doing Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” returning to hear about Streaker.  As one storyteller said to me, this is the ultimate compliment.

One of the privileges and pleasures of this year’s Reading Challenge for me has been talking to people about stories and books and recommending new and old stories to children.  It is quite easy to become consumed by the logistics of delivering events at multiple venues (believe me, it’s a mammoth task) and lose sight of what it’s all about; the pleasure of reading.

I’m not going to lie, there have been mornings when my body has told me that I’m no longer in my twenties and there have been late nights when I have felt desperately guilty for leaving Lauren literally holding the baby but I have enjoyed it and have already started work on next year’s challenge.

For now though I’m preparing for the new school year.  I do have some more reading challenge dates into the autumn and then some more public appearances into the winter including a couple of small festivals.  Keep an eye on my website and I’ll look forward to continuing to share my work and any developments with you here soon.   For now though, Streaker and I are off to pick out a sun lounger on a Spanish beach!

#100mphdog @Library_Plus Northamptonshire

This summer storytellers John Kirk and Dan McGarry are presenting Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog in Northamptonshire libraries.

Streaker is a mixed up kind of a dog.  She’s part greyhound, part Ferrari and unless Trevor and Tina can train her before the end of the holidays arch pain Charlie Smugg is going to throw them both into a bath full of frog spawn!  Come along and see if Trevor and Tina can avoid their early bath in an action packed story that just gets sillier and sillier.

 

On the 18th August see John Kirk at..

10am Rushden Library, 12.30pm Raunds Library, 2.30pm Higham Ferrers Library

On the 21st August see Dan McGarry at..

10.30am Wellingborough Library, 2.15pm Irthlingborough Library, 4pm Wollaston Library

On the 25th August see John Kirk at..

11.30am Long Buckby Library, 2pm Brackley Library, 4pm Middleton Cheney Library

 

On the 1st September see John Kirk at..

10am Desborough Library, 1pm Oundle Library, 3.30pm Thrapston Library

On the 4th September see Dan McGarry at..

10am Hunsbury Library, 12.30pm Duston Library, 3pm St James Library

This presentation lasts 40 minutes and is suitable for families with children age 6+.

#100mphdog

NB: John will also visit Nottingham City (17th and 22nd Aug) and Barking and Dagenham Libraries (31st Aug) during the summer holidays with this presentation.

The Hundred mile an hour Dog is up and running! #100mphdog

The summer holidays are here and my retelling of Jeremy Strong’s “The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog” is up and running.  Literally.  Although I have been working with mainly school groups I have already met over 1200 children and families.  This is all the more staggering when I think that I still have 70 presentations to do.

This is a story about pace told at pace which presents me with a variety of challenges.  Firstly there’s loads to remember; over the course of the story I introduce lots of different characters including Streaker the Super Dog.  There are elements of participation, water pistols (of course) and every time I tell it, the story just seems to get faster and faster.  At points it  feels like a ginormous tongue twister which falls out of my mouth three times a day.  Its great for my articulation but with names like Tina, Trevor and Streaker being regularly repeated its more than a mouthful.  It isn’t just a verbal challenge.  At 36 I am not getting any younger and in the 30+ degree heat we’ve been experiencing in the south east of England I am sweating up a storm as I tell the tale.

Sometimes I think maybe its too fast but then this isn’t the book, its a story.  In Jeremy’s book he throws in loads of lovely jokes, witty observations and one liners which in a 40 minute presentation I simply do not have time to deliver.  This story is a bit like a situation comedy; that much of the humour comes from things getting worse and worse for the characters involved.  Its in all this mania that I find my task for even when the story seems to be out of control I have to be master of its rhythms for there to be any kind of momentum.  As crazy as what I’m doing might seem, most of the time I’ve got these rhythms on a tight leash and as a result when I do slow down, pauses have real impact and key bits of narrative can be easily stressed.

For all the challenges I am really enjoying myself and when I get the rhythms right the story feels right.  So what would I say to you about my retelling of “The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog”?  Well in a nut shell its big, its brash and its a lot of fun that I can’t wait to share this summer.  Follow my summer on social media; search for the hashtag #100mphdog.

Postcard from Swansea

So for the third time in as many months I’m away from home for work.  This time I’m in south Wales to tell The Twits.  As I write this it is almost 2am on Monday morning and I have recently arrived at my waterfront Premier Inn (the room is reminiscent of the rooms in Sheffield, Hemel Hempstead, Poole and just about every other Premier Inn I’ve ever stayed in!).  The original plan had been that Lauren, VBz and I would come down together but a combination of circumstances (those being that I worked on Saturday and am working in Horsham on Wednesday and that our camper van is in the garage being serviced) has meant that I am here alone although the cot in the corner of the room is already a constant reminder of the family I left in London.

It’s not my first visit to Swansea; I worked down here a couple of years ago when I was telling Terry Deary’s “The War Game”.  I only did a day with the library service on that occasion but I have such fond memories of the library staff and the children we worked with that when the opportunity to return came up I jumped at it.  Over two days I will work with Swansea Libraries and the Literacy Trust to deliver stories to five local primary schools.

The reason I’m so late is that I got the last train out of London.  This was an interesting experience in itself.  It took four and a half hours, which when I think about it means that had the van not been in the garage I could probably have actually driven here quicker.  The people on the train were an eclectic bunch; the last train from London it turns out is also the last train from Bristol and Cardiff.  What started out as a regular inter city service becomes the slow stopping service for revellers.  Fall Down Drunk fell on in Cardiff and fell off in Neath.  Then there were the colour runners still covered in powder paint and the anarchist sporting a pair of garish yellow tartan bermuda shorts.  By the time I got off the train it was spitting with rain.  I dashed past the bars and clubs of Wind Street over the sail bridge and into the hotel.

Anyway it’s getting late.  Time to get some sleep and dream of what might be tomorrow…

Monday afternoon

Today was a lovely day.

I met with Carole Billingham from Swansea Libraries and Irene Picton from the Literacy Trust just before 8.30am.  Carole is our host and chauffeur for the next couple of days.  This makes a huge difference because not only does she understand the geography of Swansea so we won’t get lost but she also knows the schools we’re working with and the children recognise her during our visits.  Like me, Irene is London based and is running the Young Readers Programme in towns and cities across the country.  The programme is a brilliant initiative to encourage reading for pleasure rather than as just as a means for academia.  At the beginning of each session Irene speaks to the group about their participation in the project and the children’s responses show that it’s been making a difference to their exposure to literature.

I have now told The Twits well over 150 times at schools, libraries and festivals across England and Wales (as well as Swansea I was in Conwy last July) as well as in Germany and the UAE but I never fail to find delight in telling it or seeing children finding the story for the first time.  The three schools we visit are outwardly very different but at each we quickly discover a shared love of stories and an enthusiasm for the project.  The feedback from the groups to my story is positive and enthusiastic (after the final presentation 50 children stay behind to watch me pack my suitcase!).  I feel like the children I have met valued the work we have done but what’d be really wonderful is if as a result of the intervention today any of the children were inspired to visit the library or read the story for themselves.  Unfortunately if this happens then I’ll only hear about it on the grapevine because my time in Swansea has flown by and all too soon I’ll be heading back to London.

So far Swansea hasn’t disappointed; the people are as warm as the glorious weather.  I look forward to seeing what day two holds for us but for now though, it a lovely evening and I’m starving.

Tuesday evening – on a train back to London

Last night I had a wander into Swansea.  I walked from the hotel over the Sail Bridge, past The Dylan Thomas Centre up to Swansea Castle before heading through town and down onto the beach.  It has always struck me as very appropriate that the Civic Centre which houses the library overlooks the coastline.  I’m sure Wales’ great writers and poets of the past would’ve found inspiration by gazing out the library window onto such an impressive vista.  Stood on the beach looking out toward Mumbles or Port Talbot with the hills and town behind you it is simply awesome.  After filling my boots with the scenery I headed back to Wind Street for dinner (that’s wind like curl although in a Welsh accent you’d be forgiven for thinking this street of many pubs, clubs and bars was aptly called Wine Street!).

Unfortunately the wifi in my hotel room wasn’t working so I went to the hotel reception to do some work.  It turned out that the receptionist’s sister went to one of the schools we’d visited.  Talk about a small world!

Today we visited two more schools and once again the children we met really responded to my storytelling.  What’s been fascinating has been the way in which five very different groups of children and five different schools engage with the same story.  Live presentation is often a unique experience for all concerned; sometimes a group of children will sit very quietly and listen very politely and sometimes you are thrown into the chaos of school life and end up chasing a child around the building with a water pistol!

So my flying visit to south Wales is over.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it which is good because I’ll be back next week to work with a sixth primary school we couldn’t squeeze in this week.  Two days isn’t a very long time; it’s certainly not long enough to improve my Welsh pronunciation which is still woeful but I do feel I’ve made an impact.  As I ride the train back to the big smoke I find myself in reflective mood.  My involvement in the Literacy Trust’s Young Reader’s Programme although its been brief has highlighted a few things:

  1. Public libraries do wonderful and important work in their communities which is all too easily overlooked.
  2. The Literacy Trust’s programmes, with the support of businesses like Boots and WH Smith, really do inspire young readers.
  3. In spite of everything modern life may throw at children, they still value books and stories.
  4. Wales is fab-a-lous!