Postcard from Belton’s Big Book Festival and Loogabarooga 2018

I’d like to start this postcard by apologising for its tardiness; I’ve been meaning to write this down for a while but it’s been a pretty hectic month.
This postcard is from mid October and begins at Belton’s Big Book Festival at Belton House in Grantham, Lincolnshire. To understand how I became involved you have to go back four years to West Berkshire and my work with the wonderful Ann Doody, Rosemary Woodman and the school’s libraries service there. Four years is a long time but I remember the day quite clearly because of a catalogue of unfortunate events. We were due to present Private Peaceful and should all have been very straight forward but I inexplicably missed a train, the taxi almost drove away with my work bag and an accident on the M4 meant we had an epic drive between presentations. It was also the first time I was introduced to the Federation of Children’s Book Groups for whom I went on to write a piece about Dragons.  I worked with West Berkshire SLS again but sadly cuts to services meant that the school libraries service closed within 18 months of my first visit.  I’ll always be indebted to Ann and Rosemary for supporting my work when I needed it most.
Earlier this year I was contacted by Ann again. Now living in Lincolnshire, Ann was working with the Federation of Children’s Book Groups in Lincolnshire, helping to set up a literature festival in Grantham at the National Trust’s Belton House and she’d got in touch to see if I’d like to be involved. Well I don’t mind admitting that this was an extremely exciting invitation. Not just because it would be a chance to catch up with Ann again but because 10 years ago my father had suggested I do something at a National Trust property; a conversation which asi remember it has become a catalyst for telling my first and all subsequent stories. A decade on this would be a chance to fulfill a long held ambition.
The day was brilliant. Belton House in the early autumn sunshine is a spectacular setting and it was lovely to catch up with Ann and Chris Routh (chair of the FCBG who I worked with in West Berks). I had really good turnouts for Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief and The Twits and met lots of people who were enthusiastic about stories, storytelling and books.  Of course disaster was only very narrowly averted. When I set up for The Twits I realised that I’d left Mrs Twit’s walking stick, which I use quite a lot in my telling of the story, at home. Then I had a moment of inspiration.  With a few minutes still to go before the scheduled start and with the audience queuing at the door I legged it to the National Trust’s shop where thankfully they were prepared to lend me a walking stick for the afternoon. Phew!
The next day I was back in the Midlands to be a part of Loogabarooga 2018 (apparently that’s how Loughborough is pronounced in Australia!). Engineering work meant that it was quicker and cheaper to get a bus. Unfortunately the bus stop was outside the university leaving me a fair hike into town admittedly in glorious sunshine.  Loughborough is the home of Ladybird Books and the festival celebrates all things illustration and cartoons so Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief was a natural fit for presentation in their Festival Den although this turned out to be a rather an intimate marquee for my rather powerful water pistols!
The wonderful thing about festivals is that you meet all kinds of people. At Belton I chatted all things babies and houses with illustrator Frank Preston Gannon and at Loogabarooga I was scheduled between Beano cartoonist Laura Howell and author Claire Elsom. It’s very easy to feel inspired when get to rub shoulders with heavyweight talent.
Anyway, it was all done in the blink of an eye and I was back on the train. In years gone by I might have mourned such a successful weekend but these days whilst my work brings me a huge amount of satisfaction I am grounded by my daughter.  It was however an extraordinary weekend which will live long in my memory.  I think the whole thing was best summed up by something I saw writer/illustrator Chloe Inkpen doing. As I was passing her book signing she was posing for a photograph with a young fan but she wasn’t smiling she was beaming.  She was completely right to do so. You see, if at moments like these when all is right with the world we can’t reflect positively on what we’ve achieved and if we can’t savour and enjoy being at the very top of our game then I think that would be very sad.  I look forward to more weekends like this one soon.

Talking to a young child about remembrance

I was asked to lead a storytelling session for a group of 4-7 year olds which reflected on why we remember the Great War and the symbolism of the poppy.  I saw this as a challenge of both tone and content; how to talk about a terrible event in terms which will not traumatise a very young child?  Supposing this to be a dilemma faced by many teachers and families around Remembrance Day (11th November) I thought I’d share how I did it in order to make an important conversation a little easier in the future.

I started by telling the story of The Pied Piper of Hamlyn.  In the story the town is plagued by rats which make everybody unhappy.  A Piper, capable of playing enchanted music, comes to town.  He promises to get rid of the rats and the townspeople promise to pay him handsomely.  When the deed is done the townspeople go back on their word and the Piper leads all their children away.

The story of the Pied Piper is undoubtedly a sad one but it is a great way to talk about feelings, loss and regret.  It is thought that the story was originally told to help explain a loss of life caused by sickness but I wanted to use it to contextualise the devastation of war so I then told it again.  The second time I used the structure of the Pied Piper but told a simplified version of the Great War.  Something like this…

A hundred years ago peace in Europe was in danger.  The countries of Europe would do anything for peace so cities, towns and villages sent their young men to fight; many did not come home.  It was only when the war ended and Europe had its peace that these cities, towns and villages understood the heavy price that they had paid.  When the families of those who hadn’t come home from the war went to find them they found only fields of poppies; fields of poppies that had once been ploughed by farmers, fields of poppies that had then been churned by the bombs and guns of war, fields of poppies that were now lined with silent graves.

A generation gave their lives and their loved ones for what they believed was the right thing and so we might have peace today.

They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old

Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them

We will remember them

 

Between 2014 and 2018 John Kirk has presented multiple storytelling relating to The Great War including Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful”, Terry Deary’s “The War Game”, Tom Palmer’s “The Last Try” and written educational workshops with Hackney Museum, Redbridge Libraries and Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow.  His Great War edutainment session Band of Brothers: a story of three liars remains available to schools, libraries and museums.  For more information contact me.

From east London to East Sussex

Lauren, Verity and I are on the move and will soon be calling East Sussex our new home.

It’s been a very stressful year with Lauren doing a 100 mile commute twice a week since June but we are now looking to our future in Lewes.

This is going to mean more earlier mornings and more overnight stays but I remain committed to making my work enjoyable, accessible and affordable to those that are looking for quality storytelling and already have dates in the diary for 2019 in Glasgow and Plymouth.

As with any move there are still a lot of i’s to be dotted, t’s to be crossed and boxes to be filled before the big off but if you happen to know schools, libraries, museums, nurseries or festivals south of London (Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire) any and all recommendations are welcome so that I can hit the ground running next year.

 

Jeremy Strong, Nigel Auchterlounie and me

I have been very lucky to work with some top writers who also turned out to be very decent and supportive people.  They championed me and my work without ever seeing what I had done with their stories.  So this week I decided to share video of The Hundred Mile and Hour Dog with Jeremy Strong and Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief with Nigel Auchterlounie.  This was a bit daunting because whilst I am confident in my own work the last thing you want is for somebody to say they hate what you do and you should stop.
I needn’t have worried.  They both loved what they saw:
“Don’t miss John Kirk’s genius storytelling. He’s brilliant!  John Kirk brings stories to life in an amazing way and encourages children’s reading, writing and listening skills”.

Jeremy Strong

“That was excellent John. Thanks so much for showing me and thanks so much for doing it in the first place!  You had me laughing within the first couple of minutes.  Well done! I loved it!”
Nigel Auchterlounie
It was a great thrill to have the opportunity to tell these stories but I’m even more thrilled that having shared footage of my retellings both authors took the time to watch the films and comment on it.  I’m also glad because whenever I have told the stories I have seen myself as an advocate of the author; a sort of unofficial cheerleader for the books trying to encourage young readers to engage with their titles.
As a storyteller you come to appreciate that some words go further and mean more than others and after a lot of work and a lot of miles travelled these words mean an awful lot to me.

Let me shout from the rooftops “I do school visits!”

I have been working as a performance storyteller for almost ten years but before that I was an actor.  I did a few bits and pieces in theatres and went to Edinburgh a couple of times but generally speaking my work was doing Theatre in Education and Children’s Theatre in schools.  Theatre in Education wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated during my classical drama training but perhaps I went to my first TIE audition thinking of it as a way of getting paid for what I’d trained to do whilst waiting for my “big break”.  The way it worked was that after an intense rehearsal period the cast piled into a van and toured the schools of Britain with either an agenda lead piece of theatre or something more light hearted (ie a panto).  The shows were generally pretty short to fit into the school timetable and were often followed up by workshops lead by the actor-facilitators.  Now, you must remember that at this point I am not a lot older than the “children” I am working with, I have no formal teacher training and I can be an impulsive hothead so facilitating felt like being thrown in at the deep end.  It was steep learning curve.  Sometimes we were offering children their first theatrical experience, sometimes we were enhancing their curriculum.  Sometimes the children liked you, sometimes it was very intimidating.  The production values could vary from a enormous rotating sets to a bit of curtain hanged on some plumbing pipe but the creative energy of some of the companies I was fortunate enough to work with is incredible.  I learned a huge amount about working with young people from Chris Geelan at The Young Shakespeare Company, Bill Davies at Blunderbus and Adrian New at Stopwatch Theatre to name a few and 6 days a week on the road soon became a way of life that I am still passionate about today.

After I met Lauren my life had to change and I stopped the acting but I continued to pick up facilitation work with people like Bromley Mytime and Eastside Educational Arts Trust and I continued to learn from people like Naomi Cortes at Almeida Projects and the brilliant Alison Banham at Act on Info.  16 years later I am a far more confident drama facilitator and have developed my own style of workshop which incorporates storytelling, drama games and role play.  The themes of the sessions have varied from the Aztecs and Evolution to Shakespeare and School Transition but I try to approach every session the same way; enthusiasm, loads of games and fun.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, it turns out that when you do 100-150 library presentations a year people forget that you offer school visits.  What once represented 80% of my work now accounts for 35% and in spite of the fact I advertise on websites like findaschoolworkshop.com and schoolworkshops.com I still get asked if I do school work.  I have dropped the ball on what once was my bread and butter and now I’m running to get back into the game.

So let me shout it from the rooftops “I do primary school visits!”.  I offer my assemblies, class group workshops and event day bookings (National Storytelling Week, World Book Month, school fetes, Well Being Days, school library openings etc).  In schools I have worked one to one with children or with as many as 500 children in a sitting!  I have been to schools for an hour I have done residencies.  I can offer traditional tales and published stories including Roald Dahl and Dennis the Menace and I can be as interactive as you like depending on the needs of the group.  I have never written a book but I can guarantee that primary school children will enjoy my sessions and be inspired by my sessions (they may even learn something about writing stories!).

“The whole day was great from start to finish. Working with you has been a pleasure and we were really grateful for how flexible and accommodating you were with both your time and the topics you covered. Speaking to children from across the school after the event itself they thoroughly enjoyed it and are already asking when you will be coming back”.

Literacy coordinator, Wyvil Primary School, May 2018

Schools and school visits have been a big part of my professional life and as the nation goes back to school full of hopes and ambitions for the year ahead it’s my hope that it won’t be long before I’m off to do my first school visits of the new academic year.

For more information about my work please review my FAQs or to make an enquiry contact me.

 

My adventure with Dennis continues! #dennis2018

In March 1951 Dennis the Menace and his dog Gnasher made their first appearance in The Beano.  Dennis, the trouble making school boy who terrorised his arch enemy Walter, proved popular with readers and soon became the Beano’s most famous character and their longest running comic strip.  As the world has changed so too has Dennis and as he approaches 70 years old Dennis, with his trademark black spiky hair and red and black striped jumper, is now more than a comic book hero, he’s a British institution.

In the summer of 2018 Dennis and his Beanotown friends supported The Summer Reading Challenge; a national reading scheme encouraging children to read in the school holidays and I presented Nigel Auchterlounie’s “Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief”.  To date (this blog was written in August 2018) my retelling of the story has been heard by almost 3000 children in public libraries across England.  The response from audiences and librarians has been overwhelming:

“Fantastic, lively, creative and entertaining storytelling.  Brilliant way of encouraging children to get interested in books.” Audience member, Nottingham City Libraries

“It was excellent.  A good balance of performance storytelling, great support for reading and literacy skills development…  The high level of participative activity ensures sustained engagement and enjoyment.”  Librarian, Derby City Libraries

Children have really enjoyed hearing about Dennis, joining his adventures and tackling the challenges of the Chamber of Mischief.  They have left our sessions buzzing about reading and the potential of books.  The response in cyberspace has been equally positive with lots of parents, grandparents and libraries taking to social media to share photographs and feedback using the #dennis2018.  It may have been a long, hot summer but Dennis has made it very enjoyable.

Now, with the kind support of Bonnier Publishing, I am pleased to announce that this storytelling session is to be made available for school assemblies and events.  For the next ten months teachers will be able to introduce the zaniness of Beanotown to their classes as Dennis helps us encourage and inspire a love of reading.

Nigel Auchterlounie’s “Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief” is published by Studio Press and is available through all good bookshops and public libraries.  If you are interested in my retelling of the story I will be visiting Bolton Libraries and participating in the Loogabarooga Festival in Loughborough during October.  If you’d like Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief to visit your school or event contact me.

Do Mr and Mrs Twit love each other?

After telling children Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” I enjoy posing the following question about the story:

Do Mr and Mrs Twit love each other?

The children are never in doubt; Mr and Mrs Twit do not love each other.  If you push them on this opinion they say things like “because they are nasty to each other” and “because they play tricks on each other”.  I understand the basis of this argument but happen to believe the Twits actually love each other.  Let me explain why..

In many of my most popular storytelling sessions (Roald Dahl’s The Twits, Jeremy Strong’s The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and Nigel Auchterlounie’s  Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief) I use water pistols to spray the audience.  I don’t mean that I use them to gently flutter a few droplets of water in the vague direction of the audience I mean I use water pistols to quite literally drench the audience.  When outraged children ask me why I do this I point out (and they agree) that they enjoyed getting wet.  You see it’s all about the context of the soaking; if I walked up to a stranger in the street and threw a bucket of water over their head they’d be justifiably irked.  My audiences are rarely upset at getting wet.  This is partly because I’ll have forewarned them that water will be a part of the presentation but mostly because the soaking I dish out makes some degree of sense in the context of the story.

What’s this got to do with Mr and Mrs Twit?

Mr and Mrs Twit are vile, disgusting, revolting people.  Mr Twit has a filthy beard, Mrs Twit has a glass eye and they both have a wicked sense of humour.  In the first part of the story we learn how Mrs Twit put a glass eyeball in Mr Twit’s drink and worms and his spaghetti and that in return Mr Twit put a frog in Mrs Twit’s bed and made his wife believe that she was shrinking.  You could say that these cruel tricks demonstrate that they detest each other.  I say it shows why they are compatible.  Yes, the jokes are extreme but rather than causing the victim to run away they provoke a sort of brinksmanship as Mr and Mrs Twit try to better the previous plot.  You might say that this to do with a desire for revenge or that the Twits are trying to kill each other but I’m not convinced.  Their treatment of the monkeys and the birds show that Mr and Mrs Twit are capable of much darker, much more devious deeds and that if they wanted to kill they’d have done it already as murder is clearly within their power.  Then there’s the fact that despite their revolting trickery they are willing to work together with a common awful purpose at the drop of a hat.  Like my audiences who enjoy getting squirted with a water pistol in the context of a storytelling session I believe the Twits thoroughly enjoying playing tricks on each other.  It may seem bizarre but Mr and Mrs Twit seem prepared to be the butt of the other’s cruelty in the context of their own private game so much so that it’s difficult to say when the mark is overstepped (does Mr Twit go too far when he has his second nasty idea?).  In my view the reason the Twits keep coming back for more is that they don’t just love each other they depend on each other.  I therefore wonder if Mr and Mrs Twit find some perverse satisfaction in the fact they share the same grizzly fate?

When I approached the story I wanted to make the complexity of Mr and Mrs Twit’s twisted relationship as clear as possible.  As well as revelling in the Twit’s tricks, in my retelling composer Joseph Attenborough reflects  their shared joy of being utterly horrible by devising a series of snatches of laughter; Mr Twit, Mrs Twit and finally both the Twits laughing.  It’s the briefest of acknowledgements but it is there and now you know to look out for it hopefully you’ll hear it the next time I tell the tale.

My licence to tell Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” in primary schools, libraries and at events was recently reviewed and extended.  To find out more about this and other projects contact me.

 

The genius of Justin’s House

Since Verity was born what appears on our television has changed dramatically.  Where in the old days we might have found time to watch a drama series these days we watch Cbeebies.

Verity may only be 17 months old but she has her favourite programmes.  Her absolute favourite is In the Night Garden.  From the moment it goes on she is captivated.  She’ll talk to the characters and dance along with Upsy Daisy and Maka Paka.  We recently took her to the stage show and I’ll admit to having wept with pure joy at seeing how much she enjoyed herself.  After the show she got to meet her hero, Iggle Piggle.  She was enraptured.

She is also into Justin’s HouseJustin’s House, for those of you who aren’t seasoned watchers of children’s television is stars Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble).  It’s set in a house in Justin Town where he and his friends, Robert the Robot and the Little Monster, enjoy singing and dancing and have all kinds of fun.

The two shows I have mentioned share a number of features.  Firstly they are uber colourful.  Then there’s the fact the episodes are structured so that if you watched the series you’d become familiar with the routine.  Both programmes have very catchy music with songs being used to introduce characters, deepening the sense of familiarity.  Finally episode plots tend to be very gentle, warm and simple.  They talk about feelings, friendship and fun.  They are definitely not the stuff of Albert Square!

Where Justin’s House is different to In the Night Garden is that Justin Fletcher has devised a slapstick stage show.  Slapstick is visual, physical comedy relying on well-rehearsed routines and sequences for laughs.  It’s easy to dismiss slapstick as an easy or base art form but children really enjoy watching people fall over, bump into each other or getting a pie in the face.  My earliest storytelling sessions were far more theatrical in their nature and my versions of The Unlucky Mummy and Dracula were crammed with slapstick gags which were always very popular with audiences.  Even now I use a lot of water pistols in my work because, in the end, who doesn’t think it’s a little bit funny to see someone get squirted in the ear?

The slapstick in Justin’s House is very slick and perfectly pitched but for me the genius of the show is to put it in front of a live audience.  The audience act like a character, joining in with songs, answering questions and responding to the unfolding story.  The audience’s role is recognised by the director who regularly cuts to the audience so the viewer can see facial expressions.  Justin also acknowledges the audience.  In the song Justin’s House, he sings about the audience saying “you’re funny and sunny, put a smile on my face, you’re brilliant, you really are great!”.  He’s right to be grateful because without the audience the whole programme would have a very different rhythm and feel quite flat or awkward.

So what can a storyteller learn from Justin Fletcher?

Be colourful – when selecting props and visual aids make sure they are bright and colourful.  I use a lot of wigs, hats and props in my storytellings and use voices and physical motifs to enhance my stories.

Have a structure – children find security in familiarity whether it be a daily routine or a storytelling.  If you are running regular sessions a format will help your group become more comfortable and more willing participants.  When I run a session as a one off I’ll explain the rules of the session before I start in order to hype them up and manage expectations; so sometimes when I do global tale sessions the children get to vote on the stories they’ll hear or if I want volunteers they’ll understand how they are going to be selected.

Use music and song – consider enhancing your set with sound.  If you can, find ways of getting the children involved in creating the sound (maybe a sing-a-long).  I don’t play any instrument to a particular standard but will incorporate recorded music, live sound effects and singing where it’s appropriate.  Sometimes creating a sound effect can be just as intriguing for an audience the story!

Consider your content – I do a lot of work for 6+ year olds.  Stories like Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief or The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog invariably include a lot of participation and a water pistol (see above).  My sessions for under-fives are much more gentle.

Get on with and enrapture your audience – in every storytelling session rapport and communion with the audience is crucial.  If you can create a lively positive environment then hopefully everybody will have a good time!  It’s easier to work with a crowd than against them.

Undoubtedly Justin Fletcher is an excellent professional who has developed very strong formats and material and clearly understands how to entertain children.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of watching television but it’d be an error to write children’s television off for it’s content and delivery – these are well made, clever productions that anybody who might like to work with children can learn from watching.  Besides if Iggle Piggle and Justin Fletcher offer Verity some light hearted fun and it makes her happy then that makes me happy too.

A “Twit” update

Just a quick update.

A couple of months ago I posted this – A storyteller in search of a story in which I explained that I had lost the right to tell The Twits and that October would see Mr Twit’s last outing.  Well that’s no longer true.  You see Mr Twit has been reprieved by the Roald Dahl Estate and I am taking bookings for the next academic year.  This is quite obviously fantastic and quite unexpected news.  Over the coming months I will still be shaking up my repertoire and if you are a published author, writer’s agent or international publishing house I am still very much in the market for my next challenge but for now the urgency to do so isn’t quite so great.  Thanks to everybody who sent messages of support, they were all read and appreciated.

Now back to Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief

The heat is on: storytelling and the British weather

Britain is a country that sometimes experiences all four seasons in one day.  You’d think that the weather is something which happens outdoors and as we’re basically an indoor nation for all but a few weeks of the year it couldn’t possibly be that big a factor on storytellers.  Well that’s true unless you happen to be doing an outdoor event or the majority of your work is in old public buildings like schools, museums and libraries.  A Carnegie Library may look beautiful but they can be quite drafty, a school hall of the 1960s or 70s may seat a lot of children but I’ve known them to be like greenhouses have the radiators blasting out in July and whilst it’s fun to tell stories in museums and stately homes curators can be curiously aquaphobic!

During the cold snap of all cold snaps back in March 2018 the weather posed me a range of problems.  First there was getting to the jobs.  Driving conditions were treacherous and in recent months British railways have been, shall we say “unpredictable,” so when the snow arrived for a while it was Russian roulette as to whether you would complete a journey.  Then there are the audiences; I get quite warm when I work so a chill in the air doesn’t bother me too much but if you have to sit on the floor for up to an hour, sometimes in wet clothes because you had a snowball fight at break or you walked through the snow to the venue, a draft can test the concentration of anybody.  During March’s extreme weather conditions some schools closed whilst I was on site.  I started one session with 45 children and finished up with just 8 children as the weather in the area around the school I was working in worsened.

It’s now July.  “The Beast from the East” is a distant memory and Britain is experiencing a heat wave.  The trains are still “unpredictable” but their reliability is no longer my only gripe.  Good weather can mean some trains, particularly the London Underground, become stiflingly hot and disgustingly uncomfortable.  As for my audiences well if cold weather wasn’t good for concentration heat is no better.  My audiences are a sweltering sea of shuffling, sweaty children.  Luckily for them I always incorporate a water pistol somewhere in my summer storytellings (although I’m  sure how a hose pipe ban would affect this – fingers crossed it doesn’t).

Whatever the weather the show must go on and I must look after myself.  In winter this means wrapping up and taking steps to avoid illness (ie being sure to eat enough fruit and vegetables and getting enough rest).  Dressing appropriately and living well is just as important in the summer time but as the temperatures rise it’s more important than ever that I drink water.

I understand my body better than when I first started working; I know that in the autumn I’ll have a cold and in the spring I’ll have hay fever both of which affect the quality of my voice.  I know that whilst March and then June-September when I am in demand I have to manage my workload, December will be a time to recover.  Last March I developed tonsillitis.  Whether this was down to work I’ll never truly know but undoubtedly it was a factor.

This blog may seem like I’m complaining about all forms of weather as only the British know how and I suppose I am but actually there’s a lot to be said for British weather too.  Each new season has its own identity and festivities which demand a different set of stories.  Then of course there are countless stories which are inspired by the weather and the seasons which I could not do without.  I can’t say that I ever miss the winter months.  It’s nice to watch the sunrise from a railway carriage but it’s even to be out and about in the early morning gloaming when it seems you have the world to yourself and the summer is stretching out in front of you.  So whether I’m dragging my suitcase through snow drifts, getting soaked to the skin in torrential rain or frazzled in 30 plus degree heat if there’s a story to be told I’m glad to be the one to be telling it.