Christie from Albuquerque writes…

I am well used to my work as a storyteller having an impact on young lives. Parents, teachers and event organisers often get in touch to tell me the positive effect a story session has had on their children and in recent weeks I have had some lovely feedback.

Christie, a 73 year old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, got in touch via my website. She is taking a lifelong learning class in poetry and their group was studying Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”. She had been particularly interested in Tim the Ostler and a quick Google search later she had found me (I wrote a blog about Tim some years ago, it continues to be the page on my website which receives the most traffic).

Over the years I have done storytelling work with a number of groups based beyond the UK, visiting the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates, The Guernsey Literary Festival and MOD schools in Germany. Like the interview I did for BBC Radio Kent, some of these opportunities came completely out of the blue and suitably demonstrate the power of an internet search for connecting people. Some enquiries I’ve received have been no less flattering but sadly totally unfeasible. I regularly get asked to do a 30 minute assembly in schools in Cornwall or Sunderland but slightly more bizarrely a few years ago I was contacted by an outdoor museum in North Carolina and even stranger still, the Dancing Cop, Tony Lepore once invited me to join him on his TV show in Providence, Rhode Island! If only the world were smaller and flights less expensive.

Christie from Albuquerque asked if I was prepared to share the complete text of my response to Noyes’ poem which of course I was and now I have the satisfaction of knowing that this week something I wrote to help children with their school work is having an impact and being shared by a poetry group almost 5000 miles from my home.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

Five fantastic bits of feedback from February…

I was recently looking at the testimonials section of my website. I’m really proud of the comments I have there but some of them now appear quite old. Here are five extraordinarily lovely reviews that I have received for work in the month of February 2020. I’m chuffed with all of them.

Number One – Teacher in Sussex after a traditional tales storytelling session.

“The children had a lovely time and were engaged from the first moment. My favourite thing was seeing their faces rapt with attention and enjoyment, staring up at you; they were genuinely happy.”

Number Two – Teacher in Hertfordshire after I took part in a storytelling for well being event.

“Engaging children who aren’t always fully engaged!”

Number Three – from The Roald Dahl Museum after “The Twits”

“It was a great session! Our visitors really enjoyed the performance and the interaction. You made the story come to life and everyone in the room was absorbed in it.”

Number Four – A parent who saw me tell “The Enormous Crocodile” in Carshalton.

“(A) Naturally wonderful, gifted storyteller.”

Number Five – from Rugby Gallery & Museum after I devised and presented “George’s Marvellous Museum”

“… worth every penny!”

After a quiet December and January this month I have helped launch The Sefton Saga as well as The Wolverhampton Literary Festival and school, museum and gallery sessions in Sussex, London, Kent and the Midlands. These comments give a real sense of my strengths and the quality of the work I do. They are a real boost ahead of World Book Week and fingers crossed I can achieve similar praise during mad March.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

Alerting you to a Dahl-tastic February half term

It has been four years since my retelling of “The Twits” debuted in Islington. I am yet to tire of telling this classic tale to children and families and last year it received a timely overhaul at Roald Dahl HQ which refreshed both the story and the teller. I still enjoy seeing children’s faces as I describe the wormy spaghetti (and the adult’s faces when the bucket of Hug Tight sticky glue comes out!). It remains a pleasure and a privilege to share this story.

Believe it or not a year ago this week I moved from east London to East Sussex, a shift which I thought would spell curtains for working as a storyteller. Instead it has seen me having to shift the focus of my work and adapt to a life beyond London. I’m not saying this is always easy (I certainly see 4am more often than perhaps I’d like to) but I am still here and still enjoying the work.

It is also the anniversary of a superb week spent at Roald Dahl HQ breathing life into “The Enormous Crocodile” with Amy Hodge. In the year since I have enjoyed sharing this brilliant story with slightly younger audiences than perhaps Mr and Mrs Twit are intended to meet. I love the way I tell this story; it’s colour and inventiveness makes me and my audiences smile.

I was fortunate enough to have a very busy throughout 2019 which meant that despite spending the week of Roald Dahl Day touring Greater Manchester and Merseyside I probably didn’t share the two stories I’m best known for telling as often as I might have otherwise. So its with great excitement that I look forward to the February half term when I’ll be telling both “The Twits” and “The Enormous Crocodile” for public audiences.

On Monday 17th February I will fulfil a long held ambition as Mr Twit visits The Roald Dahl Museum. I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is to be taking my version of a Roald Dahl story back to the place where it all began for what I’m sure will be three very special sessions. On Wednesday 19th February I will be doing a very special retelling of “George’s Marvellous Medicine” for Rugby Gallery and Museum. This is something we have been working on for a few months and whilst there will be aspects of my theatrical style of storytelling on show (boy would I have loved to do a homage of Rik Mayall!), this will be much more of a workshop styled presentation of a story. Then on Thursday 20th February I will be teaming up with storyteller and friend Andy Copps as we present a double bill of Roald Dahl stories (Billy and the Minpins and The Enormous Crocodile).

Here are the dates – I hope to see you there!

Monday 17/2/20 – The Twits @ The Roald Dahl Museum, Great Missenden (3 presentations)

Wednesday 19/2/20 – George’s Marvellous Medicine @ Rugby Gallery and Museum (3 presentations)

Thursday 20/2/20 – The Enormous Crocodile @ The Charles Cryer Theatre, Carshalton

Saturday 22/2/20 – The Twits @ Eastleigh, Chandler’s Ford and Winchester Libraries

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

A Sefton Saga

Let’s play a game.

Look at the picture above. Whereabouts are they? Whenabouts are they? Who or what is in the picture? What has happened before, what is happening now and what will happen next?

If you are playing the game properly then you should be building up a story for the picture. Your story is based on facts (the sky in the picture is blue) and assumptions (that bird isn’t very happy). These you have teased out by considering the picture as being more than a piece of art.

What if I were show you one of the following photographs and asked you to play the same game.

The man in the pictures is Jack Johnson, “The Hermit of the Sandhills” who lived an extraordinary life in Crosby, on the coast just north of Liverpool, during the Victorian era.  In my opinion its much easier to play our game with the art piece because there are more clues as to a possible narrative. What the photographs show is an old man holding a bucket, sitting with a lady and riding a horse and cart.  What you don’t see is that Jack Johnson was a soldier and lost part of his ear in the Crimean War.  That he was once shipwrecked whilst travelling from Louisiana to Liverpool and that his work as a Gamekeeper meant that he built a shack amongst the sand dunes and lived in it for fifty years. The photographs show a series of moments in time over a century ago which offer more mysteries than answers.

Jack Johnson’s life is now central to an exciting writing project called The Sefton Saga.  Each month during Sefton’s year as Merseyside’s Borough of Culture the community will be invited to build a story, with contributor’s taking the previous instalment as their starting point. This week The Sefton Saga was launched at Crosby Library and I was invited to contribute the first section of the story.   Whilst this was a tremendous honour it was also a fairly daunting task; to write a story that would inspire a community to write.

So how did I approach this?  Well playing the game I asked you to play a few moments ago I began to consider what intrigued me the most about Jack Johnson and these pictures. Here are the questions that would become the basis of my story.

  • Who took the photographs and what was their relationship with Jack Johnson?
  • Whilst Jack Johnson is known to have been respected by the older community how would a child feel if they met someone who lived like this for the first time?

In answering these questions and using the information I’d been provided and a little imagination I created the opening of the saga.

Simon Cushing wanted to go fishing.  So it was he and his little brother Pete set out for the beach one morning carrying a broom handle with some old string tied to one end.

“Where are you two troublemakers off to?” asked their neighbour, Mrs Donnelly.

“We’re going fishing.  We’re going to catch a whale!” chimed Pete, his grin as wide as the Mersey.

“Are you indeed?” laughed Mrs Donnelly, “I didn’t know there were whales in Crosby.  Are you going to bash it with that saucepan?”

The boys had borrowed Mrs Cushing’s best copper saucepan for collecting worms to use as fishing bait.  As they reached the first of the huge rolling sand dunes, Simon began digging energetically, using the saucepan as a makeshift spade.

“This is no good, the sand’s too soft.  We’ll not find any worms here.  We need to go further out”.

Between them the boys lifted the saucepan and the sea filled their noses as they dragged it closer to the water.

“Oi! What do you think you’re doing?  Get away from there!”

Looking up from their digging the boys saw old Jack the Gamekeeper.  Simon froze.  Every school boy in Crosby knew about Old Jack, the hermit of Sandhills, the old soldier who lived alone in a shack on the beach, how he was missing part of his ear and how he kept children in a cage to feed to his dog.

“You shouldn’t be out here!”

As the wind swirled around them to their horror the boys realised their feet were getting wet.  The tide had turned and they were in danger of being cut off completely from the beach.  Pete began to cry.

“What are we going to do?  I can’t swim.”

Old Jack waded into the sea and fished the stranded Cushing children over each of his broad shoulders then, splashed by the waves and sea salt tears, he made his way home as steadily as a great ship sails through a storm.  As Simon was carried towards Old Jack’s hut, he couldn’t help wondering if the stories he’d heard about his rescuer were true.  To his relief inside, instead of a cage he saw a rocking chair set beside a small stove and next to the bed were photographs of a woman holding a child.  As the gamekeeper put his catch down in the chair an excitable young Labrador bounded over and began licking the boy’s hands and faces.  At the sight of it the gruff old man’s face, weathered to the colour of roast beef and with as many lines as some ancient map of the dunes, creased into a friendly, toothless smile.

“Good boy” he chuckled “good boy!”

The drama of the beach was soon forgotten as the boys spent the rest of the afternoon under a thick blanket in front of a crackling fire, eagerly listening as old Jack sat puffing on his clay pipe telling extraordinary tales from his life.

As I say, it was a thrill to be asked to write the first section of such an ambitious project and I will be fascinated to see the direction taken in subsequent contributions.  In making Jack a storyteller reflecting on his own life I hope I have left enough space for the tale to go in just about any direction, factual or fantastical.  Meanwhile the same device could serve as a fixed point which might be revisited and ultimately perhaps the final author will finish the story of the Cushing boys fishing trip.

Whilst I may not know how the story will end I do know that I will be back in Sefton later in the year to celebrate what will hopefully be an incredible year of story writing.  If you would like to contribute to the saga you can visit Sefton Council’s website for more details about the project.  Good luck!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

10 photos for 10 years…

I was nominated by my good friend Stephanie Mitchell to take part in the Performance/Artist picture challenge. The rules are that every day, you select an image from a day in the life of a Performer/Artist. The aim being to raise awareness of the arts.

Well, as its the week before Christmas I thought I’d break the rules and post my pictures all at once as I reflect on 10 years as a storyteller. The pictures I have chosen show why I am still telling stories after all these years; just look at the children’s faces.

How do you show a picture to somebody with a visual impairment?

So we reach the end of another year.  It has been very busy for me both personally and professionally as we made the move from London to Sussex and the impact that had on my storytelling work.  I have done lots of different things; from working with 47 Waltham Forest Primary Schools as part of the London Borough of Culture to storytelling in a care home for the elderly.  I have lead nursery and early years sessions and storyteller staff training sessions for Where Reading Rocks and libraries.  I had a very successful summer telling Jonathan Emmett’s “Bringing Down the Moon”, Simon James’ “The Boy from Mars” and Dom Conlon’s “Why the Cow Jumped Over the Moon” whilst my relationship with The Roald Dahl Storytelling Company saw a consolidation of “The Twits” and the launch of “The Enormous Crocodile”.  This year through my work as a storyteller I travelled from Glasgow, Plymouth, Swansea, Newcastle, Norwich, Liverpool, Guernsey and all points in between.  I thoroughly enjoyed what could be my final visits to Germany to work with Ministry of Defence schools and to the Midlands to work with US military but at the same time I did more birthday and private parties than ever before. My final thought for 2019 is about the work I have done with children with special educational needs.

In November I have been in east London working with Waltham Forest and the Borough of Culture in special educational needs environments.  I devised a sensory session exploring Walthamstow High Street and its famous market; looking at pictures from Vestry House Museum’s archive, smelling and tasting the foods of the market, listening to music and voices of the market and touching some of the goods and textiles on sale there.  In this way we told a story of a stroll through the town.

I worked with lots of children with a wide spectrum of profound and complex needs taking a little time to share each item with each audience member individually and allowing them to engage with the object (and me) in their own ways but probably the biggest challenge was working with children with visual impairment.  How do you show a map or a photograph to somebody who can’t see it?  I tried to be imaginative, scoring the outline of the image and cutting streets out of maps so they became a textural as well as a visual experience.  Speaking to the staff I worked with and reflecting on the session I feel that I could have done more to put myself in the position of the audience.  What is a map if you can’t see it?  Well, it’s a large piece of paper.  If I had presented a picture and offered more context that might have enhanced the audience experience.  So if the picture is of a market trader wearing a hat and a coat, shouting at passers-by from his fruit stall as the storyteller I could have offered a fuller description of the man, his work or had a similar hat for the audience to feel and wear so they got a better sense the image being discussed.

I enjoy running sensory storytelling sessions and have had compliments for the sessions I have been devising and running this autumn.  To this end Father Christmas has already delivered a 12ft parachute and a range of musical instruments for participants to use in my future sessions because building on what has been a fantastic year has to be my focus for the year ahead. Now that I have done it, I want to do it better.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

How do you play Pass the Parcel with a deaf child?

I was invited to work at a Halloween themed birthday party for a five year old.  As the guests were going to be mainly 3-6 years old this would be completely different to other Halloween storytelling events I had done before.  Rather than trying to get the children to sit and listen I wanted to keep them as active and engaged as possible throughout our interaction so I decided to offer a single narrative about a School of Magic and to string a series of party games into the story.  We started with a craft activity (making our own school badges), before commencing a series of magical lessons including practising loading brooms (Musical Chairs) and spell casting (Pass the Parcel).  I incorporated further storytelling opportunities by using the famous Bear Hunt story; first as Follow my Leader game in which I encouraged the children to imagine and roleplay different terrains and then as a more formal storytelling (instead of a Bear in a cave we were hunting for a Spell Book in a creepy house!).

It was important to the hosts that everybody felt included.  This meant trying to ensure everybody was able to participate including a deaf child who was among the guests.  I am a fairly visual storyteller and use my face and body as well as a lot of colourful props and hats to communicate and enhance my regular repertoire but many of the games I had chosen for the party involved instruction and aural stimulus (starting and stopping music).  In the event the age of the guests proved to be almost as big a barrier to participation as deafness as some of the children were so young that they didn’t recognise the games we were playing.  Thankfully the adults stepped in to lend a hand and prevented the party from faltering.  Afterwards I was praised for the structure I offered and how I got the children involved but this was a large party and I was immensely grateful to get help from the other adults in the room.  In my experience whilst it is possible for a facilitator to encourage a child to participate, role modelling by a parent is invaluable even at a birthday party.

Although the story was very simple the narrative became key to the event and at times I was more like a compere than a storyteller or facilitator.  I set out to create something that the children would enjoy and whilst my games heavy approach led me to consider accessibility this delivery seemed to be a hit with everybody.

John was quick to suggest an exciting itinerary full of fun and games for the children. He asked all the right questions and adapted to children’s age and special requirements. He ensured helpful props for those who were deaf. John’s enthusiasm and professionalism was comforting. Children’s parties can feel stressful but he managed to take a lot of pressure off which was fantastic. My son and his friends had a wonderful time. John was ever so friendly and really engaged with children and adults. John made sure he arrived in good time to meet my son and go through the plans to ensure he was comfortable. I would use John’s service again and I highly recommend him. Thank you John so everything that you did. We are very grateful.

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

I am thankful..

Some of the people I work with I will never hear from again.

Some I work with from time to time, others book me annually.

Some of the people I work with show me their world and make me want to be a better person.

Some make me feel so welcome that in time I have come to regard them as friends and look forward to seeing individuals almost as much as I look forward to doing the actual work.

The greetings card pictured was a daddy-daughter weekend project inspired by news that a one of a kind will be retiring when her school closes next summer (an Elementary School on a US military facility in the midlands).  In the time I have known this person she has paid for my visits out of her salary and I have never managed to leave her without a goody bag full of gifts not just for me but for my family.  Whilst I wish her well for the future I already miss her enthusiasm and her ability to find the best in others.  To have known her and so many other inspirational people like her I am truly thankful.

How do you sensualise Shakespeare?

This Halloween I was booked to provide entertainment at a birthday party for an 11 year old.  I selected some of my favourite spooky stories giving some of them a modern twist for the young audience (a Tudor mansion became a three bed semi).  I also decided to complement the more traditional storytelling with a sensory exercise based upon William Shakespeare’s spell from “Macbeth”, beginning “Double, double toil and trouble”.

On the night I was located away from the rest of the party.  This not only allowed me to work with the minimum of interruption but gave me the time and space to set up a series of bowls with the different elements of the spell in each.  The elements were inspired by Shakespeare’s famous verse which reads almost like a shopping list for making a really noxious potion.  Even though it is famous the language is 500 years old, some of the things on the list are unfamiliar and some could be texturally similar so it took me a lot of time to think of what to use and how to differentiate between them.  In the end I sourced a lot of the elements from the pic and mix at the supermarket (the Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting became a jelly snake which had been covered in strawberry jelly).  For wool of bat I used wool, for howlett’s wing I used feathers and for baboon’s blood I used strawberry jam.  As this was about feeling the elements all the participants were blindfolded before the bowls were revealed and the children only saw what they’d been feeling at the end.

The effect was quite something.  Even working in small groups the children were able to terrify themselves (and each other) into overthinking what they were touching with several children unable to complete the exercise.  I had to continually remind the participants to trust me and not to talk as any discussion could spoil the experience for the next person.

The material was well received and the sensory exploration was a fun way of enhancing the storytelling.  This is definitely something I would repeat with a similar age group even if everything did end up smelling like a strawberry jelly!

John Kirk is a professional storyteller telling stories in schools and libraries and at events and festivals.  For more information or to make an enquiry, complete a contact form.

What can we learn from stories?

I recently worked with a school near Chichester who were looking at stories from around the world and what we can learn from them.  I found this to be an intriguing and refreshing project.  It goes without saying that there are simply thousands of popular myths, legends and folktales.  Often they have remained popular because they go some way to explaining something or have a deeper symbolism but this challenge was about considering the moral meaning of tales rather than deciphering their metaphors.  Even before Aesop’s time storytelling has provided a mirror to the way we live as audiences have judged the choices of both heroes and villains.  As a storyteller I am drawn to colourful, funny, crowd pleasing tales so this brief really got me thinking about my material differently.

Here are the three stories I opted to tell to the children…

As Much as Salt – there are hundreds of versions of the story of the girl banished for comparing her love of her father to her love of salt (Shakespeare uses it in King Lear).  It has a beautiful resolution as the girl’s father learns what it is to love and what it is to forgive.

The Proud Turtle – you can’t do a session for a 5 year old and not have some animals doing silly things!  This story is one of my favourites.  Again there are lots of versions of the tale of the boastful know-it-all who falls from the sky because of a lack of humility.  I tend to leave it as the Turtle falls – it’s for the children to decide whether he survives the drop (and whether he deserves it).

Stone Soup – again lots of people claim this story of how a community make the tastiest stone soup through sharing.  It’s a lot of fun to get the children to suggest ingredients and act out preparing the soup and of these three tales has the most obvious message.

Meanwhile I was also asked to present a story set for an event celebrating the achievements of people who had volunteered at their local libraries.  Rather than something frothy I wanted my audience to have something a bit more thought provoking but also be suitable for an event celebrating volunteering in libraries.  I chose to tell a story about a boy who leaves his village and heads to the big city with nothing except his Mother’s wisdom.  In the story as he shares his wisdom he rises from the market place to become an adviser to the King.  In this instance when I’d finished I elaborated on the metaphor of shared wisdom; what if the boy had had a library card, could that have helped him to rise from the market to the Royal Palace?  What then the importance of the volunteer who listens to a child as they read or discuss their reading?  What role does the library play in the journey from their market place to the palace?  If you offer this kind of context I think it was an appropriate choice of story.

So what do I take away from the experience of considering the values I extol in the stories that I tell?  A good story will entertain but a well-chosen one can offer an insight into who we are and who we might like to be and that can be powerful.