Tag Archives: event storyteller

Playing stories during the Coronavirus lock down

This blog sees me return to an old topic. Using stories as the basis of play with children. In the past I have spoken about how Verity and I have used stories like The Gingerbread Man and Goldilocks as the inspiration for our play but now we find ourselves in the midst of a national lock down I am finding that I have to be even more creative to keep both of us stimulated.

Here are a couple of ideas that we have tried so far. In each case our activity was accompanied by either reading, listening to or watching a video of the story that would be the basis of our play. I felt this was important context otherwise she wouldn’t understand that the game she was enjoying was anything to do with a book. In some cases the game we played was very vaguely connected to the story (maybe a theme or a picture) but I tried to make it as fun as possible during what must be a very confusing time for my toddler.

The Three Little Pigs – this is a game we play all the time. Verity has a Wendy House which she enjoys playing with. I simply stand at the door and pretend to be the Big Bad Wolf so that she can tell me that she won’t be letting me inside (not that I would fit!). The story of the Three Little Pigs is very simple and Verity has remembered the phrasing of the story from a very young age. We have played this game in play tents, soft play centres, her Wendy House and even Dens that we have built together – she never gets tired of saying “No Big Bad Wolf, not by the hairs on my chinny, chinny chin, I will not let you in!”

Stick Man – as the end of last year I was asked to use Julia Donaldson’s “Stick Man” as the basis for a day of play at a nursery. Verity and I chose some sticks and stuck eyes on them. We then used the sticks like dolls or action figures to explore the garden and the house – she loves it when Stick Man tries to climb the slide and keeps slipping down it!

Stick Man playing fetch with a puppet dog in our garden.

Elmer the Elephant – this is a brilliant kiddie craft project. For it you will need a plastic milk bottle, some card and coloured paper, glue and googly eyes. Cut the top off the milk bottle and trim the handle so that it is an appropriate length for your elephant’s trunk. Attach ear shaped pieces of card to the sides of the bottle before covering the bottle and the card in coloured paper and positioning the googly eyes. It is dead simple but a lovely activity that we were able to do together and the result is fantastic.

Verity and Elmer

Pirates of the Caribbean / Peter Pan – the other day we had a vacuum delivered. I decided to turn the box into a Pirate Ship complete with wheel and anchor. Verity put on her Pirate costume and I laid out the fabric I use to make seaside landscapes. We then put on Hans Zimmer and used some soft balls to have a canon battle then took some beads into the garden where we buried our treasure in the flower bed.

Pirate Verity sailing round the kitchen in search of adventure.

A few weeks ago I did a training course for Hammersmith and Fulham Libraries based upon the song Five Little Men in a Flying Saucer. During the session I asked the participants to decorate a washing peg so that it looked like a person.

Ten Little Men in a training session

My idea was that decorating cloths pegs was an affordable, accessible and relatively sustainable creative activity for a library authority to incorporate into a storytelling session. It also left me with a mass of unused cloths pegs.

Humpty Dumpty – this is a classic diorama using pens, paints and a boiled egg.

Verity loves her nursery rhymes so I had the idea of creating a wall out of food box, using an egg for Humpty Dumpty and a couple of cloths pegs for the soldiers and the kings men.

All the King’s soldiers (and Verity) couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Now you could say that this wasn’t a terribly inclusive activity for a toddler. Well we actually doubled up everything (so Verity had her own cloths pegs and eggs and she decorated the wall). She was so taken with the result that three days later and despite having dropped him on the floor, she will not allow anybody to eat Humpty Dumpty!

These are just a few ideas for games and activities inspired by books and facilitated through necessity during a public health lock down. Some of them I dreamt up myself but most I credit to the internet. I am very lucky; I have a lot of resources available to me that I don’t have to go out and buy. I have an eager audience to try ideas on (saying this Verity doesn’t care if an idea flops because she is still spending time with Daddy). We also have a lot of space to do things. I share these ideas to inspire you to think about how we can make stories a part of our children’s play so that books and reading remain present in our children’s lives even when libraries, schools and nurseries are closed. In the coming weeks Verity will be receiving her first copy of Storytime Magazine which I am sure she will devour because she loves good stories. It’s my job as her parent to feed her enthusiasm for stories not only by reading to her but by keeping our activities as fresh as possible and making sure this lock down, however long it may last, is as fun as possible for both of us.

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.

Are you an April Fool?

Traditionally the 1st April would be a day to trick people with tall tales and fabricated facts but living as we do in such unprecedented times where truth is questioned daily and almost anything is possible April Fools Day may have lost some of its edge. Now I love barely believable tales. There are some truly wonderful myths and legends out there and one of the great privileges of being a storyteller is introducing new audiences to fantastic stories. In an effort to restore a little of the spirit of the day I have made a family friendly quiz to intrigue, entertain and get you thinking.  What follows is a mix of folklore and facts.  Without using an internet search engine for help, can you work out which of the following statements I looked up and which I made up?

  1. In the 13th Century a crocodile escaped from the menagerie of Richard I and caused damage to the Essex village of Wormingford.
  2. The Panama hat originates in Ecuador.
  3. Anthropologists believe that the Yeti and Bigfoot are related and that at some time close to the end of the last Ice Age would have walked from North America to the Himalayas.
  4. In the 18th Century Mary Toft became famous after giving birth to a rabbit.
  5. The Dahu is a French mountain goat with shorter legs on one side of its body than the other (meaning its great at standing on steep slopes but can only walk in one direction).
  6. Atlantis is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean close to the island of Madeira.
  7. Flora Sandes won several medals fighting with the Serbian Army during The Great War after she was rejected by the British when she volunteered to be a Nurse.
  8. The passengers on the world’s first hot air balloon flight were a sheep, a duck and a chicken.
  9. In the early 19th Century a man in Hammersmith was sentenced to death for shooting a bricklayer after mistaking him for the ghost he was hunting.
  10. The British Museum’s “Unlucky Mummy” is responsible for the sinking of the Titanic.

At this point you are expecting me to reveal which of the statements I made up.  Well I’ll tell you that I only made up two of them but I’m not going to tell you which ones.  If you’re still curious why not spend some time looking them up yourselves? I hope you enjoy exploring these stories – happy April Fools Day!

Suggestions for musical instruments to use whilst storytelling

I find that musical instruments have an enormous value in helping me to tell my stories. I was recently asked if I would put together a list of the musical instruments I would recommend for school children to compliment their storytelling work. The following is based upon my experience and my personal kit. Some storytellers play guitars or accordions (I dabble with a concertina) but as I tell a multitude of different stories often at quite a high tempo and because I’m not very musical, the instruments I prefer are easy to use, durable and adaptable. My list is by no means exhaustive but some of the instruments I’ll talk about are invaluable to my work.

Generally I like the instrument I use to become a part of the story rather than just something I stop and play. When I use a kazoo to represent a wasp or a fly I float around the audience landing on children’s heads and when I am narrating a tiger I use the low purring of my vibroslap to inform the rhythm of my stride and help the audience imagine a wild animal stalking it’s meal. Perhaps my finest hour came when in “Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief”I used a duck whistle to represent, well, a duck!

When I am preparing to tell a story I look for opportunities to use musical instruments to enhance the storytelling. In Jonathan Emmett’s “Bringing Down the Moon” the Mole tries to pull the moon out of the sky. First he jumps up and grab the moon. As well as getting the audience to jump, I bash on a hand drum to represent Mole’s heavy landings. Then Mole gets a long stick and tries to poke down the moon. For this I use a long handled tambourine and perform a swishing action with the audience. Finally Mole throws acorns into the sky as he tries to knock down the moon. I use a wooden block and a beater, holding the block in front of me as I perform a throwing action with the beater.

I use instruments to punctuate and define moments in a story. In a folk tale like Anansi the Spider when Anansi completes Nyame’s difficult challenges and when Jack steals the harp and the hen from the giant I use a small set of cymbals to highlight these triumphs (I suppose a triangle could do a similar job). I have a set of chimes which I have used in supernatural stories but they tend to get tangled too easily. I have also been known to sing (in German) and in a story like Michael Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful” to play a simple tune on a harmonica. I would only do this if I felt the song complimented the story.

There is undoubtedly a magic in an audience seeing and hearing an instrument being played particularly if that instrument offers a specific sound to the story or captures a specific moment. When telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” I use a swanee whistle as Mrs Twit floats up and then back down into the garden and in Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile”as Trunky launches the crocodile into space I use a green singing tube as the crocodile is swung around in a blurry circle.

Audiences love seeing me swinging the singing tube around my head almost as much as they love seeing and hearing my thunder maker. I consider my thunder maker to be an absolutely essential piece of kit. It fascinates people of all ages, is easy to use and has so many applications in so many different stories that it is often the first thing I put in my bag when packing for a day of storytelling.

I have been fortunate enough to work with composer Joseph Attenborough who has recorded soundtracks for several of my storytellings but there is something special about making music together. Using shakers and bells is a great way of including an audience in a story. An egg shaker or set of sleigh bells are incredibly inclusive instruments and when I do workshop sessions with 3-5 year olds and in dementia care homes I’ll try to offer the participants every opportunity to have a go. Similarly claves are a wonderful way of incorporating rhythm, listening and repeating activities.

It’s possible to spend a fortune putting a box of instruments together for the purpose of storytelling but it isn’t necessary. My advice would be to collect instruments that make the experience accessible. There are some marvellous instruments out there but they are only any good if you know what to do with them. It’d be much better to include some old wooden spoons and saucepans and allow the storytellers to make a racket as their tales sing.

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.

Coronavirus videos week one (feat.Gareth Calway)

Since all schools and libraries in the UK are currently closed I have decided to take a tentative dip into the world of internet based storytelling. Its very different to my usual routine as I am interacting with a laptop screen rather than an audience. I am hoping to put up a few more videos in the coming weeks but before I do I am investing in a microphone!

Here you’ll find Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Monkeys who saved the Moon, The Three Wishes and Romeo and Juliet. I am also excited to be able to share some of the work of storyteller Gareth Calway. I hope to be able to showcase the work of other storytellers during these stressful times.

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.