Tag Archives: THE TWITS

Practicing what I preach: telling and exploring stories with a toddler

As a storyteller I am asked to work not just in a variety of different environments but also with all sorts of different people.  Most people come into contact with my storytelling because of my work with children and families in schools and libraries but I do also work with adults.  This includes running storytelling sessions for parents aimed at encouraging them to tell stories with their children at home.  In the sessions my key points are the importance of talking to children about their family history and identity, the value of telling stories through play and how that play can be enhanced and the long term benefits of nurturing a culture of reading at home.  These sessions are popular with parents searching for ideas to stimulate their children or just some reassurance that creating time to bond over a story is worthwhile. When my daughter Verity was born, this storyteller became a Daddy for the first time.  As you’d imagine storytelling and performance are part of the culture of our family.  Lauren and Verity have supported me at several festivals, we have done a Father-Daughter double act at early years and rhyme time storytelling sessions and earlier this year we reviewed one of our favourite books.  Watching Daddy working and unorthodox Daddy day care is undoubtedly a fun way for a toddler to pass the time but as she gets older if we want Verity to remain interested in stories I have to practice what I have been preaching to other parents for years.

Now I am the first person in the world to admit that parenting is really hard.  Whilst I might have the stamina to tell a story to an audience of 300 children, one toddler regularly leaves me exhausted.  Fortunately for me Lauren has been a super Mum since day one and has always been able to engage quite naturally with Verity.  It may seem strange considering my living but I used to find it very hard to talk to my baby.  Realising that not talking to her would be detrimental I tried to compensate by singing rhymes and make up songs to fill some of the awkward silences.   This one is a family favourite…

To the tune of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”

All the stinky babies, all the stinky babies

You put your legs up!

Just done a crappy in your nappy

Daddy’s going to change it

He’s got some wet wipes and a change mat

All you have to do is lie there.

If you like it then you should have put a nappy on it!

If you like it then you should have put a nappy on it!

Woah woah woah etc…

Fortunately for Verity conversation has become a lot easier as she has got older but this and other silly songs have got me through some very difficult moments.

We recently bought Verity a set of traditional tales including The Three Bears, The Gingerbread Man and The Billy Goats Gruff. If you have read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that Verity watches as much (if not more) TV as any toddler but books don’t read themselves and since introducing these stories they have become firm favourites. I am a self employed storyteller and I know that if I am left in sole charge of my daughter I am easily distracted with checking e-mails and taking phone calls but since purchasing this set of books John the storyteller has been unable to resist the opportunity to bake Gingerbread Men and whenever we go on a walk and there’s a bridge we’ll pretend to be either the Billy Goats trip trapping over or the Troll lurking under it. The other day the audience turned instigator as Verity suggested we make some Porridge for her Teddies.  It was a light bulb moment.  Soon we had three bears eating from three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three little beds set up in Verity’s bedroom.  An hour on a wet day flew by as we read and reread the story of The Three Bears with Verity and her dolly taking turns at being Goldilocks.

In my experience sharing and exploring stories is brilliant way to parent and I’m sure it’s having a positive effect on both of us.  There will be people reading this who don’t have access to the resources that we do but you don’t have to be a professional storyteller or have a lot of stuff to make stories a part of your family’s daily life.  To read a book, make up a silly song at bath time or play a game with a teddy bear means putting down the mobile phone, switching off the rest of the world and trying to be present for a few minutes because what children really value is time and the time spent bonding through stories will create memories that lasts forever.

“You are brilliant at what you do”

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

[Teacher, Derby, May 2019]

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

I introduce children to new stories.

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

I get children excited about stories.

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

I encourage listening and participation.

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

I boost confidence and attainment.

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

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

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

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

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

Getting resourceful…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mad March: 21 days of workshops, assemblies and presentations summed up in 10 bullet points.

We’re almost at the end of March and I’m happy to report that there has been no recurrence of the tonsillitis which blighted me a year ago meaning I was able to fulfil all my World Book Week commitments as I visited Stoke, Warrington, Glasgow, Paderborn, Hertfordshire (twice), Slough, Horsham, Saltash and Knowsley.  It’d be quite a dull read if I were to recount everything that’s happened so instead here are 10 things that stood out for me during another mad March.

1. Planes, trains and automobiles – I love travelling, meeting new people and taking my stories to new audiences and over the past three weeks I have travelled thousands of miles in the name of storytelling.  I was thrilled to be invited to tell stories in Warrington and Knowsley in the North West and to visit Saltash in Cornwall for the first time and that on the way my beard flummoxed a biometric passport reader in Amsterdam – apparently I no longer look like me!

2. Audiences of all shapes and sizes – In a very short space of time I have worked with about 2000 young people through workshops, assemblies and presentations.  Everybody I met engaged in their own ways and together we were able to enjoy sharing stories.  The sizes of the audiences have varied dramatically.  At the start of the month I did two presentations at The Wee Write Festival in Glasgow to 800 children from 18 primary schools.  Four days later in Slough I told the story of Anansi the Spider to 5 children with profound learning needs.  These sessions had their challenges but both experiences left me feeling very satisfied.

3. I accidentally ended up on TV!I have been working with MOD schools in Germany for a number of years and before leaving the UK I had been aware that it was probably going to be my final visit to Paderborn.  A few years ago I had been involved in an event at RAF Wycombe during which British Forces Broadcast Service had done a nice piece for the radio and I was keen to do something like this in Germany.  When I arrived I set about recording my sessions rather like I did for the BBC during National Storytelling Week.  At the end of day one I learned that BFBS would be sending a reporter with a camera into school the next day!  The idea was terrifying but Rob Olver (the journalist) was totally unobtrusive and has produced a really lovely report.  He was even kind enough to edit my interview so that I didn’t sound completely tongue tied.

4. Question & Answer.  Question and answer sessions are an occasional part of my job.  Generally I talk about reading, resilience and my creative process but every so often the children offer a lighter moment.  Here are my favourites from the last couple of weeks.

Child wearing a silver coat: My jacket changes colour when it gets wet.

Me: Oh yes, what colour does it change to?

Child wearing a silver coat: Silver

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Child: Who is your favourite aunty?

Me: Who is your favourite aunty?

Child: Grandma Hazel

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Me (holding up a grey bobble hat): What animal do you think this could be in our story?

Child: A panda!

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5. Why would you book a storyteller who lives at the other end of the country?  Now as you read the list of places I have visited during this very small window of time please remember that I live near Brighton.  Imagine being the person who made the booking, having to explain to their colleagues that rather than getting a local storyteller in you’ve opted for somebody who lives at the other end of the country.  A few weeks back I had this exact scenario in Derby (I’m cheating a little but this is a good anecdote); when I turned up, the other staff members wanted to know why on earth I had been asked to do the job.  Since visiting that particular school despite living five hours away I have been added to the academy trust’s supplier list so that all 15 of their schools can call upon my services.

6. Old friends and new acquaintances – As I have already suggested, I get a lot of enquiries for dates in early March.  It can be depressing how many organisations are keen to work with you but lack the flexibility to host a visit on any day except World Book Day.  Traditionally I reserve WBD for schools I like working with and this year I was back in Harpenden at one of my favourite schools sharing old projects (a rare run out for Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief) and new ones (my first UK schools audience for The Enormous Crocodile).  In fact this year I only visited one new school during World Book Week and that was a large Junior School in Slough.  I ran four sessions of global folk tales.  At the end of my first session an elderly teacher stood up and addressed the room.  He told us that he had been involved in teaching for over 50 years and worked with over 250 schools.  He told us that in his career he had been at many such presentations but in his opinion mine had been fantastic.  It was an incredible and completely unexpected moment and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

7. If it ain’t broke… – As a professional storyteller I am often guilty of falling back on what works rather than pushing myself particularly at busy times.  This is good and bad.  Doing lots of days has meant I can quietly consolidate The Enormous Crocodile before doing a series of public events later this year but in Horsham fell back on Goldilocks and the Three Bears again.  It’s a story that I have told in the particular setting on a number of occasions and whilst the children love it and I’ve experimented with role play and imaginative play scenarios around it I fear its lost some of its freshness.  Determined to address this, next year I’ll be working with the same centre to deliver a series of sessions which will allow me to develop new material for Early Years and Foundation children starting with National Nursery Rhyme Week in November.

8. Getting resourceful – Whilst in Horsham I could be accused of resting on my laurels nothing could be further from the truth in St Albans where I walked into the setting with nothing but a photograph of the contents of their craft cupboard.  Using open resources to tell stories is something I want to write about in the coming weeks so I won’t say much more than it was a lot of fun and very creatively liberating.

9. The future is bright/keeping the wolf from the door – Away from the frontline of storytelling I have been doing a lot of office work.  It’s no great secret that moving out of London presents certain challenges to my business model but I’ve decided to take a “just work harder” approach to the problem.  I’ve already mentioned what we hope to do in Horsham but in the last two weeks I have messaged every primary school in Surrey and Sussex as well as English language colleges in Brighton about potential projects and opportunities.  I’ve been updating my website calendar and had some interesting discussions with storytellers, libraries and educators about the future.  Just last week I delivered the local history assembly I devised for the London Borough of Waltham Forest at a Borough of Culture meeting and hopefully a new project will be approved that will see me visiting as many as 60 local schools to talk about the area’s history, identity and culture.

10. Making memories – Last Friday, as I began a very long journey from Saltash back home I was standing at a bus stop and a little girl and her great grandmother walked by.  The little girl who had been one of my volunteers in a session that day stopped and introduced me.  She then proceeded to sketch out one of the stories I had told in her session to her great grandmother.  It took me back; you see you forget that as you dash around the place that you are touching people’s lives.  The reason I work so hard to get the best stories I can and the reason I badger so many people to host my work is that I bring them something different, something happy, something fun and something stays with them when I am long gone.  I made a difference to that little girl and hearing her become the storyteller she made a difference to me.

This March has been full of special memories and before you know it we’ll be planning World Book Day 2020(!) but for now I’m looking forward to a couple of days at home and to seeing what April brings…

John Kirk is a professional storyteller.  To find out more about his work or to enquire about a booking contact me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Enormous Crocodile with the Roald Dahl Company

In September I was invited to meet with the Roald Dahl Company in central London to discuss the work I had been doing with “The Twits” over the past two years.  They wanted to know more about my version of the story and we discussed access and how storytelling could help Dahl’s work reach more people.  To walk into Roald Dahl HQ and to talk about stories was one of the biggest thrills of my life.  I had been worried about the meeting having had some issues with the licence earlier in the year but from that very first meeting Roald Dahl team have been very supportive.  In late September a producer from the company came along to watch me perform in north London.  This presentation became the basis for discussing a new project for next year.

“I’ve got clever plans and special tricks.”

I am pleased to announce that in 2019 with the support of The Roald Dahl Company I’ll be telling Roald Dahl’s “The Enormous Crocodile”.  This is a tremendous opportunity to tell a popular, short story by perhaps this country’s most celebrated author and to engage and inspire a very young audience (probably four year olds rather than the six year olds who loved The Twits, Hundred Mile an Hour Dog and The Chamber of Mischief) in stories and reading.  It’ll also be a chance for professional reflection and development as I see inside and learn from a very respected, high calibre creative organisation.  In the coming weeks I’ll be allowed access to some of the Company’s resources as we work up this story and revise my presentation of The Twits.  For the first time since my last theatrical bow in 2007 I’ll be part of a larger creative team which includes Joseph Attenborough as composer, Dan White as artist and excitingly, Amy Hodge who will act as dramaturg, director and co-conspirator.  I can’t wait to get started!

I’ll be launching the story in March and will announce more dates for both The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits in the coming weeks.  If you know a potential venue please tell them about the project.  I’m hoping that libraries and literature festivals will want me to visit to tell this story but I’m also interested in talking to reception class teachers, primary schools and primary academy trusts who feel their schools could be venues for larger multi school presentations and public showings as I try to find new ways of making this story accessible to the most possible people.

I hope this is a story gets everybody excited and that 2019 can be the year of the crocodile!

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.

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