Tips on telling funny-scary campfire stories (repost from 2009)

I've been transferring posts from 2012 to 2015 to this blog, as I upgrade my website. In the process, I've dipped into my old blogspot site, Storytelling Notes. I began blogging in 2004 and had some prolific years. In 2009, for example, I wrote 71 posts and in 2008, I wrote 163. Holy cow! I'm going to have to up my game.

Here's one from 2009, with updated photo and video. 

Night has fallen. The campfire flickers and pops, coals glow, listeners creep closer to the fire and the storyteller. It’s time for scary stories. But wait…some of the listeners are too small for the stories of La Llorona or hookman. It’s time for a funny-scary campfire story, just enough for shivers, not enough for nightmares. As many of you know, I’m best known for telling The Ghost With the One Black Eye, and many other classic funny-scary campfire stories. Here are a few tips for effective campfire storytelling for the youngest listeners.

1. Notice the body language of the listeners as you introduce the story. Suggest that the smallest children sit with an older sibling or adult. Some small children like very scary stories, but it’s kinder to the adults who have to be with the child later on to tell gentler stories to young children. 

2. Let the listeners know right away that this will be a funny-scary story, not a scary-scary story. 

3. Choose a story with a joke ending. You can find a few of these in Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series, in Simon Bronner’s American Children’s Folklore, or ask a ten-year-old who has been to camp. 

4. Err on the side of goofy characters, not scary, for young listeners. Build in a hand movement or repetitive phrase so the audience can join in. 

5. Sometimes even a funny story can scare a small child. Reassure the individual child that it will all be fine in the end.

6. For a little shiver, pause just before the punchline. This builds suspense and creates an even bigger laugh at the funny ending.

7. Don’t be surprised if children say “That wasn’t scary!” at the end. This is most likely not a true critique, just an observation--and sometimes a way a slightly scared child has of finding courage.

Once the little ones have gone off to bed, and you’re sure that those who are still around the fire can handle it, if you have time and inclination, then tell the truly scary stories.

The power of quiet

I'm not a loud storyteller.  I prefer to invite listeners in to my story world, rather than grab them by the lapels and drag them in. I'm an introvert, so maybe that's why this is my style. Oh, sometimes I get loud, sometimes I wind the kids up, sometimes the decibel level gets high, but I like to bring everybody back to a calm state where we can all enjoy the story connection. I love seeing kids really listening to stories.

This past week, I had the pleasure of working with individual classes of second-graders (7-8 year olds) at Quail Run Elementary School in Lawrence, KS on the Learning about the environment through the arts program, through the Lied Center of Kansas. This was the project on lifecycles, dragonflies, puppets and storytelling. I've worked with these teachers before and was impressed once more by their powerful classroom management skills. All three teachers spoke quietly and calmly with the students, giving instructions without raising their voices. On top of this, they were kind. The children were attentive. They weren't automatons, they weren't stressed, they were just enjoying the sessions without getting wild. The teachers understand the power of quiet. I don't know if this is a school attitude or just these three teachers, but it's a wonder to watch. Afterwards, I was talking with one of them about this. She laughed and said she thought the kids were a bit wired. She also mentioned that when she has a student teacher, she often has to tell them to take the intensity and volume down a notch, as the kids will always ramp up higher than the teacher. 

Another way this teacher used the power of quiet in her classroom management style was at the end of the session. She needed to tell the kids what was going to happen next. She said something like, "Okay, everybody, now look at me. Put your hands on your head. Good. Put your hands on your knees. Good. Now put your hands on your ears. Hands to your sides. I'm going to give you the instructions for what's going to happen next. I'd like you to walk back to the classroom without saying anything. Put your puppets on your desks and line up for gym." She only had to remind one kid that it was time to follow instructions. 

Children don't need to be yelled at all the time. Quiet works. Respect works as well. 

Thanks to the teachers, Peggy, Shawn and Paula, for using the power of quiet.

P.S. One of Peggy's students came back about an hour after the session with a story he had written about what we had done. Fabulous!

Comfortable seating in Belgium

I'm near the end of my 2013 Belgian tour. Last week I went back to the European School of Brussels at Uccle, where I've been three times (or is it four) before, and for the first time to the school's site at Berkendael.

Six years ago, I told stories at the ESB site at Uccle. The last day of the performances was especially difficult, as my father had died the day before and I wasn't able to get back to the US. I decided to continue with the performances but get back in time for the funeral (I must say here that the teachers at ESB were especially kind). During the very last session, I had kindergarteners. I was worn out from performances and from grief, so I sat down to perform and therefore wasn't able to see that the small children in back were completely eviscerating the cushions. When they left the room, I was surprised to see pillow guts in a big pile around where they had been sitting. The teachers apparently didn't notice. I was beyond able to do anything about it, so I neatened it up and, I'm embarrassed to say, fled. 

I confessed this to the current librarian. She laughed. She is new since then and told me about sewing the cushions for the children to sprawl out on before the opening of the library this year. She is librarian for both school sites, and at both, the children have many wonderfully cosy places to sit. 

I like a comfortable library. This reminds me of the reading bathtubs in the library in my hometown of Springfield, Vermont. A local artist (Goldie May) lined the inside of old clawfoot tubs with foam, covered them with plush and painted them. Kids loved reading in them. 


Here are the cushions at the two libraries. Pretty, aren't they? 

More on the tour soon, I promise.