Perspective and backstory

Every story is told from a particular perspective, from a specific point of view. When I’m working on stories, I find it helpful to shift that perspective, to stretch myself. I see the story from new angles, noticing aspects I didn’t earlier understand. I’ll tell myself the story from the point of view of a peripheral character or the dog. I don’t usually tell the story this way, but use it as an exercise to anchor the story firmly in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about perspective since the flooding in May when I saw this blue heron. Normally, we only see these magnificent birds from below. I took this picture standing on the bridge looking from above. I had no idea they were this brilliant!


I love working on perspective and backstory, understanding aspects of story characters that I’ll never put in the told tale. What color does the big sister in The ghost with the one black eye have? Pink. Do listeners need to know this? No. If I told you every detail, you’d be bored long before the end of the story. It’s helpful to me in order to create characters that are fully formed in my imagination.

If I find myself losing interest in a story, I may change the image in my mind. I picture the family in The ghost as African-American. I’ll imagine the little girl in The Gunniwolf as Asian. Again, I don’t tell the audience how I’m seeing the story in my mind. They have their own pictures. Doing this freshens the story up.

When I teach kids about backstory, I tell them that I need to know everything about the story, that I should be able to answer any question they pose, without even thinking. Then they start slinging me questions!

And speaking of backstory, here’s the picture I took just before the one above.


Grimm for Grownups for Humanities Kansas

Last year I joined the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau, offering my program Grimm for grownups. It’s a different kind of program for me, involving more lecture and discussion, and as the title implies, it’s not for young kids. The organization subsidizes the performances so that far-flung communities will have access to interesting programs. Here’s what they say about what they do:

We believe that stories carry our culture and ideas change the world

Since our founding as an independent nonprofit in 1972, Humanities Kansas has pioneered programming, grants and partnerships that share stories to spark conversations — drawing people together and generating new ideas. These stories and ideas inspire each of us in Kansas to play a part in strengthening our communities and our democracy.

My program feels like a good fit. So far, I’ve enjoyed working with Humanities Kansas. Earlier this year I did the show in Goodland and Oakley, Kansas, for two very different audiences.

The backdrop to my storytelling at the Goodland Public LIbrary. In Lawrence I live a half block from the train tracks, so I felt right at home.

The backdrop to my storytelling at the Goodland Public LIbrary. In Lawrence I live a half block from the train tracks, so I felt right at home.

In Goodland, I had an evening performance for about twelve women. I told a mixture of Grimm tales, from the truly gruesome Juniper tree to the story Cat and mouse, which I also tell to children (though it has a bad end for the mouse), along with other tales. I talked about the Grimms themselves and why they collected stories, how they edited them, what was happening in the world at the time, and more. Discussion was lively, veering off into the art of storytelling in general. It was great fun!

In Oakley, the performance was in the afternoon. Along with the crowd of older folks, there was a group of high school students, mostly boys. These kids came a little early, so I told an extra story. It’s vitally important to engage kids immediately, or they’ll check out. Hmm, that goes for everybody, but adults are better at hiding boredom. At any rate, I told them a gruesome English folktale, Mr. Fox, a version of Bluebeard. During the program itself, I told a Grimm version of the same story, The fitcher’s bird, as well as the stories I told in Goodland.

As in Goodland, the Oakley audience listened intently. They had lots of comments and questions about the lecture material. Our discussion ranged widely, and included two of the students telling short scary stories. When we talked about storytelling, I mentioned The ghost with the one black eye, the story for children I’m best known for. One of the adults called out, “Tell it!” After checking with the teachers that I could keep the kids past the hour, I did. A student raised his hand and said, “My mom used to play us a cassette with that story.” He recognized my voice., too. I put that cassette out in 1996!

After the performance, the librarian served gingerbread and apple slices, shades of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and The Juniper Tree! The whole experience was excellent.

I’m looking forward to presenting Grimm for growunups later this year in Coffeyville, Wichita and Dodge City, and I hope elsewhere. For more info on booking this program, check out the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau.

A Galaxy of Giggles for next summer

How do you get an astronaut baby to sleep?

You rocket!

Baby is getting ready for our show A Galaxy of Giggles for next year’s Summer Reading Programs, which has the theme A Universe of Stories. Baby even has a jetpack!

Photo by Heather Harlan, Oct. 2018

Photo by Heather Harlan, Oct. 2018

It’s true. A couple of months ago, on my way to the Missouri Library Association performers showcase, I found myself at a Build-a-Bear shop in the mall. There I found the perfect pink jetpack, exactly the right size for my baby puppet. I ran to the car and got her so she could try it on. It fit! The pink even matched her leggings.

This is part of my process for creating a summer reading program. I think about what I already have that would fit the theme, I do research for new material, and I keep my eyes out for accessories for my puppets. For months now, I’ve been gathering space-related stories, songs, fingerplays and puppet hilarity. I’ve got a special puppet for the show and am working on possible voices and miscellany.

I also name the show and write a blurb. I keep it general enough that I can add ideas, but close to the prescribed theme. Here’s next year’s show description:

A Galaxy of Giggles

Hop on board this story shuttle for an out-of-this-world mix of stories, songs, stretches, puppets and general silliness with storyteller Priscilla Howe. Warning: there may be aliens!

Have suggestions? Let me know in the comments or by e-mail!

"What are the differences between writing and oral storytelling?"

This was a question a participant in a storytelling workshop asked the other night. My answer then was nowhere near complete, just as what I write here also will miss some salient points. Here's what occurs to me now:

Oral storytelling 

  • Is an older artform than written.
  • Does not require that the listener be literate.
  • Requires teller and listener to be in the same place (hmm, unless it's on a recording, which places it closer to written).
  • Is not in set form. The storyteller may change the story depending on the audience, circumstances, time allotted, mood of the audience, mood of the storyteller, venue. 
  • May be more concise--too much detail can bog the experience down.
  • The storytelling/story listening experience is usually shorter. Of course there are exceptions for cultures in which epics may last over days, or with serial stories.
  • Depends on nonverbal as well as verbal communication--facial expression and body language, volume, pacing, attitude, etc.
  • May use repetition and mnemonics to help the audience remember people, places and action.
IMG_0195 (Small).JPG

Written storytelling

  • Requires literacy. Even with a read-aloud, somebody is reading it. 
  • Is usually experienced by the reader without the writer being present. The writer is unaware of the reaction of the reader.
  • Is in set form in each edition (with some exceptions for online experiences).
  • Requires the writer to show attitude, emotion, etc. using words.
  • Have a wider range of length, from flash fiction to multivolume sagas. 
  • The reader may flip the pages back to remind herself of something that happened earlier. 
IMG_0196 (Small).JPG

Of course, a good story is a good story. One artform is not better than the other. Oral storytelling can enhance writing and writing can enhance oral storytelling--I often write about the stories I tell, in order to understand them.

What did I miss? 

I learn by going where I have to go

I love the line from Theodore Roethke's poem, The waking: "I learn by going where I have to go." I often don't know where I'm going until I set out. In renovating my house, I froze in the face of the massive project. I couldn't do anything for days, despite friends and family offering to help me organize the project. Then my dear sister-in-law Kate suggested I just prime one room. Once I began, I saw that I could continue. I learned by going where I had to go. 


Starting is what moves me along. One coat of primer moved me to choose the final color, which pushed me in the direction of the trim, which led me to blinds and curtains, and so on. 

So it is with stories. I often need to start in order to know where I'm going. Like my house, stories are also never finished. I'm always shifting my telling to the audience or even to who I am at the moment. Sometimes starting out is, as Donald Davis recommends, just telling about the story. Sometimes it is a small piece of research that awakens my curiosity. 

With every new story, as with every house project, I learn to trust that whatever comes out will be fine. Or if it isn't, I can make a new plan, change the story, change the design, just keep creating as I go along.


Storytelling live-ish

Imagine this: students in five schools in different parts of the world listening to one storyteller (me) in their own classrooms, and asking the storyteller questions via chat. I'm in my studio (otherwise known as my dining room). The stories are tailored to the audience. The schools pay a fraction of the price of a regular storytelling performance, with none of the travel fees. They can use smartboards, projectors or individual screens. The teacher clicks a link and they're in the session. 

Over the last ten months, I've been testing live online storytelling events using the Zoom platform. From the comfort of home, I tell stories to listeners wherever in the world they are. Here's my setup:

Online storytelling setup

The first try was a short puppet workshop for a group of teachers in Brazil. The next was a presentation for a middle school in Texas, with a goal of bringing kids into an existing storytelling troupe. Then I told stories to two homeschooling families (full disclosure, they were already fans). Today I had two middle schools, one in Florida and one in Tennessee. The school in Tennessee had me in multiple classrooms at once. (Thanks to Mariana, Sue, Melanie, Kelly, Tom, Elizabeth and all the other teachers for being my testers.)

Here are a few things I've learned in the guinea pig sessions

  • Make sure the cat is outside before beginning. He is charming, but a distraction.
  • Mute the audience during the stories, or there will be a lot of extraneous noise (chairs scraping, the intercom, etc.)
  • Use a wired connection, not wireless, for the strongest possible signal.
  • Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
  • Don't use a lot of fast hand gestures. Movement on a screen can get blurred. 
  • Dim the brightness of the laptop screen for less glare on eyeglasses.
  • Plan for extra time for questions, since it requires using the chat window.

I still prefer telling stories in person, but this is a great way to get more stories and workshops out into the world.

I'm ready to go live, er, live-ish. Soon look for pricing on my website for full performances, workshops and "story snacks" (5-10 minute mini sessions).

Have questions? E-mail me or put a comment below. 

Advice on telling jump tales

When I tell stories to older kids, I often start with a jump tale. You know, the kind of story where there is a sudden bit that makes the listeners jump. Afterwards, the kids usually turn to each other to laugh and talk about the jump. In order to bring them back to a place where they can listen, I give advice on how to tell these stories. Here's a clip from a show at a school in Quito, Ecuador last month, thanks to videographer Sandro Rota.

Organizing my storytelling library

Confession time: my storytelling library was a blot on the escutcheon of librarians everywhere for the last year and a half. My books were not in any order. The house needed so much work, I just plunked my work books on shelves willy-nilly. This is what about half of them looked like:


Oh, they looked nice. Those homemade bookshelves garnered attention when I posted this picture on Facebook. But, sheesh, when I needed to find a particular book, I spent way too much time searching. Can you see that there's a collection of cat stories right next to a big book of world tales? Sacred Stories is right next to a collection of Scottish folktales, which is next to French stories. 

I know better. My first professional job was as a Slavic cataloger. It's important to have a system, in order to find materials easily. 

Last week, I organized my books. Not exactly Dewey Decimal, but close.


Here's the order I use:

  • General reference
  • Books on creativity, including writing books
  • Reference books relating to folklore and storytelling
  • How-to books on storytelling
  • Collections of world folktales
  • Story collections by topic (e.g. folktales of cats)
  • Story collections by geographic area (e.g. folktales from France)
  • Literary (that is, not folktale) collections by author

It's not exact. Some areas are a little slushy. Eagle-eyed readers will see that stories from Shakespeare are tucked into the English folktale collections--that's mostly because the literary tales are on a shelf that's harder to reach, and because I have a program of folktales related to Shakespeare's plays. No, I don't have a card catalog (though I was lusting after a small one at Habitat Restore last week). Still, it's a great improvement. 

I think I'll go browse my collection for a bit.

Making a living as a storyteller... not easy. I think it was Elizabeth Ellis who said, "If anything can keep you from being a full-time storyteller, let it." If nothing can keep you from this work, then and only then, should you take it on as a full-time job. So that's where I am, where I've been since 1993, wanting only to tell stories, play with puppets, teach workshops, coach other storytellers. 

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

Teaching teachers to use puppets in 2008

I love storytelling. It's massively fun. It is also my business, make no mistake. I market my work, write contracts and invoices, track income and expenses, record mileage, file taxes (done, whew!) and all the rest of what it takes to keep a business going. 

Sometimes I need help. I'm fortunate to have been a participant last year and now a peer facilitator in ArtistInc, a rigorous program that trains artists and performers to be entrepreneurs. I've taken other classes like this in the past, such as Sean Buvala's Storytelling Bootcamp, but this is right here in my town. We meet for eight weeks to work on our arts businesses, and in the process, create a core group of artists in many disciplines with whom to work. We've maintained many of the friendships we made in last year's group.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

ArtistInc bag and notebook. Sorry about the cat hair--it's a fact of my life, alas.

In ArtistInc, we set goals and rely on each other for accountability. We've had sessions on budgets, taxes, writing about our work, legal issues and more. Our homework assignments are practical. This week, we're reviewing artist statements. Here's my latest artist statement:

I live in my head. A lot. I make stuff up, I borrow from old tales, I reinterpret new stories. As a storyteller, I’m a tour guide to that space in my brain. I work without a script, without costumes, without props. When I’m doing it right, listeners laugh, smile, sigh and breathe together, connected in the space of stories. I perform at schools, libraries, festivals, special events, and in my own backyard, literally. My mouthy hand puppets come along to shows for kids. I tell more grownup stories to, well, grownups and older kids. We play together. Apart from being the oldest educational method in the world, storytelling is just plain fun.

The final session is a Pecha Kucha style Powerpoint presentation, using a set of slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds. My work is usually live, so last year was the first time I ever used Powerpoint. I'm redoing my presentation for this year. When I get it finished, I'll post it here. 

Soon I'm going to roll out a new business project, one that ArtistInc has helped me refine. Watch this space!

Stories for grownups and older kids

The first time I told stories to adults in a performance in 1989, I was wearing silk parachute pants. I was nervous. My knees shook and my trousers shimmied. My palms were sweaty. Still, I kept the story strong in my mind and in my voice. The story I told then is one I still tell.

I grew to love performing for grownups. I mix it up, telling personal stories (often personal fiction), folktales and stories from books. My puppets stay home. I seek to connect emotionally, of course, but also to surprise the listeners, open a door to other points of view, offer shelter. I hope to delight. Often, listeners are surprised at how much they enjoy stories.

I gave a house concert not long after 9/11. One of the audience members said, "Thank you. For two hours, I wasn't thinking about world events." Often adults take stories in without showing emotion. For many performances, I thought one of my regular listeners was bored because of the way she sat, face static and arms crossed. At the end, she would come up to say, "That was great!" I now watch for this listening stillness. If the listeners are fidgeting, I consider why I'm not connecting. Maybe my story needs tightening, maybe I have left out a crucial piece of information that seemed obvious to me, maybe there's a problem with the venue.

With the advent of storytelling events such as the Moth, the general public is getting used to hearing stories for adults, specifically personal stories. Some of these are excellent, some are deadly therapy on stage. The best take a personal event and make it universal. To those who have just discovered personal storytelling, it's new. To the rest of us, it's as old as the hills.

On Tuesday, Valentine's Day 2/14/17), I'll tell true, slightly true and absolutely false stories to grownups, in a performance called "And they lived happily ever after...Or did they?" here in Lawrence, Kansas at the Union Pacific Depot at 8:00 p.m. Admission is a love offering,of course (passing the hat). Come see what I mean by stories for grownups.

Another China storytelling tour post

I had a great time telling stories in China. Most of the performances were tremendous fun. Generally, the level of English was quite good and the students were engaged. The teachers and administrators were easy to work with, often going out of their way to make sure I was comfortable. I love these tours, even with the intense schedule of 64 performances in four weeks (four per day, four days a week). I was in eight schools in five cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi and Ningbo.

Enough statistics. Here are pictures from the schools:

On my last day, I performed at a preschool, in a cute little theater. Notice my booties? They take great care of the floors, so kids wear only-indoor shoes and guests don these maroon lovelies.

On my last day, I performed at a preschool, in a cute little theater. Notice my booties? They take great care of the floors, so kids wear only-indoor shoes and guests don these maroon lovelies.

I had a workshop for the teachers at the preschool. Here, we're playing a circle game, "Thorn Rosa,".

I had a workshop for the teachers at the preschool. Here, we're playing a circle game, "Thorn Rosa,".

I almost always show the map of the US while telling the students where I'm from and where my siblings live. This gets them used to my voice before the stories begin. It also makes them laugh, since there are seven of us (a much larger family than is found in China). 

I almost always show the map of the US while telling the students where I'm from and where my siblings live. This gets them used to my voice before the stories begin. It also makes them laugh, since there are seven of us (a much larger family than is found in China). 

This group of young children in Ningbo was delightful. We carried the DreamOn banner with us to all the schools. At one school, in the Q & A, a child asked who the boy on the banner is. I don't know! 

This group of young children in Ningbo was delightful. We carried the DreamOn banner with us to all the schools. At one school, in the Q & A, a child asked who the boy on the banner is. I don't know! 

Some groups were quite large. This one was local stream, that is Chinese students with no international kids. At most schools, I had either international stream or mixed. 

Some groups were quite large. This one was local stream, that is Chinese students with no international kids. At most schools, I had either international stream or mixed. 

Even the big kids liked the baby.

Even the big kids liked the baby.

It's a pleasure for me to see kids enjoying the stories.

It's a pleasure for me to see kids enjoying the stories.

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.

Telling the real story

I'm reading a great collection of essays by Ann Patchett called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. In the essay "Fact vs. Fiction," she says this:

Who makes things up? Who tells the real story? We all turn our lives into stories. It is a defining characteristic of our species. We retell our experiences. We quickly learn what parts are interesting to our listeners and which parts lag, and we shape our narratives accordingly. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t telling the truth; we’ve simply learned which parts to leave out. Every time we tell the story again, we don’t go back to the original event and start from scratch, we go back to the last time we told the story. It’s the story we shape and improve on, we don’t change what happened.
— Ann Patchett at The Miami University of Ohio Convocation Address of 2005

Last week I attended and told at the Lawrence Story Slam. This is a Moth-style storytelling event, where people tell true stories, up to 8 minutes long. The day before, I decided to tell the emotionally risky story of the good beginning and bad ending of my last relationship. My ex-boyfriend no longer lives in the area, so I wasn't worried about his reaction, though at the same time, I left out identifiers such as his name and profession. 

I was aware of the tightrope I was walking in telling about this, wanting to tell  a story that resonated deeply with myself and with the listeners, to be honest about the difficulties I'd experienced, but not wanting to do therapy on stage. I don't want the audience to feel as if they have to take care of me. I hope I succeeded.

It was good to tell this one. It's a story I'll keep working on. As Ann Patchett says above, we shape and improve upon the story, we don't change what happened.

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

This picture is from a Story Slam in Kansas City a few years ago. 

Where I've been

I just showed this redesigned website to a friend, who said, "Wouldn't it be cool to show where you've told stories in the world?" Many years ago, I made a little poem about the places in Kansas where I've performed, but since then, I've traveled to many more states and countries. Here's the poem:

And here's the map of where I've been.

Hello, World!

Kindness, compassion and courage: telling stories for character education

Since I came home from the Fulbright in Bulgaria in July, I've been quietly working on some of the stories I found there. There's one in particular that I've told in schools that has pushed me in a new direction. It's a story that every Bulgarian child knows, one I call Grandmother Bear and the hurtful words. Directly translated it is Grandmother Bear and the bad word, (Баба Меца и лошата дума) but when I introduced it that way, the students were puzzled, as there were no curse words in the story. 

This is a story of a man inadvertently hurting his good friend by speaking thoughtlessly. It's not a subtle story but one that hits hard. I've never liked stories with blunt lessons. Too preachy. When I first found this story, in fact, I passed it by. As I searched for stories, I kept on encountering different versions of this story and finally thought, "Hmm, maybe there's something here, maybe I'll try it out." 

I've been telling it to students from second to sixth grade since September. Each time, I've discussed it afterwards with the kids. I ask them what they think of it, how it made them feel and what they might have done in the man's place. I also let them know that they have permission not to like all the stories I tell. Because it's such a serious story and maybe because the students are used to funny stories from me, the listeners seem to welcome the chance to talk about it, to reflect upon it. Generally they like it—and teachers have been overwhelmingly in favor of the story. In one fourth-grade group, as I was leaving, the teacher asked the students to pair up and talk to each other about the story.

This has led me to create a new program for kindergarten through sixth grade called Kindness, compassion and courage: telling stories for character education. In it, I tell stories that highlight character traits. We reflect and discuss these traits after each story. I've just finished the accompanying study guide.

This is a shift for me. I've always believed that the stories should be strong enough to stand on their own, without my interference in the listeners' interpretations. In order not to be preachy or overly didactic, I must have a light touch with the stories and the follow-up. In this program, my goal is not to impose my ideas but to approach the students with genuine curiosity about their reactions and to stimulate thought and discussion. My hope is that they'll take the best from these stories to apply to their own experiences.

Let me know what you think!

Blagolazh, the Bulgarian joketelling and storytelling competition

I did it! I performed in the Blagolazh, the storytelling and joketelling competition in Gabrovo, home of the House of Humor and Satire. In Bulgarian. Even before I began looking into coming to Bulgaria on a Fulbright grant, I dreamt of attending this event, part of the Biennial of Humor. The word "blagolazh" means "sweet lie," but it's different from US liars contests, where contestants invent the most outlandish stories. The rule was that the stories had to be folktales, nothing made up by the contestants. There were two themes this year: health and work, or the opposite of these (smoking, drinking, laziness).

I first visited this wonderful museum in 1984. Outside the museum is a statue of Clever Peter, one of the Bulgarian tricksters.

I submitted my application to the Blagolazh a couple of months ago, appending two stories from my repertoire that I intended to tell. I wrote out my versions in Bulgarian and then my friend Tzveta kindly made them grammatically correct. Since March, I've been working on these stories. In April, I was accepted as one of the tellers. 

I arrived on Saturday. This was a busy day in town. The Biennial of Humor had begun with the juried art show of cartoons, photographs, engravings, etc. That evening there was an enormous carnival (look for a blog post soon with carnival pictures). With the other guests, I watched the hour and a half parade from reserved seats, then went back to the hotel for a reception with the mayor. She had been in the parade dressed as Marilyn Monroe. Last year she was Scarlett O'Hara. It was a crowded reception, so I only caught a glimpse of the mayor.

We were due at the museum at 8:30 a.m., so I said goodnight to my dinner companions early. In the morning, the museum was shimmering with excitement. First, children from Mickey Mouse Kindergarten (Мики Маус) performed for us, singing and dancing in traditional dress. I've noticed that this is a trend at many Bulgarian events. 

Then there was the children's Blagolazh. The kids, age 4 to 12 with a couple of adult helpers, sat at big tables with microphones, like a press conference. They each told a story or a joke, all were encouraged by the audience. May they continue to tell stories! 

After the jury awarded the prizes to the children, it was time for the grownups. After we took our seats at the tables, we introduced ourselves and the first round began. Some stories or jokes were told in dialect, some in standard Bulgarian. I understood a lot, but not all. I told a story about Nasrudin Hodja at the public baths to begin. Though the Hodja is the Turkish trickster, the Ottoman Empire extended into Bulgaria for 500 years, so his stories are here as well. I thought we were going to tell just one story and the jury would make a decision about the next round, but no, the jury invited us all to tell another short one. Uh-oh. I had two stories prepared in Bulgarian. Fortunately, my friend Roman the harmonica player had told me a short Clever Peter story on Friday. I silently blessed him and told that story. 

While the jury deliberated, some of the past winners told stories and jokes. They're no longer eligible to compete but came along for the fun. 

To my surprise, I made it to the second round. I told the second Nasrudin Hodja story I had prepared. We were asked for another, so I told a joke. I'm still not certain that it translated, but everybody laughed. 

I thought we were going to have to do another story. In English, it would have been a snap. I've got a zillion stories in my head. In Bulgarian, it's a challenge. I was searching for one in my rattled brain and decided to explain that I didn't have another Bulgarian one but did have one from Vermont. The jury decided not to ask for another. Whew! While they went out of the hall to deliberate, we heard more from the past champions.

The grand winner was a young man, the youngest by far in the group, Orlin Kisyov (I think I was the second youngest, and I'm 53). It's nice to have a new generation coming along! This is one reason it's important to have the children's Blagolazh.

Here's Orlin, with the director of the House of Humor and Satire, Tatiana Tsankova:

And a view of the older kids at the table.

Many of the contestants, including prize winner Snezhanka Doncheva, were in traditional Bulgarian dress. I wish we'd had a picture all together. 

And I won the prize for "Vivid Presentation by a Foreigner." 

Not only did the House of Humor give us all a collection of stories from the 2013 Blagolazh, but they gave me quite a few books of stories and jokes. I was invited to visit the archives, which I did on Monday after the Blagolazh. I'm constantly bowled over by the generosity of Bulgarians, and the staff and direction at the House of Humor and Satire were no exceptions to this. Huge thanks especially to Veneta Georgieva-Kozareva and to the director, Tatiana Tsankova.

Apart from the prize of being included in this incredible event and hearing stories and jokes, I was given a Gabrovo clock. Look closely at this picture. Can you tell what time it is? Look below the Fulbright disclaimer to find out! 

My goals going into this event were to have fun and not to embarrass myself. I succeeded!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

The time on the clock is 9:48. The hands run backwards. I think this could be used as one of those brain training exercises, like using the non-dominant hand. Definitely not the clock to look at when I'm in a hurry and need to know the time!

On giving a lecture on storytelling in Bulgarian

I did it! Today I gave a lecture in Bulgarian at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum (IEFSEM) here in Sofia. Some of the research I'm doing is in the archives of this institute, so I was asked about a month ago to do a presentation. Here's the invitation to the talk:

First I told a short story, then explained how it happens that I speak Bulgarian. As many of you know, I lived in Sofia in 1983-84. Sitting in the front today was my roommate from that time, Elka. The last time I saw her, before today, was 1988! We've just both been busy, but plan to meet up soon. 

I told how I became a storyteller in my job as a children's librarian in Connecticut, and about leaving that job in 1993 to be a full-time storyteller in Kansas. There is no such thing as a professional storyteller here, so I explained that I am my own boss, with my own business, and that I tell stories in schools, libraries, festivals, museums and other venues, to listeners of all ages. 

As an example, I told The Ghost with the One Black Eye first in Bulgarian, then in English.

I explained the core of storytelling, how for me it's about connection: the storyteller connects with the story and the listeners, the listeners connect with the story and the storyteller, and the listeners connect among themselves. I talked about why it's important and various applications of storytelling, and about storytelling in the US. 

From there, I moved on to my project, collecting Bulgarian folktales, primarily animal stories and trickster tales.

Of course it was time for another story. I told the first story I fell in love with in the archives, The Wedding of Bai Kotaran and Kuma Lisa. Bai Kotaran is a cat who is chased from home because he keeps eating the butter. He meets the tricky fox, Kuma Lisa and they decide to get married. The other animals get ready for the wedding, but Kuma Lisa suggests that her new husband is kind of a bad guy, so they should hide and see what he's like first. He comes to meet them, but they are hiding. He sees the boar's ear poking out of the leaves where the boar is hiding and thinks it's a mouse. He pounces, the boar squeals, Bai Kotaran jumps into the tree in fright, the bear in the oak tree throws herself out of the tree but lands on the wolf's back and an acorn falls into the rabbit's ear. All the animals run, except Bai Kotaran.

"He cut me on the ear with his sword!"

"He almost got me in the tree!"

"They hit me with a huge stone!"

"I heard the pistol. It was like a bullet in my ear!"

They agree that he really is a bad guy. They head home, disappointed not to have a big wedding feast. And Bai Kotaran and Kuma Lisa? They eat the delicious food the other animals brought and celebrate for a week.

While working on this story, I pictured Bai Kotaran as similar to my own cat, Frankie Bacon, who is being well cared for by friends Liz and Chris: 


I then told the audience about the widening of my Fulbright project to include encouraging a Bulgarian "storytelling renaissance." Then one more short story and questions, lots of questions. 

I've been working on this talk for the last week. I'm deeply grateful to my friend Tzveta, who helped me prepare, and to all who came to listen. While I stumbled a bit with the language, it was mostly intelligible. It was also a great challenge—and quite fun.

I think I'll sleep well tonight. 

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 


A few weeks ago I went to visit my friend Barbara in Veliko Turnovo as she was finishing up her Fulbright. It was fun visit her and to walk around the town that was my introduction to Bulgaria in 1982, when I went to a summer seminar there. 

As we were walking up the hill in the old part of town near her house, we noticed a few cats on a wall. Then there were a few more. 

There must have been some sort of a signal, because cats began to pour down the hill.

The black and white one seems to be the hall monitor, making sure everybody is keeping up. I was glad I had my camera ready.

Here are a couple up close:

All these cats live on the street, finding food where they can (such as at Barbara's door).

This reminds me of a Bulgarian folktale I've told for years, which I call The Village of No Cats.

There was such a village, where the people had never heard of cats, but they certainly had heard of mice. They had mice everywhere: mice in the houses, mice in the barns, mice dipping their tails in people's coffee, mice running across their toes and their noses in the night. It was terrible.

One day Clever Peter was passing through this village and he asked why they didn't have cats.

"Cats? What are cats?"

Clever Peter saw a chance to make a little extra money. He went to a neighboring town and gathered up a sackful of stray cats, which he sold to the village of no cats. The people were pleased to see these creatures make quick work of the mice, but Clever Peter began to worry that he'd be discovered as a cheat. He started to leave town, walking quickly and looking back as he went.

The villagers began to wonder if there was something Clever Peter hadn't told them about the cats

One said,  "What do they eat, once the mice are gone?"

They began to follow Clever Peter, to ask this serious question. "Peter! Peter! What do cats eat?"

He walked even faster, but called back to them, "Meat!"

The villagers, though, misheard him. "Me? He said 'Me!' These are man-eaters! We're in danger!"

So they took their brooms and chased the cats out of the village. Of course, the mice came back, but that was certainly better than those bloodthirsty cats.

And now I think I know where the cats went when they were chased out of town: Veliko Turnovo. 


Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

©2015 Priscilla Howe

A short note from Belgium

Hello! I'm in Belgium. No, not Bulgaria, not yet. It's confusing, as I'm a fan of both countries and have lived in both. I'll head to Bulgaria next Saturday to start my Fulbright adventure. In the meantime, I'm in Belgium staying with my good friend Marie, who lives here but who I got to know in Bulgaria more than 30 years ago. Oh, dear, that wasn't clarifying at all, was it? 

As the eastern part of the US prepares for a storm, the first snow of the season hit us here on Saturday:

You would think from this picture that Marie lives in the country, but in fact there are houses all around. It rained all day, so here's the view now:

It's a good day to stay inside and catch up on paperwork and naps. I've been busy, telling stories in schools and at a house concert. Most of my listeners have been English as a second languag speakers, ranging from age 3 to adult. I'm always learning how to do this better, even after more than 400 performances for non-native English speakers in my career. The listeners help me by asking questions, by telling me what isn't clear to them. They also help by telling me what they do like. 

Though it has been a fun trip so far, there have been a few hiccups. As I left my house in Kansas, ready for my new tenant, we smelled gas. Uh-oh, had to call the gas company. My excellent neighbors were on hand when they arrived, so now there's no gas leak. I made the mistake of booking a school on the day after I arrived, so I was jetlagged. I took the wrong train on Tuesday, not the express, so was late for school. I hate being late! Fortunately, the teacher in charge had added a 15 minute buffer to the schedule, so I did a full show. Everybody was very kind. My sandwich at a different school didn't arrive, so a student was sent out quickly for another.

I'm reminded that usually things like this work out.

More soon, probably from Bulgaria.

Schools in Colombia

I'm home from Colombia, having had a great time telling stories for four weeks. I did 63 school performances in English, from preschool to high school, and took part in a public performance at a lovely park. Here are some miscellaneous pictures of the schools. 

This was over the door of the libary at St. Bartolomé La Merced. It's from the book The Little Prince, and the quote is "What is essential is invisible to the eye." You can see the flying dragon through the door. 

This is the same school that has this cozy reading nook.

Here is the mascot of the school, a magpie (I think) that looks remarkably like the early Kansas Jayhawk. This school backs up to a huge wooded park.

I spent five days at Gimnasio Vermont, where I told the kids that I moved to the state of Vermont in the US when I was 11. They practically gasped in disbelief. The school has an immersion program for their students with St. Michael's College in Colchester, VT, near Burlington, where I went to the University of Vermont. 

At this school, I began with the 4th through 7th grades, then went to preschool and kindergarten (up to age 7), then 1st to 3rd grades. The other two storytellers touring Colombia will visit  the high school. One of the things I loved about this tour is that I was at fewer schools, for more days. 

At Vermont, the young children have a garden, in which they plant lettuce and chard. These plants are labeled with each child's name and the students take them home at harvest. 

I was fed a snack and lunch at most of the schools I visited. At these private schools, the food was fantastic, and the kids had plenty of time to eat, unlike the standard 20-30 minutes kids in the US usually get. Here is what I had for elevenses (morning snack) at CIEDI, a great school not far from where I was living: 

This delicious arepa (corncake) filled with cheese went nicely with the capuccino.

And here are some girls working peacefully together in a spookily-decorated spot in the library at St. George's School, where I spent three days. 

I was pleased to tell stories in several libraries, including at St. George's School. 

But in the preschool and kindergarten of Gimnasio Vermont, I was in the dance studio. I've rarely been able to see myself in a mirror as I perform!

I moved to the primary school library for the rest of the performances at Gimnasio Vermont, which was decorated with illustrations from children's books.

I hope this gives you a taste of the experiences I had at the schools. Questions?