The house next door to our house was not a house. It was the public library. And our backyard fence was not a fence, it was the south wall of the library. The library flagpole was in our yard. Every morning and evening we could watch the librarian open our gate to raise or lower the flag. Once, despite our frequent warnings, the librarian left the gate open. That was the same day that Swifty, our box tortoise, disappeared. But I could forgive this offense because I had received so much from our good neighbor. This neighbor issued an invitation to a life-long affair—my love affair with books. Like Scout Finch, I “been readin’ ever since I was born.”[i] Reading was something that just came natural to us, Scout and me.
Not every child can grow up living next door to the public library. Not every child finds reading something that just happens to them. And not every child, even if reading “comes natural,” will have a love affair with it. Or a fling. Or a dalliance. The truth is, some children don’t enjoy reading as much as their parents might wish. Reading is often spoken of, especially in the homeschool environment, as if everyone loves it; and while the hope is that this is ultimately or inevitably true, there are certainly seasons where it is not. In those seasons, the best step forward may be one that looks back to an art almost lost, but now being revived.
Long before stories were written, they were spoken. And long before Gutenberg got his press together, stories were capturing imaginations, passing from generation to generation without a single sheet of paper. Storytelling is something more acute than reading, and often, the child who does not read with pleasure will gladly listen to a story. All of us have stories. I have stories; you have stories; all God’s children got stories. Before we woo the reluctant reader to love books, we woo the expectant listener to love story. “Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”[ii]
Storytelling has guidelines, but no hard and fast rules. The apprentice storyteller needn’t worry about fussy things like plot, theme, introduction, or conclusion. Wondering how to start the story? Dive right in! Introducing or even announcing the story can actually weaken it from the start, and wiggly listeners are likely to get bored. Jumping into the topic helps grab attention and stir the imagination and emotions—mentally engaging the listener from the get-go.
“Your grandfather wasn’t tremendously lost, but he was good and lost, and just when he realized that he could no longer see the camp, he heard a growl behind him.”
Similarly, when making selections for their reluctant reader, parents can look for books that dive in. Books that start en media res, in the middle of the action, may be more successful in grabbing and holding the interest of the disinclined reader.
However dynamic the action, no good story can succeed without a character, and while it may seem cruel, this character is going to need a conflict. The conflict should be appropriate to the age of the audience. It needn’t be traumatic, especially for young ears (no need to kill off the mama deer or leave the poor young critter an orphan), but rather simple—a minor dilemma or a pesky itch to scratch.
“Rabbit couldn’t find his left shoe. He was pretty sure he had left it under his sister’s bed, or on top of the refrigerator, or in the mudhole he dug yesterday. But it wasn’t in any of those places now.”
The conflict should be just enough to pique the listeners’ curiosity, create anticipation, and stir the emotions, keeping them engaged and interested in the story. Successful stories will resolve the conflict through a positive storyline so that listeners are inspired and hopeful that they can be successful, too. Similarly, reluctant readers find inspiration and hope in books that create and resolve conflict satisfactorily.
Good stories will have action, character, and conflict, but the best storytellers know to show rather than tell. Narration of the story brings the listener to the scene, but dialogue draws the listener into the scene. Through dialogue, storytelling comes alive. Without dialogue to break the monotony, stories get wordy and dull. Children often scan the pages of a new book looking for dialogue. A set of quotation marks signals a fun, lively tale and a story that won’t get bogged down in too much description. Storytelling is no exception. Short sentences and simple language are best for young listeners.
My brother said, “C’mon, let’s go swimming.” But I said, “No way, there are snakes in the river.”
“So?” he says. “Are you afraid?” Well, I was a little afraid, but I wasn’t going to let him know that! So, I said, “Oh…all right. Where is my slingshot?”
Even in the best books, too much description or narration eventually incites a reader to hurl the book across the room and declare a moratorium on reading. Reluctant readers want dialogue that is fun, easy, and painless to decipher.
Reading doesn’t “come natural” to all of us, but even if it did, that doesn’t guarantee we will all fall in love with it. Before we read, we woo with story. The child who does not enjoy reading will often listen to a story because stories are in all of us. Stories are in us and yet they are an early form of participation with something outside ourselves. Parents can tell stories, siblings and grandparents can tell stories, invited guests can tell stories. The best stories infuse wonder—holding children still for a brief moment of their day and having them surrender to wonder. This will compel them to pass it on; this is the art of imitation, this is how we learn. Good story-listeners become good storytellers. And good storytellers, now hooked and primed by the oral art, become good story-readers, recognizing that books are the story-tradition wrapped up in paper.