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STORYTELLER'S JOURNEYS BECOME KIDS' OASIS FOR IMAGINATION

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by Joe Lugara

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The word storytelling is frequently preceded by the words "the art of", and sometimes, unfortunately, even by "the lost art of". Storytelling is as much an art as painting, although these days it often feels as removed from us as the parasol-and-cravat Sunday promenade along Fifth Avenue. Laura Simms is a professional storyteller, and although it's unlikely that you'll be able to get her to come to your house at your child's bedtime, her knack for choosing the right tale for the right situation is plainly evident in the title of her small new booklet, Stories To Nourish the Hearts of Our Children In A Time Of Crisis ($12). The latter part of the book's title may seem as if it refers directly to the recent overseas military engagement, but its 18 international tales are actually intended to soothe young listeners on all counts, helping them understand and mine their responses to everything from war, to natural disasters, to the simple reality of natural death. Although Stories To Nourish The Hearts Of Our Children was not born as the result of war, it was very much the result of 9/11. A native of Manhattan, Simms attempted to volunteer at St. Vincent's Hospital after the attacks, but the overwhelming number of volunteers forced her to find another means of contributing. She then tried putting her storytelling skills to use by weaving tales for families around the city's emergency centers, but was dissuaded by the recent time frame of the disaster. Eventually she decided to amass, from all around the globe, stories which she felt would relieve at least some of the anxiety and dread certain to descend on young people in the post-9/11 world. The results of that harvest became the book. Simms says that she was looking for stories dealing with "tragedy, death, impermanence, and the capability for love and compassion" that would help people "keep their hearts open". She admits that some of the stories are indeed daring, given their focus on death, but adds, with the confidence of a person who has worked with children for over three decades, that "shielding children from death is to render them incapable of dealing with reality." She says that introducing the ideas of sudden change and death through the telling of tales opens the door to "a non-invasive way for children and adults to talk about these things. Telling stories is like creating an oasis for your kids, to make it possible to share something with them without frightening them." The tales in Stories To Nourish have been plucked from places as diverse as West Africa, India, Tibet, and even the Middle East. Simms, who in 1978 founded The Laura Simms Storytelling Residency (and who The New York Times labeled "a major force in the renaissance of storytelling in America"), has adapted a number of the stories herself, and has even penned one of her own, "The Story of the White Swallow-A True Tale from New York City", to give the book some local flavor. Although not illustrated, the stories, which average two pages, really don't seem to need pictures; Simms researches her stories to acquire an understanding and a feeling for the cultural background of each, an effort that comes across in the delectability of their details. (Simms' influence as a storyteller, and her unerring eye for rich and meaningful details, has extended to the daily life of New York at Underhill Park in Corona, Queens. The fairytale park, designed by architect Kathryn Bridges, is based on Simms' telling of the Russian story, "Wasalisa the Beautiful", and features a bronze replica of the tiny Chinese cloth doll carried by the story's Holocaust survivor heroine). "Part of the way to make peace in our world and among ourselves is by understanding that there's something good in every culture, and that's more than politics," Simms says. "The beginning of peacemaking is realizing how different we all are." Although the tales in Stories to Nourish emphasize cultural differences, they also stress similarities — the universality of grief, the cycle of life and death, and the ability of the human spirit to come out on top. "When a child listens to a story, it's not like they're listening to a story about someone else: it's like they're listening to a story about themselves," Simms says. "For children who deal with poverty, hopelessness, or death, a story is a kind of immediate intervention; they become the story and all the characters, and they use that to imagine the future." The final two pages of the book, "Helpful Suggestions for Telling Stories to Children", provides a half-dozen tips pertaining to Simms' craft — not the least of which involves a warm-up reading on the part of the teller. "Storytellers say, 'The voice is half the wisdom,'" Simms points out. "When I'm telling a story, I'm taking a child on an internal journey — and part of the trust that the child has with me comes from knowing that I've already taken that journey and survived it. If parents read the story themselves first, their voices will reflect what they know. When I tell a story, I'm not acting it. I'm just being myself." Simms has "been herself" all over the world, especially in Romania, where she has recently spent time training orphaned children, ages 12-17, in the art of storytelling during her "Coming Home" project — a project intended to bring storytelling skills and the stories of her Romanian ancestors to an orphanage in her grandmother's home town of Dorohoi and other communities. For Simms, the art of being a storyteller isn't nearly as lost as it used to be. For more information on Simms and her projects, access: www.laurasimms.com.

 


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