Ingram Blog

The Power of Storytelling

Kathryn Shaw, Manager of Collection Development Programs

One afternoon when I was in 7th grade, my homeroom teacher walked my class to the school library. It was first period immediately after lunch – a time we ordinarily spent with our English teacher, Mr. M. Mr. M was a tall, balding man with ruddy cheeks and sardonic manner, who, with rapid fire delivery lectured on subordinate clauses and dangling modifiers, and seemed somehow oblivious to our bewildered expressions.

Why we were to spend the next 40 blissful minutes in the library instead of in English that day, I cannot recall. I do remember, though, that class visits to the library had become rare. This was due to the frequently disruptive behavior of a small gang of boys in my class, who, I’ve learned (thanks to social media), went on to become respectable family men and productive citizens. But, at that time, those boys were a handful. And they had managed to get our class suspended from the library several weeks before. We had not returned since.

And, so, on that day, the school librarian, Mr. S, greeted us at the door. “Well, hello, class! So nice to see you again!” His arm was stretched out, midair, in a welcoming gesture, and he grinned amiably. After we had all shuffled into the library, instead of allowing us to disperse to our preferred spots as we typically did, Mr. S instructed us to sit in a semi-circle on the carpeted floor. He then grabbed a small wooden chair and planted it in the middle of the semi-circle. As he sat down on the chair, he picked up a book from an adjacent table and said he was going to read us a story.

We were puzzled. He’s going to read to us? Like, story time?

Well, this was awkward. As one can imagine, the proposition of being read to didn’t at all jive with our 12-year-old self-identities. But, to his credit, Mr. S pleasantly ignored our eye rolls and sighs. He even pretended not to hear the faint groans coming from the periphery of the room, where the boy posse had chosen to sit, backs against the painted cement block wall, bluejeaned legs widely stretched out in front. He simply opened the volume to a bookmarked page and began to read -- to a class of visibly reluctant listeners.

And, for the next 20 minutes or so, he read. Aloud. And the story quickly captivated every one of us, including the posse. This story seized our attention then, and it solidified my love of stories and storytelling that has endured since. It forever bolstered my belief in the power of storytelling for people of all ages.

For years afterward, I tried to remember the title of that story, or the author, but couldn’t. I asked my high school English teachers and, when in college, my English professors, if they could help identify it. I described the plot, but, unfortunately, it didn’t ring a bell for anyone. And so, for years, that story, except the memory of it, was lost to me.

More on that later. Throughout those years, though, I often wondered why a story, and Mr. S’s telling of it, had had such an impact on my classmates and me.

As it turns out, the reasons why aren’t unique. Storytelling is a powerful tool humans have used for millennia to persuade, inspire, entertain, teach, and reassure. Even before people developed the written language around 3400 BC, they shared stories visually, via drawings and paintings. Then, storytelling shifted to oral traditions, such as song, poetry, and myth.

Cultures around the world have passed stories down from generation to generation, strengthening community bonds, all through word of mouth. In medieval times, storytellers were honored members of royal courts. Even for hundreds of years after the invention of the printing press, reading aloud (religious texts, most often) was very popular in an era of widespread illiteracy.

Since the 19th century, technology has transformed storytelling with the application of photography, telephone, radio, motion picture, TV, digital media, and now social media. The medium changes, but storytelling’s impact remains constant. It is universal and timeless. Because, whether through visual art, oral interpretation, or reading aloud – storytelling can be transformative. History tells us that it is as much a social activity, being part of a community, as an educational one.

Teachers and librarians of young children, of course, know this, and incorporate storytelling as a vital part of instruction and socialization in the classroom or library. But, by the middle school years, reading aloud opportunities dwindle, due perhaps to lack of time within the curriculum or a belief that reading aloud is no longer age appropriate.  

My experience as a former public librarian tells me that older children and adults of all ages also can enjoy and benefit from being read to. For example, my former coworkers and I regularly visited local assisted living facilities, as many public librarians do, to facilitate outreach programs, like materials delivery, book and film discussions, and storytelling. I found that, while participation in other outreach programs at senior centers might ebb and flow, residents consistently attended storytelling hours and frequently told us how much they enjoyed them.

I’ve also taught English Language Learning (ELL) classes at a couple of libraries, in which I instruct adults of various ages. No matter their educational, cultural, or linguistic background or their English proficiency level, my students thoroughly enjoy my reading aloud to them and their following along with their own copies of the text.

A couple of months ago, we finished reading E. B White’s Charlotte’s Web and then watched the animated movie adaptation (with Debbie Reynolds lending Charlotte’s voice). It was a great experience for them – learning new vocabulary and, because Charlotte’s Web was originally published in 1952, glimpsing America’s more agrarian social past. Students asked many questions and offered opinions throughout. This inevitably led to further class discussion.

Reading to them proved to me that storytelling can be a great unifier. My students, such as the young woman from Iraq completing her master’s degree, or a grandmother from South Korea who loves to cook, both have lower-intermediate level English skills. Yet both laugh at Templeton and tear up at the end of the book. The telling of a good story can transcend language, religion, age, gender. It calls upon our basic humanity and the full gamut of our emotions.

What took place in those read-alongs with my ELL class is a practice Christina Torres recommends in a November 2019 Education Week article referred to as TQEs: thoughts, questions, and epiphanies. Torres is a strong advocate for reading aloud to older kids, because she believes it builds “student enjoyment, engagement, and camaraderie.” Students walk out of class chatting about the story the way an audience talks after watching a movie at the theatre. Reading aloud to preteens and teens allows them to better connect with the story and the characters and to share this connection together. It enriches the classroom community, builds background knowledge, and allows the storyteller to model effective reading strategies.

It also helps foster a love of reading. The truth is that people of any age, gender, or background enjoy hearing a good story. So, whenever time permits, read to the people in your life, or relax and enjoy listening to a good story, especially during this period of mass quarantine when we are at home with our young children, teens, and elderly parents. And perhaps feeling anxious.

There is a happy ending to my quest to identify that story that had mesmerized my classmates and me in middle school. Early in my career as a librarian many years later, I told Bonnie, a beloved fellow librarian, about the story. Bonnie asked me what it was about, and I told her. “Hmm. Sounds to me like Roald Dahl,” she said. Bonnie immediately turned to her computer and began typing into the OPAC.

I was surprised. I loved Dahl, and Matilda had been, and still is, of my favorite books of all time. I reread it for a class while in library school and howled my way through it as I had at age 9. But, at that time, I was unfamiliar with Dahl’s adult fiction.

Bonnie then walked to the stacks and returned with a volume of short stories, The Best of Roald Dahl. She seemed to know exactly which story to look for, and after a quick glance at the Table of Contents, turned to the corresponding page. “This could be it.” She handed me the book.

Bonnie was right. Roald Dahl's “Lamb to the Slaughter,” published in 1953, was the story that had entranced a room full of skeptical adolescents two decades earlier. It was the story that had awoken me to the universal, enduring power of a good story and effective storytelling to engage an audience (it also was adapted for a 1958 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, starring Barbara Bel Geddes of Dallas fame).

A 20-year mystery, finally solved -- thanks to a wonderful librarian’s curiosity, investigative skills, and love of stories. Bonnie, I hope you see this blog post and know it’s for you!