Saturday, December 04, 2010


Picture this: about 125 kids, ages 5-8, sitting on the floor of the library, with teachers at the ends of the rows, all listening to stories. About three rows back was a kindergartener, a little girl in a pink shirt, who got a funny look on her face and then quick, pulled the neck of her shirt up over her nose and sneezed. I think her funny look meant "I'm going to sneeze! What do I do?! Oh, how about inside my shirt!" The teachers were too far away to get to her with a kleenex.

I guess that's better than spraying everybody with germs. "Bat wing" (sneezing or coughing into the elbow) would be preferable. This was at the same school where I said something about coughing and suddenly twenty or so of the kids began to cough. Must be something infectious.

Teachers and administrators are doing their best. Every room has a few boxes of tissues, every school bathroom has a sign about handwashing. Here's one I saw yesterday:

When was the last time you washed your hands? Germ Farm. Scrub 'Em!

At another school, this sign was wordier:

Tips to prevent colds and flu...
Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Sneeze into your elbow if a tissue's not available.
Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer.

I'm guessing I ate more than a peck of dirt in my childhood, and we hadn't heard of antibacterial soap or hand sanitizer. Still, I'd rather not catch every cold that comes my way. I wash my hands often and I don't fill my water bottle from the drinking fountain (or bubbler, as we called it in Rhode Island). Too many mouths have been on those. I sometimes spray my puppets with rubbing alcohol, in hopes of killing off some of the germs.

On the other side, I've changed the way I do the song Poor little bug on the wall. We do the last verse underwater (about 2:43 on the video), but with the finger of one hand acting as a snorkel in the air , instead of making an underwater noise with a finger on the lips. Darn. It was funnier that way.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Telling to a wide age range

Nah, I wasn't at that school this week, but I did have three performances with kindergarten through 6th grade (ages 5-11, roughly). Each of these groups had at least 200 kids. I was asked in advance if I could tell to that age range. I said I could, though my preference is always to split the group if possible. Kindergarteners are very different from sixth graders.

When I tell stories to k-3rd grades, I include plenty of audience participation. I think I've written about how I do this, with the whole group making a motion together, or I call on kids in the audience who want to suggest something in the story (when I let them know that's appropriate). I know what it's like to be a shy child, so all participation is from the safety of the group. As a kid, I was always afraid I'd get picked, then afraid I wouldn't, and then I'd feel embarrassed if the kids on stage were made uncomfortable.

When I tell stories to 4th-6th grades, I tell stories that make the kids think a bit more. There's less audience participation, because they're starting to be a little self-conscious about that. I usually leave time for questions at the end.

I was pleasantly surprised that my performances at all three of these schools (and the other two in the same city) went as well as they did. Here are some reasons they succeeded:
  • I made sure the kids were as close to me as would be comfortable for us all. I prefer not to have a wide aisle, though at one school the teachers set them up that way.
  • Before the performance began, I got the audience on my side. I play my harmonica when the classes are coming in. We play "Name that tune," and sometimes I have the kids sing the ABC song, Baa baa black sheep and Twinkle, twinkle all at the same time. The teachers then understand that I can manage the energy in the room, so they relax.
  • The first story was one I knew the older students would like. If you don't capture the attention of the big kids in the beginning, all you get in return is scorn. If you do pull them in, you can do almost anything after that--a fingerplay, a silly story for little kids, puppet stuff.
  • Trixie mentioned to the audience that the first story was a bit...well, strange. That made them all curious and willing to listen. Strange seems to be a better hook than scary, which sometimes gets everybody too excited.
I don't know if this contributes to the success of a program, but often before a show I look out at the audience and see the listeners as the wonderful beings they are, ready to listen and have a good time. My wish is also that I always have a good time. If I do, there's a better chance the audience will, too.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Publicity photos over time

If you saw the last post, you've noticed that my hair is longer than it used to be. I've almost always had short hair. This is the longest it has been in 25 years and possibly the first time I've ever put it in a ponytail. With this new look, many people--even old friends--don't recognize me.

This leads me to think about publicity photos I've had over the years. Here is a small sample:
Taken by B. Wang, 1992 or 1993?
Taken by Wally Emerson, 1993

Taken by Darrell Sampson, 1999?

Taken by Mary Howe, 2003?

Taken by Kate Dinneen, 2008

Taken by Cristiana Ceschi, 2008

Taken by Kate Dinneen, 2010

So tell me, is a picture worth a thousand words?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Videos on my philosophy of storytelling

Last week, Marisa Bregman interviewed me about storytelling. Here's a bunch of my random blather on the topic. These short videos show off my crooked fingers, too!

Monday, September 27, 2010

I've moved!

After 17 years of living in Lawrence (this time, that is--I lived there twice before, once for two years, once for one year), I've moved. Now I live in Kansas City, Kansas. Here's the house: It was built in 1920 and has nice high ceilings, pretty woodwork, and as of last week, a brand new roof. Soon we'll get the gutters on, too. I'm not yet willing to show you pictures of the inside--there are still lots of boxes to unpack and things to put away.

For those of you not from around here, there are two Kansas Cities, one in Kansas and one in Missouri. They're pressed up against each other, right at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. KCK is the smaller city, with about 140,000 people. The entire Kansas City metropolitan area, both in Kansas and Missouri, has about 2 million people.

We moved to Strawberry Hill, a friendly neighborhood that used to be mostly Croatian and Slovenian and is now becoming Hispanic. Half a block from our house is a barbecue place run by an African-American family, up the hill is a taco stand, around the block is a sausage company, a few streets away is a Central American restaurant. The signs in our grocery store are in English and Spanish, and you can get every kind of hot pepper and edible cactus there. The other night, I got home too late from performances in Salina to go to Slovenefest at Holy Family Church. I can see the church from my office window:

Another church is visible from the other window, if I'm standing up and looking northeast:

When I look a little southeast, over our neighbor's roof, I can see the KCMO skyline:

This move is the big reason I haven't written a blog post in over a month. Now I'd better get back to unpacking. I'll write more posts when my office is better organized, I promise!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Working while moving

August is typically a slow month for me. Summer reading programs in the Midwest have all wrapped up. Funding is low this year, so some of my regular gigs are not happening. In fact, today I'll have my only performances of the month, at the Lawrence Busker Fest. Trixie and I will pass the hat.

For once, this situation doesn't have me in the pit of despond. Truthfully, I don't have time for lots of shows. I've sold my house and need to be out by Friday morning. My sweetie and I are close to having a house in Kansas City, but until we do, I'm putting my belongings in storage. This week, I've tackled the biggest job: packing books. I have eight of these bookcases, and even though I sorted and culled and sold and donated, I still have taken several carloads of boxes to the unit.
I haven't yet finished going through my files, and don't talk to me about packing the kitchen yet.

Telling stories today will be a welcome relief from the complete pig's nest that my house has become. It's hot and humid, so the inside of Trixie's head will be sweaty (and maybe mine will be as well), but at least I won't be carrying boxes. Maybe I'll tell cool stories, like The Magic Ice Cream Maker, my version of The Magic Porridge Pot (or Strega Nona for all you Tomie DePaola fans). Maybe I'll tell Wait and See by Robert Munsch, in which the protagonist wishes for snow, snow, snow. Maybe I'll tell The Mitten. Or maybe I'll just take requests from the audience and see what happens.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Yard sale

I'm not doing much storytelling these days, as you might have guessed from the last post. The house we thought we were going to buy didn't work out (too many issues came up in the inspection) but we're still looking and I'm still packing.

Tomorrow from 3 to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 8 to noon, my yard will turn into a veritable emporium of treasures, a.k.a. tag sale. Right now most of it is in my living room. I'm hoping the heat wave we've been having will abate. Maybe we should sell cold drinks, too!

Here's some of it: games, chairs, a bed, fans and other stuff.

This little chip and dip bowl is fabulous, but I'm not moving it. It's ready to be priced, sitting next to the linens.

For someone without children, I have a lot of toys. Some of them are not going with me.

These glasses are in the kitchen, patiently waiting their turn.

It's amazing how much a person can accumulate over almost 50 years, the last ten of which were in one house. I'll be glad to find the next place to live so I can get back to my storytelling life. By the next time I write, I should have an idea where exactly I'm going.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Why I skipped blogging in July, or my big news

I've been a little busy.
Read to the end to find out why this enigmatic photo is here.

Since I last wrote, I've traveled to North Carolina, Wisconsin, Missouri and California. Only the last two of these trips were for storytelling. In Missouri, I did six performances in two days for the Daniel Boone Regional Library, always a good time. I didn't have any pie, but I did have excellent ice cream from Sparky's in Columbia. They make it right there. Yum.

This last weekend was the National Storytelling Conference in LA. The conference is like a happy family reunion. Nobody says, "Storyteller? You mean you read books to children" or "Storytelling? You can make a living at that?" There are workshops on the art and craft of storytelling, keynotes to inspire us, and endless conversations at meals, in the lobby and in the pool. Oh, and dancing. There's always dancing.

I was fortunate that my name was drawn for a Fringe performance, at which I told "Queen Berta and King Pippin" at 9:45 p.m. (to my central time zone body it felt like 11:45 p.m., and I'm not a night owl). I got a good response to it and it felt pretty solid. Look for news on whether the video and audio recordings I attempted came out or not.

But there's more. The big news is that I'll be moving. I've sold my house (gulp!) and will move to Kansas City, KS with my beau. We decided to do this so he wouldn't have to drive an hour each way to work. The house we found (pictured above), if all the inspections and the appraisal go well, is only a 30-minute drive for him. I was signing and faxing the contract from the hotel in LA, a surreal experience.

I don't have much storytelling work in August, so I'll be sorting, tossing, packing and moving. Wish me luck!

P.S. The yard sale will probably be on August 14.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Where I've been

Blog? What blog? Oh, right, I have one, don't I?

I've been busy. Since I last wrote, I've been to Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island visiting family, then to libraries and camps in Arkansas City, Wichita (twice), Valley Center, Oskaloosa, Lawrence, Overland Park and Leavenworth, Kansas, as well as Ponca City, Oklahoma and Jefferson City, Missouri. Mostly I've been doing summer reading programs, which have gone over well. The baby puppet has been singing "Throw, throw, throw the goat in the lima bean, Slippily, loppily, lippily, loppily, on the trampoline." Just as we do with the Itsy Bitsy Tiger, we sing it the proper way for her. Will she ever learn?

This was a performance in my backyard last week.

In Valley Center, they decorate the library up to the rafters. That whale must have been a tough one to net.
Also in Valley Center, the library lends out fishing poles, courtesy of Kansas Wildlife and Parks. In the past I've mentioned libraries lending cake pans, but I'd never seen this. First-time fishing pole borrowers get a little tackle box to keep.
This kind of busy-ness is typical of summer. July is quieter than June by far. Maybe I should go fishing?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


And now for a post with nothing to do with storytelling...

Most of my plants are outside for the summer. I'm a bit neglectful of them. They don't seem to mind. I keep the orchids inside so I can have flowers in the house. Two are blooming now, a third has sent out a shoot. These three are phalaenopsis orchids, while the other plant is a dendrobium. They're not fancy, just the kind you can get at the grocery store.

My mother had cattleya orchids when I was growing up. When I got my first phalaeonopsis, I asked her for advice. She suggested I put them in shallow trays of pebbles, but on clothespins so they would be raised above the pebbles. By keeping the pebbles wet, each orchid has its own microclimate. Once a week, I take them to the sink and run water through them. Otherwise I don't mess with them. They appreciate this and bloom for months on end. I had one that bloomed for 14 months straight.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Leaving a mark

I live in an old house made of soft brick. I've been here almost ten years (whew, how did that happen?!). People who lived here long before me made their mark on the house, and so have I. No, I haven't carved my name in the brick, as the unknown Mark and Tom did, but I've made it my own, with a new back door, with rose beds and perennials and with an ineffable Priscilla-ness.

That's what I do with stories. I make my mark on them, turning them around in my head, my heart and my mouth so when I finally tell them they are my own.

Ah, but here's the trick. They're not completely mine. I have to let them go. When I put them out in the world, when I tell them, the listeners then own them as well. I can't--and wouldn't want to--control the images the listeners hold in their heads. Every time I see those names carved in the brick of my house, I think of my brothers Mark and Tom. A different Mark and Tom carved their names, but I see images of my brothers, aged about 7 and 9.

I once heard Donald Davis say in a workshop, "Meaning is the property of the listener, not the teller."

I've thought about this a lot. It's true, and it's also true that if I do my job completely, if I imagine the characters, action and scenes so fully that they come out of my mouth as fully dimensional, the listeners may imagine them clearly as well. When we're all truly present to the story, we all see the pictures. The story leaves a mark.

Oh, I'm so lucky to do this work!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Down came the rain

It's raining. Again. Cold, too. I've gotten used to May in Kansas being pleasant and warm. Last week I had a fire in the wood stove. I'm considering having another today.

Or I could turn my attention further to water, to the summer reading theme Make a splash at your library. The program I'm offering for the theme is called Didja ever see a fishy? and it will be a medley of puppets, stories and songs. Trixie is considering wearing a shower cap, Ray the ray puppet will swim up out of the bag thanks to the "mistic hand." I'm certain that Prince, formerly known as Frog, will make an appearance. I suspect the baby will sing The Itsy Bitsy Tiger.

The title of the program is from a song I learned from another storyteller. Here it is:

Didja ever see a fishy on a hot summer day, (wipe sweat from brow)
Didja ever see a fishy all swimming in the bay, (mime fish swimming)
With her hands in her pockets and her pockets in her pants, (hands on front pockets, then on back)
Didja ever see a fishy do the hoochie koochie dance? (little dance)

You ne-ver did (clap, clap), you never will.

Didja ever see a fishy on a cold winter's day, (shiver)
Didja ever see a fishy all frozen in the bay, (mime hands forming a block of ice)
With his hands in his pockets and his pockets in his pants, (hands on front pockets, then on back)
Didja ever see a fishy do the hoochie koochie dance? (little dance)

You ne-ver did (clap, clap), you never will.

I'm still playing with stories. I'm thinking of The Pincoya's Daughter, a Chilean story about an old woman who finds a baby mermaid, and Little Crab's Magic Eyes. Maybe also Mud Puddle by Robert Munsch. I just found a newer story Munsch wrote called Down the drain that might work.

I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What really happens in the puppet bag

In April, I visited second grade classes as part of the Learning About the Environment Through the Arts residency, through the Lied Center of Kansas and USD 497. Many of the kids wrote me thank you notes. I love this one!

At the top, Jonah wrote "the bag. the bag. the bag." This is indeed my puppet bag. Over on the far left is the bat marionette. I think there's another one with more detail on the other side of the poker table. Yes, that's Prince, formerly known as Frog, sitting at the table under a single light bulb, looking at his cards. In the middle, Trixie is sitting on the baby's head. Near the top, to the right, the baby is popping her binky (a.k.a. pacifier, a.k.a. passy) out of her mouth. Best of all, on the far right, is "the mistic hand." That's correct, my hand as perceived by the puppets in the bag.

Here's the text:
"Dear Ms. Howe, Thank you for coming to Sunset Hill. The puppets were really funny. The predators and preys were something good to learn. Also the bats were cool to learn about. your friend, Jonah."

What a great letter from an eight-year-old! Will I ever reach into the bag again without thinking about "the mistic hand"?

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Itsy Bitsy Tiger and Other Ridiculous Stories and Songs

You're invited!

On Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 10 a.m., I'm giving a benefit performance for the Lawrence Schools Foundation. I'll tell my most requested stories about the inimitable brave baby in The ghost with the one black eye, along with some other ridiculous songs and schtick from the baby puppet and Trixie.

It's a kind of "greatest hits" show for kids under age 10, and will be held at the Union Pacific Depot in Lawrence at 10 a.m. All of the proceeds at the door will go to the LSF (suggested $2 for kids and $5 for grownups). This performance will be filmed, in hopes of getting a good DVD. I hope not too many trains go by to interrupt us.

Feel free to spread the word.

Baby stories

I wanted an excuse to post this picture. I was pruning the yew this afternoon when I realized this nest was there. I stopped immediately. I hope mother and babies aren't too traumatized.

In fact, I want to talk about baby stories. By that, I don't mean stories for babies. I mean the four stories I tell about the inimitable brave baby in The ghost with the one black eye. I've performed them for audiences of all ages, from preschoolers to highschoolers to college kids to nonagenarians. These are the most-requested stories I tell.

One theory I have is that these stories, in which the baby is the bravest character of all, give the listeners--especially children--a feeling of vicarious power. There's also a great release of laughter at the end of the stories. I've learned to channel the explosion of energy after The ghost, by inviting the kids to repeat the three important lines together, with me. If I don't do that, they spend the next five minutes telling bits of the story to each other, ignoring me completely. Sometimes I retell that very physical story in French or Bulgarian to let kids know that telling a story is more than just saying the words, and that they could learn a foreign language, too. It's fun to see them join in the telling in another language.

I've heard from teachers that kids retell The ghost to each other for the next week, on the playground, in the lunchroom, at home.

I didn't write these campfire tales. They're from children's folklore, similar to handclapping games and counting out rhymes. I first heard The ghost from my friend Mike Rundle, who heard it from somebody else, and on back to the first kid who made it up. Of course, I've tweaked it and shaped it to fit my own personality.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Puppet tips now on video

I've just uploaded a video of puppet tips on Youtube. I learned these in 1989 from Judy Stoughton, then my boss (and good friend) at the Russell Library in Middletown, CT. I've used them ever since to teach others how to use handpuppets effectively, especially when the puppeteer is not a ventriloquist and is visible to the audience.

This video was filmed last week by Kelly Stroda, a journalism student at KU who did a project on my work. She did a great job! Soon I'm hoping to have another clip to show here. Kelly remembered me from when I visited her elementary school classroom many years ago.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival

I'm just back from the Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival in Missouri, right on the Mississippi River, where I was one of two regional storytellers. It was a great time, better even than the first year in 2008, in part due to pleasant weather. According to the organizers, there were nearly 3,100 listeners from 16 states this year. It's hard to believe that this well-run festival is only three years old.

One of the great joys of festival performing is listening to the other storytellers. This year, the headliners were Donald Davis, Minton Sparks, Kevin Kling and Syd Lieberman. It was also fun to hear and hang out with Marilyn Kinsella, the other regional teller--Marilyn was also a regional teller in 2008. My good friend Joyce Slater ran the story swap, which was a big success, with more people wanting to tell than there was time. Storytelling is certainly growing in Cape.

I'd heard Don and Syd many times, but had only heard Minton once and had enjoyed listening to Kevin on NPR but never live. What a treat to listen to them all!

I couldn't find a video of Donald, but here are some of the others.
That's John Jackson playing guitar. The combination was amazing.

These storytellers are SO good in person--it's worth going out of your way to hear them.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Obvious signs of spring

I can't help it. I just have to put these up now. I'll write a more substantive post soon, I promise. Not today, because I really have to go outside.

Star Magnolia in the backyard.

Maybe I should rake up the leaves I didn't rake last year. The irises in front of the house are looking hopeful, but also need to be raked out.

My daffs are blooming a little later than those down the street, where there's more sun. Soon there will also be tulips.

Ah, Forsythia. I meant to force some a few weeks ago. This is just as good.

You can't see it in this picture, but I just put the screen on the front door and hoisted the porch swing onto its hooks. Now I need to sweep up the debris from the woodpile. It's not quite time to move the last of the wood off the porch--I'm betting I'll still need to make a few fires to take the chill off the house. After all, it's only April.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

More on bats

Yesterday and the day before I had my first sessions of the residency "Learning about the environment through the arts," through the school district and the Lied Center of Kansas. I wrote about the preparation for the residency a few weeks ago.

The marionettes I was making didn't quite pan out. The Model Magic bat wasn't quite flexible enough. I found a bat marionette online and ordered it. The "Boingy Bat" arrived on Thursday, about an hour before my first session. It's fun, but more of a chachka than an actual usable marionette. Still, in a pinch it works to explain about marionettes in the context of other puppets.

Here are the other bats I've been using. The little black finger puppet is great for showing the bat's structure--those looong fingers that make up the ribs on the wings are very cool!

Prince (formerly known as Frog), Trixie and the Baby are all part of these sessions. One point I've been making is that puppets have distinct characters and voices. I illustrate this by switching the voices around, for example giving the Baby Trixie's voice. Weird!

Before I bring the baby out, I tell the kids I'm going to show them the biggest predator of bats. Then I bring the baby out. What? A baby?! I explain that of course not when she's a baby, but that human beings destroy bat habitat (say that five times fast), and other habitats as well.

I'll meet with these six groups again after they've visited the Baker Wetlands. They already know and understand a lot about the environment. We'll see how it expands in the second session.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Back from New Jersey

Last week I was fortunate to have work in Cliffwood and Rumson, NJ, telling stories to preschoolers through fifth graders. I stayed with my friends Susie and Dagmar and also spent a good chunk of time with Carol Grosman. More on Carol in another post.

Sometimes when I'm on the road, I notice interesting differences. Here's a sign from the school in Cliffwood. I've never seen this wording in Kansas:

"Egress" always makes me think of PT Barnum, who put up a sign that said, "This way to the egress." People expected to see an exotic animal, but what they found was the exit.

Here's another sign, this one in Rumson:

I've played bocce in Kansas, but at a friend's house. I've never seen a bocce court in a public park in Kansas. New Jersey, yes, Connecticut, yes, Kansas, no.

Though the punctuation on this sign is puzzling, the sentiment is not:

No signs here. Just beach and jetty, water and sky. No salt water in Kansas. Hmm, my Rhode Island roots are showing!

Friday, March 05, 2010

Batty about bats prep

I'm getting ready for this year's 2nd grade school residency, Batty About Bats: Learning About the Environment Through the Arts.

Last year's focus was on butterflies and dragonflies. This year the kids will visit the Lied Center to see a puppet performance of Stellaluna before our sessions begin, so the focus is on bats. And puppets. And stories. And the wetlands. The overarching theme is lifecycles, a topic addressed in the 2nd grade educational standards.

I'd like kids to understand how animal puppets mimic the animals they represent. I also want them to see different kinds of puppets, so I tried to build a bat marionette. I'm not sure if it will work, but it was pretty fun to make. Here's the result so far:

I know, the head looks more like a deer than a bat. I like working with Model Magic, but details are tricky in this medium. One difficulty in this is that the wings don't have a lot of flexibility. I've also been playing with a fabric marionette with a Model Magic head, but I'm not far enough along to show it.

I also came up with a simple finger puppet kids could make with craft foam. I tried a couple of thicknesses, finding that 2 mm was the best for wing flappability. Here's the result:
Kids will add the skeletal structure and may decorate them in various ways. I made mine plain.

At a meeting with the teachers the other day, they asked about materials. I was set on the foam, but as we discussed it and they played with the foam puppets, they wondered if construction paper or oaktag would work as well. Brilliant! I love working with teachers--they often see the obvious when I've been blinded by my first idea.

More on this residency as it takes shape. The show at the Lied Center is next week and I'll start meeting with the students after that.