Story telling program carries universal themes
By Marie P. Grady
Special to the Reminder
In Ireland, they call them shanachies (pronounced shah-nack-ees). Itinerant story tellers, they traveled the country, warming themselves by the peat fires of families who offered them their finest food and drink just to hear them spin a tale.
The most famous and prolific entertained chieftains and kings. They were second in esteem only to poets. In an age long before cell phone texting became the preferred form of communication for children, they would sit in front of the fire with their parents, all mesmerized by the story teller.
I never had the privilege of living in such an age, but I sometimes think every Irish family has a story teller. In my case, it was my father. In his thick Irish brogue, he would often tell "old country" tales, many of which seemed to have some cautionary moral message about honesty, faith or generosity.
And so I think about him when I visit a planning meeting for a new family story telling program to be offered at the Springfield City Libraries beginning next month. I am surrounded at this meeting by story tellers of all cultures and backgrounds. There are two African-Americans, two with Italian surnames, an Asian-American and one Irish-American telling another story, this one about the story tellers.
Family Adventures in Reading (FAIR), a program presented by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and the Springfield City Libraries, will begin Oct. 11 at the Springfield Central Library. The six-week opening program also includes story telling sessions Oct. 18 and 25, Nov. 1, 8 and 15. FAIR will be offered again during the spring of 2009.
Collaborating in the effort are Partners for Community, the New North Citizens Council and the Urban League of Springfield. Books explore timeless themes, such as courage, fairness and dreams. Among titles are those based on Latino traditions, including faith and family.
Some of the region's best known story tellers will be weaving tales in 90-minute sessions that include snacks, activities for younger children and a "commercial" about what local libraries have to offer. They include Eshu Bumpus of Holyoke, Motoko Dworkin, Onawumi Jean Moss and John Porcino, all of Amherst.
Kristin O'Connell, assistant director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, said the foundation's mission is to help people to discover the excitement of discovering and sharing ideas.
"By sponsoring Family Adventures in Reading (FAIR), we're bringing that excitement to a younger generation," O'Connell said. "FAIR invites elementary-school-age children, with their parents, to explore the ideas in great picture books, in the company of terrific storytellers. We are very happy to be partnering with the City Library to bring this program to Springfield families, and we think everyone involved is going to have a wonderful time."
Emily Bader, director of the Springfield City Library, said she hopes the program will inspire family reading and spawn a new generation of passionate library users.
"The Library's mission speaks to developing a love of reading in children and supporting lifelong learning for residents of all ages," Bader said. "The FAIR project is a perfect melding of these two important objectives. What better way for kids to learn to love and respect books than to provide opportunities for them to share an entertaining reading and discussion experience with the people they love the most?"
When Joseph Carvalho, a board member of the humanities foundation, and David Tebaldi, its executive director, first told me of this effort, I also was excited about another opportunity. The opportunity to introduce modern families, and, especially children, to the ancient art of story telling. This might inspire families to tell and read more stories at home.
In turn, Springfield, the state's third largest city, might begin to open a new chapter in its own story, one where a literacy gap is no more. FAIR is based on Prime Time Family Reading Time, an award-winning program developed 10 years ago by the Massachusetts foundation's sister organization, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. It now operates in 35 states.
At a recent planning session with story tellers, I listen to a presage of what is to come. Reading a West African tale called "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears," story teller George Capaccio becomes a mosquito, a python and a crow. I want to close my eyes to hear the nuances of his voice and the inflections that transform it.
The story begins with a commotion caused by a tall tale told by a tiny mosquito and ends with a monkey accidentally killing an owl's egg. Because of her grief, the mother owl cannot wake the sun. As darkness descends, all the animals blame each other. The sun only rises when blame is affixed on the mosquito. Forever more, he buzzes in people's ears to ask if they are still angry at him.
The story tellers debate whether the owl has to lose her baby for the story to have meaning. One says the loss of a loved one is a darkness that eventually descends on every family.
"The story is like a mirror. We're all in that story,'' said Onawumi Jean Moss.
Marie P. Grady is liaison for the Literacy Works Project of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County Inc. For more information on the FAIR story telling program, contact the Central Library Children's Department at 263-6828 ext. 201, or visit the library Web site at www.springfieldlibrary.org