Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Finding a Line

Finding a line is what I do. But what does focusing on the line leave out? Last week’s story here in this blog was about two girls who were transformed by the King of the Deep into seagulls, eternally destined thereafter to fly between land and sea.

The two birds began to make a little line in my mind. By Thursday, delving into nursery rhymes for a piece I am writing, I found myself considering that clever little verse, so fascinating to children when it’s done with hand actions:

Pete and Repete sat on a wall.
Pete flew off.
Who was left?
Repete.

There are numerous variants of this rhyme. But whatever one is used, one thing is certain. With children, it has to be repeated again and again.  And again. So, my child’s heart still present within me, it was lovely for me yesterday morning when Paul called me to the bedroom window in our house here in Wales. Crows were flying into and over the big old tree in our neighbour’s back yard. Always they arrived in pairs, settling in the tree, then perhaps moving position, then apparently in the shared whim of a moment sailing out into the windy grey air. Paul commented on how they must be enjoying their aerodynamics – or was it aerobatics?

Thus the theme of twos confirmed itself as a line in my thought. Yes, I could also see it in the many tales in three new books of stories I’ve been reading this week to review them for the School Librarian magazine. Twos are always a prominent theme in traditional tales – and yes, here they were in stories from as far afield as Africa, India and the Caribbean. Princess meets prince and they form a pair, young king finds a wise young adviser who becomes his perpetual partner in life’s adventures, son goes off to find something his mother needs and then returns to her embrace: not surprisingly, twos figure across the world’s cultures.

Yet, after discovering this line of twos, I needed to remind myself not to focus on this particular line at the expense of everything else. So much else has been there too. For instance, there’s been the flush of comments and messages that arrived from readers of last week’s blog. Karen suggested I think about stories the two sisters would be telling each other as they flew from sea to land. For Fiona, the imprisonment of the two girls in the undersea palace was reminding her of the horror she’d felt of the swallowing drum when hearing the story of Ibanang at one of the Drill Hall workshops Karen and I used to run. The theme of transformation turned Meg’s mind to two stories she has long loved but doesn’t tell – one the Chinese fairy tale of the boy who is taken into the painting made by a master-painter and there is taught his master’s arts, the other the Masai story of the orphan boy who becomes a bright star that guides us.

As for me, I’m making clear to myself that those three books of stories I’ve been reading contain many stories that are not about pairs. For instance, I was greatly taken by a very sweet Berber tale, Um Bsisi’s Milk in Tales from Africa. It’s about a hugely determined little mouse who simply wants a drink of goat’s milk to celebrate Eid. In the course of trying to obtain it, creature after creature gets him to perform some task they need doing. Will he ever get the delicious-looking milk he yearns for? Yes, in the end he does. I felt as satisfied as him when he did, also no doubt inspired by his determination to keep going through the difficulties of a time when life is not easy.

By the way, I highly recommend those three books, all newly published by Puffin Classics. Tales from the Caribbean is a delightfully fresh and funny retelling of a range of wonderful stories that Trish Cooke has collected from all over the Caribbean. The author’s parents came from Dominica. She herself grew up in Bradford and she has the skill to share her rich Caribbean background in a way that makes the stories she tells wholly accessible to us here today. (And reflecting on her book as I write, my thoughts go to the devastation which the story-culture of the Caribbean islands will now inevitably be suffering because of the typhoons that have so wrecked people’s lives there.)

Tales from Africa presents a wide selection of African traditional tales that in the reading makes me want many more. They are written by K.P.Kojo (that’s his pen-name when writing for children). P.J. Kojo is a Ghanaian author otherwise known as Nii Ayikwei Parkes. His writing is authoritative. He has the art to make his stories feel old and new at the same time, completely right for now. (Reflecting on the range of his stories,  I think of the wars, droughts and political upheavals that right now must be threatening the survival of such wonderful cultures of story as have given rise to his book.)

The third book, Tales from India, feels somewhat more traditional in its presentation. Just over a third of its stories – namely the tales of the young Emperor Akbar and his wise young advisor Birbal – took me back to the theme of twos. But there are also tales of a more epic sort. The book is written by Bali Rai, a British-born son of Indian parents, who himself grew up in Leicester. As with the other two books mentioned above, it makes me think of the richnesses of heritage which families who have migrated to this country have brought us. What a diverse, entertaining and thought-provoking world we have around us.

PS: Thanks to all who have sent good wishes. The surgical side of my treatment all went well. Now I’m preparing for the three weeks’ radiotherapy and enjoying the fresh air of North Pembrokeshire (for fresh air, read frequent gusts of rain and wind but alternating with welcome sunny patches).

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