Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ The Magic of Objects

…how the idea began


A few weeks ago on an impulse, I dragged my story-bags from under the shelves where I keep them. For the first time since last year (lymphoma!), I opened them up and began taking out the contents. As I looked at each one, arranging them around me on the floor, I felt enormous pain and pleasure. How I’d been missing sharing these things. That’s when this new idea surfaced. Since I’m not yet ready to get back out on the storytelling road in person (recovering!), I began to wonder if a new series of blogs could do the sharing for me.

Storytelling Starters – the plan

Storytelling Starters is meant for anyone who loves stories and storytelling and is keen to develop ways of sharing them with others.  Maybe you work with children in a school or nursery or after-school club. Or with adults in a community group. Or maybe your interest is because you’re a parent. Or perhaps you are just interested. And though the blog is not intended for ‘performers’, maybe if you’re a performer, you can get something out of it too. Since many of oral storytelling’s techniques are also applicable when reading aloud, the blog may also be useful to you if you don’t (yet!)want to put the book aside.

My plan is to put up a weekly piece, starting today on October 1st – just in time for Children’s Book Week. In each piece I shall aim to tackle something that might help you get involved with storytelling and the first series is on The Magic of Objects. It’s about ways of creating a good storytelling atmosphere through drawing on the evocative power of objects and their capacity to attract attention and nourish imagination. After that, if all goes well, the blog will go on to talk about such issues as how you can develop your memory and imagination to help you familiarise yourself with existing stories and maybe make up new ones. Then there’ll be ways to put stories across, including techniques for developing participation. And that’s just for starters. So here goes.

Series 1: The Magic of Objects

The magic of objects is that, through showing and sharing, you can begin to establish a storytelling atmosphere in which you can start learning to listen. From my point of view, that habit of listening is fundamental for anyone who proposes working with either children or adults in a creative or educational way. The members of your group may not actually respond by speaking – or at least, not yet. But you need to nurture their thoughts. You need to inspire their imagination. And you can see it on their faces when it happens.

So once a week in this first series of blogs, I’ll put up a photo of one of the objects I’ve used in my storytelling and say a bit about it – where I got it (if I remember!), what I do with it and the kinds of things people have said in response. Where it’s appropriate, I’ll also say a bit about particular stories with which I connect it, myths or folktales or personal stories. But the initial idea is to draw attention to the sheer fascination of objects and the way in which they can succeed in taking our minds on journeys. It’s to encourage you to think about objects that tantalise you, evoking memories and dreams. It’s also to show in a practical way how such items can be employed to engage the listener.

Objects can create their own sense of story. I hope that, whatever the item I focus on – and this week, it’s the Story-Bag – you’ll get something out of it that might be of use to you. You might track down a similar item. You might make or find something equivalent. You might settle on something altogether different that is entirely to do with you. Whatever the case, I hope you will discover a way to share it in your work, whether that’s with children or adults, or maybe with family or friends. With luck, it will bring you the same sense of communication and pleasure that it has brought to me.

Item 1: The Story-Bag

My story-bags are extremely useful. They are colourful, they focus attention and they draw forth questions. ‘What have you got in that bag, Miss?’ ‘Well, what do you think is in it?’ Children usually guess that it’s going to be books. After all, I’m a storyteller, aren’t I? So the idea that I haven’t brought any books but keep my stories in my head is extremely fascinating to them. And that’s a very good start. For if there’s no books, what’s in the bag?

Well, it somewhat depends on the occasion. For a particular theme in a school – it could be animals, Africa, the seaside or space or any one of the myriad topics that different classes focus on – I’ll have sorted through the stuff I keep at home to select items that could help me introduce or illuminate particular stories I might tell on the day. In the bag too, there’ll be my standard kit, items that assist in creating what I consider to be the right conditions for storytelling whether in schools or with community groups. These include my story cloths, the bag of stones for my sea-tray, my magic music pipe, a fan that isn’t really a fan  – all are objects that help me get the atmosphere going, set the scene, invite my listeners into the world of stories. I’ll be writing about these in subsequent weeks.But the bag itself is not to be ignored. It is a magic object on its own account. Rain-proof (essential for the travelling storyteller). Colourful (an asset in a large assembly hall where you have to make a focus). It’s got a zip (vital when you’re surrounded by little people with hands that might go dipping when you’re looking the other way.) It’s large (for, of course, it might also need to contain other bags and boxes with interesting things inside). It encourages children to be sociably helpful. (‘Miss, can I carry your bag?’) And I possess a variety of them – stripey, spotty, black with white spots, pink with black spots, and so forth. So how about beginning by finding yourself one glorious story-bag that might accompany you as you set out on the storytelling road?

Select your bag to suit yourself! In my case, there’s been a long series of them. Two plasticated bags I bought in Kenya when revisiting the place where I did my VSO work were made from recycled agricultural sacks. Eventually they got worn out. While I looked for zipped replacements, I used a large African basket until one fiercely windy day taught me a cruel lesson. My booking was for a teacher-training session in Central London. As I got in the door and put down my basket, I saw with a huge sense of shock and dismay that my two favourite African cloths had disappeared from the top. Had they been stolen – a hand reaching out? – or had the wind caught them and blown them away? I’ll never know. Going away after the session, I peered up into the tops of trees and down into manky cellar areas all along the route I’d taken earlier on my way from the tube. No cloths. The only compensation was the myriad stories that emerged over subsequent weeks when I told different classes in different schools the tale of my sad loss.

And that’s part of the art of the story-bag. Its power lies in believing in its magic and learning the directions in which the items you put inside it can lead, what they inspire people to say or think and the story-ideas that grow from them like flowers from seeds.

A special tip for Children’s Book Week

A Story-Bag can still provide you with a good way of attracting and engaging attention even in you want to stick to reading aloud from books. When you’ve selected the book you want to share (and essential preparation is to familiarise yourself with it), think about choosing an intriguing soft-toy or object that could relate to the theme of the book. It might be a dried pea for the story of The Princess and the Pea. It could be a cheeky-faced monkey for any one of the myriad stories about monkeys that children so love. Whatever you choose, add it to your story-bag along with your selected book. Then, at the start of your story-session, bring your special object out of your bag, show it slowly around and take note of the comments your listeners might make. It makes an excellent introduction. And if the children start champing at the bit to get hold of the object you’ve brought, you can hold them in suspense by saying you’ll hand it round later. But first, you have a story to tell.

And next week?

Here’s two clues:

‘it’s the flowers that spring up after the woman with magic feet has gone by …’

‘it’s all the peoples of the world …’

What do you think it could be?

And please do let me know if any of my ideas succeed in working for you or if you’ve got any thoughts about them. For me, this blog is a new way of connecting. I’d love to hear from you. To get in touch, you can either click the reply button on the blog itself or send me an email at the address on the Contacts page of my website:  To hear more about my storytelling philosophy, go to Storyworks on

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5 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ The Magic of Objects”

  1. Hilary Minns Says:

    Wonderful, Mary. What a feast of riches you’re providing here. I look forward to the next instalment!

  2. Felice Tombs Says:

    Dear Mary – you are an inspiration. I look forward to telling my teaching friends about your blog, I know they will get so much out of it, and it’s a great way for you to pass on your knowledge. Keep writing! Love Fleeciexx

  3. Jean Edmiston Says:

    Dear Mary, I enjoyed the blogs, they took me back to those inspirational workshops in Drill Hall and Holborn.
    Story bags, story cloths and sea sounds have been my constant companions as a storyteller, and have been the starting point for
    many story telling and story making sessions with children and adults. Thank you Mary. I look forward to future blogs and will of course pass them on to inspire others.
    Love Jean x

  4. Rebecca Says:

    Mary, how wonderful you are. What a truly brilliant way to bring inspiration, excitement and the beauties of the world itself to children of all ages (and adults for that matter) who may never have had a chance to experience such delights! I want to be the child asking ‘Miss, what have you got in the bag?’!.
    Much love Rebecca xx

  5. Mary Medlicott Says:

    All these wonderful comments are so much appreciated. I just love to think of the blog spreading around – in New Zealand, too – and of the pleasure the ideas might bring where they are used.

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