Storytelling through a Traveler's Eyes
An interview with
Cathy Spagnoli

  Cathy Spagnoli tells tales in this computer age, and her audiences love it! Listeners of all ages enjoy her varied repertoire, her warmth and enthusiasm. Cathy enchants elementary school listeners, inspires young writers, and challenges high school students, too. For over twenty years, Cathy has given storytelling performances and workshops in the United States, Canada, and Asia. Funding from The Japan and Korea Foundations, U.S. State Department, Singapore's National Library, and others has enabled her to collect numerous Asian tales and to meet storytellers across Asia. She shares this wealth of experience through her many books as well as her performances and workshops, which often feature sign language, songs, and unusual Asian props.  

Q: What did you do before you became a children's storyteller?

CS: I went to college hoping to be an ambassador to France! I soon discovered that I wasn’t very diplomatic, so I studied arts and education and spent my junior year in Asia before graduating from Tufts University. Next, I taught hearing-impaired children for a year and learned sign language. Then it was back to Asia, and after two amazing years of travel and learning about Asian telling, I returned to the United States and got my master’s degree in arts and education from the very creative Bank Street College in New York. I taught briefly before returning to Asia to try telling and to stay in an artists’ colony, with my new husband, an Indian sculptor. When we returned to the United States two years later, I taught part time but found writing lesson plans very hard. I spent more time telling stories to the class and finally felt brave enough to try storytelling full time. Luckily for me, a class parent kindly wrote a grant for me to be a storyteller-in-residence in the state of Washington. That gave me time to work on my telling and I’ve been telling and writing ever since.


Q: What first got you interested in children's books and storytelling?

CS: I’ve always loved to write. I wrote my first poem for the school newspaper in first grade and my first book for Mrs. Montgomery’s third grade class. By fifth grade, I was printing my own newspaper for the neighborhood. In junior high the mail was full of the manuscripts I sent to magazines (and the rejection slips I received). In high school, I worked on the school newspaper.
After college, I wrote in my journals and then discovered all-night storytelling in India. I loved the idea of storytelling because I could use words, gestures, my travel experiences, my musical studies, and more. I started telling stories more often than writing them.
However, in 1987 while I was collecting stories from Southeast Asian refugees, a publisher called me and asked me to send in a manuscript. That became my first book, Nine-in-One, Grr! Grr!, and many more followed!


Q: How many books have you written?

CS: So far, I’ve written fifteen books, along with many articles in anthologies, magazines, and even encyclopedias in the United States and Asia. I also have four storytelling cassette tapes and a growing Web site!


Q: Of all the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?

CS: Jasmine and Coconuts: South Indian Tales . I love this book because I wrote it with my husband and many South Indian friends. It helps to introduce a rich part of India to many readers who don’t know much about the south. I like the balance of stories, cultural material, photos, and my husband’s drawings. I’m also pleased that it helps rural development in India since half of the royalties support People for Progress in India.


Q: Who are your favorite authors/storytellers?

CS: My main focus in my writing is on Asia and on storytelling. So my favorite authors and storytellers are often Asian: I love the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, the stories of Miyazawa Kenji, and the work of Japanese writer/storyteller Matsuoka Kyoko. I also greatly admire many Asian storytellers, including the late T. S. Balakrishna Sastrigal from India and Honda Kazu, a Japanese teller I often work with.


Q: Where do you get ideas for books?

CS: Most of my ideas come from my research in the United States and Asia, my storytelling work, and from Asian friends and family. I’ve been privileged to meet hundreds of Asian storytellers over the years, who have told me many tales—a number of these stories and experiences also find their way into my books. Two of my books include my own original stories, which are often inspired by a folk toy or even a piece of recycled paper!
Ideas for the stories I tell come from a wider range of places: From memories of growing up, from tales my relatives and friends told me, from books, from my travels, and from my imagination.


Q: What are you working on now?

CS: I’m collaborating on a book about Korea for teachers to help them use art and folk tales to explore that rich land. I’m also finishing a book of easy-to-tell multicultural stories that are in fun forms like chains and riddle tales. I have several manuscripts on Asian humor, ghosts, and more that I hope to polish up. In my storytelling work, I’m developing more bilingual programs with Honda Kazu and deepening my repertoire of Asian tales for upcoming work there. I also spend time updating my Web site to give students more ideas for their writing and telling.


Q: What tips do you have for aspiring storytellers?

CS: Choose a story that appeals to both you and your audience. Find stories that share your strengths. If you are funny, try tales that show off your timing and humor. If you act well, choose a tale with scope for mime and characterization. Those with a talent for voices can find tales with juicy character voices, and those who play an instrument can weave music into a tale. If you can draw, use that talent to make a good prop, and if you are shy and quiet, try a good, scary tale.
Learn the plot of the story in the best way for you, by using techniques that appeal to your learning styles: acting it out, repeating it, drawing it, outlining it, mapping it, or tape recording it.
After you know the plot, then add interest to the story. Make sure you have fine details and descriptions, decide if you want to add character voices or pauses. Consider using a prop or perhaps a song in the story. Practice a simple gesture or two that makes the story come to life. Put everything together and make sure that the story is the right length and has a good, strong beginning and ending. Then try it on a friend or family member. Practice it several times until you feel comfortable and then tell it to more and more listeners. Have fun!


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