Monday, April 6, 2015

I'm Going on Tour! Author Interviews: Gail de Vos

Gail de Vos

How did you get started in storytelling?

My mother would say that I started storytelling the moment I could string two words together but I did not officially begin my career as a storyteller until I was much older. I had travelled around South East Asia and Australia after I graduated with my B.Ed. but when I returned home, instead of teaching, I got married, had two daughters and decided to return to university to become a librarian. Because my daughters were still quite young I chose an evening course as my first foray back into the academic world. The course was storytelling, not a course I particularly wanted to take as I had dreams of being a research librarian working with ideas, not necessarily people. When I initially took the course I thought that it might help with parenting skills but….what I discovered absolutely changed the direction of my life!
I was very fortunate with both my instructor and the fact that seasoned storyteller, Tigge Anne Andersen, was auditing the course. She became my mentor and, for several years, my fellow storyteller in residence at Fort Edmonton Park, bringing history alive through story. She and I also collaborated on the first Fort Edmonton Park Storytelling Festival which celebrated its 25 anniversary last year. I finished my degree and became a librarian but never worked in a library in that capacity. Immediately after graduation the opportunity came to teach the storytelling course for the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and I went from graduating student to sessional instructor in the blink of an eye. These many years I am still teaching at SLIS as a sessional with additional courses such as Canadian Children’s Literature and Comic Books and Graphic Novels. I wished to remain a sessional instructor so I would be also free to follow my path as a storyteller and an author of resource materials on storytelling and folklore for educators and librarians.
I soon realized that my absolute favourite age of audience to tell stories to was teenagers and, while I love telling stories to all ages, that became a major focus of my story seeking, telling and writing.
I have since travelled this continent and a great deal of Europe telling stories, conducting workshops on storytelling and working with diverse groups of people, ages and backgrounds. I think I have the best occupation in the world and am so glad that I, however reluctantly, took that evening course those many years ago.

What (or who) inspires the stories you create and tell?

I am absolutely fascinated by the reworking of folklore and folktales in popular culture. When I sadly realized that many of our young people did not get the allusions to many of these tales, I began to tell these stories. Two of my books look at various folktales in the western cannon of tales but those are not the ones I usually tell. I want to introduce new audiences to old tales that are still relevant today but have not been shaped by the Disney machine. I also tell stories from my Jewish culture and, because of my lifelong fascination with Canadian history, local history highlighting place names, important historical figures and the tastes and smells of a past era. Because of this interest in Canadian history for young listeners I have the privilege of being the ongoing jury chair for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Geoffrey Bilson Award for historical fiction.
My favourite stories have a twist or direction that gives pause for thought. Telling stories for me offers me the opportunity to encourage listening skills and critical thinking skills in audience members along with communication skills.

What was your favourite story as a child? Why?

Baba Yaga. I loved, and still do, stories about this Russian witch figure who sometimes eats children and sometimes helps them. I loved the imagery of the house on chicken feet and the thrill of the danger of the forest. The baba yaga (in Russian folklore it is not a proper name but a generic one) has recently “made” a comeback in North American popular culture with numerous depictions in comic books, novels, films, and plays. She is the ultimate earth mother and is neither totally benign nor horrendous.

How can teachers use storytelling in the classroom?

Values of Storytelling for students of all ages: Introduces listeners to a range of story experiences and increases knowledge and understanding of other places, races, and beliefs. Teachers can use a story to illuminate and discuss multiculturalism. It is a traditional teaching tool for Aboriginal students and should be employed when teaching all subjects regarding First Nations, Inuit and M├ętis peoples.
Because storytelling provides students with models of story patterns, themes, characters, and incidents listening and retelling stories helps them in their own writing, oral language, and critical thinking. Having the students tell stories helps put children’s own words in perspective and creates a safe place for expression. The exposure to oral stories helps students to develop a sense of story, to make better predictions to anticipate what is next, to increase awareness of cause and effect while developing an awareness of essential story elements: point of view, plot, styles, characters, setting and theme. Listening to a teacher telling stories inspires students to create their own and to communicate them in oral and written forms. If the teacher tells stories in all of the subject matters, students soon realize that storytelling is a major communication tool that is an essential skill beyond the boundaries of the education system. They soon realize, as well, that the world is made of stories.
To summarize my long answer to this question: teachers can use stories and storytelling in every aspect of their teaching. For example, discoveries made by mathematicians may bring arithmetic alive for a student.

What are you looking forward to most during TD Canadian Children’s Book Week?

I am looking forward to revisiting various places in the province of Quebec. I have told stories there several times now and am always refreshed by the people, history, and landscape of the province. I am looking forward to hearing stories (echoes of tales) from members of the audiences in our discussions. I am most looking forward to sharing my versions of the old tales and Alberta history to listeners who, hopefully, will take the stories and the spirit of the storytelling experience, home to their own classroom, homes and family.
Click here to read Gail's author profile.

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