Neil Griffiths was a guest at Wycombe Abbey International School in Changzhou, China, recently. Griffiths, an acclaimed children’s book author and former headmaster, gave back-to-back performances of his favourite stories to a library full of eager students. The 60-year-old author has written over 40 books; not bad considering he only started writing 20 years ago.
Neil Griffiths – A natural-born storyteller
“I am and have always been a storyteller. I was brought up by just my father who was a single parent, but he was remarkable. He read to us every night; told us silly stories every night … His life was one long story.” – Neil Griffiths
Neil Griffiths’s face lights up when he’s in front of the students. His voice booms across the wide primary school library and he has the body language of a performer and a teacher. He knows how to get students excited, but also how to calm them down. Eye contact is very important to storytelling, he tells me afterwards, as well as facial expressions, body gestures, and student interaction. Another element is voice, especially in terms of tone, volume and expressiveness.
Every story has a beginning
Before he became a writer, Griffiths was a headmaster. His writing journey began when he realised one day that one of the mothers at his school had an exceptional talent for drawing. He wrote his first picture book, Itchy Bear, because he wanted to write something for Judith Butler to illustrate. The rest as they say is history.
Griffiths also developed a learning resource called Story Sack for the students in his school. Story Sack is a bag with everything you need inside to role-play a story. Students can take the bag home and use it to tell stories. The government gave him funding to promote Story Sack around the country for one year, which turned into six years. Griffiths was writing stories for Story Sack, and subsequently started his own publishing company, Red Robin Books.
Story performance at Wycombe Abbey
Griffiths describes his style of storytelling as story performing. The first story of the day was Itchy Bear. He used students to make hilarious sound effects, from scratching and sighing to munching on an apple. The students were in stitches at his tale about a bear that can’t stop scratching.
Check out this video by the Early Learning Centre to see Itchy Bear in action:
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The students worked together to bring to life the second story and Griffiths’s favourite, The Journey. This rhyming story about a little boat that goes on a madcap adventure first came to life in China as a full-blown theatre production with a live orchestra. Half of the students formed the orchestra with homemade instruments, while the other half made the scenery using beautiful cloth, rich in colour and textures.
The third story lies close to his heart. Shaun the Shy Shark is about a shark who becomes the victim of bullying. All he wants to do is dance but the other sharks tease and belittle him. Shaun makes friends with the other sea creatures who also feel like outcasts, and together they stand up to the mean sharks. The moral of the story? Always be yourself.
“I love animals and that clearly shows because so many of my stories are about animals. The great thing about animals is that you can do anything with them. Your imagination can run wild I find with animals.”
Some of the props and scenery come from his Story Sack resources, and the multitalented Judith Butler made many of the stuffed toy animals.
The value of reading aloud
The students’ enthusiasm blew him away. “They loved it today, and they were 12 and 13. That’s not the age group I normally work with.” Griffiths has dedicated his life to raising awareness around the value of reading aloud to children. He believes that there is no age limit when it comes to reading aloud to children. “In fact, the longer the better!”
Griffiths travels the world speaking to parents, teachers, and librarians about the importance of reading out loud to children and giving them freedom to choose their own stories. He loves telling stories: “You’re exposing them to fantasy worlds, to real worlds, to real people.”
In addition to librarians and educators, he also works with prisoners and teenage parents. “In the UK, 70 percent of prisoners are parents.” He encourages male prisoners to read to their children when they get released. “We have a big problem with male role models.”
Imagination: What you put in, is what you get out
“Some of my stories are based on the things my dad told me and the things he made up. No one can be imaginative unless you’ve got somewhere to pull it from.”
However, fewer and fewer adults in the UK are reading to their children. “Children are doing less and less. They spend their lives very sedentary, staring into screens. What you get out of your imagination is what you put in.”
Books and experience sparks imagination. “I’ve travelled the world so my head is full of stuff,” he says. “I know that my head is full of moments I can pull from.”
Seven preschools in Gambia
Griffiths’s storytelling has taken him to 48 countries and he says each country has “something magical to offer”. He visits Gambia in western Africa regularly. Furthermore, he supports seven preschools for children between the ages of five and seven.
“I went there twelve years ago and I was so blown away by the poverty but also the beauty of the people. I started one school and it grew from there.”
A real issue in Gambia inspired one of his picture books, Fatou, Fetch the Water. The girls who fetch the water from the wells start when they’re six years old, he explains. They are too young to be pulling up water, so many of them fall down the well and drown. He wrote the book to raise awareness and funds to put lids on the wells. Today, the village finally has running water.
Watch a preview of Fatou, Fetch the Water:
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In developing the curriculum for the school, Griffiths was adamant that the teachers create it themselves. It is important to create a reading list that reflects the lived experiences of the readers, he says. Each classroom now has a story corner full of African books, as well as universal stories that mirror their lives.
His favourite stories as a child were The Wind in the Willows; Black Beauty (“I spent my life around horses”); The Water Babies (“My dad read it with an underwater voice”); Tom Sawyer; and The Borrowers (“I used to imagine we have some in our house”).
“I was lucky; I was surrounded by books.”
Children need reading role models
“Look into my eyes,” Neil tells the students at the end of each session. “I hope that one day one of you will have that lovely feeling, the loveliest feeling ever, when you see your name on a book.”
What does it take to be a storyteller?
First of all, you have to be a role model for your children and students. It seems like an obvious statement, but it’s true. Parents who read out loud to their children pave the way for language to develop. As a result, your children will become lifelong readers.
In conclusion, watch this Early Learning Centre video, in which Griffiths shares his top tips for reading to children:
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