From the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN to the Hong Kong International School in Hong Kong, China, (and hundreds of places in between!) Sherry Norfolk’s passion for storytelling incites the imagination of young and old audiences alike. In addition to an electric stage presence developed through professional storytelling since 1981, she embodies the term “teaching artist” – that is, an artist who can not only talk the talk but walk the walk.
As a teaching artist, she leads residencies and workshops internationally, introducing children and adults to story making and storytelling. She is on the roster of seven state arts councils, a testimony to her value as a teaching artist. Her dedication to and deep interest in children and literacy have been recognized with national awards from the American Library Association, the Association for Library Service for Children, the National Association of Counties, and the Florida Library Association. Sherry is the co-author with her husband Bobby of The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development (August House, 1999); they are currently working on a series of Anansi stories for the new August House Story Cove label.
What made you want to become a storyteller?
I’ve always looked for ways to make learning meaningful for kids, and ways to motivate them to read. As a preschool and primary teacher, I haunted the library, searching for stories to introduce new topics and inspire the kids – and me – to learn. Later, as a children’s librarian, I discovered that storytelling was the most effective way to lure kids to the library and into books. I was sold!
Was the journey difficult?
The first steps were natural and easy – like breathing. Telling stories to the kids in my north Miami library district led to telling county-wide (it’s a HUGE county), and that led to telling at festivals all over the SE. Any help? Along the way, I was very fortunate to be helped by wonderful storytellers like Melinda Munger in Miami, and to be able to attend the NAPPS Institutes which were being offered at the time. When I married Bobby Norfolk — a fabulous storyteller, already internationally famous — he encouraged me to take the leap and become a fulltime teller, and has been my mentor and inspiration every step of the way! Any obstacles? Well, it’s scary! Leaving behind a guaranteed paycheck and benefit package and striking out into the unknown felt like walking off a cliff! I HATED the marketing aspect — and I still avoid it whenever possible! But I’ve been remarkably lucky. We received a contract for The Moral of the Story: Folktales for Character Development (August House, 1999) just before I left the security of the library, and that kept me productively occupied as my performing career got off the ground. We also spent the first 6 weeks of my new life in Anchorage, AK, telling and workshopping for Alaska Children’s Services. That led me to the discovering how much I love to TEACH kids to tell and to write their own stories.
What were some of your favorite stories growing up?
I got hooked on the Hans Christian Andersen stories — the more maudlin the better, it seems. “Little Matchgirl” was a special favorite. Maybe I jsut loved th power of story to evoke emotion!
Is there a difference between writing a story and telling a story? For me, it’s one and same: I create text as a told story first — honing and polishing it with by responding to the audience reactions. When writing the same story, there’s a translation process — translating the actions, sound effects, character voices, etc., into words. You can’t see the audience response — no immediate gratification!
What is the difference between a fable, a parable, and a fairy tale? The intent: a fable teaches a moral or lesson, and so does a parable, but the fable does it explicitly where the parable relies on intrinsic understanding. Fairytales often teach lessons, but that usually is secondary to entertainment value!
If you could be one character in a story who would you be and why? I love the title character in the Russian folktale, Woman of the Wood. She is brought to life and given the gifts of beauty and intelligence — but she chooses freedom above all else. A truly wise woman!
If you could have coffee with one famous storyteller who would it be and why?
My favorite storyteller and human being will always be my husband, Bobby Norfolk. ‘Nuff said!
What inspires you as a storyteller?
The faces of the listeners…their total surrender to story..their joy and surprise! Nothing better!
What advice would you give a storyteller faced with writer’s block?
Go tell stories, get away from the computer and work with living, breathing, responsive human beings. That’s where the inspiration is.
What stories are you working on presently?
Bobby and I are developing a series of Anansi storeis for the StoryCove label, and we have a picturebook titled Billy Brown and the Belly Button Monster in production.
Finally, what advice would you give kids who wish to pursue a career in storytelling?
Follow your heart! Find out what aspect of storytelling is the most appealing to you, and learn everything you can about it. Listen to lots of tellers and talk to them about their own choices and why/how they made them, then make your own choices — and most of all, believe in the power of story!
Where can we find out more about your work?
My website is www.sherrynorfolk.com and there’s plenty of info there!
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