A flock of baby chicks cheeped alongside storyteller Sharon Clarke the day she told the story of the Little Red Hen to schoolchildren, bringing the farm to life in the classroom.
As a full-time storyteller, Clarke, 52, harvests the wisdom and humor of folktales from around the world, to bring them to life once more. For the past 20 years, she has traveled from her farm in Connelly Springs to share the tales across the Southeast.
Wearing overalls decorated with paisley, paired with rainbow-striped socks, the mother of four and grandmother of two described how she re-tells the age-old stories with her own flair, to make a new generation laugh hard – and maybe think a little harder, too.
“I’m trying to tell stories that will impact their lives somehow – stories that will help them to hear… to laugh if they’re feeling bad.”
Clarke tells her stories in preschools and elementary schools, churches, libraries and at festivals. This year, Clarke primarily visited libraries and local schools, and she drew her inspiration from the national Collaborative Summer Library Program’s theme, “Dream Big, Read.”
Her stories revolved around sleeping and dreaming – like the clever Yiddish tale of a man who complained that his house’s creaky noises kept him awake at night. The village wise man counseled the complainer to buy a cow, a donkey and a rooster – and when the animals’ racket drove the man to give them all away, the house suddenly seemed like a peaceful haven in contrast.
In her trademark style, Clarke draws the audience in by making them part of the sound effects, from songs to wind chimes, to rain sticks, to seed-pods.
“When they’re actively involved, they’re more likely to remember the story and song,” Clarke said.
Clarke often jazzes up the stories with a treasure trove of instruments that include a shofar – a ram’s horn used in Jewish ceremonies – and the didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed by indigenous Australians.
“I have instruments that (the audience) would never have the opportunity to play otherwise,” she said.
“We make one big old band, and we have a great time.”
Instead of staying put in the front of the room, Clarke makes a point of walking out into the audience as she tells her stories.
“Because I’m trying to make an impact. I want to look into their eyes; I want them to see into mine,” she said. “I want to see if they’re sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next word.”
Clarke said she realizes that by sheer logic of statistics, chances are that in a full auditorium, some of the children are dealing with serious problems.
“I look out there and say, ‘OK, somebody out there is needing something,’ ” she said.
Clarke recalled one particular impact – a child with special needs, who seemed to soak up the story she was telling.
“During the show, he was laughing and carrying on.”
Afterward, Clarke received a note from the child’s parent, which, she said, read, “‘I just want you to know it was so good to hear him gut-laughing during the show.’ ”
Then there was the child who raced up to her after a show.
“(He) said, ‘You know, I was really, really having a bad day, and that just made me laugh.’ ”
While she avoids outright moralizing, Clarke said she often picks stories with an inherent message. During the holiday season, for example, she’s pulled out stories that counter the long, expensive wish lists that children are often encouraged to make.
“Without me even saying, ‘Let’s rethink that,’ I tell them a story – a story about not always begging for everything you want. … I just allow the story to speak for itself.”
Clarke described how she sees her storytelling as a natural companion to her farm, where she raises animals, vegetables and herbs. She makes her own soaps and cans fruits and vegetables – traditional practices she links directly to story-telling.
“That’s the history of our nation,” Clarke said. “Storytelling used to be… passed down generation to generation, just like we used to pass down knowledge of canning or soap-making.”
Still, she keeps the passed-down stories fresh by tweaking details or changing the emphases, each time.
“I want to look just as excited the 100th time I tell it as the very first time I tell it.”