Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Book Review: Story-Telling Poems

Story-Telling Poems: Selected and Arranged for Story-Telling and Reading Aloud and for Children's Own Reading
by Frances Jenkins Olcott
Books for Libraries Press, 1970 (reprint of 1913 Houghton Mifflin edition)

I picked up this book at a library book sale in Ohio. My edition is a 1970 reprint of the original 1913 title and its plain red cover hides the many rich tales inside.

Olcott was a children's librarian at the Carnegie Library, and her other collections of children's stories are well-known to storytellers. All, I believe, are now out-of-print, but many like this title, are available for download on the Internet. I prefer to have the book in my hand to read, but if that's not possible for you there are a variety of ways to view it online, and some look just like the real thing.

The story poems included in this collection were not written by Olcott; she "selected and arranged for story-telling and reading aloud and for the children's own reading" many classic poems and tales. Many are familiar: The Inchcape Rock, The White=Footed Deer, Apple-seed John, Tubal Cain, Paul Revere's Ride. Others are new to me: Goblin Market,The Fairies of the Caldon-Low, and this short Persian fable:

"How old art thou?" said the garrulous gourd,
As o'er the palm-tree's crest it poured
Its spreading leaves and tendrils fine,
and hung a bloom in the morning shine.
"A hundred years!" the palm-tree sighed:
"And I," the saucy gourd replied,
Am at the most a hundred hours,
And overtop thee in the bowers!"

Through all the palm-trees leaves there went
A tremor as of self-content.
"I live my life," it whispering said,
And every year, of all I've known,
A gourd above my head has grown,
And made a boast, like thine today;
Yet here I stand--but where are they?
--Anonymous

While the language will certainly be archaic to today's young audiences, yet there are many of us who still savor the taste of the older rhythms and styles of the past. A storyteller could, as Ms. Olcott did, adapt these poems for more modern telling; perhaps a better option is to tell them as written in this collection, taking time with the words, aiding comprehension through gesture and expression, and allowing for questions and explanation of unfamiliar words and phrases at the end of the telling.

I am intrigued by the notion that she selected these works for children. Certainly today's child's vocabulary would not stretch to these heights. Right and wrong in Olcott's book are easily recognized; today the lines seem more blurred and grayed. Moralistic endings are a given for most of the tales. As storytellers search for material to present for the currently popular character education theme being promoted by many schools, Olcott's collection may offer some fresh material and the opportunity to present classic literature to a new generation.

Will children of today enjoy these poems? I think so; presented well and with a storyteller's flair, I believe there is depth and color to the language and the themes. What child would not enjoy tales of knights, giants, dragons, fairies, and goblins?

(One of the neat things about buying used books is the notes, photos and other miscellenea left inside by past owners. am I the only person who loves to find these items, and wonder about how they came to be in the books?)

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