"Come rain or come shine!" Marilyn McConnie's grandmother would holler and then let out her distinctive laugh. The children--McConnie, her friends, her cousins--would come running up to the "gallery," which is what they called the front porch in Trinidad.
There were lots of reasons to hurry: a cool drink, probably ginger beer; a bit of sweet bread, made with coconut and raisins. But mostly, it was the stories. Grandmother--tall and lean with her hair all tied up and her colorful print dresses--would tell tales through the noontime Caribbean rains. She'd begin sitting in her green wicker chair but soon would be on her feet, imitating a prowling lion, or singing and dancing.
At the end, the children would demand to know if the story were true. "No, no," the vibrant woman would say. "My grandmother told me that story."
"She was in her element. You could tell she really loved it," says McConnie, who followed in her grandmother's footsteps. She is one of more than a dozen professional storytellers who will spin yarns for children this weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
Like most of these fabulists, McConnie now lives in California--but her stories come from all over the world, from her childhood home and modern-day Los Angeles. In fact, the only theme that unifies the slate of storytellers is diversity. Their narratives spring from Africa, Japan, Mexico, ancient Greece and Navajo villages in Arizona.
The Santa Barbara-based trio Boxtales, for example, has collected creation myths from all over the world into a half-hour program called "How Did That Get Here?" One of the stories, which comes from the Guatemalan myth the Popol Vuh, is about how human beings were crafted out of corn and water. While distinctly Guatemalan, the tale has parallels with many other creation stories, including Genesis.
"It's very exciting when I find parallel myths," says Boxtales' member Michael Katz. "We do the story of Wicked John, an Appalachian tale, but its origin is 'The Will o' the Wisp,' the Irish version." There's also a Mexican version called "Tia Miseria" (Aunt Misery).
"We want to expose people to different cultures--the richness, diversity, similarities. We hope it may give them a sense of appreciation and hopefully on top of it, tolerance," Katz says. "Especially in Los Angeles, which has become such a melting pot, we wanted to represent the large ethnic groups and give those children a sense of pride."
Stories have been the primary teaching tool for most of human history, so it should be no surprise that Katz and others hope kids absorb an understanding of their history and culture, and that of the people around them.
Geri Keams, a Navajo author, will tell the Cherokee folk story "Grandmother Spider Brings the Sun," which she recently published as a children's book. "It's a way to stir up a child's wonder in the world--a very useful and creative way of doing it," Keams says of the storytelling tradition. "For Native Americans, certainly their mythologies are like guideposts that tell us who we are and where we're going. . . . I want to share that with the broader American culture."
In the tiny Navajo community of Castle Butte, Ariz., where Keams grew up, there was no radio or television. Instead, she was enraptured by stories told by her grandmother and tribal elders. Now, she tries to transport children to another world using only language, as they did. "When a child says, 'You were just like watching a TV show,' I take that as a compliment," she says. "It seems that's the only way they can tell you that you're good."
Given the powerful pull of TV, the biggest lesson storytellers hope to impart to children is the joy of reading. Karen Golden, who relays folk tales, encourages children to research the countries the stories come from. Katz of Boxtales ends every show by sending kids off to the 398.2 section of the library--that's the Dewey Decimal System number for folk tales and mythology.
Jim Weiss, who has made 17 recordings of such classics as King Arthur to the "Jungle Book," is simply confident that children will have the same experience he did with literature. His father told him the story of "The Three Musketeers," which motivated him to learn to read.
"Very often we feed children a visual image in a movie or TV program, and there may not be depth to it," Weiss says. "And I'm not against those things, but if they have the opportunity to use their imaginations, in reading or a rich oral experience like this, they get to use parts of their brains they don't already use. They light a creative fire. And once lit, it doesn't go out."
Storytellers will be on stage at the Children's Quad, adjacent to Schoenberg Hall, from 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday. The festival is free. UCLA parking is $5.