Taylor Dolan's top tips for being an awesome storyteller
Published on: 04 February 2020 Author: Taylor Dolan
Ghoul Scouts: Welcome to Camp Croak author Taylor Dolan tells us what makes a good storyteller, and shares some of her favourite stories to read aloud...
Once upon a time, when I was very little (and also, much later, when I was not), my mom gathered me and my sisters in the kitchen to listen to our favourite program, “Rabbit Ears Radio”. Each week, remarkable voices would tell us tall tales, fables and myths. And each week, our imaginations travelled the world.
The very best one was East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It’s a Norwegian fairy tale involving a great white bear under an enchantment, mischievous winds, a troll queen and love. It utterly terrified me! And so, logically, I bought a cassette tape and listened to it over and over again. Max von Sydow (the narrator) has this wonderfully deep slow voice that intertwines perfectly with the underlying lilting piano and strings.
I still remember the horrifying wheezing laugh made by the West Wind, and soft plinking of the piano that sounded as lonely as the young heroine felt. Even now, every time I listen to it (it’s on Audible!), I spend those 30 minutes wandering through the Norwegian woods. That is the power of great storytelling: it can wriggle into your bones and memories.
Since then, and that was a very long time ago, a love of stories has dictated my life. I studied theatre for twelve years, collected over 211 audiobooks, and now write and illustrate stories of my own.
It made sense to me that my very first protagonist, Lexie Wilde, would be a storyteller herself. It’s what I know best. In fact, I wrote Ghoul Scouts: Welcome to Camp Croak with the intention of it being read out loud. Each character has a specific voice and rhythm. And as I wrote them, I would read them out to my empty room. And then to my family. And, finally, to my wonderful editor at Guppy Books, who decreed that we should make an audiobook of it. And just like that, all of my wildest dreams came full circle. Not only was I illustrating and writing my own series, but to narrate it as well? Hallelujah!
Along the way, from listening to my mom read Charlotte’s Web to recording Ghoul Scouts in a tiny booth in North Hollywood, I’ve managed to pick up a few tidbits of helpful information. And so, to aspiring storytellers, narrators and, most importantly, adults who read to kids, here are my tippy top tips to doing it well:
1. Have fun with the voices!
It doesn't matter if you can't do the accents perfectly. The wider the voice types are spread apart, the easier they will be to recall when they, invariably, pop up again. For example, on my audiobook, I made Lexie Wilde my standard southern accent. Basically, what my voice sounds like when I spend time back home. But my secondary and tertiary characters are much more diverse. When I read Emmy Loulou Garou, I give her a snuffly nasal sound.
2. Take your time.
Slowing down allows you to find the important words and savour them. If the author or original storyteller writes with words like ‘kerfuffle’ or ‘brouhaha’ they are giving you a golden opportunity to enjoy the clash of those consonants out loud.
3. Pour your love into the words.
An active listener can tell when the storyteller really and truly wants to be there.
4. Listen to the folks who speak with great voices.
My favourite audiobook narrators are Tim Curry (The Old Kingdom, A Series of Unfortunate Events), Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (The Rivers of London) and Rupert Degas (Skulduggery Pleasant). On top of listening to utterly engrossing storytelling, you’ll start to hear and pickup their vocal mannerisms.
The tradition of oral storytelling has served many purposes over the centuries. For some, stories were used as cautionary tales. The Boy Who Cried Wolf was first recorded in the 6th century and is still used as an example of the dangers of lying.
For others, stories provided cross-generational connection. The elder generations passed on dying languages, skills and the wisdom of old age to rapt young audiences.
In Louisiana, where the Ghoul Scouts live, there are over 40 known spoken languages. This small state, pressed up against the behemoth Texas (Sidenote: Texas is larger than France...) is a blend of African, Native American, Haitian, Spanish and French influences. Stories are essential for passing on the heart and beliefs of their ancestors. For me, listening to stories was an escape. I grew up in small town Texas but was hungry for magic and distant lands. True escapism not only provides relief, but also teaches you strengths and shields to handle the real world when you land back in it.
Here are a few recommendations of other books your own little Ghoul Scouts might like reading or being read to:
1. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark* (Alvin Schwartz): Schwartz wrote a three book series all collecting short horror stories. Perfect for telling around a campfire. WARNING: The original illustrations by Stephen Gammell are genuinely terrifying. Beautifully done, but horrific. If you need slightly less of a scare, pick up the editions illustrated by Brett Helquist.
*May be unsuitable for younger or more sensitive readers.
2. Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror (Chris Priestly): The whole book takes place in Uncle Montague’s living room as he tells his nephew, Edward, one hair-raising tale after another. The original printing of this book includes brilliant illustrations by David Roberts, and some of the re-prints left out the drawings all together. Which is such a shame! So, double check that your copy is the one with the awesome pen and ink drawings in it.
If scary stories aren't your thing, that’s absolutely fine! My final recommendation has zero frights, I promise.
3. Aesop’s Fables (retold by Elli Woolard): These short stories, adapted from Aesop himself (one of the original official documenters of oral traditional tales) are written in rhyming verse and surrounded by joyous bright illustrations by Marta Altes. It’s a classic book suffused with modern energy.
Ghoul Scouts: Welcome to Camp Croak
Author: Taylor Dolan
When Lexie finds herself at Camp Croak for the summer, she’s happily at home with the other ghoulish kids - but when Euphemia Vile, a big-haired Texan glamazon, steps onto the scene, it’s clear that she’s got an evil agenda.