By Alex Newman
LIKE SOME MODERN DAY Pied Piper, storyteller Cheryl Thornton calls out in a low melodic voice for the children to gather while pulling up her chair to a large African drum. Undeterred by parents’ chatter at the rear of the gymnasium, she begins, her rich voice rippling like water, while beating a rhythm on the drum.
As the story unfolds, the children settle, quiet and open-mouthed. Even the parents are quiet. This tale is about the steadfast love and generosity of a poor old couple who are led to the fountain of youth by a little bird and don’t hesitate to share with their crabby old neighbour. But the story she tells could just as easily be of Jesus coming to Jerusalem before the Jewish Passover and all the startling events that followed.
What tales she tells depends on the context and in Thornton’s repertoire are sacred and secular stories from vastly different cultures, all with a theme of life-giving spirit.
After university in her native Kansas, (no Dorothy or ruby slippers jokes, please) Thornton headed to NYC for a masters degree in theatre. For several years, until her son was born, she acted off Broadway. Working nights and babies don’t mix, so while she searched for a day job, she told stories to children in her Washington Heights neighbourhood. The kids liked it, so she started telling tales in schools. At one point, while running a nursery school in a Jewish synagogue, she drew on the rich Jewish tradition to tell tales there as well.
Then in 1998, she left New York to follow her husband Matthew to Canada, and started all over again with storytelling in schools and libraries. Not long after moving to Toronto, someone at Eglinton St George’s United Church heard her tell stories in a local school, and she was asked to oversee their Christmas pageant. Though busy at the time, Thornton felt “an irresistible urge to say yes,” which led to an eight-year stint at the church.
Looking back over 20 years, Thornton sees no perceptible difference between children today and from the pre-computer age. Always and forever the same – listening, engaged, imaginative – they can always recite what their favourite part is.
“That’s beautiful,” she says. “Even if they’re two, they can tell you what they loved, because they get a picture in their mind from the words, and it’s a beautiful thing that they can hold on to the image and the words.”
It’s an emotional connection that helps us learn through story, she explains, because you relate the story to something deeper, something you know to be true from a past experience.
“I remember something Madeleine L’Engle said in her biography, that children regularly asked if the story was real, and Madeleine would say it might not be based in fact, but it is real. I just love her way of putting it.”
The telling is supplemented with visuals. A story bag, sewn for her by a seamstress friend, holds props, like feathered snakes, rain sticks and smoking mirrors that “help cement the story in the concrete” of sound and colour.
Her props room in the basement of her east-end Toronto home is crammed with more of the magical stuff: masks and hats – jester, king, queen, animal ears or heads, sun and the moon and the stars, fish, birds – a wraparound bird bustle with a flap that conceals bright coloured tail feathers, noise makers like rain sticks and a thunder drum, vibra-slaps, timbertone tube, claves, maracas, djembe drum and a didgeridoo.
"Story helps express the inexpressible," she adds.
The same holds true for telling Bible stories. “It’s like planting bulbs very deep -- they will be there forever and will come again.”
Thornton knows this from her own journey -- growing up Lutheran in the 1960s to becoming an Episcopalian in NYC, to Anglican in Toronto 40 years later.
“When I came back to faith, the stories were still there. You might not remember the bible verses, but you do remember the stories, and they’re the ones that can always lead you back to God.”
She believes it’s the responsibility of grownups to pass on these vital stories, although it’s hard for adults to do, because “along the way, we lose the art, and yes the magic, of storytelling.”
So part of Thornton’s ministry is to teach parent volunteers how to prepare a Bible story for telling.
“I ask parents to read the Bible story several times all the way through, and deeply, and if they need to read whatever precedes it to make more sense, than do that too, so it’s put into context,” Thornton says. “You’re reading it devotionally, so the story becomes familiar, and extremely powerful. This allows you to be aware of your emotional response to it. That’s what storytelling is about.”
Thornton has also done interactive storytelling for other congregations, engaging both adults and children to be part of the story. “It’s possible the adults loved it more than the kids,” she says. “Hearing stories interactively embeds the narrative very deeply.”
Storytelling as “ministry” is challenging in secular settings, though. As enthralled as students are listening to First Nations, Jewish, Ukrainian, Chinese stories, the difference lies in the school culture itself.
“I tell the same stories in Catholic schools as I do in public, except I can use the word ‘God.’ Stone Soup is about generosity and sharing, but in the Catholic school I can also say that what the traveler sees is God’s beauty. I can talk about loving God’s world, and seeing God’s creative hand in the forest and mountains.”
Even in the secular schools, though, Thornton says it’s possible to infuse a sense of the spirit, because “stories can still show us how God wants us to be, how God wants us to care for each other.”
Having free rein to tell sacred stories also influenced Thornton’s own faith. Because she had to delve into those Bible stories again at Eglinton St George’s, “and really experience them, and then telling them regularly, I was forced to connect to the big picture. Like Holy Week. I went back to dig into the Old Testament, something that was missing in my own religious training, and look at Exodus to see how it connected. Jesus was Jewish and he had to go to Jerusalem, so I would tell his story in a big arc about how he changed that really huge deal of the Passover feast into the Eucharist, and how he did something you can’t even believe, he went to Jerusalem to do this tradition, and brought it to life by giving his life. All these things I had to connect for myself, and in doing so I was able to connect it for children.”
Once the church position came to an end, Thornton relocated to a downtown Anglican parish, and her work has been mostly in secular settings. Four or five times a week, she engages up to 200 children from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 6 with stories of multicultural or social significance according to the time of year. Like Black History month in February, and the religious holidays of November and December.
There are also anti-bullying assemblies, so she pulls out of her repertoire of tales from various cultures stories about the harm bullying and gossip can do. “The stories are metaphor, you can’t tell a kid to stop gossiping, but the metaphor helps them get it, just like Jesus using parables.”
Growing demand for this oral instruction has led Cheryl and her husband to develop a website. Called Storyvalues, it’s currently licensed by the Toronto District School Board for teachers and students to use. The site has also been picked up by schools in Australia, NYC, British Columbia and northern Ontario.
Thornton writes and narrates the stories, and does some of the illustrations, while Matthew, a visual artist and painter who’s exhibited internationally, composes culturally accurate music and handles computer graphics.
A world map on the landing page shows five designated areas for storytelling: Asia, Oceania, Africa, the Americas, Europe. Clicking on North America yields a complete storytelling capsule for Canada, with a map, factoid boxes, and sidebars about migration, photosynthesis and pollination to support the First Nations myth stories with facts about how the seasons change.
Interactive sections allow children to scroll through and listen; a teacher portion provides instructions for teachers to do drama, read the story, or have discussions – about how Glooscap’s care for animals, seasons, and land, can be translated into students showing respect for the land, and ways in which they can concretely experience the seasons by taking walks.
Although the aim is to be inclusive, Thornton doesn’t intend to water down the intrinsically spiritual message of each culture. Religious exploration of Diwali, Christmas, Chanukah, and Ramadan is not about lighting candles, but about exploring the spiritual story behind each celebration.
“Everybody loves to listen to a good story,” she says. “And Bible stories are good stories that plant seeds that will last a lifetime, and bear fruit.”