Friday, July 22, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: A Headful of Stories and a Bagful of Puppets

Our guest this week is Priscilla Howe, a professional storyteller who travels the world with a headful of tales and a bagful of puppets. She performs for listeners of all ages with (almost) true stories, world folktale, and stories from books, most served with a generous dollop of humor. Priscilla grew up in Rhode Island and Vermont and has lived in Belgium, Kansas, Bulgaria, New York, and Connecticut in her adult life. She now lives in Kansas City, Kansas. Find out more at and

Slow down, I remind myself. I look at the audience in front of me, this time third and fourth graders (eight- and nine-year-olds) in school uniforms. They’ve settled in, sitting in rows, wondering what I’m going to do. I pied-pipered them into the hall with my harmonica. I try to engage them as quickly as possible so we can get down to business.

That is, the business of stories. I’m a full-time storyteller, and this audience is in Peru, made up mostly of kids who are learning English as a second language. At this school, a few are native English speakers. I pull out my map of the United States. This is not just a geography lesson, but a way for the students to get used to my voice and accent before I begin the stories. I show them Kansas, where I live. “But I was born over here in Rhode Island. My mother lives in Maine. My brother lives in Oregon. My sister lives in Kansas. My sister lives in Wisconsin. My brother lives in Kansas.” By this time, the kids are laughing. “My brother lives in Vermont. And my sister lives in Massachusetts. I have three brothers and three sisters.

We’re almost ready for the stories. “I brought a friend with me, in my bag. Do you travel with your friends in a bag?” I reach in and pull out my old lady puppet, Trixie. “Una bruja!” I hear. I answer in English, “She does look like a witch, you’re right, but she’s not. She’s just old. She’s 111 years old.” Trixie introduces herself and she and I discuss which stories to tell. “Can we have a story about hair?” she asks. “Hair?!” It becomes clear that she wants either Rapunzel or Robert Munsch’s story, Stephanie’s Ponytail, (I have his permission to tell this). I sit Trixie on the chair gently, with her head in her lap. She may well fall asleep.

We’re off. I tell stories for about 45 minutes, with puppets and songs in between. My baby puppet is always a big hit—she could pop her pacifier out of her mouth twenty times and get a laugh each time. In this show, she only does it seven times. With middle school and high school students, I tell more sophisticated stories with fewer or no puppets. With this audience, I do a short Q and A at the end. They ask about stories, about puppets, about me.
Photo by Annie Tichenor

Here are some of the questions they ask:

Q. Where do you get your stories?
A. Many are folktales, which I find in books or I hear from other storytellers. Some are from books, and some are my own stories.

Q. How long have you been a storyteller?
A. I’ve been telling stories since 1988. I told stories in my job as a children’s librarian for five years and then in 1993, I left my job to become a full-time storyteller.

Q. What’s your favorite story?
A. That’s a good question. The big rule in storytelling is, only tell stories you love. So I love all my stories. My favorite is the one I’m telling at that moment. The favorite story of listeners is usually The Ghost with the One Black Eye.

Q. What countries have you visited to tell stories?
A. I’ve performed around the United States and in Belgium, Mexico, Bulgaria, Germany, Brazil, and Peru.

Q. Do you have any more puppets?
A. I have more at home. I have around 75 puppets in all. In my house I have a puppet room, where they all live.

Q. Do you like telling stories?
A. I love it. I’m lucky that I get to work at something I love.


  1. What an amazing job you have, Priscilla! I can only imagine the adventures you've had travelling the world doing this. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. What an unusual and interesting career, Priscilla! And what a great way to see the world too -- through the eyes of kids -- and for them to learn about the world too.

  3. Thanks for this fun post, Priscilla! I know you speak multiple languages. So I'm wondering - on your international tours, do you ever tell stories in French or Bulgarian?

  4. It's my great good fortune to get to do what suits me so well.

    And yes, sometimes I tell in French and very occasionally in Bulgarian. When I travel to Belgium (every two years), I tell a little bit in French. I was lazy about learning the passe simple, the tense used for telling stories, so I tell in present tense. A little odd, but it works. In the US, sometimes I tell "The ghost with the one black eye" first in English and then in Bulgarian or French. It's a very physical story with lots of repetition, and the kids will join in even in another language. I do this for three reasons: 1) so they understand that telling a story is more than just the words, 2) so they know they could learn another language, and 3) because it's fun.

  5. Fascinating and fun, Priscilla! I'm sure carrying all those puppets around must get heavy. Let me know if you need an assistant. I know some stories, et je suis un peu francaise...