An Interview with Award Winning Storyteller – Hannah Smith
Children LOVE being read to. And any parent or grandparent will know that reading a children’s story with a small child can be one of the most delightful moments of your day.
It’s also good for both of you! For the child it can help their language development and literacy skills, whilst for you, it’s a great way to bond and share quality time together.
But how do you make the best of that precious time together? How do you tell a great children’s story?
In this month’s blog I talk to Award Winning Storyteller Hannah Smith, about her journey as a professional storyteller and also her top tips for telling a children’s story in the best possible way…
So Hannah, how did you become an Award Winning Storyteller?
After 15 years as an actress working in theatre, film and audio I took some time off to start a family with my husband, Mark. Whilst dropping my youngest, Holly, off at school, one of the mums told me about a competition being run by World Book Day to find their Storytelling Superstar.
I entered and, after reading in front of a group of incredibly harsh judges (!) ….a group of lovely school children, Francesca Simon (author of the Horrid Henry books) and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, I won! (Read more about her win here!)
The headteacher of Rushmore Primary School in Hackney offered me a role as Storyteller in Residence and I’ve been there ever since – loving it!
And what does being a Storyteller in Residence entail?
I read to children from Nursery (aged 3 and 4) all the way up to Year 6 (aged 10 and 11).
Sometimes, I’ll be at the front of a whole class of children – these stories need to be brought to large life (!) – more like a performance as I try to connect with all 30 children.
More often I read in small groups of slightly older children – Years 4, 5 and 6. These are children who might have English as a second language or be slightly disengaged with school and therefore not reading on a regular basis. I also do 1:1 sessions with the Year 6’s.
Once a term I read to House groups – 4 groups of 90 children aged from 4 – 11….that’s the trickiest one to get right! I read everything from picture books like Dogs Don’t Do Ballet to lengthy chapter books like the Harry Potters or Ned’s Circus of Marvels.
What do you love about it?
When it goes right, you could hear a pin drop and I know the children are hooked. Or when I finish a chapter and the group of children all say, ‘Awww, can we just have the next one?’
Or when a super cool Year 6 boy leans in to the Michael Morpurgo story I’m reading – he’d never tell his friends, but he loves this gentle story. Finding a book that makes a child’s heart sing.
So, how do you tell a children’s story well?
It’s different according to how many children I’m reading to.
- With groups I bring the story alive with lots of eye contact with the children. Funny voices are always a hit. With a big group, when I’m standing at the front of a classroom, I use my whole body – storytelling as a workout! Pacing is vital – speeding up during an exciting bit but also having the courage to slow things down when the story gets gentler. With very young groups of children it’s important to take your time so they can absorb the picture you’re showing them as well as the words you’re saying.
- With 1:1 sessions I just dive into the story – if it’s a good book and I’m enjoying reading it – they will too. Less eye contact as I’m usually sitting next to my audience, although things are slightly different now we have to observe social distancing measures!
Anything you should avoid doing?
Don’t rush – let yourself enjoy the story. It might be the fiftieth time you’ve read ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go’ – I’m speaking from experience here – but try and find something new in it each time.
A different way to say a line, a different voice to use… More than anything, be guided by your audience. Read something the small person you’re with would like to read.
How about a bedtime story – should they be read differently to a children’s story in the day?
A snuggle is vital with a bedtime story. Can you imagine a lovelier feeling than being wrapped up in someone who loves you’s arms and having them read a story to you? What a way to send a child off to sleep.
Ooooh, poems are also BRILLIANT at bedtime. There’s something very calming and comforting about the gentle rhythm of poetry.
What makes a good children’s story and what are some of yours and the children’s favourites?
Enough excitement to make it interesting but enough comfort and familiarity to be reassuring.
As a child, I loved Danny Champion of the World – Roald Dahl, The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgsen Burnett, Black Beauty – Anna Sewell and Mallory Towers – Enid Blyton.
Some of the children’s favourites are Thud – Nick Butterworth, Revolting Rhymes – Cinderella – Roald Dahl, Ned’s Circus of Marvels – Justin Fisher and Tabby Mc Tat – Julia Donaldson.
Finally, what’s been your best experience as a Storyteller?
The very loveliest experience I’ve had was with that super cool boy I mentioned earlier.
We FINALLY finished Why the Whales Came – we only had 15 minutes a week to read it – and the smile on his face was priceless. A sense of accomplishment, pride in having stuck with it(!) and pleasure in reaching the end of a story.
It’s a beautiful book, I don’t think he’d read anything like it and probably won’t again….but he’d read THIS one.
Books are powerful things, they work magic.
Thank you Hannah! And if you’d like to make storytime extra special, then do check out our personalised books! Whether you want to surprise a little one with “The Birthday BOO!”, head off on a wonderful “Joyful Adventure” for 2 or rap with “The Christmas Wrapper”, we’ve something to make every story time great fun!
Don’t just take our word for it – what do you think Hannah?
“Tickled Moon’s stories are brilliant – funny and a little bit naughty… BOO! They skip along, making you want to turn to the next page. I love the hidden things to find on each page – who doesn’t love a spider, a robin or a bee to find! And a book that’s yours, with your name in it? How special is that?! They have that comfort thing – exciting enough but also reassuringly familiar.”
Visit our Tickled Moon Shop to learn more about our books and you might also like to read our blogs “What Makes a Great Personalised Children’s Book” and “The 7 Key Benefits of a Personalised Children’s Book”