Youngsters enthralled by Columbia storytelling festival
Darion McCloud is an accomplished raconteur. And on Friday the local actor and director shared with schoolchildren gathered in downtown Columbia for a storytelling festival an old Gullah tale about a man named Aaron Kelly.
McCloud began by explaining to the children that Gullah is an African-influenced culture and language still found today on the coast of South Carolina. Then he launched into the tale of “Aaron Kelly’s Bones.”
Aaron Kelly was a wicked old man who already was dead, McCloud said. But he arose from his grave one day, went home and sat in front of a fire with his family. He just couldn’t believe he was dead no matter how many times his family said so.
Adding his own Southern flavor to the story, McCloud quoted Aaron Kelly thusly: “ ‘I on’t care what ya’ll say — I ain’t gwon no grave till I feels dead.’ And he just sit there by the fire, warmin dey hands, warming dey foots and chillin off the rum.”
McCloud was one of 50 storytellers who participated in Richland Library’s 30th-annual “Augusta Baker’s Dozen: A Celebration of Stories,” a two-day event that celebrating children’s literature and oral tradition.
“I think kids today think they cannot be entertained (by something) if it doesn’t have a screen or a button or access to the Internet,” said Melanie Huggins, executive director of the Richland Library. “I think that it’s really important for children to realize that this history of oral tradition, of storytelling, has been a part of our DNA since we were cavemen sitting around a fire. And it’s not something they get exposure to.”
“Augusta Baker’s Dozen” honors the life of Augusta Baker, a New York City transplant who came to Columbia in 1980 and was known as the “First Lady of Traditional Storytelling.”
As a librarian in New York and a storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, Baker felt that fourth grade was a crucial time in which to capture children’s imaginations and hone their passion for stories.
“She always felt that fourth grade was a really good time to tell stories, because it helped keep their love of reading,” said Clo Cammarata, programs and partnerships manager at Richland Library. “This is a chance for us to take our oral histories, our stories that we’ve heard from different cultures, and see how they come to life for children.”
Baker was highly regarded for her ability to create rhythm and movement with words, which is essential to good storytelling, Cammarata said.
“She didn’t use props. She just felt like the voice and the sound could bring the story to life,” Cammarata said.
More than 750 fourth-grade students from the Richland One, Richland Two and Lexington-Richland Five school districts, as well as some private schools, were invited to the library Friday for the first day of the storytelling festival.
The children huddled in groups spread across the grounds of the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens and the Robert Mills House and Gardens to hear folklore, fables and tall tales that have been passed down for generations.
On Saturday, families gathered at Richland Library Main to hear more stories, see a theatrical performance and listen to this year’s guest children’s author and illustrator, Chris Raschka, speak about his life and career.
Raschka earned the prestigious Caldecott Medal for distinguished American picture books for “The Hello, Goodbye Window.” The book follows a little girl who visits her grandparents and explores her relationship with them through their kitchen window.
Raschka’s mother was born in Vienna, Austria. He remembers growing up listening to her read from the family’s big book of Viennese tales, which included stories of folks trying to outwit the devil after selling their souls.
“I always loved those, but they also were a little bit scary,” he laughed.
Storytelling and literature complement each other and are essential in helping people find their place in the world. And they are key in making it possible for people to communicate, Raschka said.
“There’s always this notion that books are no longer needed, but of course they are. Reading and writing is as essential to us as ever, even with all of the social media explosion,” he said. “I have faith that books will always be very important in everyone’s lives.”
The fourth-graders from Richland Two’s Center for Knowledge got a kick out of McCloud’s Gullah story.
Nine-year-old Abagail Greer said McCloud’s storytelling taught her about the Gullah dialect and other great lessons.
Greer said she enjoys telling spooky stories, some that she learns from her dad. She likes the fact that stories can be told in many different ways.
”If you were to tell a story to someone, it keeps passing along,” she said. “And if you were to hear the same story from someone else, it would be a little different.”